Reformed moral theology is distinct from other strands of moral theology in its ecclesial context. That context is bounded by confessional standards and corresponding practices. At the same time, Reformed moral theology is a catholic tradition that is deeply rooted in the prior tradition, a tradition it shares with other branches of the church today. And this tradition is receiving new scholarly attention just when Reformed churches need renewed moral clarity, confidence, and courage.
If moral theology is the systematic explication of the moral law revealed in Scripture and application of it to contemporary life, then Reformed moral theology is moral theology developed along the lines and within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. As such, Reformed moral theology is a further development of the ancient and catholic tradition of moral theology inherited by the Reformers and their post-Reformation heirs. Reformed moral instruction is both deeply rooted in the prior theological tradition and also distinctly Reformed.
A Deeply Rooted Tree
Reformed moral theology developed around a set of widely shared principles and themes. Among them are the use of Scripture as the primary source of moral instruction; the universal and transcendent character of the moral order; the relation of the moral order to the created order; the distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial aspects of the Mosaic law; the priority of the Decalogue, divided into two tables, as a summary of the moral law; the relation of the two tables of the Decalogue to the two greatest commandments concerning love for God and neighbor; and the correlation of moral law to virtue more broadly. None of these are original to Reformed theologians.
Inherited Principles and Themes
Take, for example, the relation of the moral order to the created order. Recent scholarship has highlighted the place of the natural law in Reformed moral teaching in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. Stephen J. Grabill, for instance, argues that Reformed theologians prior to 1750 “not only inherited but also passed on the doctrines of lex naturalis and cognitio Dei naturalis, especially the idea of an implanted knowledge of morality, as noncontroversial legacies of patristic and medieval thought.” Similarly, David VanDrunen contends that “for the better part of four centuries Reformed thinkers widely affirmed… natural law.”
Both authors tell essentially the same story about natural law in the Reformed tradition—a story supported by numerous translated or republished primary sources available to English readers. Reformed theologians received and modified the natural law tradition they inherited from medieval theology. They were not uncritical in doing so, but concluded Scripture taught what we might regard as a natural law moral ontology and a modified natural law epistemology. They developed their moral teaching along these lines and carried the natural law tradition forward and passed it down to their theological heirs.
The natural law tradition is a significant strand of theological continuity between Reformed moral theology, prior to the Enlightenment, and early and medieval Christian moral teaching. This is, in other words, one historical root of Reformed moral theology. There are, however, many other roots or lines of theological continuity to be traced. Some of these lines—the other principles and themes noted above, for starters—are at least as important to the structure and content of Reformed moral theology as natural law.
Reformed theologians were not the first theologians in the history of the church to take love for God and neighbor as their basic moral principle or to view the moral law as an elaboration of such love. Neither were they the first to isolate a perpetual moral law from provisional ceremonial and juridical laws in the Mosaic legislation, to describe multiple uses of the moral law, to expound the Decalogue as a comprehensive summary of it, or to relate it to virtues and vices.