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Acton Commentary

The learned Dane and the harmony of natural law

There are a decent number of well-known Danish writers: Saxo Grammaticus, Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, and Jens Peter Jacobsen, to name a few. Niels Hemmingsen (1513-1600), the author of On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, is not one of them.

It has not always been so. During his life and in the years that followed his death, Hemmingsen was an intellectual of international standing. The fact that some of his works were translated into English during his own lifetime testifies to his reputation. A pupil of Philip Melanchthon, Hemmingsen wrote voluminously on a number of topics in the fields of theology and philosophy: works of doctrine, exegesis, and homiletics, as well as Europe’s first treatise devoted to the topic of method as such. His work on preaching was required reading in the diocese of Durham in England in the 1570s and 1580s. In his 17th-century Decades Duae, Melchior Adam records his honorary epitaph, which praises Hemmingsen as an object of admiration not only to Danes, but also to “all the learned men of Europe.”

Now, however, he is known to few outside his native Denmark and a handful of specialists in early modern intellectual history. Why, then, go to the trouble of disturbing the peaceful repose in which his treatise on natural law has lain these many years?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike – have forgotten that Protestants had a natural law theory

To be sure, the work is of historical interest, as a testimony to Melanchthonian and, more broadly, Protestant thinking on natural law in the 16th and 17th centuries. That fact alone is not without significance, given that many people -- Roman Catholics and Protestants alike – have forgotten that Protestants had a natural law theory (or, rather theories), and indeed that natural law in its more or less traditional form was basic to all magisterial Protestant theologians and philosophers from the very inception of the Reformation. Clearing the ground has its uses.

But does the treatise have anything to say to us today that is not merely of historical interest? We live in an era of rapid social change and ethical upheaval, in which professing Christians often find themselves at sea when it comes to articulating their positions in a persuasive way before a public that does not share many of their assumptions. They do not wish to table the “God question” or the authority of Scripture; but arguments from an authoritative text lose their force when that text is not considered authoritative. On the other hand, arguments evacuated of the theistic dimension have proven themselves to be incapable of adequately protecting some very basic human goods. If the public square is naked, it is just as laughable as the emperor whose only suit was the one he received on the day of his birth in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story.

Hemmingsen provides a model for a different approach, one that holds reason and revelation together as parts of a seamless whole. He writes this work …

… not only so that we may be roused to thankfulness toward the creator of nature and may understand, as nature points the way, to what end all our actions and, indeed, our whole life ought to be referred; but also so that there may be a more correct understanding of the apostle, who says that the gentiles display the work of the law written on their hearts.

The treatise is uncompromisingly teleological, in that it shows how the various components of our world are ordered to each other and ultimately to God, and not just to a generic god but to the Christian God, whose reality, along with the revelation that testifies to him, he assumes.

At the same time, Hemmingsen means what he says about his desire to really investigate how nature points the way to the ethics of revelation. He wants to make an argument. For that reason, he does not give the reader a series of proof-texts as though they can substitute for that argument. Instead, he attempts to show the reader how the ethical principles enshrined in the Ten Commandments are deducible by a process of methodical reasoning from axiomatic first principles that he believes -- with what he takes to be good and self-evident warrant -- to be immovable. As he says at the end of the work, “[A]s to the fact that I have adduced no maxims from theology in this entire treatise, I did it so that I might show how far reason is able to progress without the prophetic and apostolic word.” Thus when, after unpacking his definition of the law of nature, he expounds the Decalogue, he introduces it in this way:

I have spoken concerning domestic, political, and spiritual life, and what actions are proper to each one in general, and I have given demonstrative proof of them. Now, because the law of God, which we customarily call the Decalogue, is said to be a summary of the law of nature, I shall briefly show how the commandments of the Decalogue are harmonious with what I have said above.

He attempts to show the harmony of these two sources of ethics -- what one might call the truths of philosophy and of theology

He attempts to show the harmony of these two sources of ethics -- what one might call the truths of philosophy and of theology -- but to do so he employs a strictly philosophical method that begins from principles rather than proof-texts. In sum, Hemmingsen carves out a realm of integrity for the rational process without a radical sundering of that process from the truths of revelation. “Reason” thereby preserves its real but subaltern role in Christian ethics. Hemmingsen, then, shows one possible way to avoid the ditches of mere proof-texting on one side and of allowing “reason” to become a secularized idol on the other. In this respect at least, even if in no other, he has something to teach the modern world.

One will of course likely not agree with everything Hemmingsen says, but even that can have a salutary function. The shock provoked by old writers, especially when we disagree, can bring us to greater awareness of our own assumptions and give us the opportunity to interrogate them more than we might otherwise. What is obvious to us is obvious not necessarily because it is true, but because it is about and in the air. The jolt of that discovery should make us better thinkers about our present, and nothing has the same power to effect it as old books. As C.S. Lewis famously put it in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny….We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.

In that spirit, and in the hope that it might be useful for understanding both the past and the present in some small measure, I commend Hemmingsen’s treatise to you.


E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics and Director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College, and is the translator of the new Christian’s Library Press publication, Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature, now available in the Acton Institute book store.