Theology for International Law

Article by   August 2014
reedinternationallaw93.jpgEsther D. Reed, Theology for International Law. London and New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013. 350pp. $26.99/£19.99

The big issue which this book addresses is: what does theology have to say to those who argue that international relations are nothing more than the realm of Realpolitik? Reed does not confront this question systematically until the final short section of concluding theses. Instead, she looks at a series of topical problems: the use of torture (chapter 3), whether the traditional just war criteria are inapplicable to the ways in which the "war" against terrorism is being fought (chapter 4), how the idea of humanitarian intervention has become a justification for war (chapter 5), whether Christians have a special calling to love their fellow citizens (chapter 6) and how the universal claims of Christianity and Islam intersect with those of human rights (chapter 7). Her discussions of each of these topics are illuminating and insightful.

Reed calls her theological approach to these questions Protestant Thomism. This is not, however, the Calvinist Aristotelianism of seventeenth and eighteenth century Scotland (described by Alasdair McIntyre in chapter XII of Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) but an attempt at a Barthian reading of Aquinas's natural law.

The first hurdle such a reading faces is to overcome Barth's (in)famous Nein to natural law in his debate with Brunner. Reed does not seek to undercut this denial of natural law by drawing on Barth's later work. Instead, she sidesteps it by looking at how natural law reasoning might be read using Barth's approach to ethics, which she sees as having its central emphasis on the dynamic of the Word of God that speaks and is answerable in human affairs (p.18). Her second challenge is to offer a reading of natural law consistent with this approach. This is where the problems begin. There are at least four separate questions to be answered: 'what is the natural law?', 'how do we discern the natural law?', 'how do we apply the natural law?', and 'is the application of the natural law different in our own personal lives from its application by governments and different again in its application as international law?'  

Reed's answer to the second question, that is, 'how do we discern the natural law?', is that which has become dominant since Henri de Lubac in both Protestant and Catholic readings of Aquinas: the natural law is discerned as a result of general revelation rather than through the use of unaided natural reason (p.18). She answers the third question ('how do we apply the natural law?') in a way familiar to legal philosophers, who have learned, from one or more of Immanuel Kant, Herman Dooyeweerd and Ronald Dworkin, that the application of legal rules involves the art of judgment not the science of logic. Reed's conclusion that the application of natural law is not a matter of logical deduction is therefore trite. So far, so good.

Today, the controversial questions are the first and fourth ones: 'what is the natural law?', and 'does its application differ at the personal, governmental and international levels?' Reed does not discuss the New Natural Law of Boyle, Grisez and Finnis, but chooses instead an account of natural law reasoning where natural law is primarily about principles which can be used to reason towards what is for the common good but which will not yield precise rules.

As already indicated, I don't think that Christian natural law theorists ever claimed that natural law produced a complete and detailed blueprint for individual morality, national law and international relations. However, at least some, including Aquinas, thought that the precepts of natural law were important as well as the principles.

To take just one example Reed explores at length, the question of torture. A good case can be made that 'Thou shalt not torture' is a natural law rule. There are important questions about the extent of that rule: 'does waterboarding fall within the definition of torture?', is that rule absolute or is it subject to a proviso in extreme or emergency cases? It is natural law reasoning, informed by context, culture, and circumstance, which is how we arrive at the detailed specifications of that rule (what Dooyeweerd called 'positivisation').

As the fourth question alerts us: this natural law rule can be applied at a number of different levels. It yields the principle of personal morality: 'I must not torture'. It delivers the principle of political philosophy: It is wrong for my government to torture and there ought to be national laws forbidding government officials to use torture. It demands a rule of international law outlawing torture. But how each of those norms is worked out requires additional reasoning, reasoning which is sensitive to the particular way in which ethical demands are shaped at the personal, national and international levels.

There is much to be found in Reed's timely volume. She does not make the mistake of not being up to date in her understanding of the topics she discusses. Indeed, reading Theology for International Law at the moment Russia annexed Crimea in the name of humanitarian intervention showed how the shifts in ideas Reed has observed are affecting today's geo-politics.  It would, perhaps, have been easier to read the book by starting with the concluding theses. It is here that Reed provides her answers to the proponents of Realpolitik and her most powerful demonstration of how Christian theology still has important things to say to the politicians, peace-makers, and people who come into contact with international law.

David McIlroy is Associate Tutor in the Theology of Law, Spurgeon's College, London.

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