The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology

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.”[1] Similarly, David VanDrunen contends that “for the better part of four centuries Reformed thinkers widely affirmed… natural law.”[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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. These and many other features of Reformed moral theology were inherited from early and medieval theologians who developed these teachings out of Scripture, though not necessarily in isolation from other currents of thought in their respective contexts.

Inherited Questions

Reformed theologians also inherited a set of open questions. Early and medieval theologians, for example, debated questions of continuity and discontinuity across the several covenant administrations in Scripture. The implication of this biblical framework for Sabbath observance, for example, was much discussed, with important contributions by Augustine, John of Damascus, and Thomas Aquinas, among others.

Medieval theologians also debated the relation of the natural law to the moral law revealed in Scripture and to the two tables of the Decalogue. This debate was connected to several others. One was the relation between God’s absolute and ordained power. Another was whether any of the precepts of the Decalogue were dispensable. And yet another was how to square a lengthy list of difficult passages of Scripture with the moral law.

Another open question at the time of the Reformation was the place of moral theology within the theological encyclopedia. Its location within summaries of the faith and its relation to the other theological disciplines and especially to dogmatics has been openly discussed since at least the sixteenth century.[5] By the time of the Reformation, theologians could choose between several different practices regarding the placement and distribution of moral teaching within summaries of theology going back a millennium or more.

These questions and others were not new to moral theology or first raised by Protestant theologians. On the contrary, there is a long history of reflection, diversity of opinion, and debate on each. Reformed theologians inherited these questions, freely appropriated and modified available answers, or proposed their own, and frequently continued the debate.


There are, of course, important points of discontinuity between Reformed moral theology and the main lines of the prior tradition. Among these, early and medieval theologians advanced diverse views of original sin, concupiscence, the noetic effects of sin, the relationship of grace to good works and good works to justification, the practice of penance, Christian liberty, religious vows, and worship. Reformed theologians advanced views on these and several other points that broke with the prevailing views among late medieval theologians. These views continue to divide Reformed and Roman Catholic moral teaching today. Yet even these discontinuities—or distinguishing characteristics of Reformed moral theology—can only be well understood in historical context.

There are also discontinuities between Reformed moral theology and post-Enlightenment Christian ethics. The issues surrounding the question on theological encyclopedia, for instance, would become much more acute after the Enlightenment’s turn to practical reason as an independent and sufficient foundation for moral instruction. This turn appears to reach its apex in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who effectively overturned the relationship between dogmatics and ethics through his notion of a rational moral faith.

Kant argued in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781; rev. 1787) that humans cannot know God even though they have a concept of God. He then argued in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) that although God is not a proper object of knowledge, practical reason does know the moral law and finds it necessary to posit certain other things to account for its own judgments about what one ought to do. Those other things include the existence (and character) of God and the ultimate harmony of justice with happiness in an age yet to come. On this scheme, ethics rests independently on a foundation of practical reason, and theology is derived from and auxiliary to it.[6]

In the post-Enlightenment world, questions about the placement of Christian moral teaching within the theological encyclopedia and its relation to dogmatics give way to questions about the foundations of ethics as an independent discipline and the meaning and possibility of Christian ethics. Today, the term Christian ethics cannot be assumed to indicate a theological approach to the study of morality that shares its principles and sources with dogmatics. This is a rather clear discontinuity between Reformed moral theology as it developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and later, post-Enlightenment Christian ethics, which often adopts a philosophical approach to the study of morality.


Christian moral teaching was conceived by Reformed theologians in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, and by their confessional heirs, as a topic, division, or branch of theology. As such, they regarded Reformed moral theology as distinct from, though intimately related to, moral philosophy. Moral philosophy has its own order and its own rich tradition of moral instruction going back to classical Athens. Reformed moral teaching, however, is of a different order that rests on a different set of principles about sources, norms, and methods—a set of first principles it shares with dogmatic theology.

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.

This essay is adapted from Dr. Baugus’ new book The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology: The Historical Background of an Ecclesial Tradition (RHB 2022), which is available now.

Dr. Bruce P. Baugus (Ph.D, Calvin Theological Seminary) serves on the faculty of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is author of The Roots of Reformed Moral Theology (RHB 2022) and the editor of China’s Reforming Churches (RHB 2014).

  1. Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 1.

  2. David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 1. See also Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

  3. In addition to familiar primary sources long in translation from Calvin’s Institutes to Turretin’s Institutes, English readers may now also consult, among others, Girolamo Zanchi, On the Law in General, ed. Stephen J. Grabill, trans. Jeffrey J. Veenstra (Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2012); Pierre de la Place, Moral Philosophy; Althusius, On Law and Power; and Hale, Of the Law of Nature; and Willem J. van Asselt et al., eds., Synopsis Purioris Theologiae / Synopsis of a Purer Theology, vol. 1, Disputations 1–23, ed. Dolf te Velde, trans. Riemer A. Faber, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions, Texts & Sources (Leiden: Brill, 2015), esp. Disputation 18 “Concerning the Law of God.”

  4. Cf. W. Geesink, Gereformeerde Ethiek (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1931), 1:224–25. Citing the Synopsis Purioris Theologiae (1625), Gisbertus Voetius (1589–1676), and Cornelius Van Velzen (1696–1752), Geesink concludes that Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the law represents “het katholieke of oudere natuurrecht en uit de Scholastiek overgenomen door onze oude Gereformeerde moralisten” (the catholic or older natural law that was taken over from the Scholastics by our old Reformed teachers of morality).

  5. See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:56–57; Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1:50–51; and Muller, Study of Theology, 145–46.

  6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Mary Gregor, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 2.2.1–9. See also Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings, trans. Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


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