The reception of modern natural law
In order to appreciate the role of natural law in the eighteenth century, it is important to note that most Protestant Europeans saw it as a modern phenomenon. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers were well aware that natural law was prominent in both ancient and medieval thought, but in their eyes it acquired a new role with the division of Christianity and the emergence of modern statehood. The concern of modern natural law was to find a basis for moral life that, without conflicting with the tenets of Christianity, was neutral with respect to confessional religion. Natural law was thus central to one of the defining debates of the Enlightenment, namely whether and to what extent the cognitive, including moral, powers of humanity were adequate to the conduct of life in this world. While all the sciences were invoked to this purpose, in discussions of the foundation, nature, and extent of natural law, that central issue was particularly explicit.
The debate ran deep in every Protestant community – Reformed, Lutheran, and episcopalian – for at issue was the basis for the social world. Natural law’s replacement of revealed religion with natural religion led to a highly ambivalent view of morality and its institutional forms, ranging from the family and the economy to the state, as either the creation or the expression of natural man. Not least, the idea of religion as both a common bond and a shield between ruler and ruled was called into question, as was the status of the church.