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Theonomy and Autonomy

The change in the understanding of reason and order in western philosophy as the metaphysical background of the rise and decline of natural law–thinking

by Armin Wildfeuer


In modern times natural law thinking has been increasingly in crisis. The orientation to the order of natural law has been replaced by an orientation to the autonomy of human being. To anyone who knows the history of philosophy, this change need not to be surprising. The idea of natural law presupposes a very specific type of metaphysics, which allows to construct a more or less strong relationship of divine order of God, the order of the world and the order of the human being as subject of reason. The connection between these three orders can be seen as the relationship between three types of reasons or rationalities which are more or less closely connected with each other and must be understood in relation to each other: I mean the connection between the absolute reason or rationality of God, the objective reason or rationality of the world which we call “nature” in a metaphysical sense, and the finite reason or rationality of the man. If we assume that the human being is free, then a certain tension between the divine order and human autonomy is virtually inevitable. During the history of ideas, the tension between theonomy and autonomy was resolved in different ways depending on the understanding of reason, which influenced the understanding of absolute, objective and subjective reason and the connection between them. But, as we shall see, with the modern understanding of the relation between the three rationalities of God, world and man, natural law thinking lost its metaphysical foundations.

In the following I try to explain in form of a short history of ideas the philosophical developments in the background of the problem, the replacement of theonomy by autonomy in modern times, leading to the rise and decline of the natural law thinking in the western world. Before I follow this story of reason, I must explain the correlation of reason and order.

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