Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

In his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon turns at chapter 8 to address “the Distinction of Commandment and Counsel,” which as mentioned in my previous post, has been growing on my mental radar of late as a key player in my ethico-political ambiguities.  Most intriguingly, though, Melancthon turns specifically to consider this distinction in terms of the lawfulness of private property, an issue I have been reading and writing on for the past several months.   

My bold, tentative thesis that emerges from this brief passage: it was the Protestant dissolution of the tension between the commandments and counsels that naturalized the moral justification of private property and thus paved the way for the development of the capitalist principle of absolute private property rights, in which one’s freedom to do entirely as one wished with what one owned preceded and relativised any legal or moral claim that could be made on one’s property.  Bold thesis, right?  (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, at least.)  I’ll sketch out the background of the distinction of commandment and counsel, and the Protestant reaction to it, in this post, and in the following one, I’ll develop how Melancthon applies it to the question of property.

So, let’s take a tour through 1,500 years of Christian ethics. 

Before the coming of Christ, we have the moral law, which is, as the WSC so eloquently puts it, “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”  Scholastic thinkers identify the Ten Commandments also as a summary form of the natural law, engrained in mankind from creation, and in principle knowable (though not necessarily successfully known) by all men.  The principles of natural law serve as the basis not only for moral living, but for political justice.  We see this in the Old Testament, where the civil laws of Israel are given as elaborations and case-law applications of the basic principles of the moral law.  

Enter Jesus, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you,” and issuing a new set of moral norms that seem to go beyond those of the Old Testament (and of natural law).  Now, we can hedge and qualify and say a lot about how the Sermon on the Mount, for instance does not overturn the Law, but fulfills it–it continues and intensifies the original trajectory, rather than simply contradicting it.  But be all that as it may, it does seem to go further in its call for holy living.  Where the old law (and the natural law) permitted–or indeed, one might say mandated–a just use of force in repelling force, Jesus seems to call us to a love that overcomes evil with good, that turns the other cheek.  But does this mean it is no longer permissible to defend ourselves, for instance?  Certainly the earliest Christianity carried with it a strong radical, perfectionist edge, but as it settled down to life in history, and grappled with the responsibilities involved in running a Christian state, the tension began to be felt quite sharply, the impossibility of using the evangelical law as the law for everyone.  

The neat solution devised (this is of course very oversimplified, glossing over a millenium’s worth of debates) was the distinction of commandments and counsels, which said, more or less, that although it was perfectly lawful and not sinful to live in accordance with the basic principles of the moral/natural law, it was even better, if possible, to follow the “counsels of perfection”–the extra moral demands of the evangelical law.  Melanchthon summarizes the definitions:

“A commandment is so called because it speaks of necessary obedience.  Everything that is contrary to the commandments is sin, and this brings eternal punishment if man is not converted to God.  A counsel is a doctrine, not a commandment; it does not demand a work, even though it praises the work as blameless and useful.” 

Three points of the evangelical law in particular were singled out by the medievals: non-violence, renunciation of personal property, and celibacy.  The monastic orders observed these, but most laymen were not expected to, and of course the political realm was not expected to operate according to these principles, but according to the natural law commandments.  This resulted in two levels of Christianity–first-class Christians, who observed the counsels, and second-class Christians, who observed merely the commandments.  Both were legit, but one was holier than the other.  Of course, it is not difficult to see how neatly this tied in with the emerging two-tier paradigm of nature and grace, with natural law governing laymen and the political sphere, and the law of grace governing the full-time Christians, so to speak.  

 

An unsatisfactory situation, no doubt, and one against which Luther forcefully reacted, rejecting the distinction between commandments and counsels, and insisting that all Christians were the same, and were bound to the same standards.   A short paragraph in Melanchthon’s discussion give some insight as to why: 

“First, it is obvious that our works cannot merit forgiveness of sins; so also are our works not perfection, for in this weak life we are still far from fulfilment of the law, and much sin, doubt and disorder remain in us, as Job 9:2 says, ‘No man is justified before God.’ Therefore it is empty blindness when men extol their own works as perfection, as if such works were a complete fulfilment of the divine law, and as if such holiness were higher than commanded works.”

In other words, since man is not justified by works, then what could it mean for the counsels to be better than the commandments?  They couldn’t contribute any justifying merit, and since for the Reformers, justification is the central question, there’s no sense in the distinction.

The Anabaptists took Luther to be saying, more or less, that all were bound to follow the counsels, and the commandments were out (although they did not accept celibacy as one of the counsels).  However, Luther quickly became alarmed by the radical, perfectionist, and legalistic direction that this led, and rejected Anabaptism as a false understanding of his teaching.  In his later work, he basically re-introduced the commandments/counsels distinction, but this time, internally and individually, instead of outwardly in the Christian community.  It was a line through the heart of each Christian, not through the Christian community.  All Christians were called to live outwardly in accord with the commandments, but to have their inner attitudes governed by the counsels.  All of this development thus far I have traced, more or less, in my series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount, which I never finished, but of which we could perhaps consider this a continuation.

The magisterial Reformation, following the later Luther, basically jettisons the counsels of perfection from the socio-political sphere, and lodges them merely in the inward motions of the Christian heart.  So, for instance, you not only may, but ought, to fight back with force (deadly force if necessary) against an aggressor, but with charity in your heart toward him all the while–you must use your outer fist, while turning your inner cheek.  What this means is that the laws of political ethics become not a baseline for preserving order, within which a fuller social ethics can be fostered by the Church, but become themselves the only standard of social ethics.   

 

A couple examples may clarify.  For Augustine, the laws ought to permit killing in self-defense, but Christian ethics ought not to allow it.  In On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, he turns to discuss the subject.  Intriguingly, his opening opens the door to take the later Lutheran route, but promptly shuts it:

Augustine: First we ought to discuss, I think, whether there is any lust in the case where an attacking enemy or an assassin in ambush is killed for the sake of life, liberty, or chastity.  Evodius: How can I think that men lack lust for the things that they can lose against their will?  Or, if they cannot lose these things, what need is there to go as far as murdering a man for them?” 

Augustine, in common with Luther, recognizes that the key moral problem is of the inward lust, but whereas the magisterial Reformers at this point would answer Evodius by saying, “No, we can  act in this way toward the enemy without any accompanying lust in our hearts, but preserving all the while charity toward the aggressor and acting out of mere concern for justice,” Augustine concurs with Evodius–the outward action is the expression of the heart.  He and Evodius then go on to develop a careful justification for why, given that the action of violent self-defense is itself wrong, the laws may still justly permit it.  The magisterial Reformation, however, will conclude that not only should the laws permit such, but because they permit it, and are an expression of the natural law when they do so, that it is therefore morally right to use violent self-defense, and–here’s the kicker–morally negligent not to do so.  

Another example: Augustine famously argued in his letter to Macedonius for clemency toward convicted criminals.  While acknowledging that there was genuine justice in the penalties prescribed by law for criminals–including capital punishment–Augustine argued that nevertheless, it was even better and more Christlike, to pardon them if possible, and he maintained that the Church had a duty to intercede for such pardon and work for it.  In Bk. 4, ch. 14 of his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli took Augustine to task for this argument in no uncertain terms, mounting a vigorous and unequivocal point-by-point refutation.  The gist of his argument (about which I have been planning to post for a year now; hopefully I will have a chance to discuss it fully in a later post) is that, since the laws are just in requiring the full penalty, based as they are on the natural law and the Old Testament, it would be unjust and therefore wrong for the magistrate to do anything other than impose the full penalty.  And it would therefore be unjust and wrong for any clergyman to exhort the magistrate to impose anything less than the full penalty of justice.  All of Augustine’s arguments drawn from the teaching of Christ Vermigli considers irrelevant–this evangelical law pertains only to the inward disposition of the heart.  So the magistrate must of course act with full charity and non-judgmentalness in his heart, but this should not in any way affect his actions.

This, I take it, is the fundamental move of Protestant ethics and political ethics, and, understandable as it is in reaction both to the Catholic two-class system and the Anabaptist legalism, I can’t help but consider it a very unsatisfactory move.  So, let’s turn in the next post to see how Melancthon develops this with respect to property.

2 thoughts on “Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

  1. Ryan Handermann

    I always wondered how the magistrate could kill his enemies and still love them. And, it appears the general Protestant answer is simple: the Magistrate can kill people with the sword as long as he loves them with his heart. But, don't some Christians think that the magistrate should hate the people he kills, because they are so wicked, and God hates the wicked, so he should hate them?

    Like

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