Lo and Behold–a Dissertation!

For weeks and months, I had been bumbling along, sure that I wanted to do a dissertation on the use of Scripture in Reformation political thought, but unable, it seemed, to find a topic that was even compelling to me, much less the rest of the world.  I picked up Vermigli, listened to him patiently, but found myself yawning at his arid polemics.  Bullinger proved a blustery windbag, and besides, he spoke German, and I didn’t.  What about Cartwright and Whitgift?  Too petty and contentious.  The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos intrigued me, but I didn’t want to spend the next three years with Frenchmen and their strange tongue.  At last I lighted upon Hooker with the joy of a desert wanderer who, exhausted of chasing mirages and near death’s door, stumbles at last upon a true oasis.  But this was a name, not a thesis.  Why should anyone care about Hooker?  Thus far the only convincing connection between Reformation and modern political theology that I felt inclined and competent to address was VanDrunen and all his dangerous doctrines.  But I couldn’t very well write a dissertation dedicated simply to refuting VanDrunen.  

Then, last Wednesday, I had an epiphany.  The catalyst: the sight of Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics on my shelf, put there by my friend and desk-mate Jeremy Kidwell, who thought I might find it useful.  I hadn’t so much as opened the book yet, but the sight of it was enough.  I knew what I had to do: I had to read and take voluminous notes on this book, on Joan O’Donovan’s Theology of Law and Authority in the Reformation, and on John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights.  I had to glance back at the passages in VanDrunen on Christian liberty.  And I had to read over again a short but pregnant passage in Melanchthon’s Epitome Moralis Philosophiae that I had come across more than a year ago and mentally bookmarked for future reference.  I resisted the temptation to stop and conceptualize or outline.  The time for that would come–for now, I must simply stuff my brain.  The gamble paid off–one week after the initial epiphany, Wednesday around one PM, as I looked through the VanDrunen and the Melanchthon passages, the mental sirens started going off.  I opened up a blank word document to start outlining some key ideas.  But instead of an outline, an essay starting pouring out, and faster than I could write, the various ideas that had been banging around in my head for months starting snapping together, like magnets brought into proximity.  I wrote as if taking dictation, pausing only for various changes of location and necessary social obligations, and by midnight it was complete.  Yesterday O’Donovan approved it, and I am now leaving port and setting sail on the epic voyage.  Here, for those of you with the time and inclination to read it, is the proposal-essay:

Although it may not seem at first fertile ground in which to find the seeds of modern liberal democracy, early Calvinism has in recent years received pride of place among historians and ethicists seeking to reconstruct the sources of modern secular politcs.  Several modern theological ethicists who are eager to affirm the sanctity of the secular, and preserve it inviolate from the incursions of militant American evangelicals, have appealed to the early Reformed traditions as witnesses for a theological justification of strict church/state separation.  Involved in this dispute, of course, are questions about the proper role of Scripture in the political sphere: whereas many Christians feel fervently the need for Scripture to speak to every area of life, to extend as far as Christ’s lordship does, others have argued strenuously that if Christians are to engage with politics in a pluralistic society, they must be able to speak in secularized language, to advocate for a moral political order in terms that are universally acceptable–in other words, they must use natural law.  Some may argue this merely as a rhetorical strategy–we must speak a non-theological language, in order to accomplish particular theological ends in the civil realm.  Others, however, have been prepared to argue as a matter of principle for the irrelevance of particular theological convictions for the political sphere.  

One such ethicist is David VanDrunen, who believes that the early Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms provide the theological tools for such an agenda.  The basic thrust of his contention is that the Reformed learned how to distinguish sharply between the civil kingdom (the state and civil society) and the spiritual kingdom (the visible church), and learned to apply quite different laws to the regulation of these spheres–the civil kingdom was regulated by the natural law that was shared by all men, while the spiritual kingdom was regulated by Scripture alone.  VanDrunen presents this paradigm as an outworking of the doctrine of Christian liberty: Christian liberty applies in the spiritual kingdom, where we are free from every authority but Scripture, while it does not apply in the civil kingdom, where we are bound by authorities ruled by prudential considerations of natural law.  Now, given that the original purpose of Calvin’s distinction regarding Christian liberty, explained below, was to reinforce political conservatism–we remain bound to obey the civil magistrate usque ad aras–it seems odd at first that VanDrunen would find in this the germ for a liberated modern politics.  However, when we reflect more carefully on Calvin’s statement of Christian liberty, we note an inversion: the lack of liberty for the individual in the civil kingdom corresponds to a greater liberty for the ruler, while the greater liberty for the individual in the spiritual kingdom corresponds to a constraint upon ecclesiastical leaders, bound as they are not to legislate beyond Scripture.  The rulers of the civil sphere have the freedom to apply natural law and devise any laws not directly contrary to Scripture; if we once introduce the constitutional radicalism that citizens are to some extent their own rulers, then the constraint on liberty in the civil kingdom actually becomes a liberation: Christian citizens are free to engage in politics on the broad playing field of natural law, without having to conform their policies directly to Scripture.  Unsurprisingly then, VanDrunen simultaneously embraces a correlative concept of the spiritual kingdom, in which the ostensible “Christian liberty” actually becomes a tight chain binding the Church, to restrict itself to narrowly ecclesial, rather than civil concerns, since only the former are taken to be authoritatively laid out in Scripture.  

VanDrunen’s account of the Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms is highly tendentious, and fails to offer a fully authentic historical account of key early figures like Calvin.  However, I will seek to argue that, although VanDrunen himself passes over the Elizabethan Puritans with little comment, it was they who came closer than any other Reformed group to espousing the kind of natural law/two kingdoms dialectic that VanDrunen and others wish to appropriate.  For it is they who most explicitly make the visible church out to be a separate juridical polity alongside the civil kingdom, governed in detail by its own standard of law–the Scripture.  I shall then appropriate Richard Hooker’s devastating criticism of the foundational assumptions of Puritanism to show the impossibility of such a neat compartmentalization of natural and divine law.  VanDrunen is right, however, to see the doctrine of Christian liberty as foundational, so I will focus throughout on the Protestant attempt to find a satisfactory synthesis of law and liberty.


The Reformation was predicated on a doctrine of Christian liberty, on the freedom of God’s grace, and the freedom of the Christian who is caught up in it; this freedom was originally seen as a protest against institutional contraints that would confine the gospel and the Christian, it was seen as a protest against the law that would seek to bind the believer in fear before God and man, instead liberating him to stand in confidence before both.  But the doctrine, like any assertion of liberty, soon proved rather too volatile to be left unqualified.  Institutional structures must remain, which meant that for Luther, the liberty of the believer was soon sequestered in the internal forum of the conscience, which can never be bound or bullied when it comes to the gospel.  In the external sphere, though, rules still must apply, and people must follow them, if there is going to be any order in either church or state.  This was not, as the cynic might have it, merely because of of the need to placate the powers that be.  Rather, it was in part necessary for the protection of liberty itself.  Every unqualified assertion of liberty destroys liberty, because the liberty of one to do as they desire is an imposition on what those around them desire.  So it is in the Church.  For one person to be free to practise the faith as they desire means they are sure to offend their brother, while for that brother to be free from offense may require that the first person be offended by not being permitted to act in a certain way.  If the Church as a corporate body is to have freedom to pursue its common good, the freedom of its individual members must be curtailed to some extent.  

Carefully sensitive to the dilemma thus raised, Philipp Melanchthon in his Epitome Moralis Philosophiae sought to define quite carefully the relationship of law and liberty.  First he argues for a fundamental distinction between the binding force of civil laws and ecclesiastical laws.  In the former, he says, we are bound not merely by fear of coercion, but by conscience as well (which nearly, but not quite, reduced to fear of divine coercion).  In the latter, however, we are merely bound by the law of charity–that is, we must obey them insofar as failure to do so will cause our brother to stumble.  They are conditionally binding, not unconditionally so.  Although the details of his argument manifest significant unresolved tensions, the overall conclusion yielded serves his purpose–we must not let ourselves be bound by a slavery of fear when it comes to obeying ecclesiastical ceremonies and customs, but, as they are needful for discipline and order’s sake, we must not lightly cast them aside either, as this would be to sin against our brothers and sisters.  Melanchthon’s answer was to prove very influential in the Anglican context, being reprinted in a prominant pamphlet during the Vestiarian controversy under the title “Whether it be a mortall sin to transgress civil laws.”  For the Puritans in this controversy, however, Calvin was easily the most influential figure, though their doctrine of Christian liberty proved quite unfaithful to him.

Calvin’s own teaching on the subject is far from clear.  John Witte, Jr. suggests that two phases may be discerned: an earlier one in which Calvin is closer to the original Lutheran impulse to give liberty to the individual believer, and a later, institutionalizing phase in which Calvin feels the need to curtail the individual believer’s liberty in favor of the liberty of the Church as a whole, which means its governing structures.  This shift, Witte believes, can be related to a shift in Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms.  For Calvin, like Melanchthon, conditions the doctrine of Christian liberty with a two kingdoms doctrine: in the spiritual kingdom, the believer cannot be bound to anything not commanded in Scripture, while in the civil kingdom, the believer can be bound by things not commanded in Scripture, only not by things forbidden in Scripture.  The laws of civil authorities, so long as they do not command against God, are fully binding.  

The question arises, however, how we are to define these two kingdoms.  For the early Calvin, like the late Luther, these kingdoms can be seen largely in internal/external terms: the spiritual kingdom, since it is inherently spiritual and internal, lacks an external institutional form and so cannot, of course, promulgate binding laws; its only laws are the spiritually binding laws of Scripture.  However, for the later Calvin, the Church has come to be seen as external institution in its own right, a visible polity alongside and closely conjoined with the civil polity.  With this move, it would seem, the binding, lawlike character of the civil kingdom insinuates itself into the spiritual kingdom as well.  The earlier paradigm, allowing complete liberty to believers within the Church, left the Church no power to regulate itself beyond the mere preaching of the word.  Now, if the Church was to regulate itself, it would need to be able to make rules which would need to be on some level binding on its members; but according to the doctrine of Christian liberty, these laws could not be strictly binding on believers, going as they did beyond Scripture.  The Melanchthonian solution was possible, according to which the laws were not binding according to strict law, but according to the law of charity.  But the more the Church was construed as a visible juridical polity, the more difficult it became to maintain such a distinction.  If the Church required rules of good order, and if such rules had to be imposed and guarded by the public authorities of the Church, and if some kind of coercive sanctions were necessary to do this (as they were increasingly seen to be) then for all practical purposes, believers’ liberty was extinguished.  

It was possible to still continue along this track and still rescue the letter (though not the spirit) of the doctrine of Christian liberty by a crucial transposition–what if all laws of good order were Biblically binding?  What if they were not, in fact, adiaphora?  If this were so, then in making such rules, the Church would be requiring of believers nothing beyond what Scripture itself required, and of course, if the Church were to make any other rules (e.g., episcopacy rather than the divinely-mandated Presbyterianism) then it would be violating Christian liberty.  It is readily apparent that in making this move, Christian liberty is, for practical purposes, extinguished and converted into legalism.  Calvin himself therefore, while sliding toward legalism in his later life, never explicitly made this move, which would in any case have required a fairly dramatic flattening of the relationship between divine and human law, something Calvin knew better than.  

Under the influence of John Knox and his biblical absolutism, however, the English Puritans were able to make this move.  Indeed, this may have been prompted by another antinomy in the Melancthonian formulation, a paradox that the Anglican divines themselves wrestled with in the Vestiarian controversy.  The problem was this: if a particular ceremony (e.g., vestments) is neither forbidden nor commanded by Scripture, then it may be authorized, but not required, by the Church.  For the Church to strictly require it would be to violate Christian liberty, and therefore believers would have the right to disobey it—not because to obey it would be in itself a violation of divine law, but because to obey it would be to grant the validity of such a requirement, a requirement that, by violating Christian liberty, constituted a violation of divine law.  What if, however, the civil authority opted to require this ceremony?  After all, given the close coordination of civil and ecclesiastical affairs, it was difficult to say with certainty that this was outside the magistrate’s jurisdiction.  Inasmuch as the magistrate was requiring that which ought by all rights to be adiaphora, this was clearly wrong, and it would seem could be lawfully disobeyed.  However, inasmuch as this ceremony was not in itself forbidden by God, was not the Christian required to obey the magistrate in this case?  After all, the standard teaching had been that the doctrine of Christian liberty did not apply in the case of civil laws; here, the law must be obeyed so long as obedience was not directly contrary to God.    The dilemma proved quite difficult to resolve, and it is thus unsurprising that the Puritans, seeking a more clear-cut paradigm with which to adjudicate the lawfulness of church ceremonies, decided to do away with the category of adiaphora within the church entirely: all policies of the Church must be either commanded or forbidden by divine law, that is, Scripture.

Now that Scripture had taken on the role of a divine legal constitution for an alternative polity standing alongside the civil kingdom, instead of a comprehensive guide for life in the Christian society, its function for the civil kingdom would seem to have been dramatically attenuated.  Now that adiaphora were essentially expunged from the visible Church, civil affairs themselves became the adiaphora–those matters on which the Church had no authority to adjudicate, and which it therefore left for the rulers to act as reason and the general guidelines of Scripture dictated.  On the other hand, however, the clear superiority of the divine law in Scripture over the merely human civil law tended to suggest that the civil realm too should be ordered to that law in a theocratic arrangement.  As it turned out, Puritanism found itself for several generations in an unstable oscillation between these two poles, half-inclined to leave civil affairs entirely in their own sphere, half-inclined to bring them into the orbit of the spiritual kingdom, dictated to by the Word through the ministers. 

Richard Hooker eschewed both these tendencies, and saw more deeply and clearly than any of his contemporaries that the Puritan development constituted a retreat into Catholic legalism; that, in the struggle to maintain the liberty of the individual believer and the liberty of the institutional church, both had been abolished.  Hooker’s response consisted of at least three key moves, the first  of which took him back to the earlier Reformers and the second and third of which took him back beyond them in order to point a more coherent way forward.  

His first move was to return to the earlier Reformers and to reassert the unity of the corpus Christianorum–of a distinction between the two kingdoms that put the externals of both church and state in “the civil kingdom.”  While he was certainly Erastian, Hooker was far from seeking to dissolve any distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions–indeed, the very title of his magnum opus displays the importance for him of a distinctive “ecclesiastical polity.”  However, both jurisdictions were crucially to be understood as belonging to the same external and social sphere, and thus as both being administered by human law.  For Hooker, the crucial division in law was not between the natural law and the divine law, but between these two on the one hand, fixed and immutable, and human law on the other, necessarily mutable.  For human law was simply the application of either the laws of reason or of Scripture to particular times, places, and circumstances, which necessarily admit of variable applications, whether in purely civil or ecclesiastical affairs.  

This understanding enabled a second move–to revisit the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and clarify the ambiguities it created.   Instead of allowing one sphere to be governed by the rule “nothing contrary to Scripture” and another by the rule “nothing except directly according to Scripture,” Hooker saw the need for one rule to apply to all external human affairs: “all things according to the general guidance of Scripture and nothing contrary to its explicit teaching.”  Hooker understood that to be brought to bear on an infinite variety of changing particular circumstances, Scripture was necessarily mediated through reason and tradition.  Civil affairs then were governed by the law of reason, but always as illuminated and interpreted by Scripture, while ecclesiastical affairs were governed by the divine law of Scripture, but always as illuminated and interpreted by the law of reason. 

Where does all this leave the doctrine of Christian liberty?  For Hooker, this law can only apply in the immediate realm of faith, the true spiritual kingdom in which the believer is bound directly to Christ, where no human law can rightly interfere.  However, in the mediated realm of human society, whether this be civil or ecclesiastical, we are bound by laws.  Given the choice stated above between a liberty of the individual believer over against the Church, and a liberty of the Church over against the individual believer, Hooker then opts for the latter in order to safeguard the common good of the spiritual society–just as civil laws curtail the liberty of subjects to safeguard its common good.  Hooker’s ecclesiastical polity has the power to issue binding legislation on adiaphora.  But notice that this is in fact precisely in order to resist legalism, and retain a sphere of rational freedom for the visible Church.  


In fact, I would suggest that Hooker’s conception of law does in fact, even while extending the range of law, make it less “legalistic.”  Let us recall Melanchthon’s distinction between the ways in which civil and ecclesiastical laws bind.  For Melanchthon, the former are binding both by their coercive force, and by force of conscience, understood primarily as a fear of divine coercion.  The latter are binding only insofar as the rule of charitable concern for the common good requires.  I would argue that in Hooker’s conception, Melanchthon’s “ecclesiastical” laws are folded into the “civil,” but in such a way that the freedom of the latter pervades the whole.  For Hooker, law is fundamentally a directive, rather than a coercive rule; for humans, law is the function of the will’s free embrace of the goodness proper to its nature–as F.J. Shirley puts it, “Man is of creatures alone able to choose whether he will take his due place in creation, and the essentially voluntary nature of his actions demands that the law which governs him shall be primarily directive and persuasive, not arbitrary and coercive.  He may obey and disobey; ‘he doth not otherwise than voluntarily the one or the other’, and these laws are incumbent upon him to keep simply as a man, whether or not he be a member of a commonwealth.”  The binding force of conscience consists not in fear of divine coercion, but in love of divine goodness.  Likewise, the coercive human element of law is not rightly seen as a foreign imposition, but given Hooker’s insistence on the necessity of consent for civil authority, and the unity of the political body, the law is to be understood as that by which each subject freely binds himself.  In all law, therefore, we are given to understand by Hooker, we are bound inasmuch as reason, formed by charity, directs us to seek that which the common good of our nature and society require.  Even when we deem the law to be unjust, we are bound to defer in our judgment to that of the whole, insofar as concern for the common good teaches us to recognize that disobedience would for the time being do more harm than good to the community.   

As a constructive development of Hooker’s conception of law, then, I will suggest that, although he himself does not make this explicit move, we could consider all laws to be binding only insofar as they are specifications of the law of love.  Such a move is suggested by Hooker’s Augustinian concept of the reason’s embrace of the good as an inclination of love, and by his understanding of the love of God and love of neighbor as comprising the fundamental content of the law of reason.  Such an understanding of law-observance as the voluntary subordination of love–simultaneously completely free and a slave of all–can serve as a means of recovering the full riches of the original Lutheran conception of Christian liberty.

As a more direct constructive application of Hooker’s thought, I will argue that his understanding of the always-cooperative role of Scripture and reason in both ecclesial and civil affairs offers a much more helpful paradigm for Christian civil engagement than that which seeks to confine each authority within its own designated sphere.  Christians may step into the political arena with confidence that God’s laws have much to teach it, but with a healthy humility that recognizes that a diversity of circumstances prevents any hasty one-size-fits-all theological solution; they may thus make use of the insights of unregenerate reason in patiently devising policies conducive to the common good, and ordered to the eschatological good that perfects, rather than abolishes, nature. 


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