A Closer Look on Melanchthon and Private Property

A few months ago, as part of my ongoing side-project of reflecting on the relation of Christian ethics to private property, I posted a discussion of a passage from Melancthon’s 155Loci Communes on the subject, from the chapter on the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels.”  In this passage, he castigates the Anabaptists for their attempt to do away with the order of private property, which he insists is divinely ordained.  At the time, I critiqued Melanchthon, suggesting that he was an example of the shift away from the medieval understanding of private property as a pragmatic adjustment of the natural state of common ownership to the modern understanding of private ownership as itself completely natural and perpetual.   My friend Peter Escalante informed me that I had badly distorted Melanchthon on this point, arguing that he was in fact well-aligned with the medieval consensus, and I so I offered something of a retraction. Now at last I can shed a little more light on Melanchthon’s view.  
Sure enough, if one looks at the first edition of the Loci, the 1521 edition, one finds a presentation that is much more equivocal about the status of private property.  Expounding the natural law, Melanchthon argues that there are three main laws of nature: “1. God must be worshiped.  2. Since we are born into a life that is social, nobody must be harmed.  3. Human society demands that we make common use of all things.”  

Wow.  So the common use of worldly goods is not merely a nice idea, but one of the fundamental laws of nature, on par with “God must be worshiped”?  Looks like it.
“The third law, about the common use of things, obviously arises from the very nature of human society.  For if the saying ‘Friends have all things in common’ ought to be valid when a few friends are involved, why should it not hold among all men?  It should, since all are supposed to cling together as brothers do with brothers, children with parents, and parents with children.  For the law not to inflict harm has commanded this.”
So, is there any place for private property?  Yes indeed.  For we aren’t living in our natural state anymore, but in sin:
“But because human avarice does not allow that we use all things in common, this law had to be corrected by the one above, the law that no one be harmed.  Things must be shared to the extent that the public peace and the safety of the group permit.  For as a rule inferior laws are corrected by higher ones, and public sharing must be regulated according to some limit.”  
In the state of sin, a perfect common property regime is unlikely to last for long without causing strife, and so it must be modified as necessary to provide for peace.

“Therefore, another law must be subjoined to the third, namely, that property must be divided, since the common welfare of the multitude so demands.  Furthermore, since it is a condition of human affairs that there is need of at least some sharing of property because by nature things ought to be in common, it has been decided that their use be shared, for instance, through contracts, buying, selling, leases, rents, etc.  And here you discern the origin of contracts….One must not look for any other model of a well-constituted state than that state in which it is possible to observe the rule that friends must share.  Thus contracts have been devised through which the goods of each are shared by the many so that there may be at least some sharing of things.”

In other words, private property is introduced in a state of sin as a way of realizing the original natural good of common use.  If we can’t have a truly common property regime, then we should come as close as we can to achieving the same end under a private property regime.  This stance (which looks like Option 5B or possibly 5A on the taxonomy of private property justifications I provided here) is actually less affirming of private property than Aquinas–it is more Augustinian–since St. Thomas believed that the specification of private property might have happened anyway even without sin.  But the basic logic is quite similar.  

However, there does seem to be a marked shift by the time we come to the 1555 Loci.  Not surprising, really. Back in 1521, in the first flush of the Reformation’s success, the Reformers were filled with evangelical optimism and perfectionism; the Anabaptist utopianism had not yet come to stand in opposition to the mainstream reformers.  By the middle of the century, however, a hard-nosed realism and cynicism has set in. Men are a wretched and on the whole irreformable lot; some will be saved, but the majority just need to be restrained.  In such a milieu, anything other than the existing private property arrangements is going to sound hopelessly idealistic.  No surprise, then, that we should find Melanchthon here indulging in a furious polemic against the Anabaptist opposition to private property, something which he might have disagreed with in 1521, but hardly set himself against so ferociously.  In this polemic, he argues that property is not merely a good, but a a duty–voluntary poverty is simply wicked hypocrisy, and a violation of the divine order of property.  

This polemic corresponds to a considerably flattened account of the justice of private property in his exposition of the law.  In the 1555 Loci, this comes in an exposition of the Ten Commandments as the basic principles of natural and divine law.  In speaking of the seventh commandment (eighth for us Reformed), he says,
“Let us learn from this commandment that God himself has established ownership of property and reasonable laws to regulate it.  It is comforting to know that the laws by which we live and have property are pleasing to God, for then a believing man can work with a clear conscience to maintain himself in such an order, and can invoke God’s blessings and aid….
“Note this in reference to the devilish Anabaptists.  They argue that all goods must be held in common and boast that it is a mark of great holiness to break up property….Against such madness one should consider and uphold the beautiful wisdom contained in this commandment.
“Because possession of property is right and pleasing to God…God erects a strong wall around each householder for the sake of his shelter and goods, namely this his law, ‘You shall not steal.’  Our hearts and hands should not desire another’s goods nor acquire them, except as God has ordained an exchange by agreement and equal payment.  In this life we need various things, and God gives to one the fruits of the earth, to another, wool and cloth.  Therefore, to facilitate exchange, God himself ordained contracts, buying, and selling.  He desires us to use these means to preserve equality, for otherwise we would soon consume one another.”
It is impossible to deny a striking contrast.  Here there is no overarching right of common use that precedes and gives purpose to the order of private property (although there is still a hint of this at the end in the remarks, reminiscent of those from 1521, that contracts enable common use within a private property regime); here there is no qualification to the divine ordination of property–indeed, here it might appear that private property was natural and perpetual, rather than an adjustment to the natural order as a result of the Fall.  And whereas in the 1521 discussion, we might’ve been left with the impression that a common property regime was still a live option under certain circumstances and a praiseworthy one, here any such notion is castigated as “devilish madness.”  What we appear to have now, in short, is an Option 4A or even an Option 3 account of the justification of private property.  It may well be that Melanchthon here has not actually changed the logic of his theory.  If pressed to explain the natural-law basis of private property, he might still follow the structure of the 1521 account.  But the rhetoric has certainly changed.  And in my experience, rhetorical shifts often precede and influence theoretical shifts (e.g., as I argued happened in the case of sola Scriptura).
Of course, none of this is intended to single out Melanchthon for criticism.  My sense (thus far relatively unconfirmed by careful research) is that this shift was fairly prevalent in the sixteenth century, among Protestants and Catholics.  Hopefully one day I’ll be able to confirm that one way or another.

(If I’ve still got it wrong, Peter, don’t hesitate to come down on me hard again. 😉 )

Calvin, Christian Liberty, and the Regulative Principle

Let’s recap briefly the previous post in this new series: David VanDrunen argues that the doctrine of Christian liberty undergirds Calvin’s (and the Reformed tradition’s) two-kingdoms doctrine–the doctrine ensures that in the spiritual kingdom (which he takes to mean the visible Church) the Christian cannot be bound by any human laws, by anything besides Scripture alone; whereas in the civil kingdom (which he takes to mean the realm of society and politics) the Christian can be bound by laws other than Scripture.  Free in the Church, not in the State.  However, for VanDrunen, this actually comes to mean the opposite: bound in the Church, free in the State.  For the reason we cannot be bound by human laws in the Church is the regulative principle–that Scripture has already given us full and perfect guidance for worship and church order, so that we are bound to follow its rules, and no others.  Scripture, however, leaves plenty of flexibility in the civil kingdom, and so we are free here to make other laws and follow different standards, so long as we do not contradict Scripture.  

 But does Calvin teach such a regulative principle?  And if not, does he mean by Christian liberty, and by the “two kingdoms” the same thing that VanDrunen does?  A careful read of the very chapters that VanDrunen points us to yields a clear answer: “No.”  However, VanDrunen is not an idiot.  There is plenty here in the Institutes, and elsewhere in Calvin, that sounds a lot like the Puritan regulative principle.  Let’s consider this evidence first–Book IV, chapter 10 is the place to look.


In section 6, Calvin says of bishops and church leaders,

“Yet I deny that they have been appointed lawgivers over believers as to be able by themselves to prescribe a rule of life, or to force their ordinances upon the people committed to them.  When I say this, I mean that they have no right to command the church to observe as obligatory what they have themselves conceived apart from God’s Word.”

In section 7, he says,

“In his law the Lord has included everything applicable to the perfect rule of the good life, so that nothing is left to men to add to that summary….We hear that God claims this one prerogative as his very own–to rule us by the authority and laws of his word….No man can take this to himself.  We ought, therefore, to acknowledge God as sole ruler of souls, with whom alone is the power to save and to destroy….If we duly weight this, that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God reserves for himself, we shall understand that the whole power of those who wish to advance themselves to command anything in the church apart from God’s Word is thus cut off.” (IV.10.7) 

There you have it–human authority cannot institute or command in the church anything that is not laid down already in God’s Word, because we have a “perfect rule” there, to which nothing must be added.  This is particularly the case for worship, as Paul argues 

“in the letter to the Colossians that we are not to seek from men the doctrine of the true worship of God, for the Lord has faithfully and fully instructed us how he is to be worshiped…at the end of the [2nd] chapter he condemns with greater confidence all self-made religion, that is, all feigned worship, which men have devised for themselves or received from others, and all precepts they of themselves dare promulgate concerning the worship of God.  We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.” (IV.10.8)

He cites proof of this principle from the Old Testament, and asks, 

“Why, then, should we not consider ourselves much more strictly forbidden to add anything to the law, prophets, psalms, and gospel?  The Lord, who long ago declared that nothing so much offended him as being worshipped by humanly devised rites, has not become untrue to himself.” (IV.10.17)

Finally, by section 23, the rhetoric has become quite sweeping indeed:

“[The Lord’s kingdom] is taken away whenever he is worshiped by laws of human devising, inasmuch as he wills to be accounted the sole lawgiver of his own worship….From this we gather that a part of the reverence that is paid to him consists simply in worshiping him as he commands, mingling no inventions of our own….I say further: although in some contrived worship impiety does not openly appear, it is still severely condemned by the Spirit, since it is a departure from God’s precept….We see how the Spirit loathes this insolence because the inventions of men in the worship of God are impure corruptions.  And the more clearly God’s will is revealed to us, the less excusable is our wantonness in attempting anything.” 

Well, there you have it, that’s the regulative principle.  No inventions of our own, worship God simply as he himself commands; to do anything else is sinful insolence; even if there is nothing sinful about the particular action of worship, it is sinful because it has not been commanded.  To be sure, it would be difficult to deny that the latter statements in particular (those in sections 17 and 23) amount almost to a full-blown statement of the regulative principle (though even here, Calvin is far from going to the Thornwellian extreme, which makes the principle to apply not merely in worship but in matters of order and procedure like denominational mission boards).  In the wider context of Calvin’s doctrine in IV.10, however, these statements appear as rhetorical exaggerations, which indeed is unsurprising, as Calvin is in this part of the chapter engaging in a polemic against the Roman Catholic innovations in worship, a context in which he is often prone to forget himself and get a bit carried away.  Indeed, rightly understood, even these stronger statements might harmonize with his overall teaching.  


And what is that teaching?  Well, Calvin is well aware that there will need to be rules laid down in the church for ceremonies (that is, forms of worship) and order, on human rather than Scriptural authority.  Like Hooker, Calvin recognizes that Scripture simply doesn’t speak comprehensively to many questions of worship and polity that might arise, and even when it does speak to them, its guidance may be relative to time and place.  This is spelled out most clearly in sections 27-32 of chapter 10, which I hope to get to in due course (though I have already touched on this in a recent post).  So Calvin does not believe, with VanDrunen, that Scripture can be the only guide in the visible Church.  But how does this fit with the quotes we’ve just seen?  A closer look at some of them, and at others from their context, will help illuminate what Calvin’s up to.


When we look at the first quote above, we must ask what is meant by “obligatory,” by saying that nothing can be made “obligatory” in the Church contrary to God’s word.  In fact, in section 8, Calvin tells us precisely how “to distinguish what human constittutions are contrary to the Lord’s Word.  All of these are of the sort that pretend to relate to the true worship of God, and that consciences are bound to keep, as if their observance were compulsory.”  

He says something similar in section 16:  

“But suppose, apart from present circumstances, you simply want to understand what are those human traditions of all times that shold be repudiated by the church and by all godly men.  What we have set forth above will be a sure and clear definition: that they are all laws apart from God’s Word, laws made by men, either to prescribe the manner of worshiping God or to bind consciences by scruples, as if they were making rules about things necessary for salvation.”

Ok, so we have the element of conscience-binding.  This is absolutely crucial for Calvin, was we shall see.  Presumably, then, constitutions which do not claim to bind the conscience (e.g., we kneel while praying) are permitted.  (We will look shortly at what precisely “conscience” means for Calvin.)  But he also gives another criterion–constitutions cannot be made that “pretend to relate to the true worship of God.”  Now what does this mean?  Kneeling while praying is part of worshipping God, right?  So can we not make rules about it

Another passsage quoted above may shed some light: “We therefore consider impious all constitutions in whose observance the worship of God is feigned to consist.”  This last clause gives us a clue as to what’s going on here.  The problem is not rules about anything whatsoever relating to outward worship, but rules that purport to specify wherein consists the essence of worship–understood not in its horizontal dimension (the corporate actions of the congregation) but in its vertical dimension (that which is pleasing to God, that which establishes and maintains our salvific relationship to him).  It’s not that you can’t make rules saying, “we will all kneel to pray” but you can’t make rules saying, “unless you kneel, it’s not prayer,” you can’t make rules defining, from a God’s-eye perspective, what worship is and isn’t.  Understood this way, the criterion about worship serves simply as a specification and elaboration of the overriding criterion about not “binding the conscience” and not making things “necessary to salvation”–only God’s word can bind the conscience and only God’s word can tell us what’s necessary for salvation, so only God’s word can tell us wherein consists the essence of true worship.  The terminology is misleading at times, to be sure, but this reading fits the structure of Calvin’s discussion in the Institutes, in which the overriding concern is “binding the conscience”; read otherwise, the insistence that worship must follow Scripture alone, in some regulative principle fashion, would sit quite awkwardly with Calvin’s insistence on flexibility in all matters not necessary to salvation–unless, of course, you made every aspect of worship necessary to salvation.  

Finally, this way of reading Calvin’s remarks on worship is confirmed by its context in an attack on papal traditions, traditions of which “the authors themselves define, in clear terms, that the veriest worship of God is, so to speak, contained in these very constitutions” (IV.10.9).  The problem is that they lead “one man to despise, judge, and cast out another because of what are trivial and (in God’s sight) indifferent matters” (IV.10.10).  Note the difference here from the likes of VanDrunen and Thornwell.  For them, the traditions of Catholic worship that Calvin here discusses are not indifferent–because they are not commanded in Scripture, they are wrong.  But for Calvin, in principle, they are indifferent (well, many of them at any rate; others, idolatrous ones, are flat forbidden by Scripture), and the problem is that the Catholics have made them essential, have feigned that in them the true worship of God consists.  Again, it cannot be doubted that in parts of chapter 10, Calvin’s rhetoric against these veers toward the sort of regulativism we see in later Puritanism, but it seems clear that this rhetoric does not square with his overall doctrine of Christian liberty.


To get a clearer idea of what this overall doctrine is, let’s look more carefully at his definition of conscience, since Christian liberty consists above all in the inability of conscience to be bound by human constitutions.  Calvin recognizes that confusions at this point are certain to crop up (as they certainly did for those who claimed to follow him) if we “do not sharply enough distinguish the outer forum, as it is called, and the forum of the conscience.”  So he defines conscience for us: “it is a certain mean between God and man…[an] awareness which hales man before God’s judgment” (III.19.15).  

“Therefore, as works have regard to men, so conscience refers to God.  A good conscience, then, is nothing but inward integrity of heart….properly speaking, as I have already said, it has respect to God alone….Hence it comes about that a law is said to bind the conscience when it simply binds a man without regard to other men, or without taking them into account”–that is, laws that would be morally binding even if no other man lived on earth (III.19.16).  

Conscience then refers strictly to the relationship between the individual soul and God; not to the relationship between the individual and other human beings.  Not, of course, that the two aren’t connected in important ways (which brings up all sorts of fascinating new layers to this doctrine), but they are distinct.  Christian liberty means in indifferent things–things not necessary to salvation–that human laws must only bind in the “outward forum,” in terms of the relationships between man and God.  They cannot presume to intrude on the relationship between man and God, and give or take away our standing in the sight of God.  

What this means is that we can, in fact, be outwardly bound in indifferent things, without our inward freedom being thereby compromised.  For instance, by the need not to offend a brother: “For we ought to abstain from anything that might cause offense, but with a free conscience….But however necessary it may be with respect to his brother for him to abstain from it, as God enjoins, he still does not cease to keep freedom of conscience.  We see how this law, while binding outward actions, leaves the conscience free” (III.19.16).  Later he says, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience” (IV.10.5).  

Christian liberty does not, therefore, mean that individuals are set completely free vis-a-vis the visible Church, or vis-a-vis civil authority.  Inasmuch as rules made by these bodies pertain to the outward forum, Christians will be bound to obey; and when we are talking about indifferent things, there will be no reason why these bodies cannot make rules one way or another.  What Christian liberty means is that individuals are set free in the realm of conscience, from fearing that their actions in things indifferent necessarily affect their relationship to God.  


This, then, is the proper two-kingdoms distinction that Calvin derives from his doctrine of Christian liberty, a distinction that bears almost no resemblance to that which VanDrunen attributes to him.  He has just said, in III.19.14, that in indifferent things, “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them”; otherwise, conscience is threatened by superstition.  Therefore “we conclude that they [believers’ consciences] are to be released from the power of all men.”  But he immediately recognizes that some will understand this to mean that “all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down.”  Far from it.  For, in Calvin’s famous statement, “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority….Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching on spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outward government, to human laws, because their consciences have been set free in God’s sight; as if they were released from all bodily servitude because they are free according to the spirit” (III.19.15).  By “political order” it is clear that we are not to understand merely “civil government,” “the State” or anything of that sort, but a synonym of “outward government” and “human laws”–in short, what Calvin then goes on to call the “external forum” as contrasted to the “internal forum” of conscience–the domain of the spiritual kingdom.  

The nature of this distinction thus means that what we have are not two different spatial spheres of action, so that some actions belong to the civil kingdom (e.g., paying your taxes, executing murderers) and some to the spiritual kingdom (going to church, caring for the poor), but two different modes of action, or we might say two different planes or dimensions, so that an action is simultaneously in the spiritual kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before God, and in the civil kingdom, inasmuch as we do it before man.  This is why our Christian freedom can express itself even in a complete outward bondage–we are no less free, Calvin says, if we abstain from meat for our entire lives because of the weakness of our brother–”Indeed, because they are free, they abstain with a free conscience” (III.19.10)  In this, Calvin is following some of Luther’s finest passages in On the Freedom of a Christian Man.  


Because, however, these two kingdoms exist side-by-side, simultaneously, the freedom of the conscience and the bondage of inward action unavoidably “interpenetrate,” we might say, at key points.  My conscience (the internal forum) does demand that I treat my brother in a certain way in the external forum; my response to laws made in the external forum, inasmuch as God has given me commands to be subject to such laws, do affect the internal forum.  I hope in a further post to explore the rich complexities of this relationship which leave Calvin’s paradigm in a state of creative tension–a tension which unfortunately proved quite difficult to sustain for his followers.  (I say, “I hope,” however, because the demands of putting out a roughly-finished product of this chapter for my supervisor might have to take precedence over the leisurely business of piecing it together bit-by-bit here, as I did for “Hooker’s Doctrine of Law.”) 

Libyan Hypocrisies

Has anyone else noticed the odd double-standard that has characterized the media’s reporting on Libya, and even more so the politicians’ spin on events there?  

When the rebels tell chilling stories about how Gaddafi is mercilessly killing civilians, they are presented as hard fact–or rather soft, stretchy fact, that can be inflated like a balloon from “scores” to “hundreds” to “thousands.”  But when the Libyan government alleges that coalition bombs are killing civilians, these are immediately qualified with “these reports cannot be verified”; the media then hastens to raise doubts about these “allegations,” and ends by dismissing them as propaganda.

When people rose up and demonstrated against Gaddafi, no doubts were raised about their sincerity or their motives, or their numbers.  We were encouraged to believe that they were merely the tip of the iceberg, a few of untold masses who were ready to rise up and be rid of him.  But when people have taken to the streets demonstrating in favor of Gaddafi, we are first encouraged to think that they have merely been bribed, and when this argument stops working, we are reminded that there are hundreds of thousands more that did not take to the streets, and we can only assume that it is because they hate Gaddafi and are too afraid to say so.  

When the Arab League calls for a no-fly zone and invites the UN to intervene, we are told that this is absolutely crucial, that the Arab League is very important and lends legitimacy to the whole operation, that without the Arab League’s request for action, action would probably not be taken.  But as soon as the Arab League says, “Whoa, wait a minute!” and calls for a halt of coalition attacks, everyone is hastening to explain why the Arab League is unimportant, can’t be taken seriously, and can be safely ignored.

When Gaddafi makes absurd speeches and accusations, as he is wont to do, we are told that he is a lunatic and should not be listened to or believed.  But when he makes a fiery speech about how the rebels will be shown “no mercy,” but will be hunted “house to house,” then immediately these words are trumpeted far and wide, and we are urged to take them literally and with absolute seriousness, as proof that hundreds of thousands will die if we don’t intervene right away.  Worst of all, in almost every report, speech, and opinion column, a crucial caveat of Gaddafi’ threat is left out–those who continue to resist will be shown no mercy; those who surrender will be shown amnesty.  

In other words, it was precisely not civilians that he was threatening to kill, but armed rebels who continued to resist by arms.  And this is a very different matter.  Most countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders seeking to overthrow the government–that doesn’t make it right, of course, but we cannot simply call it “genocide,” as some of the more sensationalist attacks on Gaddafi have.  Indeed, many countries reserve the right to kill armed rebels within their borders who are seeking merely to secede and mind their own affairs, leaving the main government entirely alone.  Pat Buchanan pointed out the hypocrisy quite brilliantly in an editorial yesterday, 


Indeed, Gadhafi has asked of Obama, “If you found them taking over American cities by force of arms, what would you do?”

Well, when the South fired on Fort Sumter, killing no one, Abraham Lincoln blockaded every Southern port, sent Gen. Sherman to burn Atlanta and pillage Georgia and South Carolina, and Gen. Sheridan to ravage the Shenandoah. He locked up editors and shut down legislatures and fought a four-year war of reconquest that killed 620,000 Americans — a few more than have died in Gadhafi’s four-week war.

Good thing we didn’t have an “international community” back then.

The Royal Navy would have been bombarding Lincoln’s America.

Of course, it may well be that Gaddafi would’ve killed civilians anyway…certainly such an assault would have entailed many civilian deaths, intended or not.  Quite possibly, his promises of amnesty could not be trusted. Perhaps he was not merely out to vanquish rebels, but to indulge in a bloodthirsty taste for massacre.  Perhaps peace negotiations were not an option, because he was hell-bent on wanton destruction.  But if so, this should be argued for, not merely assumed.  One of the Western media’s favorite tactics is to demonize our enemies–to paint them as irrational, bestial, possessed of no shred of human feeling.  This tactic obviates any need for dialogue or diplomacy–any calls for such can be dismissed as absurd, because, “Such people simply cannot be reasoned with.”  We know a priori that they are bestial, and so are entitled to treat them as such, and to assume the worst of all their actions.  


As Christians, however, we are called to believe that love is stronger than hate, that no one is past redemption; rather than making our enemy sub-human, separated from us by an unbridgeable chasm, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of the murderer and the oppressor, because Christ made himself one of us when we were murderers and oppressors.


And this, by the way, is why I am so distressed at what is happening.  I have been a bit taken aback in the last couple days to find that my vociferous opposition to the intervention is shared by many of the arch-conservatives back home that I almost never see eye-to-eye with.  But while they may rant against the war because Obama started it, and everything he does is evil, or because it was “unconstitutional” or, worst of all (but most frequent of all), because it is not clear to them how it “serves American interests,” that is not why we must oppose it.  I’m all for helping the oppressed, not American interests.  But will this help the oppressed?  Not if it is founded on deception, as it seems to be.  Not if it shows no love of enemy, no interest in reconciliation.  Not if it is has no clear objectives or victory strategy.  In short, we must oppose it because it has given no clear evidence of being in any way a just war.  I hope in a post this weekend to analyze the conflict rigorously in terms of traditional just war criteria, to show just how seriously it falls short.


(Thanks to Nick Needham for the Buchanan link; and here are a few more for thought-provoking further reading: http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/749765http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/22/libya-conflict-aimshttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/world/africa/22tripoli.html?_r=1&hphttp://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/22/libya-no-fly-zone-united-nationshttp://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110321-libya-west-narrative-democracy)



Was Calvin OK with Women Preaching?

Well, to be honest, probably not in practice.  But remarkably, he seems to be in principle.  As I was researching Calvin’s doctrine of Christian liberty, I came across a curious couple of little passages.

In Book IV, chapter 10, having finished his attack on human traditions in the Church, he turns in sections 27 and 28 to argue that this is not to do away with any human constitutions in the Church–only those which try to bind the conscience before God.  Of course rules of ceremonies and of good order must be established, and should be respected.  Such rules are by nature changeable according to circumstances–as over against things in the realm of conscience, which concern the unchangeable fundamentals of the faith.  Here, in other words, we find Calvin occupying similar ground as Hooker.  

He proceeds in section 29 to delineate two types of such lawful constitutions–those that conduce to reverence in ceremonies, and those that conduce to order in discipline.  Of the former kind are things like women’s head-coverings and postures in prayer.  Of the latter kind, he says, “are the hours set for public prayers, sermons and sacraments.  At sermons there are quiet and silence, appointed places, the singing together of hymns, fixed days for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the fact that Paul forbids women to teach in the Church [1 Cor. 14:34], and the like.”  Hm, now that’s curious.  Most of the items on this list are clearly matters of flexibility and discretion, matters in which the Church has to make some rules, but in which it doesn’t matter so much what the particular rules are.  

He confirms that these are matters of some flexibility in section 31: “Similarly, the days themselves, the hours, the structure of the places of worship, what psalms are to be sung on what days, are matters of no importance.  But it is convenient to have definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all, if there is any concern for the preservation of peace.”  

Therefore, even when such rules are present, individual believers are free to dispense with them where circumstances dictate and good order is not thereby destroyed: “Does religion consist in a woman’s shawl, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with a bare head?  Is that decree of Paul’s concerning silence [of women in the churches] so holy that it cannot be broken without great offense?  Is there in bending the knee…any holy rite that cannot be neglected without offense?  Not at all.  For if a woman needs such haste to help a neighbor that she cannot stop to cover her head, she does not offend if she runs to her with head uncovered.  And there is a place where it is no less proper for her to speak [in the church] than elsewhere to remain silent.  Also, nothing prohibits a man who cannot bend his knees because of disease from standing to pray.”

In short, a restriction on women preaching seems for Calvin not to have been a rule of essential faith and worship, but a rule of good order introduced by Paul for his context (and no doubt one that Calvin would’ve wanted to retain for his own context as well).


(Needless to say, I’m not making any argument of my own here…I merely found Calvin’s position striking.  And if I have misunderstood it, please correct me.)


**Edit** When I found this in Calvin, I thought I remembered seeing it somewhere else, but couldn’t remember where.  Now I just found it again–the same assumption is made by the pastors of Hamburg, Germany, in a letter they wrote (“De Rebus Adiaphoris”) to Melanchthon at the height of the Adiaphora Controversy (more on this controversy in a forthcoming post).  Under the heading of “real Adiaphora, that is to say, those observances, which God has neither commanded nor forbidden, but left free to the Church for its own edification, according to the condition and convenience of places, times and persons” they include such things as ” that men should pray with their heads uncovered, the women with theirs veiled; that men should teach in the Church, not women; that prayers, teaching, chaunting should be on stated days and at fixed hours; that the people should assemble for divine service at the sound of the bell…”

That is even more explicit than Calvin about the relativity and changeability of such an ordinance.  If this is what the Reformers thought, then when did it change?  Was it all part of the legalism of the regulative principle that the Puritans smuggled in?  Curious indeed. **End edit**

Bombs over Benghazi

I concluded my post on Thursday by reflecting that we had no right to blame God for the deaths of tens of thousands in Japan’s tsunami as long as we went around screwing up the world in manifest acts of evil on our own account.  Alas, I had no idea those words would prove so immediately relevant.  On Friday, following a frenetic month-long media blitz to convince us that Gaddafi was an evil war criminal exterminating his own people and must be stopped, the US, Britain, and France achieved their ambition–a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire or else our militaries would act to impose a “no-fly zone” in Libya to prevent airstrikes on civilians.  The cease-fire was immediately announced, but somehow two days later here we are not merely having established a no-fly zone, but having proceeded immediately to bombing soldiers, convoys, and according to many reports, plenty of civilians of our own. 

How on earth could we be pulled into this madness again so easily?  With the bitter taste of the Great Iraq Deception and its disastrous effects still in the mouths of the UK and US public, with the memory of the shameless propaganda that led up to it and our shameful capitulation to it still so fresh, how could we possibly let this happen again?  Back then, I was young and stupid, and I bought the warmongering hook, line, and sinker…now I know it what it must’ve felt like for the few who kept their senses back then and watched as the godlessness unfolded around them–angry, confused, helpless.


I had hoped that the one good effect of this disaster in Japan would be that the 24/7 media propaganda bombardment about Libya would let up, our focus would shift temporarily to a clear-cut humanitarian disaster, and we would then be able to reassess the Libyan situation with fresh eyes, and ears that were not deafened by the warmongering shouts.  But amazingly, even with whole cities leveled and a historic nuclear disaster, the distraction of Japan managed to last less than a week.  Within a few days, the Western leaders had regrouped from the public-relations setback and managed to force Libya back onto centre-stage, supplanting a massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in broad daylight in desperate need of aid resources with one as yet almost entirely undocumented.  

In the days and weeks leading up to the UN decision, all we heard about, it seemed, was a “no-fly zone” that would be established–patrolling Libya’s airspace, and bombing its airfields if necessary.  I wondered how this was going to do anything more than drag out the conflict a few extra days, since most of Libya’s strength lay in its ground forces, and apparently the Western leaders thought so too.  The “no-fly zone,” it seems, was a red herring all along; the resolution surreptitiously inserted the ominous “by all means necessary” clause and within 24 hours, the action escalated beyond a no-fly zone to full-scale war, and infliction of mass casualties–bombing convoys, etc.

Even the Arab League, which had lobbied so strongly for intervention, was appalled, with its president Amr Moussa immediately denouncing the violence that had been unleashed, saying, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”  If even one of the leaders calling for an attack was as taken aback at the scale of it as I was, this suggests deliberate deception of Western citizens by their leaders about what was being contemplated.  

It’s sadly ironic that this intervention is being done in the name of freedom and democracy, when a crucial pillar of democracy is the ability of citizens to take part in key decision-making, such as the declaration of war, and that democratic process has been entirely bypassed in this situation.  We have effectively declared war on Libya, and yet the American people were in no way consulted, nor the British.  This decision was made by politicians and diplomats behind closed doors, and authorized by a body that cannot boast a shred of democratic election.  Who are the real dictators in this story?


Perhaps the story we’ve been hearing is all true, perhaps a slaughter of epic proportions would’ve unfolded if we haven’t intervened, perhaps this is all urgently necessary, and has been carefully and wisely considered (certainly I appreciate that for once the US was dragging its heels rather than pounding the war-drum, at least until late last week).  But I just cannot feel confident that we are the shining white knights of this story. While avoiding conspiracy theory explanations (although this is one situation where such explanations are disturbingly plausible), I want to raise a few pointed questions about the official narrative:  


 1. Is Gaddafi really a brutal dictator, hated by his people?

While I’m not wanting to suggest that Gaddafi is Santa Clause or anything, he hardly seems to be a murderous fiend like many of the dictators we’ve seen in the 20th century.  Such fiends, for one thing, rarely manage to stay in power for 43 years.  Such fiends rarely govern countries with the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes, and the lowest poverty rates in their region, as Gaddafi does.  Libya, for all its unfreedoms, is certainly not quite the dystopia that it’s been painted as.  And the fact that thousands of Libyans have been spontaneously showing their support for the regime in the last month, and even now many are tweeting their support for Gaddafi, testifies to the fact that many, at least, consider him a good leader.  Indeed, in recent years, the Western powers had warmed up to Gaddafi, acknowledging that the worst of his human rights abuses were well behind him.  All that seems forgotten now, and the media has painted this as a situation of universal opposition to a bloodthirsty tyrant, who is clinging to power only by brute force, with the aid of mercenaries and the secret police.  But the facts on the ground simply don’t seem to bear that out.  If he was that bad, one would have expected the protests to become more and more insistent and universal, gathering momentum until the regime crumbled, as in Egypt and Tunisia.  Instead, resistance has seemed to center on a specific group of armed rebels, rather than mass civilian protests.  What we seem clearly to have here is a situation of genuine internal division over what’s best for Libya–Gaddafi or the rebels–not a situation of a lone tyrant massacring innocent protesters.  And if it is the former, rather than the latter, outside intervention is much more dangerous, both morally and practically.  


2. How much was he really murdering civilians?

The claim that Gaddafi was targeting and killing civilians has been repeated over and over, more and more shrilly and dramatically, until we’ve heard rhetoric like “Gaddafi is exterminating his own people.”  But the evidence for it has remained quite slim indeed.  Very little has even been brought forward, much less verified.  The key allegation that the West has made has centered on Gaddafi’s use of aircraft to bomb the opposition–even this is not clearly an attack on “civilians,” since the opposition are very much armed.  But Russian sources contested even this claim, insisting that they had no evidence for the airstrikes alleged.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies have acknowledged that Gaddafi is in fact probably taking careful pains not to kill civilians.  He may well be–don’t get me wrong.  I’d just like to see some much more careful and objective documentation.  


3. Why intervene in Libya, specfically?

Let’s assume the worst–a tyrannical regime, determined to cling to power, massacring unarmed civilians.  Hm…you mean like the one in Bahrain, where they’ve called in military assistance from neighboring countries to use against their own people?  Or the one in Yemen, where they massacred dozens of unarmed protesters on Friday?  What’s so different about those two countries, that they get off scot-free, and Libya becomes the focus of a non-stop international outcry, followed by a bombing campaign?  The main difference seems to be that Bahrain and Yemen are crucial US allies, while Gaddafi has been a thorn in the West’s side for years (and not always as the bad guy, either).  

Or how about the massacres going on in the Ivory Coast over the past couple weeks?  Or did you even know they happened?  For whatever reason, the Western media doesn’t care about the Ivory Coast.  And that’s because Western leaders don’t care about the Ivory Coast.  Or to push it back, how about the Congo or Rwanda?  Millions of innocent civilians were raped and murdered, and we stood by and did nothing, and did our best to turn a blind eye to it all?  If all we care about is really protecting civilians, how come only civilians on top of oil fields owned by US enemies seem valuable enough to protect?  Again, perhaps this is necessary, but I’d like a clear explanation of why such a double-standard is appropriate.


 4. What’s up with this cease-fire?

Is it just me or did the Libyans not immediately acquiesce to the international demand for a cease-fire?  There were reports Saturday morning that they’d violated it–that an opposition plane had been shot down over Benghazi or something.  But if they announced a cease-fire, isn’t it worth taking a couple days and doing some careful observation and investigation to see if they’re keeping their word?  As it was, the bombing plans simply went right ahead as if they’d just decided to give the UN the finger.  Then, this evening, another cease-fire was announced.  Without any pause whatsoever to see if it was for real, to see if Gaddafi was going to make good on it, we continued bombing.  This seems to me a direct violation of the laws of war.  If someone raises the white flag, you quit shooting.  If they then then grab a hand grenade and start to lob it at you anyway, that’s another matter, but you have a duty to at least give them a chance.


5. Do the rebels even want help?

I’ve read some articles, and some tweets coming out of Libya, suggesting that even those in the rebellion, even those who hate the regime, want the West to stay out of it.  Either they don’t trust the West (who can blame them?) or else they just want to do it on their own.  Presumably they feel like a losing basketball team, that would rather lose if they can’t miraculously win on their own, rather than having a thug go into the opposing team’s locker room at half-time and break all their shins.  There may be situations where intervention is ethically justified even when unasked for, but they are few and fraught with political and practical dangers.  


6. So why might this be happening?

All of this just doesn’t add up.  One doesn’t have to be a cynic or a conspiracy theorist to suspect ulterior motives from Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, et. al.  So what might they be?  Three suggest themselves–here they are in order from most cynical to least cynical: a) Oil.  Whatever you think about Iraq, one can’t deny that oil seems to be awfully mixed up in a lot of the Western military and diplomatic aggression over recent decades.  Libya is a huge oil producer, and Gaddafi’s policies keep a lot of the oil money within the country, through the National Oil Corporation.  That’s part of the reason for the very low poverty in Libya.  But it’s also a reason for ExxonMobil, BP, Total, and the politicians they have in their pockets to really dislike Gaddafi.  I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.  b) Quelling Arab protests.  It has been jolly inconvenient for Washington in recent months that Arabs throughout the Middle East have decided to start listening to all our rhetoric about freedom and democracy and have employed it against leaders who were loyal allies of Washington, however brutal they might’ve been to their own people.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, the West has been unable to intervene to prop up ailing dictator-allies.  How does Libya help?  Well, if the West can be seen coming in on the side of rebels to take down a dictator, suddenly all the freedom-fighting ceases to be an anti-Western gesture, as it has been in several cases.  The Arab citizens can’t think of their rebellions as knocking down Western puppets–they’ll be afraid they’re just going to be used as Western puppets themselves.  Takes some of the wind out of their sails.  c) Declining popularity.  This is the most likely part of the explanation, though it may well not be the whole explanation.  Military intervention, especially against supposed tyrants, is a guaranteed way to shift public attention away from problems at home and to make maligned leaders look tough, decisive, and morally passionate.  David Cameron, who has been under more fire than any of the major leaders in recent months as Britain has suffered from devastating (though perhaps necessary) budget cuts, was in a similar position to Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War.  He may have recalled just how much that war helped her popularity and helped her push through her economic agenda, and decided that another war might be just the trick.  Obama, too, would be merely one in a long line of American presidents who have used foreign military adventures to distract from economic malaise at home and reverse declining approval ratings (Andrew Bacevich has been particularly keen on identifying this pattern in his books).  It can only be hoped that this ill-conceived crusade will backfire and bring public ire down on these snakes.  I can certainly attest that it has destroyed my respect for both Cameron and Obama, both of whom I’ve many times attempted to defend against their detractors.  


I may be proved wrong in all this.  It may well be that this intervention is completely necessary, completely well-intentioned, and completely effective.  Indeed, I pray that I will be proved wrong.  But the signs sure don’t look good so far.

(Note: I’ll try to edit this post later and insert some links to a few of the stories I’ve been reading.  For now, this article by Owen Jones is well-worth looking at, as are this discussion on CNN and this article from the BBC).