O’Donovan on the Fifth Commandment

In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment.  It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.

“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’  It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake.  The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them.  This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain.  The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once.  The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on.  Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’  No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations.  By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”

If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates.  However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch.  Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”

Documentary Roundup #1: Inside Job

In the last few weeks, my wife and I have gone on something of a documentary binge.  While there are of course wonderful documentaries about all sorts of things, the ones that I really get into are usually the hard-hitting exposes of political or economic deception that is being perpetrated upon us (e.g., Food Inc., perhaps my all-time favorite documentary).  All four of the documentaries that we watched recently (Inside Job, The High Cost of Low Price, Super Size Me, and The War You Don’t See) fit that description, so in the next three posts I will be accordingly evaluating them on three different criteria.  First, message: what is the point they are trying to put across?  How are they trying to change the world for the better?  Is it an important, morally pressing, and coherent message?  Second, content/compellingness of argument: how well do they succeed in accomplishing their agenda?  Is their argument clear, do they bring relevant and compelling information to the table?  Is their evidence strong enough, and their answers to objections forceful enough, to persuade a skeptic?  Third, cinematography: is it a well-made film, enjoyable to watch?  Under this heading fall all the film rudiments–good script and organization, arresting visuals, good sound quality.

For good measure, I’ll also throw in a docu-drama that we watched in the last few weeks, that is of historical, not political or economic interest–KJB: The Book that Changed the World.

Inside Job (2010) 

 Directed by Charles Ferguson 

Message: 5/5
Content/Compellingness of Argument: 4.5/5
Cinematography: 5/5

This movie didn’t win an Oscar for nothing.  Powerful and urgent message, engrossing narrative, visually beautiful, and some truly delightful moments of interviewees writhing under the camera.  Inside Job investigates the anatomy of the 2008 financial crisis, and comes away with a damning conclusion: the major financial actors involved rigged the system so that they would make money hand over fist, come what may.  The major government actors involved aided and abetted their fraud because they were largely themselves financial industry insiders, and/or were driven by blind faith in a deregulatory ideology.  Worst of all, despite all of the public outrage after the financial crisis, almost nothing has changed.  The same financial entities dominate Wall Street, only now more monopolistic than ever, and those who made millions (or hundreds of millions) at others’ expense in the lead-up to the crisis still by and large retain their immense fortunes.  The so-called “financial reform” bill ended up changing next to nothing, and all of the new appointments in the Obama administration are every bit as much the corrupt industry insiders that dominated the previous two administrations.  As my dad put it, “the most left-wing candidate that could possibly get elected in the US today ran on an explicitly anti-Wall-Street platform, and still nothing changed.  Now that’s scary.”  

The best part of the film is how Ferguson manages to elicit some remarkably defensive or idiotic reactions from some of the people he is interviewing, putting them in the hotseat and mercifully pressing his advantage to expose their duplicity.  Frederic Mishkin and Glenn Hubbard (professor and dean of Columbia Business School, respectively), may not ever be able to show their faces in public again.  For Ferguson draws attention to the corruption that has infested the discipline of economics itself, in which supposedly objective economics professors are paid staggering sums (which they are not required to disclose) by the entities that they are supposed to be writing reports on (e.g., Mishkin being paid over $120,000 by Iceland to write a report on the financial stability of Iceland).  

Two objections might be made, which explain the 4.5 stars on Content/Compellingness of Argument.  In order not to waste too much time on the actual unfolding of and resolution of the crisis in late 2008 and early 2009, so that he can focus on the more insidious lead-up and aftermath, Ferguson tends to rather dramatically oversimplify what went wrong and, more importantly, what went wrong with the immediate political responses, like TARP.  This oversimplification may well leave an escape route for those who refuse to accept the basic contention of the film and blame the crisis, say, on too much government intervention.

The second concerns the crucifying of Mishkin, Hubbard, et. al., and is so well-summarized on this law blog (well worth reading) that I will simply quote the objection from there: 

Ferguson, however, essentially leaves it at that: Summers, Hubbard, and others have made millions by being shills for Wall Street, which must explain why they did it. That is simply wrong. I cannot imagine that either of those men wrote what they wrote to become rich, or that they continued to write such things after having been seduced by the riches of Wall Street. They are true believers whose arguments are congenial to Wall Street. Becoming rich was incidental to their career paths. They sought career success in top-flight economics departments, and the rest fell into place.

The better question, therefore, is how it has come to pass that the economics profession is dominated by men (and it is still very much a boys’ club) who believe such nonsense. Some of these guys still think that there was no bubble — that the financial crisis was actually a rational, equilibrium response to economic fundamentals. And even those who will not say anything quite that crazy publicly are still unfazed by the manifest failures of their ideology.”

This last remark points to the most troubling thing that the movie reveals–the impenitence of all those complicit in this crisis.  It would be hard to imagine a bigger wake-up call than the financial crisis of 2008–a more serious meltdown is scarcely imaginable (it’s worth remembering that the fact that impacts were not considerably more severe was due only to massive and repeated emergency action).  If there was anything that could convince bankers, politicians, economists that something was wrong with their paradigm and their actions, it would be the 2008 crisis, right?  Yet hardly any seem to have learned their lesson.  Few if any of the major bankers have admitted any wrongdoing, nor have Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, or any of the other Wall Street stooges in Washington admitted that they completely screwed up.  Most economists continue to preach the same orthodoxy.  

And, worst of all, the American people have quickly forgotten their grudge, and moved on to new scapegoats…it took little less than a year for Republicans to make Obamacare, rather than Goldman Sachs, Public Enemy No. 1.


So, go see this movie.  And then go do something about this appalling situation, if it’s not too late.

Less is More

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been doing such much-needed blog renovations upon the principle, “Less is more.”  

You will see the fruits of this pruning in at least three significant places.  
1) The Tag Cloud.  Many of you may have noticed that in recent months the tag cloud has swollen to unmanageable proportions.  If it was still a cloud, it was undoubtedly a cumulonimbus, and probably one with large hail to boot.  I’ve cut it back down to a modest cumulus cloud by only displaying tags that have been used three times or more.  While this has the unsatisfying result of further marginalizing the already marginalized, whisking neglected topics entirely out of sight, it’s the best solution I have at present.  

2) The “Resources” page.  When I set this blog up, I set up a page called “Links, Library, and More,” called just “Resources in the header bar.  This was a cool idea, supposed to include an extensive list of websites and books on important issues that occupied my reflections, so that if, for instance, you wanted to learn more about economic ethics than just my own opinion here, you would know some good places to look.  Unfortunately, I never found time to get this page more than half-complete, if that.  While I still hope to finalize it at some point, it seems better for now to display no page than a lame, incomplete page.

3) The “Writings” page.  I was planning to stop making all the papers on this page directly downloadable, and make them downloadable only upon request; however, this proved too difficult from a logistical point of view, so they are all still downloadable.  But I have removed any papers that I thought were mediocre or else just so quirky and idiosyncratic as to be confusing to anyone outside the NSA Master’s program (which, as it consisted of five students at most, would be pretty much everyone).  If for any reason you still want them, then just email me.  I have also updated all the other stuff on this page.

Additionally, you will find various minor changes to the sidebars, some of which have been reshuffled for symmetry and updated where outdated, and minor updates on the Projects page.  I hope that all these renovations will ensure that you have a pleasant stay at the Sword and the Ploughshare, and come back to see us again soon. 😉

Luther on Women in the Ministry

In his fine book The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, P.D.L. Avis includes an interesting discussion of Luther’s view on women’s ordination. For Luther, this is based on the cornerstone Protestant doctrine of the universal priesthood, or the “priesthood of all believers.”  Says Avis,

“There is no need to point out that women share equally with men in the universal priesthood; they too partake of the royal priesthood that Christ imparts to his people.  Luther supports this from the common practice of women administering baptism: ‘When women baptise, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately and do it not as a private act but as a part of the public ministry of the Church which belongs only to the universal priesthood.’  ‘A woman can baptise and administer the word of life by which sin is taken away, eternal death abolished, the prince of this world cast out, heaven bestowed; in short, by which the divine majesty pours itself forth through all the soul.’  When Luther grants women the power to administer baptism, he recognises that this carries with it all other priestly functions for, according to Luther, the sacrament of baptism includes the ministry of the word and is, moreover, superior to other priestly offices….There is then no suggestion in Luther’s thought that women are somehow incapable of bearing the priestly ‘character.'”

Luther did, however, still exclude women from the regular ministry, but this apparent inconsistency would seem to make sense in light of his “two regiments” doctrine–for the regular ordained ministry of the Church was understood as a matter of good order and expedience for the Church, an outward and, one could say, a “political” matter.  Still important, but not of the essence of the Church, in which all were equally priests to one another.  

Naturally, Luther thought that good order would not be served by “unqualified persons” such as women filling such a role in the Church.  But Avis observes that this means that women’s ordination is ruled out not on theological grounds, but pragmatic grounds.  “The logic of Luther’s overall position in fact dictates that the question of whether women should be ordained to the ministry should be answered purely in terms of social expediency.  They could not be denied the essential priesthood, but in the light of the sixteenth-century social structure they would inevitably have been regarded as ‘unqualified persons’ to exercise any public office, not only in the Church but in society at large.”


Of course, it is worth noting that few of the other Reformers followed Luther in his particularly radical version of the priesthood of all believers, and sought to articulate a more conservative position on the spiritual significance of ordained ministry, meaning a stronger stance on the issue of women’s ordination.  Calvin and the Puritans, for example, were to forcefully deny the right of women to baptize–one of the many hot-button issues in the protracted prayer book wars in the young Church of England.  (How this passing remark by Avis fits with this odd statement by Calvin that I blogged a couple months ago, I’m not yet sure.)

Worms or Gods? Hooker, Rushdoony, and the Creator/Creature Distinction

A friend of mine, Robin Phillips, recently emailed me an amusing excerpt from Rousas John Rushdoony, accusing my beloved Hooker of being nothing less than an Arian!  Rationalist I’ve heard, bootlicker of the powers that be, I’ve heard, but Arian?  The particular passage he alleged (which I will get to in a moment) was willfully and absurdly misread, but the broader accusation was quite revealing:

Having introduced man into the Godhead, Hooker plainly made man God’s associate in the government of all things. Thus, the British monarchy now had indeed a divine right of amazing dimensions….It is not surprising that the British monarchs loved their Mr. Hooker! Hooker introduced man into the Godhead, subordinated British subjects firmly to an absolute monarch on religious grounds, and saw the monarchy, and the English church-state as a divine order.

Now, let’s leave aside for a moment the complete incomprehension of Hooker’s political thought that this displays, and look closely at that first sentence.  Here, I think, Rushdoony has read Hooker right.  But the problem is that Hooker has read the Bible right.  Man has been introduced into the Godhead; man has been made God’s associate in the government of all things.  If that’s not what the doctrine of the Incarnation and Ascension teach us, then what does it teach?  Isn’t that what Phillippians 2:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 are all about?  The astounding wonder of the Gospel is not merely that God came down to be among men, but that God then brought man up to be among God; that is what we especially celebrate now during the Feast of the Ascension.  God was not content to bring us from death to life, for us to forever adore him for his mercy, but he does incredibly more–he brings us from lowliness to lordship, from powerlessness to power.  

And this is where the favorite Calvinist mantra–the “Creator-creature distinction”–breaks down, because God himself broke it down.  Creator became creature, and then brought creature up to share in the glory and the dominion that is proper only to the Creator; Christ as man rules over all, and we share with him in that glory, we in him are brought up to the heavenly places.  I know little of Rushdoony’s work, but I would surmise that is it no coincidence that Rushdoony can’t stand Hooker at this point, because this is precisely the point where Hooker critiques the whole Puritan tradition of which Rushdoony is an heir–for thinking that God can only be exalted at man’s expense.


Before fleshing that out, let me go back and make sure Hooker is adequately defended against the particular charges that Rushdoony brings.  This is the passage that he alleges as evidence of Arianism

“Seeing therefore the Father alone is originally that Deity which Christ originally is not (for Christ is God by being of God, light by issuing out of light,) it followeth hereupon that whatsoever Christ hath common unto him with his heavenly Father, the same of necessity must be given him, but naturally and eternally given, not bestowed by way of benevolence and favour, as the other gifts both are. And therefore where the Fathers give it out for a rule, l that whatsoever Christ is said in Scripture to have received, the same we ought to apply only to the manhood of Christ; their assertion is true of all things which Christ hath received by grace, but to that which he hath received of the Father by eternal nativity or birth it reacheth not.” (from LEP V.54.2–for context, see here)

This is not Arianism, however, but classical Christology–albeit of a more Easter than Western stamp.  The Orthodox have always been quite emphatic (and some are even concerned that Protestants lean toward heresy on this point) that the Father is the sole fons divinitatis–fount of divinity.  This is what the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit mean–that although both Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal, nevertheless they are derivative, not originative.  This seems somewhat paradoxical, to be sure, but then so does all Trinitarian theology.  And it is what conservatives have tried to say about male-female relations–the female derives from the man, and so is n that sense subordinate, but is nevertheless equal.  There has been a tendency for Western theology since Arianism to be so allergic to subordinationism of any kind that it denies even that subordination which is manifestly attested in the New Testament.  And I think that’s what’s going on here with Rushdoony.  Note that Hooker says, “naturally and eternally given, not bestowed by way of benevolence and favour.”  This is blatantly anti-Arian.  The Arians said “there was when he was not”–a time when Christ was not God.  But Hooker says that the Son’s Godhood was “eternally” given. The Arians saw it as a matter of creation–the gift of being to a creature of another nature from the Creator God, rather than the generation of a being from within his own nature.  Hooker says that Godhood is “naturally” given to the Son–it belongs to him by nature; he never was of any other nature than that of God Himself.  


What about the accusation of divinising the British monarchy?  Pshaw.  In fact, the English monarchy resisted absolutization and divinisation during this period more than any other European monarchy, and for that, people like Hooker can take considerable credit.  There was a brief stage with Charles I and Charles II that tended toward the kind of absolutism Rushdoony is critiquing here, but it would be hard to argue that Hooker bears responsibility for that development.  Indeed, on my reading, Hooker actually pushes toward a more provisional, human-law understanding of the royal supremacy, and of political authority than that which was common in the 16th century, including that offered by the magisterial Reformers.  Folks like Cranmer, Bullinger, and Vermigli, and even in certain respects Calvin, were prone to sacralize political office and make it a direct mediation of the divine will in a way that Hooker judiciously stops short of. 


But let’s get back to the larger theological point.  Hooker’s theology of the Incarnation certainly is explicit in insisting that through the Incarnation, human nature is made “God’s associate in the government of all things.” (See, for instance, posts here, here, here, and here.)  This is, after all, the inescapable implication of the doctrine of the hypostatic union.  But, some will object, that is Christ only, not us.  We are not hypostatically united to God.  True, but we are united to Christ and made participants in the glory that is his.  Indeed, the hypostatic union is not, as it turns out, some odd anomaly–this is the pattern of all of Scripture.  On the sixth day of creation, after finishing the animals, did God say, “Well, now I’ve got me my creation.  I guess I’d better start governing it”?  No, he created mankind–in his image–and invited them to exercise rule over it, in fellowship with him.  When mankind failed, God neither gave up on them, nor engaged in some deus ex machina rescue mission to reverse their mistakes.  Instead, he made them the actors in his redemption drama.  He raised up Israel to be the emissaries of God to the world, his associates and partners in the glorious task of redemption.  And then when they too failed, he still didn’t resort to a deus ex machina, even if we sometimes treat the Incarnation that way.  No, the solution was still deus in homine–God chose to work redemption through human means, clothing himself with humanity even while doing what only God can do.  And no sooner was the deed accomplished then he empowered humanity again to be his partners and associates in redeeming and transforming the world.  

Does any of this detract from the glory of God?  There is an age-old human tendency for man to try to exalt himself at God’s expense.  The Gospel laughs down all such pretensions.  But there has been an age-old theological tendency, which has reached perhaps its most sustained and refined embodiment in many forms of Calvinism, to seek to curb man’s pride by an equal and opposite reaction–to try to exalt God at man’s expense.  God must have all the glory, which means that we must repeat over and over that we are but worms.  We are nothing, God is everything.  From this tendency flows the hyper-Calvinism that is so afraid even to give man “credit” for meriting damnation by his sins, that it insists upon giving God the “glory” of being the exclusive cause of the sin and the damnation.  From this tendency flows the theonomy that is so hostile to any kind of human authority that it rules out all law but that given directly by the voice of God.  From this tendency flows the fundamentalism that is so skeptical of the powers of the human mind that it would reject all sources of knowledge and wisdom but the Bible.  The more we ascribe to Scripture, the better.  And Scripture itself must be de-humanized and thought of as a divine dictation, lest we demote God and exalt man by thinking of God’s truth as mediated through weak human instruments.  

But this is of course to get it all wrong.  The greatest God is not the one who could be so great that everything else is dust and worms; the greatest God is the one who could make others great without becoming any smaller himself, the one who was so great that he could give himself away without becoming any less.  The most powerful God is not the one who could accomplish any work by his sole power alone, but the one who could somehow accomplish just as glorious and perfect a work while working through mere creatures.  The true God is not the one who defines himself over against everything else, by subtraction, but through all else, by addition.  That is why he is Trinity, not monad.  That is why he became man, that man might become God.  He is the God who looks on us and says, “You are not worms, you are not dust; I have said ye are gods.”  This is the God who actually is willing to make us stewards of the infinite riches of his word–to give us the most important job in the world, even when we’ve proven ourselves to be unreliable, unfaithful, forgetful.  This is the God who said, “Go, make disciples of all nations.  Go ahead, do it.  And while you’re at it, make laws, build cities, compose the Fifth Symphony, discover Proxima Centauri, breed golden retrievers, invent pizza.”  And this is the God who looks on it all at the end and says, “It is very good.”