Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 2

(In this second half, I use Richard Hooker’s development of the tripartite division of law to suggest a healthier approach to understanding Scriptural authority in political life.)

****Edit: As this paper will be published in an extended form by T&T Clark in a volume entitled The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society, they would obviously prefer if I did not have the full-text available here.  I have thus removed most of this post, and the previous one, leaving only some tantalizing excerpts.**

First, against the Puritan impulse to draw all things to the judgment of Scripture, Hooker contended strongly for a distinction between “things necessary” and “things accessory” to salvation.  He in no way backed down from the Protestant insistence on Scripture’s sole authority, but he insisted that we must not claim for this authority a broader scope than Scripture itself claims.  We may think we honor Scripture by claiming for it the authority to govern every area of human decision-making, but we deceive ourselves therein: “Whatsoever is spoken of God or thinges appertaining to God otherwise then as the truth is; though it seeme an honour, it is an injurie” (II.8.7).  Not only that, but by seeking to make of Scripture something that it is not, and requiring Scriptural warrant for any decision, “what shall the scripture be but a snare and a torment to weake consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scrupulosities, doubts insoluble, and extreme despaires?” (II.8.6)


However, it should be evident from the way that Hooker has set up the distinction that he will have no truck with the use of natural law theory that gives Scripture exclusive authority over sacred or spiritual matters, and natural law exclusive authority over everything else.  For clearly not everything of which Scripture speaks is “necessary to salvation”; it sheds light on a great deal else, not merely of a historical nature, but of an ethical nature as well.  So to say that “only Scripture speaks authoritatively of spiritual matters” is not to say that “Scripture only speaks authoritatively of spiritual matters.”  To set up such a dichotomy would remain, in Hooker’s eyes, a product of a Puritan bifurcation between nature and grace.


So if it is in fact true that we should not expect unaided man to come to a fully adequate understanding of morality and application of it in politics, if it is true that we should expect Scripture to shed light on such questions, indeed, to clarify for us the fundamental principles of morality and how to apply them in any number of situations, then how exactly does this differ from the Puritanism above?  How is Scripture’s authority in these matters “accessory to salvation” different from in matters “necessary to salvation”?  

This is where Hooker’s doctrine of “human law” comes in.  For while God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, and the means of calling upon Him and being united to Him has not changed, human affairs change every day.  


So even to the extent that Scripture illumines for us general principles of natural law, and provides particular applications, it does not supersede the need for human beings to deliberate together and make laws for their own circumstances.  Against Puritan opponents who insisted that if Scripture declared a law for human action, we would be arrogant to ever make other laws, Hooker insists, “Lawes are instruments to rule by, and that instruments are not only to bee framed according unto the generall ende for which they are provided, but even according unto that very particular, which riseth out of the matter wheron they have to work.  The end wherefore lawes were made may bee permanent, and those lawes neverthelesse require some alteration, if there bee anye unfitnes in the meanes which they prescribe as tending unto that end and purpose.” (III.10.3)

Of course, anyone, when pressed, will grant such a distinction between general ends and particular circumstances, and thus the need to use reason and some degree of flexibility in applying Scripture.  But the point that Hooker presses against his Puritan opponents is that this is nothing to be ashamed of.  God does not reap glory at human expense, but by empowering humans to imitate him.  Therefore, we need not grudgingly admit that unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t give us precise directives on some ethical or political question, and try to resist all social change so as to keep ourselves from having to make new applications and interpretations.  On the contrary, we happily embrace our God-given task of using all the resources at our disposal–nature, experience, Scripture, and the existing laws of our societies–to seek fresh applications of very old principles to very new problems.  

Sola Scriptura in the Public Square, Pt. 1

Last week, I presented a paper at a conference in Winchester entitled “Sola Scriptura in the Public Square: Insights of Richard Hooker” which was a sort of miniature, highly-condensed form of my thesis as currently envisioned, or at any rate of several key chapters of it.  I thought I would post it here for the benefit of anyone who’s been interested in my posts on Hooker, Reformed two kingdoms theory, natural law, and the role of Scripture in politics, although be warned that this relatively short essay can do little more than scratch the surface of the key issues, many of which have been developed at more length in previous posts here.

**Edit: As this paper will be published in an extended form by T&T Clark in a volume entitled The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society, they would obviously prefer if I did not have the full-text available here.  I have thus removed most of this post, and the next one, leaving only some tantalizing excerpts.**

The key problem with fundamentalism, then, is not that it claims that Scripture has something to say to politics, or even that it claims that Scripture has a great deal to say about politics.  The problem is that Scripture becomes a blunt instrument, a self-interpreting standard that demands a particular political result, and that will be repeatedly used to club the relevant authorities until they come into line.  In many cases, this is simply a result of ignorance–ignorance of the interpretive complexities of Scripture itself, and of the complex riddles of particular political circumstances.  But often, I suggest, and more seriously, it stems from a more fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God, man, and revelation, and unfortunately, the Reformed two kingdoms theorists offer no real answer because they share this basic flaw.  

The flaw in question is what I will label the “Puritan impulse,” recognizing that this may do injustice to many fine Puritans over the centuries, but defensible because it appears most starkly in many assumptions of the Elizabethan Puritans and their theological heirs.  To paint with an extremely broad brush, so that I do not spend the whole of my twenty minutes dwelling on the problem, the Puritans felt that for God to be exalted, man had to be abased.  The extreme form of this appeared in the hyper-Calvinist doctrine that in order for God to reap the full glory of his sole sovereignty, sinners could not claim “credit” for their own damnation, which was to be ascribed exclusively to the divine will.  Divine action and human action were completely incommensurable, and the former must be emphasized at the expense of the latter.  This meant that any account of authority tended to be rather one-dimensional.  In rejecting the authority of the Pope and reasserting the authority of God exercised through Scripture, the Puritans liked to think that they were doing away with, as much as possible, any kind of human authority.  Human authority, to the extent it must exist, must be merely a passive channel for divine action.  A church minister could not teach or publicly do anything without the express warrant of Scripture.

Revelation must be conceived as extrinsic and arbitrary, depending as little as possible on prior human understandings.  Any subject about which Scripture might speak, it must speak, and it must speak exclusively and with such detail as to leave little or no latitude for prudential application.  To say anything else is to raise up human authority in competition with God, to raise up reason in competition with Scripture.  The Reformed two kingdoms theorists tend to share this legalistic conception of Scriptural authority; they merely tend to artificially limit this authority to the institutional Church, cutting Scripture off from the concerns of daily life and social ethics with which it is clearly so deeply concerned.

How Much is Too Much? (Good of Affluence #8)

Before turning to consider the attitude that Amos is critiquing, and what this might mean for our attitude toward wealth, Schneider takes some time to critique what he considers to be irresponsible and unjustified uses of Amos-type rhetoric.  He complains that people like Ron Sider suggest that people’s eternal salvation is on the line if they enjoy too much of their wealth, instead of giving it to the poor.  Not only do they make such harsh accusations, but they do so on a hopelessly ambiguous basis.  For how much is “too much”?  Schneider suggests at first that Sider and others (he includes John Wesley here) appear to operate on a utilitarian basis, whereby we are to seek to maximize happiness for the greatest number, and so, presumably, to keep giving away any resources we don’t need as long as there are some people that are poorer than us.  But then he points to what seems like an inconsistency or hypocrisy in Sider’s approach, by which he equivocates on the meaning of the word “need.”  “‘Necessities,’ he writes, ‘is not to be understood a the minimum necessary to keep from starving.’  It rather means, he explains, what is ‘necessary’ for a standard of living that ‘would have been considered [in ancient Hebrew society] reasonable and acceptable, not embarrassingly minimal.” 

Schneider goes on to subject this new, relative definition of “necessity” to a withering cross-examination, seeking to reveal it as hopelessly relativistic, ambiguous, and self-serving to the point of uselessness.  Is having a car necessary?  Is flying trans-Atlantic necessary?  These are “reasonable and acceptable” within our society.  Couldn’t Bill Gates contend that his level of affluence is “reasonable and acceptable” in his immediate culture?  Any attempt to impose norms of “sufficient” and “too much” will thus become arbitrary and legalistic, says Schneider.  He goes so far as to mock a former student who

“had finally decided it was ‘all right to have a care, but not a big or very expensive one.’  So he judged for all of us.  But he did not like my next question, which was simply, ‘How big and how expensive a car will you let me have?’  Of course what seemed quite acceptable to me seemed morally reprehensible to him.  But on what grounds did he make this severe judgment (even as he drove around in his Ford Escort, as I believe it was, to and from activities linked with his Christian liberal arts degree at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars in the end)?”  

Now to this, at least three things must be said.  

First, I think Schneider is absolutely right to attack harshly judgmental or legalistic rhetoric.  The average American, while perhaps not wholly innocent in his wealth, is clearly not morally culpable in the same way that the rulers of Israel were.  Those directly responsible may need to hear dire warnings, but it is not constructive, I don’t think, to suggest to the average suburban churchgoer that they might go to hell if they don’t rev up their giving (that said, I’m not sure if Schneider isn’t distorting Sider’s approach here; certainly others I have read on similar themes, such as Shane Claiborne, don’t speak this way).  The doctrine of justification by faith should come to our aid here.  In dealing with these issues, we are speaking to justified people who ought to be looking for how best to share the gift they have been given, not wringing their hands in fear as to whether they’ve done enough to meet God’s standard.  


Second, Schneider uses the “utilitarian” slur against Sider and others repeatedly, but he’s always quite imprecise about it.  Utilitarianism is one of those things that is dangerous not because it’s the dead opposite of the truth, but because it’s so darn close to the truth.  Clearly, in very many circumstances, we should seek to maximize the greatest temporal happiness for the greatest number.  But utilitarianism breaks down because in some circumstances, this principle is overruled by other considerations, considerations that guide us to eternal happiness.  The fact that Sider thinks that those with more than enough ought to give their excess to those with less than enough does not make him a utilitarian, unless you want to call Thomas Aquinas a utilitarian too.  The use of this language is simply rhetorical bullying.

The third point is that Schneider’s attempt at a reductio is an example of the so-called “Beard Fallacy.”  The “Beard Fallacy” example imagines that you line up a bunch of guys in a row, the guy at the right clean-shaven, and the guy at the left with a full beard, with everyone in between in a spectrum, gradually becoming more stubbly and at last bearded.  If you asked someone to pinpoint where the first guy was who had a beard, you could critique any point he chose by saying, “Yeah, but what about the guy just to the right of him?  His facial hair is so close to that guy’s so as to be almost indistinguishable.”  And then, able to dismiss any attempt to distinguish where a beard began as arbitrary, you could triumphantly declare that the concept of “beard” is hopelessly relativistic, useless, and meaningless.  But clearly it’s not.  Clearly, you can recognize in most cases what counts as a beard and what doesn’t.  Same thing for “relative necessity.”  Schneider overplays his hand when he suggests that Bill Gates could justify his affluence as reasonable within his immediate culture and social setting, or as “necessary” for what it is he wants to do.  For Sider does not say that it’s one’s immediate culture that determines what is reasonable (e.g., the narrow country club high society within which you spend your time), but one’s broader society.   

Now clearly, what Sider is proposing is a very flexible standard, but he is on fairly firm ground in taking this approach.  Had Schneider cared to consult it, he might’ve found that this threefold distinction between “absolute necessity,” “relative necessity” and “superfluity” is deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition.  It is, for instance, carefully spelled out by Aquinas and his scholastic followers.  The gist is this.  Absolute necessity is what’s needed to keep oneself and one’s family alive.  Relative necessity is roughly (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have either Aquinas or Finnis in front of me) “that which is necessary to keep up one’s station in decency.”  Now, this obviously needs some unpacking and qualifying, because this does not mean simply conforming to social expectations.  You can be in a sub-culture with very questionable social expectations, that one should not try to conform to.  Rather, the idea is one of vocation.  If you are legitimately called by God to be, say, a lawyer in, say, Philadelphia, then you’re going to need a fair bit of money, even if you aren’t being extravagant.  You will need to be well-dressed, to have a good computer, perhaps a smartphone, a means of transportation–car if that’s most efficient; he will need to have access to lots of legal journals and books, to pay fairly high urban housing prices, etc.  Also, this second level of “necessity” allows for more substantial expenditures on food and housing so as to ensure not merely survival but robust health, hygiene, and reasonable comfort.  Resources beyond this are superflua.  Now, Aquinas would say that all superflua must be shared with anyone below “relative necessity,” but that resources necessary to maintain “relative necessity” only need to be shared when it’s a matter of life or death–that is to say, if one is in a position to help someone below the level of absolute necessity. 

Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of room for debate about precisely where these lines are drawn.  But this is only a problem if one is seeking to impose a legalistic condemnation on individuals.  This is where not merely justification by faith but virtue ethics can come to our aid.  To some extent, one can only figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous by seeking to live it out, by growing into a way of life characterized by shunning superfluity, by asking oneself, “Do I really need that?  Will I really use that?  Am I just coveting?  Am I just wanting to show off?  What else might I do with the money I save by not buying that?”  And this must be done in a spirit of Christian liberty–from the joyful standpoint of justification, not the fearful standpoint of trying to earn righteousness.  Done with this attitude, such a lifestyle need not result in asceticism–it will result in renunciation of some things, but as I have already suggested, this may make one more, not less, happy, since cluttering one’s life with ostentatious or wasteful things really does not bring “delight.”  In short, Schneider’s former student may have had the right idea.  Perhaps a car would have been very useful to him, but there would’ve been little point in buying a Lexus or Hummer.  Since this standard will be different for different people, and guilt-tripping legalism is not constructive, it generally will not make sense for me to decide for any other Christian just what sort of car they should buy, unless I’m called upon to give them guidance, or see them really going overboard.  But the existence of flexibility and ambiguity does not make this affluence morally irrelevant, anymore than the need for flexibility in other areas of moral debate implies the absence of relevant moral norms.

Defanging Amos (Good of Affluence #7)

In his fourth chapter, Schneider turns to consider the testimony concerning wealth and poverty in the Prophets and Wisdom literature.  Again, his boldness in the way he handles this material must be applauded.  He does not seek to hide behind the purple coattails of Proverbs, as many conservatives do, citing its platitudes on the God-given blessings of wealth or on poverty as a result of sloth to justify the wealthy lifestyle.  Eventually he does turn to look at Proverbs, and when he does, he is remarkably balanced, recognizing the diversity of its teachings on wealth and poverty, but it is not his starting point–Amos is.  

Of course, anyone who remembers what Amos is about is sure to recognize this as a courageous maneuver.  Amos is the book that unrelentingly bashes the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and callous enjoyment of a lavish lifestyle while the needy suffer.  Amos reads like a 8th-century BC liberation theologian.  Oh sure, you can try to say that what Amos is really worried about is idolatry, and that he really wouldn’t have any complaint against the people of Israel if they were worshipping Yahweh and enjoying their wealth, but this hardly seems sustainable when you actually look at the text, and Schneider doesn’t even try to take this route, at least not initially.  So, how does Schneider sustain the “good of affluence,” the good of enjoying as much wealth as you can and not feeling the need to give much to the poor, in the face of the book of Amos?  

Let’s take a careful look.  Schneider appears to employ two distinct evasive strategies: one focusing on responsibility, and another on attitude.  Under the first heading, Schneider seeks to show that Amos’s critiques apply to those directly responsible for the suffering of the poor in a way that we are not.  Under the second, Schneider seeks to argue that the real problem isn’t how much you have, but how you view it.  (Unfortunately, though I was hoping to cover all this in one post, it looks like it’s going to be two or three, if they’re to be of readable length.)


In looking at the issue of responsibility, Schneider does not pretend that Amos critiques only those who “deliberately exploit or oppress anyone”–that is there, but there is also a second evil that is targeted: that of the wives of oppressors, who are guilty simply for enjoying the fruits of oppression that they did not themselves commit, revelling in ill-gotten gains.  Schneider asks us to look closer, and see whether this is really a fair comparison to the affluence that the average American suburban Christian enjoys: “It is very important to notice and to understand that the prophets all aimed their diatribes first and foremost at the king and at the ruling classes that extended the arm of his rule.  For they were the ones who were uniquely charged by God to protect and to promote the welfare of the nation.  They were especially to take care to protect the poor and defenseless members of society, who were otherwise completely defenseless.  When these rulers instead used their powerful positions to exploit, to impoverish, and to oppress the very people they were responsible to defend–and did so merely for their own self-gratification–they obviously committed sins that were very evil indeed.”

“Given the nature of the political and social economy, there was very close, direct moral proximity between the rulers of the nation and the people that God called them to rule.  Being responsible for the people–especially their economic welfare–went with the job.  In a word, it was their job.  Their responsibility for the economic conditions of the poor in society thus could hardly have been greater or more direct than it was.  And what about the wives of those rulers.  True, they may have lacked the direct power their husbands wielded, but by marriage they wedded themselves to the entire moral situation.”

In short, Amos is not condemning people who simply happen to be rich while people around them are poor; he is condemning people who have a direct responsibility for the poor and who have abused that position for their own benefit.  In short, it is not failure to be charitable toward a neighbor that is condemned, but failure to rule justly.  The proper parallel is not the American suburbanite, Schneider says, but the petty dictator of a Third World country that lives in a mansion atop a pile of cash at the center of a web of corruption while his people starve.   

Now, all this is quite interesting.  And I think Schneider has a point.  Moral theology has a responsibility to make careful distinctions, and not simply to slap the same damning label on all circumstances of economic inequality.  The distinctions of proximity and responsibility are certainly relevant.  The bystander who watches a woman get beat up in an alley without intervening is not guilty of the same sin as her husband who runs away when the thugs arrive, and he is not guilty of the same sin as the thugs themselves.  Of course, you will note that by using this parallel, I have cast some ambiguity on Schneider’s approach even while affirming it–for surely the inactive bystander is still guilty in some way, at least, if he has real power to intervene and does not.  Schneider may be right that Amos’s direct condemnations are not aimed at the person who just happens to be affluent while others are poor, and who does nothing to help them, but that does not mean that that person is free from any moral ambiguity.  But let us leave aside that question for a moment and ask a two more questions to complicate Schneider’s account.


First, Schneider lays great stress on the fact that it was the “job” in a very literal sense of these wealthy landowners in Israel to care for the poor.  They were the equivalent of governors and mayors, entrusted with the well-being of their citizens.  But are they de facto rulers, or de jure rulers?  Are they rulers who just happen to be rich, or rich men who just happen to be rulers?  That is to say, are they not in fact simply men who have made themselves very rich, and thereby become men of power and influence, so that they can be called “rulers,” even if they are not really supposed to be?  I do not know Amos or the social history of ancient Israel well enough to answer for sure.  But if this is true, then it means that one cannot simply say, “Oh, I’m not the president of Haiti (or whatever), so this isn’t aimed at me.”  An American executive may turn out to be functionally one of the “rulers” of some Third World nation, and hence quite directly responsible for how his policies affect its people.  

Might it not be true that America, because of its immense global power and decades of control over large parts of the world economy (as well as regular interventions in the political organization of other countries), has a direct moral responsibility for much of what happens in Third World nations?  Notice that I speak here only of indirect responsibility.  I think that if Schneider cared to do much research at all, he would find that in fact the American government and American corporations have been directly responsible for brutal injustices and crushing poverty in many nations over the last century, and hence cannot in any way evade Amos’s condemnation.  But even aside from these, our country, and many of our corporations, have a great deal of influence in what happens in South Africa or Nicaragua or the Phillippines or Haiti.  In short, if Amos is critiquing the rulers who preside over injustice, then that’s not simply Pinochet or Duvalier or the Shah–that’s us.  

Second, in the current capitalist and democratic system, how much distance does the wealthy suburbanite have from all this?  Say I work for Monsanto and invested a lot of money in Halliburton and voted for George W. Bush.  Is Amos speaking to me?  I picked particularly pointed examples, but let’s be more general, and just saw that in a system where I formally have a direct voice in the government of the country, and in the government of corporations I invest in, how much responsibility do I have for injustices presided over by those entities?  Am I really just a bystander?  Does my wealth have any moral relation to Haiti’s poverty?  

Now clearly, even if the answer is “Yes,” it is a qualified Yes.  If a thug beats up a woman in an alley, and that thug is my brother-in-law, and I knew he had a drinking problem and was falling in with the wrong sorts, and didn’t do anything about it, am I implicated in any way?  Well, maybe, but obviously indirectly, and it would be wrong for me or anyone else to beat my conscience up too much about it.  The correct approach, in a highly interconnected world, hardly seems to be wringing our hands in guilt and asking just how much the injustice was our responsibility.  Rather, it is more constructive to turn the question around, and ask how much it is in my power to help.  The best way to figure out if you’re a culpable bystander or not is to stop being a bystander, and start doing something constructive.  What might this look like?  We’ll see what Schneider has to say on this in the following posts.

Happy Birthday S&P!

Last Friday, July 15, marked the first birthday of the Sword and the Ploughshare in its present incarnation, a dramatic upgrade from its old home on, and with a much more memorable URL.  Blogging here for the past year has been an immense pleasure because of the wonderful opportunities for conversation I’ve had with friends old and new.  Of all the many things I’ve learned over the past year, and the many ways my convictions have evolved and matured, probably half has come from my reading, and half has come from this blog.  I particularly thank Donny and Bradley for keeping me honest with their penetrating questions on what seems like every post, Byron Smith for his immense store of relevant statistics on any question economical or ecological, and Peter E. for guiding me to a much richer understanding of the Protestant political-theological tradition.  

In its first year, the Sword and the Ploughshare has hosted 172 posts, 1180 comments, and perhaps a thousand visitors, and new people are coming along and joining the discussion all the time. Here’s a recap of some of the year’s highlights:

The Coercion Series (September 2010), in which I analyzed the concept of coercion as it related to the economic and political spheres, helping me to at last decisively jettison the categories of libertarian thought.

Robin Phillips’ guest post defending the use of liturgical images (October 2010), which created a small tempest of discussion, though oddly enough mostly from Eastern Orthodox folks who thought that he hadn’t gone far enough.

The Natural Law Debate (October 2010), part of a lengthy and one might say life-changing interaction with Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante from Wedgewords.

The (still unfinished) Private Property Series (December 2010-February 2011), in which I seek to demonstrate that the concept of private property is much more philosophically complex and theologically ambiguous than we have generally been taught.

The McCormack Croall lectures (January-February 2011), which brought in a great number of new visitors to the blog and spawned lots of interesting discussion on Christology.

The discussions on retribution following the assassination of bin Laden (May 2011), in which I sought to add one more theological voice to the myriads weighing in on the issue, and in the process began to develop some misgivings about the concept of retributive justice.

(You will note that some of these links are not perfect–they link to tags, rather than series as such.  A new feature I hope to be adding to this blog soon is an index of post series and book reviews, to enable readers to easily track down issues that have received sustained attention on this blog in the past.)


Thanks for your faithful reading and interaction and I look forward to many more conversations and new acquaintances over the coming year!