Libertine Legalists

(This is an excerpt from a thesis chapter I am drafting, “Richard Hooker and the Freedom of the Christian Commonwealth”–it explores the paradoxically libertine yet legalist implications of the Puritan rejection of human authority)

For Hooker, the problem with Puritanism is a warped doctrine of Christian liberty which will assuredly destroy the liberty of the Church (and along with it, the State and the individual).  As we have seen already, the doctrine of Christian liberty declared that Scripture alone had authority over the conscience, and that therefore, no other authority outside Scripture could bind the believer.  Given the original thrust of this doctrine as a weapon against papal authority, it is no wonder that it should tend to abridge the liberty of the Church, pitting against it the freedom of the individual and the authority of Scripture.  Rightly qualified, of course, this exclusive authority of Scripture applied only in matters of faith and salvation, in “the spiritual kingdom” into which, by definition, no man could reach, and the doctrine did not need to pose any threat to suitably humble human institutions.  But as the Puritans had made Church discipline and ceremonies to be matters of faith and salvation, a clash was inevitable.  

The problem this posed for the Church of England is revealed in a fascinating passage in Book V, chaper 71, where Hooker, discussing the particular case of the Church’s power to command holy days, takes the opportunity to unfold the alarming implications of Puritan biblicism:

“It is not they saie in the power of the Church to commande rest because God hath left it to all men at libertie that if they thinke good to bestow six whole daies in labor they may, neither is it more lawfull for the Church to abridg anie man of that libertie which God hath graunted, then to take awaie the yoke which God hath laid upon them and to countermande what he doth expreslie injoigne.  But without some expresse commaundement from God there is no power they saie under heaven which may presume by any decree to restraine the libertie that God hath given.  Which opinion, albeit applied here no farther then to this present cause, shaketh universallie the fabrick of government, tendeth to anarchie and meere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdomes Churches and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authoritie and power upheld.  For whereas God hath foreprised thinges of the greatest waight, and hath therein precisely defined as well that which every man must perform, as that which no man maie attempt, leaving all sortes of men in the rest either to be guided by their owne good discretion if they be free from subjection to others, or els to be ordered by such commaundementes and lawes as proceed from those superiors under whome they live, the patrons of libertie have heere made sollemne proclamation that all such lawes and commandementes are voide, in as much as everie man is left to the freedom of his owne minde in such thinges as are not either exacted or prohibited by the law of God, and because onlie in these thinges the positive preceptes of men have place, which preceptes cannot possiblie be given without some abridgment of theire libertie to whome they are given, therefore if the father commaund the sonne, or the husband the wife, or the Lord the servant, or the Leader the souldier, or the Prince the subject to goe or stand, sleepe or wake at such times as God him selfe in particular commaundeth neither, they are to stande in defense of the freedom which God hath graunted and to doe as them selves list, knowing that men maie as lawfullie comaunde them thinges utterly forbidden by the law of God, as tye them to any thinge which the law of God leaveth free.  The plaine contradictorie whereunto is unfalliblie certaine.  Those thinges which the Law of God leaveth arbitrarie and at libertie are all subject unto possitive lawes of men, which lawes for the common benefit abridg particular mens libertie in such thinges as farre as the rules of equitie will suffer.  This wee must either maineteine or els overturne the world and make everie man his own commander.”

Here Hooker attributes to the Puritans the claim that, in all matters on which Scripture is silent, the individual is left free, and human authority cannot claim to interpose itself.  Although not explicitly stated, the comparison with Anabaptism, which was a standard of conformist polemics and which makes an open appearance several times in the Lawes, is clear enough.  The Puritans would have vociferously denied it, to be sure, and with good reason–they certainly held that the magistrate, in properly “civil” matters, could bind by positive law on matters which Scripture left at liberty.

  Nonetheless, when it came to “spiritual” matters, and the public order of the Church, many Puritans certainly held something like what Hooker attributes to them here–and since Hooker will argue that laws of ecclesiastical polity are of the same nature as civil polity, he is not unfair in here drawing out the Anabaptistic implications of their doctrine.


Clearly, however, this apparent libertinism was not incompatible with the starkest legalism.  It is this latter which Hooker is seeking to combat in III.11.  In the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright had argued that if God had given through Moses a thorough constitution for the people of Israel, then how could he omit this gift to the much greater new Israel, the Church of Christ?  The more laws given, the more blessed, reasoned Cartwright, so we must assume that Christ gave to the Church more and stricter laws than ever Moses gave to Israel.

When Whitgift objected that on the contrary, it appeared that the opposite was the case–whereas the political organization of Israel was strictly determined, little or nothing was said of civil matters in the New Testament, Cartwright retorted that 

“the leaving of us at greater libertie in things civill is so farre from proving the like libertie in things pertaining to the kingdome of heaven, that it rather proves a streighter bond.  For even as when the Lord would have his favour more appeare by temporall blessings of this life towards the people under the Lawe then towards us, he gave also politique lawes most exactlie . . . so his care for conduct and government of the life to come, should (if it were possible) rise, in leaving lesse to the order of men then in times past.” (255)

Since divinely-given law is the key to receiving blessings, then just the temporal blessings of Israel’s commonwealth were provided for by detailed divine law, so the spiritual blessings of the Church cannot come except by detailed laws.

Hooker responds by refusing to accept Cartwright’s presupposition that God must have blessed the Church with detailed laws, insisting on the simple empirical fact that he didn’t: “it is manifest that our Lord and Saviour hath not by positive laws descended so far into particularities with us as Moses with them . . . [therefore] to us there should be freedom and liberty granted to make laws.”  Here then it is Hooker arguing that we are “left at liberty” when Scripture is silent; only the liberty is that of an institution to make laws, not of an individual to be free from law. 

The strange dynamic between legalism and libertinism that Hooker identifies in Puritanism was a recurrent one in various forms of radical Reformation movements.  On the one hand, the Puritan platform asserts the absolute authority and massive scope of Biblical law, regulating in detail the conduct of a believer and leaving him, it would seem, very little liberty before God.  On the other hand, so all-encompassing is this divine law that it muscles out of the way all other forms of authority–since it leaves no matter in need of legislation untouched, we are to assume that no further legislation is permissible where it does not speak.  The believer is thus left a great deal of liberty before man.  By failing to distinguish the different planes on which divine and human authority operate, so that freedom of conscience before the one can coexist with bondage before the latter, the Puritan has imagined the two to be competing for territory on the same plane, necessarily in conflict, and with the latter sure to give way before the superior claims of the former.  Thus the assertion of Christian liberty strikes directly at the foundation of institutional liberty.

On the contrary, says Hooker, those things left uncommanded by divine law, being matters of adiaphora, are grants of liberty to political societies to frame positive laws “for the common benefit,” not chains restricting them from any legislation.  If we do not say this, then nothing is left to the authority of such institutions, but all to the individual or to Scripture.

The result of this, Hooker is convinced, will be the crippling of any capacity for corporate action and hence the destruction of society. 

21 thoughts on “Libertine Legalists

  1. Are there any churches today that follow Hooker's line of reasoning? I know Trinity Reformed in Moscow explicitly claimed that the observance of holy days is an individual freedom, and even Lutherans (or at least Luther) believed that observance of holy days, (and other such things like pre-communion fasts) are perhaps good, and should be retained, but they ought not be made obligatory. That is, they remain open to individual freedom.That is, Hooker's view seems closer to the Catholic view than to any surviving Protestant view. Do you know of Protestants who still hold to Hooker's position as articulated in this post?


  2. Peter Escalante

    Matt,All Magisterial Protestant churches in principle hold something like Hooker's position. But this would only be applicable in an explicitly Christian commonwealth. For instance, Presbyterians and Lutherans would both say that if, say, New Mexico were an explicitly Christian State, it could make a civically binding law that businesses wouldn't operate on Sunday. It just couldn't bind *personal* conscience to personally observe the Sabbath. But in our present situation, the civic magistracy prescinds from any religious involvement, and the churches are thus deterritorialized voluntary societies in outward form. These, being publically-legally corporate only privately and on Sundays, thus cannot make any civic ordinances of observance; the scope for personal freedom is thus necessarrily much greater for their members than it was for the English of Hooker's situation. For instance: St Knox-in-the-Golf Course Presbyterian Church can decide to officially observe Advent in the building, and that puts the hypothetical member/visitor in the position of freely loving it or freely leaving it; but even the members who enthusiastically choose to be there for it are free in Christian liberty not to be, since nothing but God's Word can bind conscience, and the pastor and elders of St KGC have no civic authority to bind outward actions with civic laws.paxP


  3. Peter,In a Christian commonwealth, could a prince require a eucharistic fast?And second, you seem to be sucking and blowing at the same time. Brad raises the question of whether the Church can command holy days, and answers it in the affirmative. You say that you agree with Brad, the civil magistrate can command holy days, but the Church cannot. Um…that doesn't work.Even in a non-Christian polity, it is surely possible for the Church to command holy days, as the Catholic Bishops do. The question is whether they may, and whether their commands hold authority. So far as I can tell, Brad is saying they sometimes may, and they ought to be obeyed when they do; whereas you are taking the contrary position that the church cannot, and when she pretends to, she need not be obeyed.


  4. Peter Escalante

    Matt,Please refrain from haste. Brad isn't saying anything himself here; he's talking about Hooker and Hooker's situation. And I was answering your question. Despite your tone, I'll answer your further question too.Yes, in a Christian commonwealth, a prince could require a fast day as a public observance, within the bounds of prudence, and without claiming to bind anyone's conscience personally. What that would look like- closing of restaurants? would be hard to say. So let's review this, since you seem to be having trouble getting the picture. For Hooker, there is no "Church" apart from the commonwealth. There is one whole Christian people, doubly represented by the magistrates and the ministers. One single church-commonwealth. Thus, if a prince commands a Sunday Sabbath, that *is* the Church commanding it, in the civic forum (the Protestant sovereign is the head of the Church of England, remember?). The magistrate in a Christian polity can command civic observances which have a religious character, but these, as I made quite clear above, bind public actions, not private conscience. In the present situation, the only officially Christian officers are the ministers, yet these have no power to make ordinances norming public actions for the polis. They only have power to give norms for their voluntary societies.So in review: in neither a Christian commonwealth nor the present situation has anyone the power to bind conscience before God: only God's Word has that. In a Christian commonwealth, the magistrate side of the visible Church can make civic ordinances of a religious character which norm public action and thus bind the conscience in a very relative way (the same way traffic laws bind the Christian conscience); and the ministers can only do this indirectly, with the permission of the magistrate. In a non-Christian polis, there is no Christian magistrate, there are only ministers, and these of course have no power of making civic ordinances, and no power of binding individual conscience either, though they can of course make rules which govern their congregations as voluntary associations. pax,P


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Whoa, what happened here? I had a lengthy comment I thought I'd posted, but it isn't here. I can't believe my blog is swallowing its own proprietor's comments now! Oh dear. Well, I'm sorry, Matt–I wasn't ignoring you. I will get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks for taking my place in the meantime, Peter!


  6. Peter,I'm sorry my tone sounded bad, I wasn't upset, and nothing bad was intended, I was just trying to point out that you seemed to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other.I'm not sure why you are telling me that no man has power to bind the conscience before God. I have never said they do. Nor do I understand why you bring up traffic laws, since one can debate whether they bind at all, or whether the ticket is merely the cost of the permit to break them. A better example would be father telling his children they may not drink alcohol. There is nothing about drinking that is immoral, however, because children are commanded to obey their parents, there is something immoral for this child.It seems there is a similar issue here (at least I'm asking about one). May ministers command congregants to do or refrain from things that would not ordinarily be sinful, or do any such commands hold no binding authority? Was the first century Christian free to ignore the Jerusalem council's command to abstain from food with the blood in it? Was the fourth century Christian free to keep his subintroducta? Is the modern Christian who attends a church which forbids paedo-communion free to commune his children?If the answer to any of these is "no" then the issue of free and voluntary societies is not relevant. The Church can command, and though she cannot enforce her commands with the sword, it is still a sin to violate her commands.And so the question remains, can the Church command her members to keep the holy days, or are they free to do as they please? Must Catholics keep holy days of obligation? (Which do not bind because of anything directly in the Word, but because they are commanded.)It seems to me you are saying she may not so command, and if she tries, they are still free to do as they please. The Church may command her congregations to observe holy days, and the Church may command civic observance of holy days, but the individuals are free to observe the holy days as holy days, or as simple vacation days. And perhaps this is Hooker's position.But if so, his argument seems to apply to his own position, for even "colleges and corporations" need laws to keep from descending into anarchy. Though perhaps I'm missing something here.


  7. Peter Escalante

    Matt,I'm sorry if I misunderstood your expressions. So, to your question:I'm sure you know the Protestant view of canon law; it is regarded a sacerdotalist device to bind conscience, and irreconcilable with the inspired doctrine of St Paul. The ruling of the Council of Jerusalem was not the first instance of canon law- it was a peace ruling intended to create conditions of stable intercommunion between Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian communities. Its binding force came from the believers' charity, not from law in the sense which St Paul says the conscience is free of. Of course the early Christians, in charity, subjected their prudence to their holy leaders the Apostles. Was a Christian at that time "free" to disregard the ruling? No, not in charity; but this does not mean that his conscience was actually bound by the rule of no blood consumption, because eating blood is not a sin against the basic moral order of God. As for the mass of canon law, as Luther said, if it's actually meant to be conscience-binding law than it's just the Pope's dreck. The Protestants did however find much of legal interest in canon law, and assimilated those elements to civil law.So yes, in the modern situation of disestablishment, the churches are voluntary societies, and no, they do not have any power to lay down canon laws. They can ask certain things of their members, by way of order, and presumably the prudence and charity of the members either finds those things agreeable or gives them the benefit of the doubt, or they wouldn't be members of that church. In any case, since ministers have no power to bind external action (which belongs solely to the civic magistrate), and cannot bind conscience with anything other than the Word of God, then everything else can only be proposed, not imposed, strictly speaking. As for traffic laws, of course they are binding upon action- the State has the power to make those kind of civic ordinances. The traffic ticket is not a "price", it is a penalty. Only the wildest kind of libertarianism would question the authority of the State to make laws for good order.paxP


  8. Peter,I thought I knew what the Protestant view of canon law was–that's why I was surprised by the post. But I guess Hooker was talking about civic ordinances, and not about commands to individuals to keep holy days as holy days.I'm still not sure I understand your point about voluntary societies: A father may tell his 18 year old son that he must either abstain from alcohol or leave the family by moving out. By the law of excluded middle, the child is bound to stay or move out, and if he chooses to stay, he is bound not to drink. That is, his familial structure is in a very real sense voluntary, but that does not imply that he cannot be bound by the duty to submit to his father. (Again, there is nothing wrong with drinking intrinsically, and the son is surely free to move out and drink.) Something similar applies in civil affairs. If I am dissatisfied with the laws of the United States, I am only bound by them inasmuch as I am voluntarily a citizen of the United States. I may chose to move to Canada and renounce my American citizenship. I understand this is somewhat different for a subject rather than a citizen, but a subject may still change his allegiance.So I have trouble seeing why the fact that Church members are free to leave a church is relevant. The child is free to leave his family, and I am free to leave my country, yet he and I are still bound by the laws of our polities. It is at least logically consistent to say that church members are bound inasmuch as they are members, though they are free to cease to be members, and thus to no longer be bound.I also have trouble understanding what is the problem per se with canon law is. We agree it can become a terrible beast, imposing burdens hard to lift, and that it cannot bind the conscience in the same way that scripture can. But is the only reason we are required obey and submit to those who watch over our souls that they should be respected; but there is no binding duty to submit, as a child must submit to his father? If, against the direct command of his pastor, John Lutheran stole some of the Host from his LCMS church to commune his child in the pews, is he not sinning by disobeying his pastor, even if the paedo-communion position is true?(Again, I understand that throughout we are not talking about things that are intrinsically against the basic moral order of God, and that thus the conscience is only bound in a relative way.)Regarding traffic laws: I agree that governments may make traffic laws. But it seems to me they fall into two sorts: First laws like speeding laws, which only very debatably bind; and second ones like the prohibition against driving on the wrong side of the road which given the custom, do in fact reflect the basic moral order of God, because it is sinfully reckless to drive on the wrong side, independent of the law. Indeed, it seems even our society distinguishes between the two sorts: minor traffic violations are not even misdemeanors, but only receive fines, and need not be reported on job applications; major traffic violations are misdemeanors and felonies, and must be reported on job applications.


  9. Brad Littlejohn

    (I wrote this up before reading Matt's last comment, since I was without internet for most of the day; so at several points I will be almost repeating what he said):Hm…well this looks likely to be a very helpful discussion for enabling me to clarify some of my own thoughts on some very important concepts of my thesis.  My initial sense is that I'm not entirely sure I agree with the angle Peter is taking, though hopefully the disagreement will prove illusory.I'll first try to restate what my initial comment, which had gotten deleted, attempted to say, and then I'll expand upon it in light of the subsequent dialogue here.So first, we should be clear that Hooker does not think church observances can be obligatory in the sense of directly binding upon conscience, though they can become indirectly binding, as duties of charity and/or respect for authority (Matt, I thought your example about the father telling his children not to drink alcohol was a good example).  They are obligatory in the sense of binding external conduct, for purposes of good order in the community, never in the sense of determinging the terms of the believer's relationship to God.  I think you completely understand this, Matt–I'm just clarifying it again for the benefit of other readers.Second, even when it comes to binding externally, Hooker does not necessarily think that such things *should* be made obligatory–as if, as soon as we find an area that Scripture has left open, we should say, "Well, we'd jolly well better make up for Scripture's silence and stick some rules in there."  Rather, they *may* be made obligatory, if circumstances should seem to require; in the Elizabethan era, there was a much higher priority put on external uniformity, and a sense that society would come apart at the seams if such uniformity was not preserved, so circumstances seemed to require quite often then.  Nowadays, Hooker might well consider much fewer rules and much more diversity (such as we see in most Protestant churches now) perfectly compatible with his view, and with current needs.  Likewise, he would recognize that such laws would function very differently in the context of a wide variety of disestablished churches, than in the context of a civilly-established church (more on this in a moment).Third, it's perhaps important to recognize that Hooker is not in fact so far from the standard (indeed, the inescapable) practice of most churches (including TRC).  All churches must establish some rules of good order and government, and most churches lay considerable stress on many of these, even while willingly recognizing that many of these have no precise Scriptural precedent or direction.  For instance, most churches have carefully established procedures for when and how new officers may be nominated and elected, or new clergy installed–many seek to find the general outlines of their policies in Scripture, but few pretend that the details are there.  Likewise, most churches make liturgical decisions about matters left undetermined in Scripture–such as who should read the word or pray in public worship, and when.  Although these rules woul not have the the legal force of civil laws (as they could in an established church context), and hence no ability to physically coerce, they could still bind the conduct of members–so long as members wished to remain members of that church, that is.  In many churches, I couldn't just waltz up to the front of the church and start praying at whatever point in the service I wanted, or unilaterally attempt to impeach the existing deacons and elect new ones, and get away with it; at the very least, I would be guilty of sin against charity and against authority–despite the fact that such matters are "left free" by Scripture.  So, most all churches recognize the need to establish binding rules for uniformity of action where Scripture does not, and thus there seems no reason why this couldn't include, say, declaring a public fast, to the extent that such served for good order in the church community.  Now, having put matters this way, you'll see that I would be inclined to downplay the discontinuities between an established church–in which such matters of church order become matters of good order in the commonwealth, and hence can become enforceable by coercive civil sanctions–and a disestablished church, in which the rules only have purchase within the particular church institution, and sanctions would be limited to public rebuke and, if necessary, exclusion from the fellowship.  After all, while a church might be a "voluntary society" to the extent that, if a Christian didn't like the rules of a particular church or denomination, no one could really stop him from simply moving to a different one, a civic commonwealth is not wholly different, since, if I didn't like the laws in the US, I could conceivably just move to another country, go through naturalization procedures, and live by its laws instead.However, I fail to see why, as Peter seems to be saying, this should imply that ministers of a church can have no authority to bind external behaviour in any sense.  Of course, their arsenal of weapons to deal with those who flaunt their authority is of course much smaller, but they can still say, "If you want to be a member of this church community, you must abide by these rules and conduct yourself in this way." Nor, more importantly, do I see why they have no power to bind the conscience in the same indirect and relative sense that a civil authority could.  Consider traffic laws (regarding which I too would reject the "merely a price" understanding).  In the abstract, it's morally neutral how fast you drive.  In the presence of other cars on the road, it becomes a duty of charity to see to it that you do not endanger the lives of others, and potentially a sin if you wantonly do so.  If a relevant authority should set a specific limit on how fast you can drive, then it not only becomes a duty not only of charity, but of respect for authority, to drive the appropriate speed, and doubly a sin to flaunt this standard (leaving aside for now questions about the letter vs. spirit of the law, or situations when the law is clearly unjust).  Now consider eating meat during Lent.  In the abstract, it's morally neutral.  In the presence of other believers who do not eat meat, and are offended by others doing so, it may become a duty of charity to abstain from meat, and potentially a sin to publicly eat it, knowing one will offend.  If a relevant authority–the leaders of one's church community–should decide that in view of the many members with tender consciences, and the benefits that would come from fasting all together as a church, everyone ought to abstain from meat during Lent, then it becomes not only a duty of charity, but of respect for authority, to abstain from meat, and doubly a sin to flaunt this rule (again, assuming that the decision taken was not woefully misguided or misinformed).  So, what's wrong with this analogy, Peter?


  10. Regarding traffic laws: That tickets are the price for speeding is N.D. Wilson's view of traffic laws. If one can safely speed, one is free to, but doing so may not be free.Another example of a Protestant pastor commanding based not only on Scripture, but on his office: In a letter to a church member thinking of being Catholic (published on his blog) Pr. Wilson says "As you know, Rome requires you to "come home." But, as your minister, I have required that you not go there, that you remain a faithful Protestant."Is Pr. Wilson wrong in requiring this submission?Or from a different angle: My interpretation of Scripture is bound by Nicea. I am not free to interpret Scripture in a manner which says that there was a time when the Son did not exist. (Though it is possible to do so.) I am not free to read Scripture in a manner that refuses to acknowledge two active natures in the Logos, or that refuses to acknowledge that Mary was literally theotokos. I am free to leave the Church and start my own, but if I do so, I am not free to call myself Christian. The Councils speak with authority, and based on that authority, bind.Moreover, lex credendi, lex orandi, just as the Church is able to identify heresies that depart from the law of belief, so likewise, she is free to identify liturgical abuses (clown masses perhaps?) which depart from the law of prayer. Indeed, our faith is not primarily a believed one, but a prayed one. And if the Church must regulate her beliefs, how much more must she be able to regulate her corporate prayers? Granted there are many possible acceptable prayers, and some defect (a lack of an epiclesis perhaps?) does not necessarily invalidate the act, yet liturgical questions, being questions of how ought we pray, are questions about the heart of our faith.


  11. Peter Escalante

    Matt,In addressing Brad's points and questions, I'll be addressing yours too, I hope- but I wanted to say that right up front so you didn't think you were being passed over. As for traffic laws- that's another conversation! But Brad has already, toward the end of his last comment, answered that q exactly as I would have, so I'll let that go. I do think your questions are interesting and helpful.Brad,Here's the thing. Local churches really are, necessarily, voluntary societies in a situation of civic disestablishment (and they could be even in a situation of civic establishment- but that's a different matter). They are not analogous to families or to commonwealths, in that there is no voluntary aspect to family dependence (as Thomasius says, the father and mother's acquisition of right over children is voluntary between them, since it comes from their freely chosen pact, but the children's subjection to parental right is obviously not voluntary), nor to citizenship as usually entered into, by way of birth, and with the abiding character of subjection to laws binding actions. One becomes independent of parental rule upon majority- but one does not ever become truly independent of the visible church. And though one does not ever become independent of subordination to law and government of the commonwealth, unless one leaves the commonwealth and takes citizenship elsewhere (though even then, one will still be subject to civic law just as one was before),  the ministerium does not have anything really like the sort of jurisdiction the State has.Ministerial authority is only remotely analogous to parental authority- it is certainly not parental authority. Where it is analogous to parental authority, it is not analogous to the rule of parents over minor children, but rather, analogous to the moral and prudential authority of venerable counsel which parents have over their grown and independent children. Regarding rule and order in the local church, ministerial authority is more like governmental authority, on a small scale, than like parental authority. The great difference that it has of course no power to bind the civic forum, the actions of all, regardless of consent or assent, for the sake of the civic common good. Which means, it has no legal force, though as a properly constituted corporation, its bylaws can be legally enforced by civic courts (eg, property disputes, et c). Now, a Christian is bound to obey the just laws of civic authority, as norming external actions, because of what civic authority is. However, the bylaws of a local church do not have that character- they apply only to the society, which is technically voluntary, and they have the character of "rules" but not "laws".  So they are in a way like traffic laws, but in another and very important way, they are not.The relation of the Christian to the local church is not that of child to parent, nor of citizen to government. He is obliged to assemble, but not obliged to assemble with this or that local church; though he is obliged, normally, to stick in one spot for reasons having to do with the nature of sociality and education. Still, his assent to customs and bylaws of the local church is precisely assent, from charity and prudence; there is no sin if he dissents, and peaceably removes to another more agreeable situation. Leaving a local church is not like renouncing citizenship (and such an example simply begs the question of whether the local church has the kind of jurisdiction a State has), nor like leaving family (either naturally, by way of maturity and marriage, or violently, by way of dissociation). It is more like moving from one town to another.And this sets us up to discuss the Lenten example. In the case you describe, I'd say yes, in the abstract, the assembly is obliged in charity and prudence, but *not* bound in law, to conform to the ruling and abstain from meat. But such a ruling does not have the character of civic law, which binds the external actions of all pertinent civic actors regardless of consent or assent, and neither can it bind conscience before the Lord. Further, if one thinks that the pastoral prudence of the ministers in that situation is seriously wanting, and and that it forms a predictable pattern very unilkely to to be changeable from within, one may remove himself to another congregation.So, since ministers cannot make laws binding upon all, regardless of consent or assent, and with pain of civic sanction, and neither can they make rules which bind conscience before the Lord, the character of church customs and rules cannot be that of law. We might call it "bylaw", but it is not law, and its essential force comes only from charity and consensus.Yes, there is something "law-like" about adiaphoron customs and rules of the local church. But no, they are not laws, and one is not obliged to obey them in the same way one is obliged to obey traffic laws, nor is one obliged to obey them the way a minor child is obliged to obey the commands of his parents. One is obliged, normally, to conform to them from charity and prudence, for purposes of common order and mutual edification.And after all, if we really believe this Body of Christ claim, wouldn't it make sense to trust consensus of prudence and harmony of charity to be the principle of conformity and solidarity?And again, our situation is markedly different from Hooker's, and it is important to bear in mind that applying his principles to the present will result in practical conclusions which look different, perhaps even strikingly different, from his own.I realize that there is more to be said- I am addressing what I can within the constraints of the time I've got today, and look forward to further discussion.paxP


  12. Peter Escalante

    Matt,If Nate Wilson said that, then he is wrong. As for Pastor Wilson and the quote you give, he cannot possibly mean that he claims jurisdiction over conscience. He is pretty evidently making a rhetorical point about authority (there's not really "more" of it in any legitimate sense in Rome than with Wilson's church, if "authority" is the appeal). Everything I know about Douglas Wilson precludes the possibility that he claims to be able to bind conscience with his say-so, which is what you are suggesting.Your point about Councils is not to the point. The decrees of Nicaea you mention are dogmatic, not practical. They have to do with intellect, not conscience. And they express consensual exegesis which in principle is your personal exegesis too. Those "canons" are not legal in nature. They "bind" only in the way truth binds.I have no idea what you're talking about in the last point, about liturgy. There is no "law" of prayer for Protestants other than the very few Biblical norms and directives. Everything else is adiaphoron.paxP


  13. Joseph Minich

    Peter, You speak of our obligations as flowing from the "nature" of an institution. Because civic law is what it is, we are obliged to obey it in such and such a case. How does the "nature" of the church inform the sorts of laws it is allowed to make? In Kuyperian terms, what is the creational "sphere" of the visible church? When can they say "do this" or "don't do this" and we are obliged to follow? Even if there was not fall, what sorts of human activities would we call civil and what sorts would we call "ecclesial?" I want to say that church authority only in matters which are doctrinal/moral and clear in Scripture, but I do wonder about those texts in 1 Corinthians that speak about church courts in contrast to unbelieving civic courts. Thanks! Joseph


  14. Brad Littlejohn

    Joseph, Thanks for joining the discussion!Peter, Thank you for a thorough and compelling reply to such important questions. I have been waiting until I had sufficient time and mental tranquillity to compose an adequate reply; having not found either, I shall compose an inadequate reply.First then, I think that you are right about all the disanalogies you are drawing; obviously, in attempting to say that "church law" was analogous in certain ways, I was not meaning to deny all difference. There must of course be some kind of important difference between "law" and "bylaw," and it makes good sense that the laws of a local church, or denomination, or what-have-you, would fall into the latter category (with the important qualification that a Christian should take his pastor's or bishop's authority much more seriously than that of the president of the local chess club). I think I'm with you on all this, and I really wouldn't want to put more weight on the "bindingness" of church rules, I don't think, than you are saying here. I've known plenty of situations of people quite legitimately feeling the need to move to a different church when faced with seriously misguided teaching or counsel, so I'd hardly want to be arguing that they were law-bound to stay under that authority.So I'm fine, I think, with how you're describing church laws. What I'm still struggling with is exactly what that "extra" is that characterizes civil laws. So, for instance, we seem to agree on the characterization I gave of Lenten regulations–the extent and sense in which a believer would be bound to obey such regulations, or else not bound if he found them dangerous and harmful. But you say that “such a ruling does not have the character of civic law, which binds the external actions of all pertinent civic actors regardless of consent or assent”–there is some extra weight attaching to civic laws that is lacking in the rulings of other authorities. This seems right, but what is that extra?They can “bind external actions”–what does this mean? It means they can use physical force to compel obedience if necessary, yes. But is that all it is? I’ve tended to shy away from rooting the essence of law in coercion, and it seems to me that Hooker does as well. In any case, it seems like, if that’s all the extra is, then that just means I have more reason to think twice before disobeying a civil law, not that I’m any more morally bound to obey it. That puts us in the position of N.D. Wilson vis-a-vis the traffic laws–if I don’t think it’s a good law, or not for my circumstance at the moment, the only question is whether I think it’s worth the risk and the price to disobey the law.So that’s not the key point. Perhaps it means we’re more morally bound. But how? Of church customs you say, “One is obliged, normally, to conform to them from charity and prudence, for purposes of common order and mutual edification.” Obviously, we’re obliged in all those same ways to obey civil laws. But we’re further obliged. Not in conscience, because only God can bind the conscience, and civil laws thus only bind the conscience insofar as they conform to natural law–that is, insofar as they cultivate common order and mutual edification. If they do not do so, we’re not bound to obey, right? Of course, charity and prudence still dictate that usually we should suspend our judgment and give the benefit of the doubt that the law is good; and even if not, we should often conclude that disobedience will be more harmful than obedience to a bad law.Likewise, when you say that civic laws bind “regardless of consent or assent”…hmm, that doesn’t seem to be Hooker’s position. Or rather, he thinks that consent is embodied in the law-making act, which means that we don’t have to agree to the goodness of every particular law in order to be bound to obey it. But at a certain point, we are not bound beyond consent–if we conclude that a law is simply unjust and harmful, we refuse to consent to it, and are not morally bound. Likewise, even with a church ordinance, we don’t have to agree to the goodness of every particular ruling in order to be bound to respect the authority that made it, the peace of the church, and thus normally to still suspend our judgment and obey. So, exactly what defines the extra bindingness of civil laws? I feel a bit silly asking this, because it seems like this is kinda the essential question of Christian political theory, which I’m supposed to know something about by this point–especially as this whole set of issues is really in a sense what my whole thesis is about. So I’m a bit nervous that I may be well off-course…for instane, in the chapter from which this post was taken. In that chapter I argue that for Hooker, the whole issue of “Can the visible church make external laws in the adiaphora, or is Scripture the only law?” is the primary matter, and the question of the royal supremacy, and thus of the role of the civil authority in promulgating laws over adiaphora, is secondary and can be determined somewhat independently; or rather, the first can be determined independently of the second; the second cannot be determined until the first already has been. But your discussion here sounds quite different–the question of the civil bindingness of a law is crucial, and it’s really useless and senseless to talk about church laws apart from the enforcement of the civil arm….In other words, you want to put Book VIII of the Lawes back in Books I and III. Or do I have it all mixed up?Also, I suppose I should simply flag that lurking behind all this discussion is what we think excommunication means. I was taught to think of it as a spiritual disciplinary procedure that was directly analogous to civil discipline, only that the stakes were higher–it had, as it were, coercive power over the soul (only relatively, of course–not absolutely), not merely over the body. But I now recognize that that Reformed Presbyterian understanding of excommunication is far from the universal, or even the standard account among Protestants. But I've probably had some trouble shaking off all of that conceptual baggage.


  15. Peter, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seemed above that you reasoned from Churches being voluntary to them not being able to bind. I have argued that this argument is invalid by providing counterexamples. Now perhaps the conclusion is still true, but it would have to be established by other sorts of argumentation. It is perfectly consistent to say that members of churches are free to leave, but inasmuch as they are members, they are bound to submit.But my concern is not only for the denominationally divided modern Church. A unified Church in a secular polity is surely a conceivable reality, even if not foreseeable. Then the issue of switching churches need not have the same force it has now (though as I said above, I am not convinced it, even now, implies there need not be submission). If the ecumenical Church is to be a society, than as Hooker points out, it must have rules. And if it must have rules, then it would seem it can make rules that govern Christian congregations, and that expel members who seek to leave and start new churches.And this brings us to a third point. If churches are simply voluntary, with congregants free to leave and join another church, schism becomes logically impossible. Which is very decidedly not the Patristic view. It may be that under extraordinary circumstances, for instance heresy in the rest of the Church, schism is no longer schism. However, that does not imply that the fathers were simply wrong when they considered schism to be separation from the Body of Christ.I am not so sure as you are that there is a discontinuity between children-parent relationships, and congregant-pastor relationships, particularly when the child-parent relation is carefully crafted as it was in my example to be voluntary. But the most relevant point of contact between the two is that children are bound to submit to their parents because Scripture commands it. But Scripture also commands submission to pastors. The only objection I have seen to this is that the relation of congregant to pastor is one voluntarily entered into; however, I have shown this irrelevant.Moreover, will not let you take my previous post so easily. Pr. Wilson bound "Joel" under pain of excommunication not to be Catholic. The two eventually reached something of a plea bargain, and "Joel" was not excommunicated, though he did become Catholic. (I know this because I know "Joel".) But in the letter in question Pr. Wilson's point is that individual judgment is not avoided by the addition of authority because the individual must judge which authority to submit to. However, his commands not to become Catholic were, so far as I know, in earnest. He would base his commands on Scripture, but the issue in question was not the authority of Scripture per se, but the proper interpretation of Scripture. As such, the command is a command to interpret Scripture a certain way, or failing that, to submit to those in authority over you.All the letters can be found here: likewise do not concede the point about prayer. So far as I know, the maxim lex credendi, lex orandi is ancient, and I have been taught it in Protestant Churches. At the very least there are questions like what substances may be used in the Eucharist, and what the valid baptismal formula is that must be addressed. What must bread be to be bread? Must it be gluten bread? Are crackers bread? What may be in the cup? Must it be wine, like Christ's was? May it be must? Grape Juice? Cool Aid? (A friend of mine once attended a church with a cool-aid "eucharist".) And what baptismal formulae are valid? Must we baptize in the Triune name, or may we baptize in the name of the Lord, as Acts has it?Moving out a circle from these most basic questions, others remain. Is the "lifting up" of the elements contrary to the nature of the Sacrament (as Westminster would have it)? Should private masses be allowed? Will children be communed?All these questions require some sort of norm. Surely the Church is not powerless to address these issues.But we may move beyond this some. Even in matters that are not so central as these, though there are a variety of permissable prayers, not all prayers are equal. It is possible for a liturgy without being specifically Arian or Nestorian to fail to treat Christ as our king and our God, but rather to tend implicitly to tend toward vague semi-Arian or semi-Nestorian beliefs. Surely the Church has authority to address this issue, though what may have been perfectly acceptable may, due to changing discourse, become not acceptable.Moreover, even aside from this, there are better ways to pray than others. When people debate, for instance, the merits of celebrating Easter, or celebrating Lent, there are real, important issues at hand. Of course now the Church ought not ecumenically weigh in on this issue, however, it would be very bizarre indeed if the Ecumenical Church were bound to do whatever, and could not lay down norms on these important issues.But the norm is meaningless if it ought not be obeyed. Yes, the Church is free in various situations to offer different norms, but that does not mean that she is not free to bind on earth.Finally, regarding the Councils. I fail to see why intellect and conscious are separate. There are intellectual sins, intellectual vices, and intellectual virtues, just as there are moral sins, moral vices, and moral virtues. The Councils put a norm on what I may believe true. My conscious is bound to believe what the Councils teach.But it is not only the act of belief that is normed by the councils. If I am initially inclined to read John 14:28 in an Arian manner, I am bond to submit my exegesis to the council, and either decide that I do not understand the passage, or find an orthodox exegesis. If I am tempted to read the account of Jesus prayer in the garden in any of the number of ways which are heretical, I am bound to take an orthodox reading. The councils speak to me prior to exegesis, binding me to exegete in a particular manner.In short, the fact that Churches are voluntary does not imply that they cannot bindingly command; and indeed there are many good reasons to believe they can bindingly command.


  16. Peter Escalante

    Matt,Actually, I didn't argue from the fact that modern churches are voluntary societies, to their being unable to bind conscience. I said that according to Pauline and Protestant doctrine, no man in any case is able to bind Christian conscience. The only religious binding that could go on is indirect, by way of civic ordinance; for in an explicitly Christian commonwealth, the magistrate would have the power to enact civic ordinances of a religious character, in matters indifferent. In other words, the only sort of binding possible is indirect, regarding externals, and through the civic order and under that formality. But the civic order isn't formally Christian here and now, and thus, there is no religious binding possible at all.That does not mean there is no religious obligation of a sort. Christians are obligated, by the nature of things, to follow the guidance and counsel of elders so far as reason and conscience permit, from charity and prudence. But you are equivocating on "bind", and continue to cite vague historical precedents as if they were compelling to Protestants. I have already explained the way in some of those precendents are of interest, and others are not. Submission to pastors is two things. With regard to the ministerium broadly, it is not at all a relation wherein an ordained man is allowed to bind the Christian conscience of congregants singly or collectively: it is a relation wherein one and all wisely follow venerable counsel, but this is true regarding all elders in faith, ordained or not; in the ideal case, the pastor is the mouthpiece and moderator of the common Christian wisdom of the community. And with regard to what is really definitive of the ministerial office, proclamation of the Word, what one really does submit to there is the Word, and to the pastor only as mouthpiece of that Word. Again, no binding of Christian conscience by man takes place in either case.I stand by my point about Pastor Wilson; you have certainly not shown the contrary. it is quite clear that Pr Wilson is only claiming his interlocutor to be bound by the Word, and the other argument he makes is a rhetorical one, as I've shown. Further, defection from right faith is *not* a matter of Christian liberty: one *can* demand that another not defect from faith; where agency defaults, heteronomy interposes. So your citation of this instance is not to the point.Regarding the lex credendi: again, you are begging the question. You argue from unreformed praxis and belief as though Reformed people would receive that as compelling or even persuasive precedent, and you further equivocate and fall into confusion. No, error cannot legitimately be inscribed in texts of public prayer. But again, truth and falsity of doctrine are *not* questions of Christian liberty; this touches on your confused point about the Councils as well. Doctrine is a matter of truth, of fact; not of what may or may not be done, thus, it is not a question of Christian liberty. Writing and praying forms of prayer is a practical matter, but no one says that Christian liberty includes freedom to sin, and teaching error, if deliberate, would be a sin. So there is no "lex credendi" in any sense which would refute the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty (your citation, using Roman Catholic language of "validity", of certain matters of ritual practice, either deal with matters which are *not* adiaphoron, or are- and thus don't serve your point on the one hand, or arent what you make them out to be- binding in conscience-on the other). Intellect and conscience (you wrote "conscious", but I take you to have meant conscience) are indeed not wholly separate- they are, after all, powers of a single being. But they really are distinct, with distinct objects. You are wanting to blur the distinction, in order to use Conciliar statements are instances of men binding Christian conscience: but you might as well say that the Nicene doctrine binds our eye muscles. Intellect, conscience, eye muscle, big toe, not really separate, right?We believe what the Church believes because we *are* the Church. We personally possess the same faith in common. When you say "church", you clearly mean the ministerium: you mean, "I am bound to believe what the ministerium commands me to believe". But this is nonsense. The ministerium teaches publicly what you believe yourself. The ministerium may explain it more expertly, but it is your faith, and it is not a matter of command, it is a matter of teaching, teaching truth which the heart-in the Biblical sense, which includes mind- recognizes. That's how doctrine works. As for practical norms- Lenten observances and whatnot- no man or ministerium can bind Christian conscience in things indifferent. Period. Now, as I've said above, one ought, out of charity and prudence, be earnest in conforming to common norms legitimately proposed, and to do otherwise is unloving and unwise, and evidences serious spiritual trouble. But this does not mean that one's conscience is bound before God to obey Lenten observances. It simply means that where those are the useful common rule, one very much ought to conform to them.Thanks for the conversation.paxP


  17. Peter,I think we must be miscommunicating. I have explicitly avoided saying that anyone can bind conscience. So arguing that pastors do not have authority to bind conscience seems aside the point.The question I am raising whether ministers have authority to bind the person in any way. You say that "No man in any case is able to bind Christian conscience." I agree, but that means that a father is not capable of binding the conscience of his child, and a magistrate is not capable of binding the conscience of his subjects. Yet it remains true that the father and the magistrate have the authority to bind children and subjects, respectively. The questions is whether a minister has the authority to bind the person, in a manner similar to the authority a father has to bind his children. It is perfectly consistent to say the minister has no power to bind conscience, but nevertheless, has power to bind, nevertheless.I have yet to see an argument against this second position, and since this position is precisely mine the oversight is very definitely relevant.Or to put that another way, I am definitely not equivocating on "bind" but am explicitly refusing to ask of binding conscience. No one, not even a father or a magistrate has authority to bind conscience. The binding of conscience is aside the point.The only thing I said that could seem to come close to a claim that ministers can bind the conscience is the claim that my conscience is bound to obey. But that my conscience is bound to obey a minister does not mean that the minister has bound me to obey him. It is perfectly consistent to claim that ones conscience is bound to obey his father, yet it is the Scripture which binds. But Scripture similarly commands me to submit to ministers. So if I minister commands, and I am bound by his command, I am conscience bound to obey his command, but it is Scripture which binds my conscience.So again, your succeed in refuting straw-men, but you have not addressed my concern.You say that the examples I give "either deal with matters which are *not* adiaphoron, or are" etc. But my point isn't about the things themselves, but about where the line is drawn. While some things are adiaphora and some are not, it would not seem that the line which determines which are which is itself an adiaphoron. But Scripture offers no definitive answer to the question.But the question of the line between adiaphora and not adiaphora argues on my side even if it is itself adiaphora. Because if it is, it means precisely, that churches have the authority to rule which matters are adiaphora, and which are not, and thus to discipline those who treat something which they have decided is not an adipahoron as if it were an adiaphoron–for it makes no sense whatsoever to say that the question of whether an action is adiaphora or is not is one of individual judgment when that action is an action of the Church. Moreover, at least one of the examples, paedo-communion, is arguable adiaphora; but if so, it is not adiaphora about which the individual is free to choose, but about which the local church is free to choose, and the individual bound to submit to the choice of the church. Which is precisely the sort of situation which we are asking about.You are correct that I said "my conscience is bound to believe", however, I meant this as a short-hand. I probably should have said "My conscience is bound, I must believe…". At the time I couldn't think of a way to say it without the terrible "my conscience is bound that I must believe".I also object to your statement about submission to the ministerium. Perhaps, but only if you expand the definition of ministerium. If the Councils are seen as stating the position of the Ecumenical Church, then it is precisely the Church I am submitting to, for I am only a part of her.So it remains the case that I am bound to submit my exegesis to Nicea et al., and that I am conscience bound to do so. Nicea et al. offer the correct exegesis here, and that is worth something, however, it remains the case that the Church offers a norm that I must submit to which is not directly contained in Scripture, namely which exegesis I should approach Scripture with.This of course, does not imply that the Church has authority to govern herself aside from the aid of the civil authority. That question would need further analysis. However, the prior question of whether the Church may offer norms seems to be affirmative. At the very least, they can offer second-order norms, questions of what is adiaphora, and what is a proper exegesis, belong to the governance of the Church.However, as I said before, Scripture commands me to submit to my pastor. This means that just as a father does not bind the conscience of his children to submit to him, their conscience is nevertheless bound to submit to him; so likewise though the Church cannot bind my conscience, my conscience is bound to submit to her ministers.Similarly, as Hooker argues here, questions of good order require authority to judge. And though ideally, the Civil authority is a position within the Church, the Church ought to be able to organize herself even without the Civil authority, otherwise in times like the present and the early church, she is bound not to have rules of good order.


  18. Brad Littlejohn

    *raises hand bashfully*Um, what about me, Peter? Matt, I think you have too much time on your hands, to write a reply like that that fast.


  19. Peter Escalante

    Brad,More shortly on your questions, which get right to the point. It's been a very busy week for me! But in brief for now, the "extra" of civic law comes from the scope of the civic law, which covers all actors in a territory in matters regarding the basics of human life, and the common good. Because the temple assembly is a schola, and temporally "smaller" than the State, both in end and reach (unless we are talking about a State church, in which case one has to distinguish its "State" aspect from its properly ministerial one), its laws cannot be enforced penally. The penal "extra" of civic law doesn't make coercion the essence of the civic law, it merely points to its basic character. Whether we observe Lent or not won't make any real difference for the civic common good. Whether we observe traffic and property laws will. Regarding the power of the church to make adiaphoron laws: it can't be stressed enough how different Hooker's situation is from ours. You are right about the order of H's argument. When the Christian religion is not established, the Christian people have the ability to enact and practice things which are not in Scripture, though these things could not bind conscience in the sense Paul finds abominable. They are, however, inescapable for society, even small assemblies. In the state of nonestablishment, these practices, norms, usages would have only the force of bylaw. In the state of establishment, they would have an "extra", namely, their civic character. As I said above, whether we observe Lent or not is not the kind of thing which directly affects the civic common good, and thus would seem to not be a matter for civic legislation; but insofar as religion is essential to public morals and the ethos of the commonwealth, it does make sense in an establishment situation to have those kinds of things (and possibly bishops, religious colleges, et c, all the things Hooker argues for). They thus acquire the civic "extra", but without compromising conscience anymore than they did in the first place. But this is only a very brief consideration- more on this when I can.Joseph,I think I've outlined throughout what the "nature" of the specifically liturigical-catechetical ssembly is- it is a schola. Regarding church "courts" in the very early days, I think we'd be better off, to take a term from modern process, saying "mediation" rather than "courts". The difference in terms conveys the difference in thing.paxP


  20. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Peter, I think that satisfies me enough for now. It seems like you're saying that the extra is simply one of "scope"–civil law encompasses the whole society, church laws (in our situation), only a portion of it. And therefore, civil laws have the responsibility for the common good of the whole, whereas church laws have responsibility for the common good only of a small portion. Therefore the catholic scope of civil law, and correspondingly wider effects of any of our actions in defiance of it, render it more morally important, more authoritative, more "binding" in the life of a Christian than those laws which affect only his involvement in a society of limited size and scope. At least, I take it that that is what you are saying.If so, that raises interesting questions about what this means for the relation of civil law to international law; however, that is a whole 'nother can of worms that I won't jump into.Matt, I think you're missing Peter's points, since he has not been primarily arguing simply against the idea that the church can bind conscience directly, but also against the kind of indirect binding of conscience that you are speaking of. However, it is up to him to flesh out further if he wishes, and it looks like he's said all he has time for now. No doubt, however, this is an issue on which this blog shall afford further opportunities for discussion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s