Leviathan or Puppet?

One of the favorite rhetorical weapons of the Right is to point to the sheer page count of federal legislation, particularly the Federal Tax Code.  They are especially fond of pointing out that the tax code is longer than the Bible, though there seems to be considerable haziness on the precise margin.  This is often presented as damning evidence of the overgrown power of the federal government, a sprawling, all-consuming monster that has its tentacles in everything.  Of course, no one would deny that there is a lot of truth to this picture.

But reading Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens, it occurred to me that another interpretation is possible.  Perhaps the sheer length of US tax regulations is more a sign of impotence than omnipotence.  Think about it.  

In a nation with a strong, respected, generally-accepted authority (perhaps a mere hypothetical), laws ought to be able to be fairly concise.  The law can say “Thou shalt not do X,” (where X is a fairly clear and generally-accepted concept), without too much further elaboration, and can generally accept that people will by and large try not to do X.  But suppose people feel disinclined to obey; they will start saying, “So what counts as X anyway?” Or, “They won’t be able to convict me of X if I just do it this way…”  To cope with this loss of authority, this lack of concern for the spirit of the law, the law will have to become ever more complex and detailed, trying to plug every hole in the dam.  We might suggest the principle, “Where words are many, authority is probably absent.”  Of course, this becomes a vicious cycle, since the increased regulation simply provides further incentive to try to dodge the law and search for loopholes.  

Treasure Islands suggests that this is exactly what has happened with our tax codes.  Eager to avoid taxes, companies and wealthy individuals used accounting tricks and offshore tax havens to get off scot-free, and governments responded with ever more complex tax codes to catch the fleeing money, usually with only very short-term success.  Even worse are those cases where the complexity and absurd length of the regulations is a result of lobbying, so that governments are not merely struggling to maintain control but have capitulated entirely, allowing corporations to all but write the tax codes for them.  

It’s for this reason that, while sympathetic in principle with a dramatically slimmed-down tax code, I have so little patience for the gimmicky proposals that get trotted out every election cycle by the GOP, such as Herman Cain’s absurd “9-9-9” plan.  “We can get the tax code down to just a few pages and still bring in just as much revenue!”  For how long?  A week?  The current code started out at just a few pages too, and you can guarantee that as long as multinational corporations and wealthy individuals remain as powerful, mobile, and creative as they now are, that any tax code that wants any slice of their money will have to grow like kudzu just to keep up.  

Grace Perfects Nature: Hooker on Nature’s Threefold Need for the Supernatural

(The following is a fragment of a thesis chapter draft I’ve been working up; it restates and repackages a number of matters that I’ve touched on here before, hopefully in a more satisfying and systematic way.)

Although Hooker lays great stress on the independent integrity and perspicacity of the order of nature, which has moral weight on its own, apart from the provision of special revelation, Hooker’s valorization of reason and nature is often overstated by his interpreters.  In fact, I would suggest, there are three crucial qualifications on the “autonomy” of nature and reason.  First, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of encompassing their own end; nature cannot be considered a self-enclosed compartment, nor can reason be satisfied merely with the task of investigating creation.  This much is clear already from Hooker’s inclusion of the first great commandment as one of the prescriptions of the law of reason, however, he will have much more to say in support of this claim in Book I, chapter 11, insisting that man’s final end is one beyond nature—God.  Second, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of being capable, on their own, of reaching their final, supernatural end.  On this point, Hooker is particularly nuanced, attributing most of this incapacity to the reality of sin, but acknowledging a dependence on divine grace even in the state of innocence.  Third, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense that the gift of revelation serves solely to provide a path to the supernatural end, and leaves reason perfectly adequate on its own for all natural purposes.  Let us investigate each of these three points in turn.  

Hooker begins chapter 11 by returning to his statements early in chapter 5, where he introduced the law of reason, saying that it was the way in which man sought the unique goodness proper to his nature.  Everything created, he says, must have not merely particular goods, but a final good, “our Sovereign Good or Blessednessness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired.”  Indeed, when we look at created goods, we see how they each serve not as goods in themselves, but as instruments unto some higher good: “we labour to eat, and we eat to live, and we live to do good, and the good which we do is as seed sown with reference to a future harvest.”  However, if this merely continued in an infinite regress, “whatsoever we do were in vain. . . . For as to take away the first efficient of our being were to annihilate utterly our persons, so we cannot remove the last final cause of our working.”  Therefore, he concludes, “something there must be desired for itself simply and for not other.”  For animals, mere continuance in being is an end in itself, but not for man.   For man, as the highest order of being, “doth seek a triple perfection: first, a sensuall, consisting in those things which very life it selfe requireth as necessary supplementes, or as beauties and ornaments therof; then an intellectuall, consisting in those things which none underneth man is either capable of or acquaineted with; lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting in those things wherunto we tend by supernatural meanes here, but cannot here attain unto them.”  This last, the  “spiritual and divine” good, must be infinite, for it is that final good “which is desired altogether for itself,” a desire that would be evil if bestowed on anything finite. 

So what is this final spiritual good, this supernatural end?  It is union with God.  For “No good is infinite but only God; therefore he is our felicity and bliss.  Moreover, desire tendeth unto union with that it desireth.  If then in Him we be blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with Him. . . . Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God”.  (This description of man’s blessedness will be very important later on for our discussion of Christology.)  Hooker goes on to specify further this condition of blessedness: it must be “according unto every power and faculty of our minds apt to receive so glorious an object”—”both by understanding and will”; it must be perpetual, a perpetuity that cannot proceed from any natural necessity within us, but “from the will of God, which doth both freely perfect our nature in so high a degree, and continue it so perfected.”

Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it.  It is not in our power not to desire this, he says.  Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity: “It is an axiom of Nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate.  This desire of ours being natural should be frustrate, if that which may satisfy the same were a thing impossible for man to aspire unto.  So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.  If natural desire, then, is not “frustrate,” is natural reason capable on its own of achieving this end? 

Certainly not as man now finds himself.  For “this last and highest estate of perfection whereof we speak is received of men in the nature of a reward,” for works of obedience to the Creator.  This would have been Adam’s path to perfection and bliss had he not fallen.  However, Hooker is careful to qualify here, quoting “the wittiest of the school-divines” (Scotus) that we do not speak of this reward in terms of strict justice, as if God were “bound to requite man’s labours in so large and ample a manner as human felicity doth import; inasmuch as the dignity of this exceedeth so far the other’s value.”  Even in man’s natural state, then, the supernatural end of blessedness could only come “by the rule of that justice which best beseemeth him [God], namely, the justice of one that requireth nothing mincingly, but all with pressed and heaped and over-enlarged measure,” (ibid.) and the perpetual continuance of that blessedness infinitely transcends mere natural justice.  In any case, however, says Hooker, this is a moot point, for Adam failed, and what man now living can present his works, such as they are, before the throne of the Almighty and demand such a reward?  “There resteth therefore either no way unto salvation, or if any, then surely a way which is supernatural, a way which could never have entered into the heart of man as much as once to conceive or imagine, if God himself had not revealed it extraordinarily.” Thankfully for us, this latter is the case, and God has revealed a means, transcending any capacity of reason, whereby we might be granted this highest end of our desire.  

This supernatural duties thereby revealed are faith, hope, and charity, and are not merely beyond natural capacity to do, but even to know.  “Laws therefore concerning these things are supernatural, both in respect of the manner of delivering them, which is divine; and also in regard of the things delivered, which are such as have not in nautre any cause from which they flow, but were by the voluntary appointment of God ordained besides the course of nature, to rectify nature’s obliquity withal.” 

This last distinction leads us to a third point.  Thus far, we might be excused for understanding Hooker to say that nature falls short only of encompassing its naturally-desired supernatural end, but not of merely natural ends.  On this reading, the revelation of divine law would serve merely to establish supernatural duties, which would serve merely to lead us to God, while reason remained perfectly adequate to guide us in natural, civil duties toward our fellow man.  Certainly Hooker has already said a great deal in praise of reason’s ability to guide us in such endeavors, and will continue to say a great deal throughout the laws.  After all, God’s wisdom comes to us in many ways, all of which are to be respected and valued in their particular place: “Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise. We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored.”  However, Hooker does not in fact think that the law of reason is so self-sufficient even within the realm of natural duties, or that Scripture has nothing to say about such duties (the conclusion that VanDrunen implies).  Nor does he think the converse (which proceeds from the same misunderstanding) that the supernatural law, being once delivered, can serve as a substitute for the law of reason (the conclusion that the Puritans implied).  

Rather, he declares at the outset of ch. 12, “When supernatural duties are necessarily exacted natural are not rejected as needless.  The law of God therefore is, though principally delivered for instruction in the one, yet fraught with precepts of the other also.  The Scripture is fraught even with laws of Nature.”  In re-directing us to our final end, Scripture cannot but re-direct us also with respect to our finite ends, since these are ultimately oriented toward that final end of union with God.  If we pursue finite goods with a view toward possession of God as highest good, then our dis-orientation from our final end, as a result of sin, cannot but distort our grasp of finite ends.  Consequently, the re-orientation provided by revelation will set us back on our natural path and illuminate that path again for us.  

We must distinguish, therefore, between “supernatural law” in the sense of origin and object.  Inasmuch as divine law reveals supernatural duties, it is, as Hooker has just said, supernatural both in respect of its origin (we could not know it but by special revelation) and in respect of its object (it concerns those duties which comprise our supernatural path to our final end).  However, divine law also reveals natural duties; in these it is supernatural in respect of origin, but not of object.  This distinction—between divine laws that are strictly soteriological, and divine laws that are also natural—is of course absolutely crucial for Hooker throughout the Lawes, and corresponds again to the two kingdoms distinction.  It is this which enables him to maintain sola Scriptura strictly within the arena of supernatural duties, while insisting that Scripture and the law of reason can be mutually interpreting in the arena of natural duties.

After delineating at some length the ways in which the law of reason can fail to adequately inform us of our natural duties, Hooker recapitulates with admirable concision and precision the triple dependence of the natural on the supernatural:

“We see, therefore, that our sovereign good is desired naturally; that God the author of that natural desire had appointed natural means whereby to fulfil it; that man having utterly disabled his nature unto those means hath had other revealed from God, and hath received from heaven a law to teach him how that which is desired naturally must now supernaturally be attained.  Finallie we see that because those later [the supernatural] exclude not the former [the natural] quite and cleane as unnecessarie, therefore together with such supernaturall duties as could not possiblie have been otherwise knowne to the world, the same lawe that teacheth them, teacheth also with them such naturall duties as could not by light of nature easilie have bene knowne.”

Death is Swallowed Up in Victory

Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Those who sow in tears, shall reap joy
He who goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed,
Shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls away.

Therefore be patient, dear brothers, unto the coming of the Lord.
Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruits of the earth
And is patient for it, until he receives the morning rain and evening rain.

But the word of the Lord endures for eternity, 
The redeemed of the Lord will come again
And come to Zion with a song; eternal joy shall be upon their heads;
They shall take joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall depart.

Lord, teach me that I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose, and I must go hence.

Behold, my days are as a handbreath before Thee,
and my life is as nothing before Thee.
Alas, as nothing are all men, but so surely are the living.

They are thus like a shadow, and go about vainly in disquiet;
They collect riches, and do not know who will receive them.
Now, Lord, how can I console myself?  My hope is in Thee.

The righteous souls are in the hand of God, and there no torment shall touch them.

How lovely are Thy dwelling places, O Lord of Hosts!
My soul demands and yearns for the courts of the Lord;
My body and soul rejoice in the living God.

Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; they will praise You forever.

“You now have sorrow; but I shall see you again
And your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one shall take from you.
Behold me: I have had for a little time toil and torment, 
And now have found great comfort.
I will console you, as one is consoled by his mother.”

For we have here no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep, but we all shall be changed
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.
For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled the word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power,
For Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will
They have been and are created.

Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth.

Yes, saith the Spirit
That they rest from their labours, and their works shall follow them. 

So runs the text of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, which I was privileged enough to see performed for the first time this weekend—a masterpiece that must surely rank as one of the great musical testaments to Christendom. Although Brahms’s own Christian commitment is open to some doubt, this text, compiled by Brahms himself from the pages of Luther’s German Bible, surely represents one of the most powerful affirmations of Christian faith in God and hope in the resurrection in the face of death.  Indeed, I have little hesitation in saying that as a response to the fear of death, it is much more authentically Christian than the traditional Requiem Mass, with its morbid meditation on “that day of wrath, calamity, and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire,” and fearful pleas for mercy.  

Imagine my indignation, then, when confronted with these incoherent declarations from the concert’s program notes, courtesy of one Femke Colborne: “Brahms chose and assembled a selection of texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible. . . . [However,] the German Requiem is less overtly religious than a traditional requiem. . . . It deals primarily with the human suffering caused by death and the grief of those left behind, and although some of the texts deal with the hope of resurrection, there are no overt references to Christian dogma.”  Let’s leave aside for the moment the oddity of Requiem consisting entirely of texts from the Christian Scriptures and not being overtly Christian.  Let’s leave aside the question of how statements like “Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all Praise, honour and power, for Thou hast created all things, and through Thy will they have been and are created” contain no overt references to Christian dogma.  Indeed, let’s leave aside the point that not merely “some,” but fully half of the words of the Requiem’s text deal with the doctrine of the resurrection.

I’m particularly intrigued by the stunning claim implied by the last two clauses of that extract from the program notes—that the hope of the resurrection is not a Christian dogma.  It would be hard, in fact, to imagine a more Christian dogma than that of the resurrection of the dead.  Indeed, it was of course this doctrine, more than any other claim of the early Christians, that was a scandal and nonsense in the ancient world.  No Greek, no Roman, no barbarian or mystery religion, indulged in such an absurdly optimistic doctrine.  Perhaps it is a sign of just how thoroughly the Christian revolution has transformed the human consciousness that we now take for granted its most distinctive claims.  Indeed, perhaps Mr. (Mrs.?) Colborne could be forgiven his mistake, given the prevalence of a curiously vague and humanistic fascination with the idea of “resurrection” in Brahms’s German Romantic contemporaries, such as Mahler.  And to be sure, a vague and syncretistic hope in “resurrection” is a widespread theme in the post-Christian Western consciousness.

But I suspect that what Mr. Colborne really had in mind was that Brahms’s Requiem was less fixated with the idea of wrath, judgment, and hell, than a traditional Requiem Mass, and that since it didn’t talk about these things, there was no overt Christian dogma.  After all, we all know that what religion, and especially Christianity, is really all about is judgment and hellfire and all that.  Christianity is there to make us afraid of death, of a wrathful deity who will torment us if we don’t do what he wants.  Things like hope and comfort in the face of death, confidence of joy in the hereafter, etc., all that is quite natural and commonplace, not Christian at all.  Thus does Mr. Colborne betray the benighted ingratitude of modernity.  For of course, in the ancient world, it was clear that the precise opposite was the case.  Any pagan could’ve told you that death was fearful and terrifying, that we would probably face a wrathful deity and more than likely suffer torments after death if we fail to placate him.  Ancient religions may have disagreed about many things, but one thing they could agree on: joyful hope in the face of death, confident in a gracious God who had triumphed over death and would restore you to bodily existence, was delusional optimism.  And yet, so thoroughly has this delusional optimism triumphed, that we now take a vague and watered-down form of it (having quietly substituted the immortality of the soul for bodily resurrection) for granted, and dismiss Christianity as having nothing to offer but a return to morbidity.  



Property—Real and Imaginary

For the undergraduate Christian Ethics: Sources class last week, I had the opportunity to lead a class debate on the resolution, “This house believes that the downloading of music and media without copyright permission should not be considered an issue of conscience”—a fun topic for me, given my ongoing interest in the issue of property, and the many discussions/debates I have had with friends about this issue.  

I was curious to see what students would make of it—given how many students nowadays violate media copyright with no compunction whatsoever, I expected a vigorous case to be made in favor of this resolution, but was surprised to find, on the contrary, a very vigorous and thoughtful opposition, and a very half-hearted defense of illegal downloading, ready to concede before the debate was even quite over.  Students seemed to find little merit in the Pro arguments, and to find the Contra arguments unanswerable.  While this might demonstrate a laudatory law-abiding spirit, it also confirmed what I had long suspected was the case—few people nowadays have any grasp of the contingency of property relations.  Consider the following arguments that I supplied to the students:


  1. According to the Christian ethical tradition, the principle of common use has priority over private property rights—property exists for the benefit of the whole community, not merely for the owner.  Current intellectual property law is unjust, perpetuating monopolies and stifling art and culture.  We have a duty to protest this wicked system.
  2. Intellectual property is not real property; it cannot be stolen the way physical property can, since it is infinitely replicatable.  For this reason, it is wrong to apply moral and legal paradigms of ownership and stealing to intellectual property.
  3. Property rights are simply a matter of social convention; they have no natural basis.  Nowadays, almost everyone considers media downloading to be fine, so conventions have clearly changed, and existing law is outdated.
  4. Such downloading may be illegal, but law is only valid insofar as it is enforced and enforceable.  By the nature of intellectual property, and especially given the proliferation and rapid advance of digital technology, restrictions on illegal downloading are in fact impossible to enforce.  So the law is a dead letter and shouldn’t trouble our consciences.
  5. Producers of media are still fabulously wealthy, and indeed, still have access to many sources of income (such as live concerts) even with the existence of widespread illegal downloading.  So the downloading isn’t harming anyone. 
  6. It might not be good if everyone violated copyright, but it’s not fair that access to media should be restricted to those who can pay for it, so people who really can’t afford it shouldn’t feel any qualms as long as they observe reasonable limits.



  1. Natural law and Christian ethics enshrine the sacred principle of property rights—“Thou shalt not steal.”  The music someone produces is rightfully theirs, and to take it without their permission is stealing.
  2. Downloading media without paying violates the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 
  3. The producer of the media has a moral right to a just reward for their labor.  Their right to receive the profits from the sale of their production is the means, in our economy, whereby they receive this just reward.  Therefore, illegal downloading wrongfully depriving them of this reward and exploiting their labour.
  4. Even if there were not a moral case for such legal restraints, the law has an objective authority that the Christian should respect, and failure to do so will undermine our Christian witness in the world.
  5. Failure to protect the income stream of media producers will result in a collapse of the media industries; they will be unable to continue to produce media, and not only consumers, but jobholders and society as a whole will suffer as a result.
  6. The fact that many people have a sense of discomfort about downloading media in violation of copyright is a sign that conscience is testifying to us about it.  We should not ignore this testimony.

To my mind, arguments 1-3 were easily the strongest Pro arguments, but remarkably, the debate team showed little interest in them.  Of them, the only one they tried to use was argument 1, and they misunderstood its intent entirely, taking it to be an idealistic argument for a sort of Acts 2 communal property; needless to say, they didn’t put up much of a fight when the opposition argued that it was unrealistic to insist on Acts 2 as a paradigm for modern intellectual property arrangements.  Correspondingly, I thought that argument 1 for the Contra was the weakest—indeed, I put it in there primarily to see how quickly the Pro side would tear it down—but the Contra debate team wielded it like a sharp two-edged sword, and the Pros did not make a very vigorous attempt to rebut it.  

In other words, students made the remarkable, and remarkably common, mistake of assuming that the definitions of current property law correspond straightforwardly to an underlying, univocal, natural right of property.  The referent of “Thou shalt not steal” is taken to be perfectly obvious, and that referent, it is assumed, can be mapped directly onto current property law.  To determine what property is, we assume, and therefore what stealing is, all we need to do is look at current law.  No one seemed to recognize that the very definition of property, or what constitutes a just title to ownership and a just title to exclusive use, not only can be, but is, very much up for debate.  Indeed, the mere fact that modern intellectual property law is so recent an invention, and that even today, intellectual property law differs radically in different countries, shows that there is not one, obvious, natural way of defining and regulating it. 

The key Contra argument, in my view, is argument 3—we must ensure that artists get a just reward for their labor.  But we must avoid hastily concluding that there is only one way to do that, which is to treat artistic and intellectual creations in the exact same legal terms as physical objects.  Doing so is likely to in fact prove quite unnatural, and lead to quite problematic results.  Indeed, no sooner did I start wondering whether it was a bit over-the-top to assert “Current intellectual property law is unjust, perpetuating monopolies and stifling art and culture.  We have a duty to protest this wicked system,” than I stumbled upon this story, in which the Saul Zaentz Company has asserted its “exclusive worldwide rights to motion picture, merchandising, stage and other rights in certain literary works of JRR Tolkien including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit” as a basis for forcing a twenty-year-old Southampton pub called The Hobbit to change its name (thankfully, intervention by no less than Sir Ian McKellen has forced the the SZC to back down.  

In short, whatever you think about the ethics of online media downloading, it is high time that we gave some serious thought to the subject of what property actually is and how it should be regulated, and if music piracy acts as a catalyst for that thought, then for that at least we can be thankful.

Announcing The Calvinist International

It is with immense pleasure that I can announce the launch of The Calvinist International, “A Forum for Reformed Irenicism.”  Created and piloted by my friends Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante promises to provide a much-needed bridge between the world of academic theology and the ordinary educated Reformed Christian, while avoiding the chaotic and ill-informed polemics that so often characterize Reformed blogdom.  It aims to be robustly Reformed, academically rigorous, and authentically irenic, a job description for which I can think of few people better suited than Steven and Peter.  

Their vision is ambitious and exciting:

Consistent with the original wisdom of the Reformers and their best heirs, the irenic way we follow here is wholeheartedly biblical and evangelical in theology, rigorously perennial in philosophy, catholic in scope, and pacific in spirit.
In this manner, we will consider the first things of religion, politics, philosophy, learning, and the arts.  In a time of crisis and confusion in commonwealth, churches, and academy, we aim to reexamine and renew for our day the archai, the first foundational elements, of the discarded image of Christendom.
Not only will we get to hear their own contributions on a regular basis, but they hope to provide a hub to help network the contributions of like-minded folks around the web.  So head on over there, subscribe to their feed, and start checking in regularly.  Their first post outlines the theological method and approach they intend to follow, one in which they seek to follow in the footsteps of great Reformed irenicists of previous centuries, and they have also posted, as their first in-depth essay, “A Compound Person,” a fantastic defense of the orthodoxy of Reformed Christology, against Bruce McCormack and other less responsible detractors.