Pretenses of Loyalty and Things Indifferent

John Perry’s remarkable recent book, Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology draws attention with remarkable precision and clarity to the fundamental problem of early modern political theology—what remains, in fact, the central and recurrent problem in defining the relation of religion and politics, church and state.  How are conflicting loyalties to be harmonized?  How are believers to be sure that their allegiance to God will not conflict with their responsibility to serve the common good?   

Perry’s thesis is quite simple, and repeated so frequently throughout his book that the reader cannot fail to grasp it and never loses track of it as the orientating point of the narrative and argument.  Perry argues that modern liberal theory, following (as it supposes) Locke, has been preoccupied with the idea that it is possible to delineate the just bounds of politics and religion, of public and private claims.  The hostilities between these two in principle should be readily resolvable.  And yet, no matter how hard liberal theorists try, the tensions continue to elude resolution.  Why?  Perry argues that modern liberal theorists have in fact ignored an important part of Locke’s project.  Although Locke spoke of the need to “distinguish exactly” between the business of government and religion, he did not think it was that simple.  Locke himself realized what recent communitarian theorists have come to realize; that there is in fact a clash of loyalties going on.  Loyalty to God makes claims on people that appear to contradict the claims that loyalty to the common good makes upon them.  The first thing that must be achieved, then, is a harmonization of loyalties, which, if it is to be persuasive for religious believers, must have a theological foundation.  Locke understood that if he was going to convince Protestants (of which he was one) that obeying God was not in conflict with their duty to be good citizens, he would have to provide a theological argument about what obeying God entailed, rightly understood.  

 

Perry goes on to do a beautiful job of ascertaining and outlining the theological shape of Locke’s political argument—in his early work and finally in his famous Letter concerning Toleration.  This book’s tightness of focus, however, is its weakness as well as its strength.  What Perry does not sufficiently realize is that the set of issues that Locke was wrestling with and seeking to resolve were nothing new; on the contrary, Locke was simply the latest dialogue partner in a discussion going back to the Reformation.  It would be false to accuse Perry of wholesale ignorance on this front, though it is common enough in literature on Locke.  Perry does indeed recognize that there is a backstory, and that Locke must be read against that backstory; it’s just that he doesn’t know that backstory well enough to realize just how important it actually is.  This becomes particularly clear when he comes to discuss the issue of adiaphora, which he sees as being central to Locke’s early work, The First Tract on Government. 

Although he has briefly treated the issue of toleration as far back as Calvin, his discussion of debates over adiaphora begins after the Restoration (1660).  After the Restoration, the Anglicans were keen to crack down on nonconformity, and their argument centered around the concept of adiaphora, “matters indifferent to salvation”; such matters fell legitimately under the oversight of the civil authorities.  Now, Perry notes that both Anglicans and Puritans believed that there were some things in themselves indifferent, and both were keen to avoid falling into superstition in thier use of adiaphorous rites. “However, they disagreed about what sort of rites crossed the line into legalism or superstition and whether practices inherently indifferent could be made conditionally essential. For example, could the bishop or ruler require kneeling for communion as a practical matter?”  Was it legitimate for things in themselves indifferent to become necessary by virtue of the command of an authority?  The nonconfomist Edward Bagshaw argued in his The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent that it was not.  

Bagshaw argues for the principle of adiaphora on the standard Reformation bases of sola gratia and sola fide—works must not be necessary to salvation.  He goes on to distinguish, more sharply and clearly perhaps than most nonconformists, but far from uniquely, “between two types of indifferent acts: on the one hand, acts that are ‘purely’ indifferent, such as time and place, which are “so very indifferent” that he does not concern himself with them, and on the other hand, acts that would otherwise be indifferent ‘but by abuse have become occasions of superstition, such as are, bowing at the name of Jesus, the [sign of ] the cross in baptism, pictures in churches, surplices in preaching, kneeling at the sacrament.’”  

 Now, Perry goes on to say that Bagshaw went on to make a unique new argument:

“Part of what makes Bagshaw unique is how he argues against uniformity not strictly on the grounds of freedom of practice but by claiming that once an act is required, it automatically becomes so tainted by superstition that it therefore moves from being indifferent to forbidden. An act is indifferent until it is required, in which case it becomes prohibited. This logic is plain where he writes, ‘So long as a thing is left Indifferent, though there be some suspicion of superstition in it, we may lawfully practice it, as Paul did circumcision. But when any shall take upon them to make it Necessary then the thing so imposed presently loses not its Liberty only, but likewise its Lawfulness; and we may not without breach of the Apostles’ Precept submit to it. So long as there is no rule as to whether I must kneel to receive communion, I may kneel or stand. However, once kneeling is required, I must stand, lest my obedience to the rule become a “work of the law.”’”

In other words, adiaphora are not merely those things which have as a matter of fact been left free to individual conscience, but are such that they must continue to be left free.  Now, this is all very fascinating; the problem is that it is not remotely new.  The same arguments can be seen in the exact same context (the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England) a century before.  Nor are they a uniquely English problem.  They are a Protestant problem.  Wherever the doctrine of Christian liberty was preached, it engendered two rival interpretations: the one just mentioned, and the view that adiaphora have been left free to human decision, which means that they may be disposed of by human authority, so as not to leave the individual free with respect to them any longer.  One finds Bagshaw’s argument spelled out at least as early as Matthias Flacius’s 1548 On True and False Adiaphora.  

 Because Perry does not realize how far back this particular debate goes, neither does he realize the extent to which Locke’s response to it (for Locke was originally an apologist for conformity and uniformity in religion) is part of an ongoing tradition of Protestant political theology.  So Perry writes,

“What set Locke’s argument apart from others that supported uniformity in adiaphora is how thoroughly political it is. It is not an argument that uniformity of practice most pleases God but that uniformity most inclines to civil peace. He naturally offers supporting arguments to show that there is no theological obstacle to uniformity, but these are decisively secondary.” 

He then quotes Jacqueline Rose (who, from her article, appears to have a much more nuanced understanding of debates about adiaphora than Perry appears to):

“What has vanished [from the debate when we turn to] the Tracts is the concept of any distinction between ‘indifferent things of civil as well as religious concernment’…Locke was the sole writer in this Restoration period who sought to provide an explicit theory behind the analogy [of civil and religious law] rather than merely employing it.”

Now perhaps Locke really is the sole writer of the Restoration period to do so, but he is merely treading ground that Hooker and others had not merely trodden, but virtually paved before him.  In the 16th century, conformists had repeatedly understood the question of adiaphora to be a political one, and had argued for the parallel between indifferent civil actions and indifferent religious actions, and the need for order and decency in both.  It was because indifferent religious actions could in fact be understood as a kind of civil action that they could be regulated by civil authority for the sake of civil peace without any religious claim being thereby made.  In most writers, admittedly, this argument was underdeveloped, but it is developed with elaborate systematic support by Hooker.

It is on the basis of this understanding of adiaphora that the early Locke opposes toleration.  Again, Perry finds it significant that toleration is opposed here not on theological grounds—because God cannot abide heretics, or whatever—but on civil grounds: if religious conformity is not insisted upon in things that are indifferent, and hence the proper province of the civil magistrate, then strife and disorder will prevail.  “He professes to be a great lover of liberty but concedes, ‘I find that a general freedom is but a general bondage.’ Without uniformity in adiaphora, the only liberty we would achieve is ‘liberty for contention, censure and persecution [turning loose] the tyranny of religious rage; were every indifferent thing left unlimited nothing would be lawful.’”  In other words, precisely by legislating conformity in adiaphora, the authorities ensure that they remain adiaphora.  If Puritans were left free to decide about them as they chose, they would become bones of contention, as different parties argued for stricter or looser practice and accused the other of being unbiblical or superstitious, etc.  This fear was clearly not without good cause, given the tendency of the Puritan left (in England, Scotland, and America) to splinter into ever-stricter sects.  Locke also argues that those with other seditious agendas will use religious scruples as the basis for their protest (as indeed we see today with the way Tea Party Christians use religious rhetoric to oppose political and economic policies they disagree with and endorse tax rebellion).  Accordingly, Locke argues, the ruler has legitimate authority to command the outward actions of his subjects in all things indifferent; he cannot command their hearts, he cannot trample on the realm of things essential to salvation.  The only question, then, is where we draw the line of what constitutes adiaphora.  Hobbes could, with reasonable Protestant precedents behind him (certain statements of Luther, incidentally), count anything beyond faith alone adiaphorous; Hooker was rather more careful and nuanced.  Locke, in any case, did not have to deal with this question in the Tract, because Bagshaw had granted the matters in dispute to be adiaphorous.

 

Now, Perry goes on to show how the transition from Locke’s early anti-toleration to his later pro-toleration position is thus smoother than one would expect.  Locke never argues that toleration is illegitimate in principle, but that, empirically speaking, too much discord and rebellion will ensue if the magistrate does not keep tight reins on religious practice in his realm.  Could Locke be shown that it was possible for sects differing in their practice of adiaphora to coexist peacefully with one another, and in subordination to their ruler on all other matters, he would be fine with toleration.  As it turns out, he is so convinced, by a series of circumstances, over the next twenty years; indeed, he comes to the conclusion (which we almost all share today) that so hard do people find it to treat adiaphora as genuinely indifferent, so earnestly do they cling to their convictions regarding them, that enforced conformity creates more strife than it solves.  So he reaches the new conclusion that government can, indeed ought, to tolerate diversity in religious adiaphora; and since indeed this was the only aspect of religion over which government could have ever claimed jurisdiction (since it cannot rule the realm of faith), Locke now argues that government should stay out of all matters that are objects of religious loyalty. 

To make this argument, though, as Perry shows, Locke must make another theological argument, not dissimilar in overall shape to his original argument.  For how can believers be shown that their religious loyalty, their allegiance to God, does not require them to be intolerant?  The objective of his argument now, then, is not to establish an area of adiaphora over which Christians should let the authorities make decisions, but to establish an area of adiaphora over which they should be happy to let other individuals and communities make their own decisions.  As just seen, Locke originally believed, as did many others of his time and before him, that strife was more likely to ensue from people being unable to tolerate their neighbors’ diverse religious practices than from the government simply opting not to tolerate any diversity.  Now he has reached the opposite conclusion, but still recognizes there is a potential for strife that must be defused.  He must convince believers that proper loyalty to God does not entail attempting to vindicate his honor by opposing or attacking all those deemed to be unfaithful.  God asks us, rather, to exercise charity, and reserves vengeance to himself.  From this perspective, even the core teachings of the Christian faith are adiaphora—not when it comes to myself, for my own salvation is at stake in my beliefs, but when it comes to other people.  Other people’s beliefs and practices need have no effect on my own salvation, therefore there is no reason why I should be bothered about them one way or another.  Needless to say, Locke’s argument at this point entails a massive break from the kind of corporate, communal mindset that had continued to dominate even most Protestants up through the early modern period.  Where Calvin would have feared the judgment that God would send down on the community as a whole for its toleration of godlessness in its midst, Locke offers us a hyper-Protestant “every man for himself” political theology.  

Of course, allowing toleration of religious adiaphora requires Locke to come up with some principle for determining the realm of strictly civil concern over which the monarch still has the right to command, and differentiating clearly from legitimate religious obligation. (E.g., religious obligation cannot be claimed as a basis for tax evasion.)  It was his earlier conviction that such a criterion was impossible that led him to argue for civil control over all adiaphora.  He accomplishes this by another theological argument and by a philosophical argument.  The theological argument involves radicalizing early Protestant emphases on the invisibility, inwardness, and otherworldliness of the order of salvation, so that he will deny that the Church has any this-worldly ends or requires this-worldly means.  The philosophical argument is his rejection of the natural law tradition, which Hooker would have used to determine the proper scope of civil jurisdiction, and replacement of it with his massively influential doctrine of natural rights.  The task of civil government, then, can now be understood as oriented solely toward the securing and protecting of “natural rights,” rather than the promotion of the common good more generally, which would naturally include religious matters.

 

The last couple paragraphs have been an extremely cursory overview of what Locke is up to in his Letter concerning Toleration, which is analyzed with great care and clarity by Perry in chapter five of his book.  Perry does an excellent job of flagging the tensions and weaknesses in Locke’s argument, and the extent to which it depends upon sharing his theological premises.  It is this fact, Perry argues, that accounts for the ongoing struggles of Lockean liberalism to achieve a harmony of religion and politics.  Locke’s solution required a theological argument, specifically a very Protestant kind of theological argument, in order to render it coherent.  That worked fine, as it turned out, because his original audience by and large shared the theological premises.  But clearly, the solution, although intended for a situation of pluralism, finds itself subject to diminishing returns the more pluralist a setting it finds itself in.  This problem has been compounded by the fact that modern theorists have forgotten that there was a theological argument in back of Locke’s political philosophy to begin with.  Perry traces all this in Part III of his book, “John Locke’s America.”

But for now, I will just fast-forward to the conclusion, where Perry offers some tentative (and rather Hookerian, I would say) proposals—not solutions, mind you—as to how to address these problems.  

Perry suggests that liberalism has developed too great a skepticism of rhetoric, of persuasive speech ordered toward the particular situation and presuppositions of one’s audience.  Liberal public discourse must neutralize difference in advance, and thus argue from what claims to be a mere abstract rationality that anyone should share.  If they do not in fact share it, then we’re suddenly at an impasse—our opponent must just be being irrational, and the calm reasoned discussion degenerates into a shouting match.  What we need is a recognition that we do not in fact all share the same presuppositions of what is to count as rational, what ends are appropriate for human beings and for society.  We must regain faith in the possibility of public debates in which such conflicting visions of the good are made explicit, faith that the disagreements need not remain wholly incommensurable.  This requires, in the end, faith in the natural virtues—confidence that, outside of Christian belief, we will find fellow citizens imbued with a certain sense of virtue and a shared desire for truth.  And it requires a willingness to accept the penultimacy of political life; the renunciation of the quest for a final solution like Locke’s that would establish the “just bounds” of rival loyalties for all time.


The Hart of the Matter

Darryl Hart has again lobbed one of his predictable grenades at the “Internationalist” R2K critics (though I am deeply hurt to find that my name has dropped off the Most Wanted list), complete with his obligatory Federal Vision allusions and gay jokes.  As the substance of his critique (what substance there is, at any rate) rests on a long quotation from Torrance Kirby that never even does him the service of mentioning the matter that he is using it to illuminate, a detailed response is hardly necessary.  

However, Hart does finally edge us closer to the heart of the matter at a couple points, one of which I want to address here briefly (the other one I’ll be tackling in a longer essay forthcoming at TCI).  Finally recognizing that the “Internationalist” critics are neither theonomist nor neo-Calvinist, he is zeroing in on the source of disagreement when he says that, on the Internationalist reading of Reformation ecclesiology, “As long as you belong to Christ, it doesn’t matter what the preaching, sacraments, ordination standards, or worship patterns are in your own church.”  In one sense, we would say, “well yes, duh”; in another sense, “well yes, but.”  

On the one hand, it is indubitably true that the Reformers believed that these things “don’t matter” in the sense that one can genuinely belong to Christ despite being in a church that lacks true preaching, pure sacraments, godly ordination standards, or edifying worship patterns.  As Bullinger so finely puts it in the Second Helvetic Confession (the most widely adopted of all the 16th-cent. Reformed confessions):

“Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found. For we know that God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel.”  

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t follow from this that none of these things matter at all.  On the first two, preaching and the sacraments, the Reformers were unanimous that in the ordinary course of God’s working, these are indispensable for the life of the Church and the faithful Christian—hence their status as notae ecclesiae (though this never meant that there was no room for variation in how preaching and sacraments were practiced).  However, the latter two were normally classed among the adiaphora, “things indifferent,” so that we could say they “don’t matter.”  Of course, even this would be a misunderstanding to some extent of the adiaphora concept, as it was never meant to convey absolute indifference—there is still a right and wrong, a better and worse, but not one right and wrong that applied to all churches irregardless of time, place, and circumstance (see my essay here for more clarification on the adiaphora concept).

This issue—a right understanding of adiaphora, and of sola fide as relativizing (not marginalizing, mind you, but putting into proper perspective) the role of the external media of the visible church, is, we might say, the theological heart of the matter.

 

The historical heart of the matter, on the other hand, concerns how we understand the emphasis on and practice of church discipline in the early Reformed tradition, particularly in Calvin and his Geneva, to which R2Ks appeal as the flagship for their ecclesiology.  In this, I would suggest, Hart and his allies are relying on an increasingly outmoded (though still cherished) scholarly narrative about the nature and significance of Genevan discipline in the formative stages of the Reformed tradition.  A fresh look at the historical realities, I will argue in my upcoming TCI post, shatters a number of sacred Presbyterian cows and compels a new understanding of what was going on in the early development of Reformed discipline.


Hooker in the Bedroom

Since launching The Calvinist International just a month ago, Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante have built it into a first-class site, with thoughtful articles on topics as diverse as Shakespeare, VanDrunen, and Von Mises, an invaluable “Resources” page, and a very exciting project of Evangelical Resourcement entitled “How Then Have We Lived?,” which I’m sure I’ll be returning to over and over.  

This paean, of course, is somewhat self-serving, as TCI has just been kind enough to host the paper I presented at the Society for the Study of Theology last month, “Indifference that Makes a Difference: Richard Hooker and the Conundrum of Christian Liberty”; only, thank goodness, Peter E. has dressed it up (or undressed it?) with a snazzy new title: Hooker in the Bedroom? Law, Liberty, and Things Indifferent.”  In it, I try to draw on some very old categories to provide some conceptual clarification to contemporary evangelical confusions recently highlighted by Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage, which managed the impressive feat of scandalizing feminists and fundamentalists at the same time.  


Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  


Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.   

  


Does God Care? Christian Liberty and Food

In a sermon clip recently posted on CanonWired.com, renowned Reformed pastor Doug Wilson asserts, “The Triune God of Scripture doesn’t care.  Bacon is fine. . . . Oysters are fine.  Refined sugar is fine.  Processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn is fine . . . As far as God’s concerned, Fairtrade coffee is fine, rip-off trade coffee is fine . . . God doesn’t care what’s on the plate, God cares what’s in the heart.”  This might at first seem strange to anyone familiar with much of Wilson’s other teaching on theology and cultural issues, in which he is fond of saying that “theology should come out your fingertips” and insistent on applying Reformed Christianity to everything from teaching mathematics to dancing.  In fact, however, it represents but another installment in Wilson’s ongoing crusade against the ethical food movement.  My point here, however, is not so much to directly engage Wilson on this issue, but to use this clip as an opportunity to reflect on what the doctrine of adiaphora and Christian liberty really means, and how it might afford clarity for us on this vexed topic. 

The doctrine of Christian liberty is commonly invoked in many contexts to tell Christians to bug off and stop being judgmental, not to lay down Pharisaical burdens beyond what God himself requires.  And often, there is a good reason for this.  Legalism is a perennial temptation, and many sectors of evangelical and Reformed churches are heavily weighed down by it.  And yet, we must always take care that the call not to be judgmental does not become an excuse not to exercise judgment.  The fact that God does not require something does not mean we can check our consciences at the door and any choice is as good as any other.  There is no escape from the need for moral thinking.  

 

So what might it meant to say that God doesn’t care about food?  Well, in classical Protestant terminology, what Wilson is saying is that what we eat is adiaphora.  However, there are at least two different ways of parsing that.  On the one hand, we might mean that God does not require it in the sense of making it necessary to our salvation, to the state of our soul or our ability to have a relationship with him.  From God’s standpoint, all who are in Christ have Christ’s righteousness, and their foibles–even quite massive ones–do not change that fact.  Even the drunkard, the adulterer, the thief, yea, even the murderer, may enter the kingdom in heaven if they put their trust in Christ alone.  In this sense, one might say that God requires very little.  But we mustn’t push this antinomian line too far.  God doesn’t just care that we get to heaven by the skin of our teeth.  He cares that we live well, for our own sake and for the sake of his other creatures around us.  And so there are many things God wants us to do and many things he wants us not to do, if we are love ourselves, our neighbours, and our creation rightly.  Many of these things he commands or forbids in Scripture, and in this sense, God requires of us rather more than he requires.  Adiaphora, on this second perspective, are those things that God neither commands nor forbids in Scripture.  In this sense as well, we might reasonably say that “God doesn’t care” what we wear, for instance, since he tells us little or nothing on the subject in Scripture.  

And yet, we would want to be cautious about this “doesn’t care.”  Is it a neutral matter if Christian women go around dressed like sluts?  Certainly Wilson would be the first to say no, having preached and spoken repeatedly on the subject of “feminine modesty.”  Perhaps one might reply that is an unfair comparison, since Scripture does speak on this subject–women are commanded to dress modestly.  And yet this remains at the level of general principle–the Bible does not tell us when skirts are too short or jeans too tight.  But does that mean “God doesn’t care”?  The legalist seeks to compensate for God’s silence by inventing his own rules and attempting to give them the force of divine sanction.  The libertine takes God’s silence as guaranteeing divine sanction for whatever he or she chooses to do.  But the godly Christian takes this silence as a summons, a summons to exercise judgment–fallible, human judgment, but judgment nonetheless. 

The concept of an adiaphoron, you see, is really a logical abstraction, a “useful hypothetical” as Oliver O’Donovan put it to me in a recent conversation.  It means that an action, taken on its own, independent of any context, is neither morally good nor evil.  But of course, no action ever is–it is always embedded in circumstances, circumstances that call us to consider its fittingness, its lovingness, its edification.  This does not mean, of course, that it is pointless or meaningless to designate something adiaphorous.  If something is adiaphorous, this does liberate us.  It liberates our conscience from a burden of fear, since it means that if we do our best in good conscience, we’re not in sin just because we decided wrong.  It liberates us from the burden of inflexibility, since it means that we recognise our judgments are provisional, and we can respect differing conclusions that other conscientious Christians may reach.  It liberates from the burden of ultimacy, since we know that there are often much more urgent serious and urgent matters that demand our moral attention and action, and if tending to these means we neglect the lesser matters, that’s OK.  

 

But while all this should and must be said, we must not stop here.  God’s silence on “adiaphora” is an invitation to get to work–not burdened by fear, but empowered by love–and to seek what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Oftentimes love will mean submission–submission to the rules or expectations currently prevailing in church or society, submission to the scruples of a neighbour or the wishes of a spouse or pastor.  But sometimes (and quite often in our very free and un-rule-bound societies), love will mean action–studying to to learn the way of excellence and right action, prayerful attention to God’s wisdom expressed in Scripture and in teachings of the church and meditation on how to apply it, discipline to improve one’s own actions in accord with virtue, and dialogue with (or, if in a position of authority, teach) others to persuade them to share the same concerns and take the same actions (with a charitable willingness to accept their disagreement).  And, rightly qualified, God does care that we do this, and do it well. 

We apply this already in so many areas of life that are adiaphorous–lacking any direct or specific divine guidance–how to vote in local elections, what films to watch or avoid watching, how to pursue romantic relationships in a godly way, etc.  Can we not do the same with food?  

 

(As this post is in many ways prolegomenal to the issue of food ethics per se, I don’t want to go into any great depth here, but merely to sketch the contours of an answer.)  Clearly, the answer seems to be yes.  All three levels of horizontal Christian love apply–love of ourselves, love of others, and love for the creation.  God does desire us to love ourselves–to be concerned with our well-being, that we may enjoy him and serve him and others effectively.  Obviously, what we eat is absolutely central to our well-being.  If we eat foolishly and destroy our bodies, or weaken them so that we have to spend thousands of dollars on medical care for chronic and easily preventable conditions, we are exercising extremely poor stewardship, harming ourselves and indirectly others.  So, to this extent, while surely even the worst foods are essentially harmless in sufficiently small quantities, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we eat too much bacon or refined sugar or “processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn.”  

God desires us to love others–to work for their physical and spiritual well-being, and to be mindful of the ways in which our actions directly or indirectly help or harm them.  Obviously this means, in the case of food, that we should care not only that we don’t destroy our own bodies with foolish eating, but that, as much as reasonably possible (mindful of the thousands of taxing duties that parents have, and their very human limits) we protect our children from it as well.  Beyond this, though, it also means cultivating a concern for those involved in making our food and getting it to us–do our purchases enrich the lives of producers or degrade them?  If we have an option of buying a product that will directly support the livelihood of a local farmer, versus buying a product that will undermine the livelihoods of ordinary farmers and simply line the pockets of a food processing corporation, all other things being equal, perhaps we should buy the former.  To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we buy fair-trade coffee or rip-off-trade coffee.

God desires us to love the world that he has made–to live in harmony with it and enrich it by our presence in it, rather than degrading it.  He desires us to discern the relationships that he created it to have, and to seek to strengthen and encourage those relationships, instead of destroying and inverting them.  He desires us to have regard for the lives of our beasts–to treat the animal creation as something that exists not merely to serve our whims, but to enjoy its own place within the world.  Obviously, when it comes to food, we are having to devour part of this creation–plant and animal–in order to nourish ourselves, and that’s perfectly appropriate.  But we can do this in a way that honours and preserves that creation, or a way that degrades and destroys it.  Anyone remotely familiar with much of modern industrialised agriculture will recognise that it does a great deal of the latter, often in ways that are downright sickening (literally and figuratively).  All other things being equal, we ought to seek to avoid supporting the production of such foods.  To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) about the bacon we buy and even about that processed corn stuff as well.

 

Now, again, this is not an invitation to legalism, guilt, or strife.  The insertion of the “all other things being equal” qualifier is essential, in reminding us that these moral responsibilities are not absolute, but exist in relation to a host of circumstances–our own limits of time, money, and energy, existing economic relationships that are highly complex, with the ability to transmit unintended consequences all over the globe, or the weak consciences of neighbours that might easily fall into legalism.  And of course, it’s not as if any of us have the knowledge to consider all these factors adequately, so if we do our best with limited knowledge, God smiles on that.  And even if we don’t, we can remember that in an ultimate sense, God doesn’t care–he will not arraign us on judgement day and condemn us for gluttonously indulging in refined sugar or refusing to shell out the extra dollars on free range chicken.  At most, he will gently chide us, let us look down sheepishly for a moment, and then comfort us with a “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  So no point in being paralysed with fear.  But he does want us to live excellently, and shouldn’t we want to as well?  So no point in remaining paralysed by apathy either.