Calvin Against the Anabaptists

In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.  

In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits.  (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.)  Here is the nub of the matter:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there.  Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

“We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent.  Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church.”

He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?

On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated “churches” despite their severe corruptions.

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24).  Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47).  These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that “even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord’s cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace”; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.  

Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present.  For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29).  What more do we want?  Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad.”

It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:

“For we owe this honor to the Lord’s holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists.  Otherwise, what would you have?  That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured.  But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:

“it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men.  For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.

“In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours.  But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God.”

 

The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly?  (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another.  To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin’s context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.)  The Anabaptists said that “wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there.”  Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious.  Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons.  Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!).  Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:

“a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord’s Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy.  To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen.  Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper.  Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper as long as he lives in that place.”

Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system.  Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:

“he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, ‘Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.

“In these words there are two matters to note.  The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance.  The second is, that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself.”

 

In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:

“let us take thought of what we can do.  And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin’s Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)


When a Mark Isn’t a Mark: Discipline and Disciplinarianism

Anyone who’s had a good Reformed Theology 101 class has likely heard of the old debate in the Reformed tradition between the “two-markers” and the “three-markers,” usually with the narrative being that the three-markers rightly prevailed.  The dispute concerns the classic Protestant doctrine of the notae ecclesiae, the “marks of the Church,” by which Protestants sought to define what constituted a Church (against the Catholic doctrine that it could be straightforwardly recognized by institutional union with and obedience to Rome).  The original answer was that there were just two marks, the Word and sacraments; or, as often more fully expressed, “the Word faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered.”  In these qualifications, however, lay the germ for a third mark, “discipline”—for how, some asked, can we ensure that the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments rightly administered unless such things be policed in some way?  The Church also needs discipline, it was concluded by some, and this third mark found its way into a number of Reformed confessions from the latter part of the sixteenth century on, with varying degrees of emphasis.   

To some, it may seem like an arcane semantic dispute, and yet the question has gained new prominence for recent debates about two-kingdoms theology.  For modern Reformed-two-kingdoms advocates, the inclusion of the third mark was the particular, crucial contribution of Reformed theology, since it sets apart the visible church as a distinct polity over against the state.  In recent posts, Matthew Tuininga, continuing his campaign for Calvin, (though without actually engaging with the recent essay on the Calvinist International), has drawn repeated focus to the importance of discipline as a mediation of the spiritual kingdom, as he takes it, in Calvin’s theology.  In this emphasis, he is treading (although in reverse, as it were), a path blazed by noted Reformation scholar Torrance Kirby (and before him, by Paul Avis).  Torrance Kirby, in his works on Hooker, has argued that the introduction of the third mark was a decisive move, creating a new understanding of the two kingdoms; of course Kirby argues that this engendered a “radical” ecclesiology (similar to Anabaptism), that moved away from the magisterial Reformation, undoing Protestantism’s gains vis-a-vis Rome.  For Kirby, it is absolutely wrong to identify this new view with Calvin, though he does have a culprit: Bucer.  

Having at various times and various places made use of Kirby’s narrative, I would like now to suggest an important revision (though without altering the substantive point).

 

The problem with Kirby’s narrative was suggested to me by an article by renowned Vermigli scholar Emidio Campi, which Jordan Ballor was kind enough to bring to my attention.  Campi argues that Vermigli, unlike Calvin, was staunch in his insistence that discipline was a third mark of the Church.  Of course, this is noteworthy as testimony (over against VanDrunen, Tuininga, et. al.) that Calvin was a two-marker after all, but problematic since Kirby, also a major Vermigli scholar, has placed Vermigli front and centre as a representative of the “magisterial” tradition which Hooker harks back to (though I do not recall Kirby ever making particular claims about Vermigli and the notae ecclesiae).  Let’s look at Kirby’s claims a bit before turning to Campi and then proposing a solution.

Kirby’s fullest discussion comes in his early book Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy: He begins by emphasizing that this question is a hinge on which all else depends, that the marks “are the means whereby the true visible Church is discerned.  They constitute the substance or esse of the Church, that part of the visible Church through knowledge of which membership in Christ’s mystical body is attained.  The notae ecclesiae are of crucial significance in the overall doctrine of the Church in so far as they are the meeting point of the mystical and external aspects of the Church.” 

The key issue, then, “centres upon the inclusion of Discipline as a third essential sign of the existence of the true visible Church.”  Kirby insists, following Francois Wendel, that Bucer is the source of all the mischief here, deviating the magisterial Reformation in a “radical,” Anabaptistic direction.  Calvin, says Kirby, forcefully rejected this, together with Luther, Melanchthon, and “the Zurich divines”—it is this group he labels “the magisterial reformers [who] hold in common the view that the Word and Sacraments constitute the essential marks of the Church.”

In singling out Bucer, Kirby is following not just Wendel, but Avis, who identifies “a tradition of ecclesiology, extending from Bucer both to the Puritans and to the Anabaptists and the Separatists, which attempted to avoid the anomalies manifested when the reformers tried to come to terms with the position of Rome, not by broadening but by narrowing the definition of the Church” (Avis, Church in the Theology of the Reformers, 45).  Beza, says Kirby, followed Bucer rather than Calvin in this, as did Knox and the Scottish Presbyterians, and Cartwright and the English Presbyterians; Whitgift and Hooker followed Calvin and the magisterial Reformers.  Kirby goes on to expound how Hooker shows that Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty, ultimately, is at stake in this dispute, since the elevation of discipline to a third mark makes something external binding on the conscience and part of the esse of the Church. 

A tidy narrative (although it seems to lay an awful lot of blame on the shoulders of Bucer), but problems arise.

For one, it’s notable that in his recapitulation of this argument in Richard Hooker: Reformer and Platonist 15 years later, Kirby concedes that “others profoundly influenced by the more radical ecclesiology [as he calls it] were the Heidelberg Calvinists (Zacharias Ursinus, Kaspar Olevianus and Girolamo Zanchi).  Now this isn’t starting to look very good.  Bucer, Beza, Knox, Cartwright, Ursinus, Olevianus, Zanchi?  That’s virtually an honor roll of fathers of the Reformed tradition.  You’re telling me that all these guys represent some “radical,” sub-Protestant innovation, and that the true Reformed tradition lies elsewhere?  This seems dubious.  Moreover, if Kirby is right that Calvin and the Zurich theologians did not take this tack, then this casts more doubt on his narrative.  For if so much (fidelity to the magisterial Reformation!) hinged upon the retention of just two marks, then how did the two-markers and the three-markers seem to get along so well?   Do we have evidence of a major rift between Calvin and Beza on the issue?  Or Bullinger and Bucer?  or between Whitgift and Ursinus?  Kirby says in RHRP: “Thus Whitgift’s exchange with Cartwright in the Admonition Controversy and Hooker’s own further contribution to the debate can quite plausibly be viewed as a continuation in England of the continental debate between the proponents of magisterial and radical reformation”—but what exactly is this continental debate he is referring to?  If “radical reformation” means what it normally does, then it’s clear enough, but Kirby has enlarged the term immensely.

 

So what about Vermigli?  Again, while I’m not sure that Kirby explicitly mentions Vermigli in relation to this issue, he has repeatedly argued for understanding Vermigli as a representative of a “Zurich theology” along with Bullinger, and in RHDRS he classes “the Zurich divines” with Calvin, Luther, and Melanchthon on this issue (although in his footnote there, he only mentions Zwingli and Bullinger).

In his essay “John Calvin and Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Reassessment of Their Relationship” (in the book Calvin Und Calvinismus) Campi argues, however (I will quote at length):

In effect, the Anabaptists insisted on considering discipline to be an indispensable mark of the church, while Calvin judged that belief to be dangerously confused and established a much clearer differentiation between distinctive marks (notae ecclesiae) of the church, on the one hand, and discipline or church government, on the other.  The distinctive marks, which should serve to distinguish true from false church, are the pure preaching of and listening to the Word of God and the lawful administration of the sacraments, while discipline belongs within the ambit of the organization of the true church.  Discipline, Calvin averred, is nothing but ‘a kind of curb to restrain and tame those who war against the doctrine of Christ.’ (Inst. 4.12.1)  Its end is not in the exclusion of imperfect members of the communion of believers so as to be able to follow a perfect purity and holiness, but rather to incite sinners to repent and to restore communion within the body of Chirst, although everyday experience shows what and how many difficulties get in the way of realizing that end.  In summary, in the context of resurgent Catholicism, which vaunted itself as the true church on the basis of its institutional unity, and of radical sectarianism, which suggested a model of separatist churches composed only of visible saints, Calvin took a middle path between the extreme ecclesiology of Rome and that of the Anabaptists.  Calvin saw in the two notae ecclesiae the distinctive character of a church and in discipline an organizational instrument to use following a ‘judgment of charity’, according to which one presumes that members of the church are those who profess the Christian faith, behave appropriately, and take part in the sacraments (Inst. 4.1.8)

What according to Vermigli might the true church be? . . . Vermigli declares, ‘among the churches the one we should embrace is the one that most greatly flourishes for its spirit, doctrine, and holiness.’  He sets forth, moreover, that ‘we say that the Church is the assembly of believers, the reborn, whom God gathers in Christ by means of the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and who by means of the ministers directs them in the pureness of doctrine, in the lawful use of the sacraments, and in discipline.

Alongside the Gospel and the sacrament, Vermigli numbers discipline among the distinctive signs of the church. One is not dealing here with an isolated text, as with Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto. Vermigli is utterly resolute on the question of discipline. One does not see an evolution in his thought on this; his conviction when he arrived in Strasbourg remained unchanged until his death. In fact, in 1561 a year before his death, in reply to a question posed to him by Polish Reformers on ways of building the Church, Vermigli was explicit in indicating three distinct signs: the pure preaching of the Gospel, the lawful administration of the sacraments, and the immediate introduction of discipline, which he calls Evangelii regula de correctione fraterna.

….

And yet it should be made plain that it is Vermigli (together with Oecolampadius and Bucer), rather than Calvin, who offers the arguments for the inclusion of discipline among the notae ecclesiae, an ecclesiological stance which was to have considerable relevance to Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries, e.g the Catechism of Emden, the Scottish Confession (1560), the Belgian Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession (1648).

Campi, then, has added Vermigli (and Oecolampadius) to the already-long list of those who espouse what Kirby calls a “radical ecclesiology” at odds with the magisterial Reformation.  This just doesn’t sound right.  And yet, on the other hand, you will see from the first paragraph that I quoted, that Campi is clearly with Kirby (and indeed, appears to be influenced by Kirby) in seeing Calvin as a forthright defender of just two marks, and indeed on the significance of this affirmation as a bulwark against Rome and Anabaptism.  Moreover, Campi goes on to make an intriguing further observation, although he doesn’t develop it much—that “there is a substantial theological commonality between what Calvin and Vermigli mean by discipline” for Vermigli too insists that the “end of excommunication is only salvation through penitence and the certain forgiveness of God.”  

 

The key to making sense of all this, I suggest, in is realizing that not all “marks” are created equal, so to speak.  Something may, after all, be said to be a “mark of the Church” in more than one sense.  For instance, in a certain context we might very well say that “love is the chief mark of the Church” (in fact, John Locke said just this now that I think about it, interestingly enough; but we can save that for another day).   By this we would not mean that love is constitutive of the Church (not our love, at any rate, thank heaven), but that love is something that Christians will display, by which the Church will be recognized.  Indeed, it can be said to be necessary for the Church in a sense, inasmuch as love is something that Christians must show if they are to live as faithful disciples.  But we would not want to say (or at any rate, we should not want to say) that without Christians showing love, the Church would not exist; love is not necessary in that sense, for the Church depends upon Christ, not us.  We could thus speak of love as a descriptive mark of the Church, not as a constitutive mark.  

And just the same could be said for discipline.  Indeed, I would suggest that just the same is being said for discipline for Vermigli, and the analogy with love is not a coincidence.  From Campi’s description, both Calvin and Vermigli understand discipline to be functioning as an exercise of love; the purpose is to win back the erring brother, even if it takes hard words to do so (the analogy with parental discipline, to this extent, is close).  This being the case, discipline is something that something that churches must do if they are to live as faithful disciples, and hence a church should be marked out by discipline.  But seen this way, discipline is a descriptive mark, not a constitutive mark.  Which explains why it is that in many contexts, theologians like Vermigli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Ursinus, etc., could list a third mark without thereby overturning the whole edifice of Protestant ecclesiology that depended on Word and sacrament as the essence of the Church, and why they could more or less get along with theologians who tended to speak in terms of two marks.  It explains moreover why Calvin could have such a high view of the importance of discipline (as folks like Tuininga are keen to emphasize) without abandoning the fundamentally Lutheran ground that Kirby insists he stands on.  Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that on this understanding of discipline, since love was the important thing, the particular form was fairly flexible.  Different structures for church discipline, some involving the magistrate more, some less, were arranged; indeed, some three-markers were Erastian, and some two-markers were anti-Erastian.  There was, in short, a spectrum of opinion on the importance of discipline, sometimes expressed in the language of two marks, sometimes of three, and on the form, all of which could function together fairly well on common ecclesiological premises.

Where was the problem, then?  Whence the “radical ecclesiology” that Kirby is concerned about, and that Whitgift and Hooker were combatting?  Does it not exist?  Well no, it does.  Disciplinarianism did arise, and it was a problem.  But the problem wasn’t that it thought discipline was important, per se.  The problem was that it understood this discipline differently.  For folks like Cartwright, the concept of discipline was not so much as a fraternal exercise of love toward erring brothers, but a judicial act of exclusion to maintain the purity of the church (which is the Anabaptist concept).  There are many churches today that still think in such terms, and many that operate with a weird hybrid.  But it’s important to understand the difference.  On the one hand, discipline is understood as an exercise in tough love, and the object is regaining of the lost brother.  On the other hand, discipline is an exercise in moral and social purification, and the object is the preservation of the integrity of the organized body.  This latter concept has a politicised flavor, and becomes a coercive ordinance transgressing on the domain of the civil magistrate, confusing the two kingdoms and setting them in rivalry.  This way of thinking, of course, makes discipline “necessary” in a different sense from the necessity of the Church love.  If the Church is a polis, it must be policed, and if it is not so policed, it will cease to be.  So the Disciplinarian thinks.  On this understanding, discipline is in fact a constitutive mark and not merely a descriptive mark.  Moreover, on this understanding, since the need to preserve the integrity of the visible body looms so large, the particular form that discipline takes will tend to be much less flexible.  Hence the emergence of the concept of “the discipline”—the right way to do things, so that not merely the exercise of discipline generically, but a particular form of discipline becomes part of the esse of the Church.  

 

At any rate, there’s my theory so far.  Further reflections on this front will no doubt emerge at intervals in the coming months.


Melanchthon and the Re-validation of Private Property

(following off of the background provided by the previous post)

The Anabaptists, says Melanchthon, say “that Christian men should not own property, but should have all good sin common, and they make a command of this.”  The monks, meanwhile, “say poverty is a counsel, a special holy work.”  These opinions, he declares, “are erroneous and false.”  Why? 

“The seventh [eighth for us] commmandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ shows that it is right, and a divine order, to have property.  These grave words of the seventh commandment confirm the right to have property for every one, and they draw a wall about each one’s house and trade.” 

For this to be Melanchthon’s first move is quite fascinating.  For here we see, already, the standard argument format used by modern Protestant pro-capitalist apologists: if the Bible says “do not steal,” then this makes clear that private property is held in very high regard by Scripture and must be safeguarded against any intrusions.  The commandment thus shifts from being read primarily as a safeguard against the predations of the strong upon the weak (see Patrick D. Miller, “Property and Possession in Light of the Ten Commandments,” in Having) to being read primarily as as an unqualified positive endorsement for the position of property-holders everywhere.  Private property is shown by these four words to be part of “a divine order.”  

Melanchthon elaborates:

“the orderly regulations of the human race in authority, courts, punishments, marriage, property, buying, and selling are so decreed and maintained through divine wisdom and power, that the devils which oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them.  And order in the human community is a clear testimony to God….Through his beautiful order God would be known, and through such means and bonds he wants us to be drawn together, and to serve one another….this characteristic of the physical order, ownership of property, is pleasing to God.”  

Wow.  There you have it all in a nutshell.  The laws of economics are part of the structure of the universe as God has programmed it, and even those who “oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them”–this is a standard of modern pro-capitalist literature.  But most interesting is the complete elision of the careful distinctions that the Thomist tradition had drawn regarding the natural and unnatural dimensions of private property.  The institution of private property is no longer presented as a prudent human development of the natural order so as to better realize its potential, but is presented as itself part and parcel of the divinely ordained natural order.  Private property is thus assimilated as a postulate of the natural law, 350 years before Leo XIII made this move in Rerum Novarum

Since private property a postulate of the natural law, the abandonment of private property is read as a violation of the natural law–not only not meritorious but downright wrong: “The voluntary abandonment of one’s own goods in the erroneous opinion that begging is a holy work of divine worship is not only not a counsel but a lie, a mistake.”  After all, the one who renounces his own property will be made dependent on the property of others, and will thus be in a sense stealing: “Also, whoever obtains bread from another by begging, if he himself has property and has forsaken it without being persecuted, if he does not perform some honourable work such as teaching to obtain bread, if he is able and not prevented from working, he is a thief.”  

There you have it–the Protestant work ethic!  We have all heard this before–Marvin Olasky sputtering with righteous indignation against anyone who does not work to earn his living, for instance.

Of course, none of this means a renunciation of charity:

“When God gives property and a tolerable trade, we should first of all know that having property is pleasing to God; and we should acknowledge it as a gift from God, thank him for it, and ask God to sustain and bless our poor children with the benefits of our trade.  And we should ask about the correct usage.  With regard to this, everyone should look carefully at the lovely passage in Solomon, ‘Out of your spring let the little brooks flow…however, you alone are to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to you” (Prov. 5:15, 17) [Never mind that Solomon was talking about semen, not money.]  You should preserve the ground and principle benefit for the virtuous rearing of your children, but as much as possible you should distribute the fruits to others, to the churches, to schools, and to the poor.  This passage expressly confirms property, and gives instruction about its use, teaching both how to economise and how to limit liberality.  From the spring let the brook flow out to others, but this does not mean that you are to repudiate your house and goods.”

Of course, the note of charity and liberality here remains strong, stronger than in most contemporary discussions.  And at first glance, it may appear that nothing here has changed significantly from Aquinas–property is to remain under private potestas procurandi et dispensandi, (“the power to procure and dispose”), while being put to common use, though the owner’s first responsibility is to use it for the needs of his immediate dependents.   However, there has been a subtle but significant shift.  Common use, rather than preceding and serving as the ground for private disposition, comes afterward, almost as an afterthought (not, perhaps, an afterthought for Melancthon, but a few centuries of human selfishness had little trouble in making it so)–we first acknowledge our property as a wholesome component of the divine order, and then we turn to ask about how we might use it correctly.  The generous use, on Melancthon’s assumptions, and his mistranslation of Prov. 5, is tightly constrained by our responsibility to remain in full control of our property, “to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to us.”  In earlier Christian thought, while the counsel of poverty was not a requirement upon all, it was, as a principle of “perfection,” the illustration of the goal or endpoint toward which all were to strive.  Although most Christians were called to retain the disposition of their own property, they were to live as if it was not theirs, as if it was alien to them; they were to consider it as belonging first and foremost to others.  As the Didache put it,  “You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother, and not claim that anything is your own.” For Melanchthon, however, it was critical that all regarded their property as their own, and maintained a close and prudent management of it even in their generous exercise of charity.  


Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

In his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon turns at chapter 8 to address “the Distinction of Commandment and Counsel,” which as mentioned in my previous post, has been growing on my mental radar of late as a key player in my ethico-political ambiguities.  Most intriguingly, though, Melancthon turns specifically to consider this distinction in terms of the lawfulness of private property, an issue I have been reading and writing on for the past several months.   

My bold, tentative thesis that emerges from this brief passage: it was the Protestant dissolution of the tension between the commandments and counsels that naturalized the moral justification of private property and thus paved the way for the development of the capitalist principle of absolute private property rights, in which one’s freedom to do entirely as one wished with what one owned preceded and relativised any legal or moral claim that could be made on one’s property.  Bold thesis, right?  (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, at least.)  I’ll sketch out the background of the distinction of commandment and counsel, and the Protestant reaction to it, in this post, and in the following one, I’ll develop how Melancthon applies it to the question of property.

So, let’s take a tour through 1,500 years of Christian ethics. 

Before the coming of Christ, we have the moral law, which is, as the WSC so eloquently puts it, “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”  Scholastic thinkers identify the Ten Commandments also as a summary form of the natural law, engrained in mankind from creation, and in principle knowable (though not necessarily successfully known) by all men.  The principles of natural law serve as the basis not only for moral living, but for political justice.  We see this in the Old Testament, where the civil laws of Israel are given as elaborations and case-law applications of the basic principles of the moral law.  

Enter Jesus, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you,” and issuing a new set of moral norms that seem to go beyond those of the Old Testament (and of natural law).  Now, we can hedge and qualify and say a lot about how the Sermon on the Mount, for instance does not overturn the Law, but fulfills it–it continues and intensifies the original trajectory, rather than simply contradicting it.  But be all that as it may, it does seem to go further in its call for holy living.  Where the old law (and the natural law) permitted–or indeed, one might say mandated–a just use of force in repelling force, Jesus seems to call us to a love that overcomes evil with good, that turns the other cheek.  But does this mean it is no longer permissible to defend ourselves, for instance?  Certainly the earliest Christianity carried with it a strong radical, perfectionist edge, but as it settled down to life in history, and grappled with the responsibilities involved in running a Christian state, the tension began to be felt quite sharply, the impossibility of using the evangelical law as the law for everyone.  

The neat solution devised (this is of course very oversimplified, glossing over a millenium’s worth of debates) was the distinction of commandments and counsels, which said, more or less, that although it was perfectly lawful and not sinful to live in accordance with the basic principles of the moral/natural law, it was even better, if possible, to follow the “counsels of perfection”–the extra moral demands of the evangelical law.  Melanchthon summarizes the definitions:

“A commandment is so called because it speaks of necessary obedience.  Everything that is contrary to the commandments is sin, and this brings eternal punishment if man is not converted to God.  A counsel is a doctrine, not a commandment; it does not demand a work, even though it praises the work as blameless and useful.” 

Three points of the evangelical law in particular were singled out by the medievals: non-violence, renunciation of personal property, and celibacy.  The monastic orders observed these, but most laymen were not expected to, and of course the political realm was not expected to operate according to these principles, but according to the natural law commandments.  This resulted in two levels of Christianity–first-class Christians, who observed the counsels, and second-class Christians, who observed merely the commandments.  Both were legit, but one was holier than the other.  Of course, it is not difficult to see how neatly this tied in with the emerging two-tier paradigm of nature and grace, with natural law governing laymen and the political sphere, and the law of grace governing the full-time Christians, so to speak.  

 

An unsatisfactory situation, no doubt, and one against which Luther forcefully reacted, rejecting the distinction between commandments and counsels, and insisting that all Christians were the same, and were bound to the same standards.   A short paragraph in Melanchthon’s discussion give some insight as to why: 

“First, it is obvious that our works cannot merit forgiveness of sins; so also are our works not perfection, for in this weak life we are still far from fulfilment of the law, and much sin, doubt and disorder remain in us, as Job 9:2 says, ‘No man is justified before God.’ Therefore it is empty blindness when men extol their own works as perfection, as if such works were a complete fulfilment of the divine law, and as if such holiness were higher than commanded works.”

In other words, since man is not justified by works, then what could it mean for the counsels to be better than the commandments?  They couldn’t contribute any justifying merit, and since for the Reformers, justification is the central question, there’s no sense in the distinction.

The Anabaptists took Luther to be saying, more or less, that all were bound to follow the counsels, and the commandments were out (although they did not accept celibacy as one of the counsels).  However, Luther quickly became alarmed by the radical, perfectionist, and legalistic direction that this led, and rejected Anabaptism as a false understanding of his teaching.  In his later work, he basically re-introduced the commandments/counsels distinction, but this time, internally and individually, instead of outwardly in the Christian community.  It was a line through the heart of each Christian, not through the Christian community.  All Christians were called to live outwardly in accord with the commandments, but to have their inner attitudes governed by the counsels.  All of this development thus far I have traced, more or less, in my series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount, which I never finished, but of which we could perhaps consider this a continuation.

The magisterial Reformation, following the later Luther, basically jettisons the counsels of perfection from the socio-political sphere, and lodges them merely in the inward motions of the Christian heart.  So, for instance, you not only may, but ought, to fight back with force (deadly force if necessary) against an aggressor, but with charity in your heart toward him all the while–you must use your outer fist, while turning your inner cheek.  What this means is that the laws of political ethics become not a baseline for preserving order, within which a fuller social ethics can be fostered by the Church, but become themselves the only standard of social ethics.   

 

A couple examples may clarify.  For Augustine, the laws ought to permit killing in self-defense, but Christian ethics ought not to allow it.  In On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, he turns to discuss the subject.  Intriguingly, his opening opens the door to take the later Lutheran route, but promptly shuts it:

Augustine: First we ought to discuss, I think, whether there is any lust in the case where an attacking enemy or an assassin in ambush is killed for the sake of life, liberty, or chastity.  Evodius: How can I think that men lack lust for the things that they can lose against their will?  Or, if they cannot lose these things, what need is there to go as far as murdering a man for them?” 

Augustine, in common with Luther, recognizes that the key moral problem is of the inward lust, but whereas the magisterial Reformers at this point would answer Evodius by saying, “No, we can  act in this way toward the enemy without any accompanying lust in our hearts, but preserving all the while charity toward the aggressor and acting out of mere concern for justice,” Augustine concurs with Evodius–the outward action is the expression of the heart.  He and Evodius then go on to develop a careful justification for why, given that the action of violent self-defense is itself wrong, the laws may still justly permit it.  The magisterial Reformation, however, will conclude that not only should the laws permit such, but because they permit it, and are an expression of the natural law when they do so, that it is therefore morally right to use violent self-defense, and–here’s the kicker–morally negligent not to do so.  

Another example: Augustine famously argued in his letter to Macedonius for clemency toward convicted criminals.  While acknowledging that there was genuine justice in the penalties prescribed by law for criminals–including capital punishment–Augustine argued that nevertheless, it was even better and more Christlike, to pardon them if possible, and he maintained that the Church had a duty to intercede for such pardon and work for it.  In Bk. 4, ch. 14 of his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli took Augustine to task for this argument in no uncertain terms, mounting a vigorous and unequivocal point-by-point refutation.  The gist of his argument (about which I have been planning to post for a year now; hopefully I will have a chance to discuss it fully in a later post) is that, since the laws are just in requiring the full penalty, based as they are on the natural law and the Old Testament, it would be unjust and therefore wrong for the magistrate to do anything other than impose the full penalty.  And it would therefore be unjust and wrong for any clergyman to exhort the magistrate to impose anything less than the full penalty of justice.  All of Augustine’s arguments drawn from the teaching of Christ Vermigli considers irrelevant–this evangelical law pertains only to the inward disposition of the heart.  So the magistrate must of course act with full charity and non-judgmentalness in his heart, but this should not in any way affect his actions.

This, I take it, is the fundamental move of Protestant ethics and political ethics, and, understandable as it is in reaction both to the Catholic two-class system and the Anabaptist legalism, I can’t help but consider it a very unsatisfactory move.  So, let’s turn in the next post to see how Melancthon develops this with respect to property.