The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More

An Open Letter from Richard Hooker to the Republican Party of the United States

The following is adapted, with small changes, glosses, and additions (for clarification and contemporary re-specification), from sections of the Preface to Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie. Any modifications or additions are in italics; omissions are marked with ellipses. Key passages are marked in more prominent typeface.

A Preface to them that Seek (as they term it) the Repealment of Laws, and Orders Regarding Obamacare in the United States of America

Notwithstanding, as though ye were able to say a great deal more than hitherto your interviews on Fox News and denunciations on talk radio have revealed to the world, earnest challengers ye are of trial by some public disputation regarding the merits or demerits of the Affordable Care Act. Wherein if the thing ye crave be no more than only leave to dispute openly about those matters that are in question, the schools in universities (for any thing I know) are open unto you, as are the airwaves, the press, the daily and hourly opinion columns of the internet news media and blogs. . . wherein the several parts of our own healthcare laws and regulations are oftentimes offered unto that kind of examination; the learnedest of you, and the not-so-learned, have been of late years noted seldom or never absent from thence . . .  and the favour of proposing there in convenient sort whatsoever ye can object . . . neither hath (as I think) nor ever will (I presume) be denied you. Read More

Notes Towards a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Liberty and Human Law

Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book V, ch. 71, sect. 3:

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



Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom and Social Identity

From Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, ch. 5, “Freedom and Its Loss”:

“From an objective point of view unsociability can be described as a loss of order, from a subjective point of view as a loss of freedom.

“‘Freedom’ is a term with a range of meanings.  First and most formally, it is simply the power to act, that ownership of one’s behavior which distinguishes the intelligent agent from creatures of instinct.  Stripped bare of all social context, this is a power of individual human nature, which may usually simply be assumed.  The assertion of freedom in this form always belongs with some kind of individualism.  Here is the freedom-as-defiance of the existentialist, and of the teenager who refuses to get out of bed in the morning.  But freedom so conceived is abstract and unproductive.  To give the term a moral significance, we must understand it in terms of the orientation of the individual to social communications.

“And so there arises a second and more substantial sense of freedom: the realization of individual powers within social forms.  This is the sense in which we can say the the objective correlate of freedom is authority.  Authority (in the broadest sense, not political authority alone) attaches to those structures of communication in which we engage in order to realize freedom.  And this is the sense in which freedom may be lost.  Loss of freedom does not mean that the social orientation of human beings can be utterly thwarted.  But we can be deprived of the structures of communication within which we have learned to act, and so we can find ourselves hurled into a vacuum in which we do not know how to realize ourselves effectively. . . . But what we can say of the individual in these circumstances, we can say equally of the society.  It is not free unless it can sustain the forms that make for its members’ freedom.

“Freedom is a term used almost exclusively to focus attention on the possibilities of its loss. . . . That is why it is no easy thing to construct a positive program around the idea of freedom.  Politicians who praise freedom too profusely in flourishing circumstances are viewed with understandable suspicion.  Yet when some concrete threat appears, whatever it may be, ‘freedom’ is the first word on all our lips.

“If freedom is the self-realization of the individual within social forms, the twin guiding lights of sociality and individuality mark the runway along which any discussion of freedom must get airborne, whether its flight path then turns in a socialist direction towards securing individual freedom by way of social structures, or in a liberal direction towards securing social freedom by way of individual liberties. . . . ‘Freedom’ speaks of a certain conformability of society to individuals and of individuals to society.  It is a measure of fit between the communications which the individual hopes for and those which the society sustains.  As such, it is a matter of more or less.  Even in the most oppressive circumstances it is not wholly absent.” (67-69)

. . . 

“Freedom, then, has to do with a society’s particular historical way of existing. Societies cannot be free if they cannot sustain their historical identities.”

“Social identity, then, is an important contributing element in the freedom of an individual.  There can be no ‘freedom’ in having many spheres to participate in, unless one can rationally conceive of a whole that connected those spheres together. . . . However, there is more to personal freedom than simple participation in a tradition. . . . It is an imprisoned self-knowledge that cannot distinguish one’s calling from one’s social identity. . . . There is an eloquent difference between the term ‘identity’, used both of societies and of individuals viewed objectively as members of societies, and the term ‘vocation,’ used only of ourselves as subjects. . . . ‘Vocation’ takes us beyond identity, to a fulfillment in service that is extended to us personally by God.  And this provides us with a third sense of the term ‘freedom,’ as the individual’s discovery and pursuit of his or her vocation from God.  It is to this that Christians have pointed when they have spoken of ‘evangelical liberty,’ the liberty of baptism.” (70-72)

Some Excellent Reflections on Church Discipline

In the absence of finding time to write the posts I keep promising to write (more systematic reflections both on women’s ordination and on the “rules of engagement” for thoughtful, charitable, but principled theologial debate), I’ll keep stalling by pointing you to good things other people have written.  Thankfully, I don’t have to look far to find some.

My friend Joseph Minich, with whom I’ve had a number of very fruitful conversations on these questions in recent months, has just posted (on his brand-new blog), a set of excellent reflections on church discipline and church authority.  In essence, he tries to demystify the whole concept (which a lot of recent writing on “recovering high ecclesiology” among Reformed Presbyterian types has worked hard to re-mystify) with good old-fashioned Reformation Protestantism.  If the authority of the minister (and the elders) is only the Word, then a sentence of discipline has no spiritual ramifications unless it is a true application of the Word to the individual’s spiritual state.  And, as a corollary, the application of the Word by any old fellow congregant, who sees the need to all his brother to account, is of equal weight.  Ministers do have a particular authority, but it is a non-conscience-binding prudential authority over prudential matters of polity, as well as the informal moral authority of wisdom and vocation.  

Joe addresses ecclesiology, contending, “the visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression,” and then also gets into questions of what the term “the Church” really means when we get down to brass tacks and talk about concrete ecclesial communities:

Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution.”

Read the whole post here.