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.

 

 


Why We Fast (or Don’t, as the Case May Be)

With their newfound appreciation of liturgy and tradition, many Protestants (me included) have rushed headlong into taking up the observance of Lent—ashes, wearing black, fasting, the whole nine yards.  Such a rush to tradition runs the risk of being a mere fleeting aesthetic choice in the consumerized religious marketplace, or of fetishizing such observances as cool just because they’re “old” and “traditional.”  Even for the well-intentioned, there is a danger that, lacking any communal tradition of fasting, they will take it up without much sense of exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish.  In response, other Protestants, slightly slower to wade into the frothy liturgical hot-tub, wring their hands with old worries about superstition, Pharisaism, and self-righteousness, and wonder if fasting isn’t a bad idea altogether.  

So the pastors of the CREC, in preparing an excellent booklet of Lenten devotions for use in their churches, felt compelled to preface the booklet with a skeptical warning against Lenten fasting, particularly the common practice of “partial fasts,” when people give up something particular like meat, or alcohol, or of course chocolate.  (The document is unclear whether fasting entirely from food for short spells of time, such as a day of the week, during Lent, is likewise to be condemned.)  Lent, they emphasize is supposed to be about penitence, about giving up sin, rather than giving up fun.  So I thought it might be helpful to reflect for a bit on why we might fast (partially or otherwise) and what might be gained from it.

The first thing to be emphasized is that Lenten fasting is a matter of sanctification, not justification.  That might seem obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing.  Protestants have insisted forcefully that fasting is not a way of earning merit in God’s eyes; we don’t do it for His benefit, but for our own benefit.  There is thus no ground for self-righteousness; on the contrary, fasting is an act of humility, an acknowledgment that you have a long way to go in becoming righteous, and that’s why it might be helpful to fast.  Moreover, while some matters of sanctification are categorical—every Christian must seek the sanctification that is to be found in weekly worship and sacraments—others are adiaphorous, and fasting is most certainly one of the latter.  That means, it might help you, it might not.  It might help at certain times, but not at others.  It might help in certain ways, but not in others.  There is no one right way you have to fast.  It is most certainly a matter of Christian liberty, and so we should be relaxed about it, not uptight about it.  Now, to be sure, a church or group of churches can decide to call on its members to all observe a particular fast at a particular time, often as a way of offering a public witness of repentance for corporate sin—although very few churches do so anymore.  When this is the case it may be most edifying for everyone to go along with it (although no one’s conscience is bound).  Aside from such cases, I’m not inclined to think that a decreed fast is a very good idea; this is one area where it seems that internal Christian liberty should generally be allowed external expression.  So while I think it may be helpful for churches to create a culture in which Lenten fasts are encouraged and supported, they should also encourage people to feel at liberty, each mindful of their own physical and spiritual needs.

Under this heading, I think I should perhaps offer a bit of an apologia for letting one’s fast be known. Much of the hand-wringing that I see among Protestants about Lenten fasts derives from an overly literal reading of Jesus’s exhortation to fast in secret.  We forget that in that same passage, Jesus speaks also of the need to pray in secret, and yet most of us have not thereby renounced public or family prayer, or shied away from ever telling anyone else that we were going to pray.  Jesus’s point is to discourage ostentatious personal displays of fasting that seek to call attention to one’s own holiness.  It should be obvious that, in a setting where Lenten fasting is the norm, it’s quite a casual matter to mention one’s fasting, without any hint of self-righteousness (just as there’s no self-righteousness in praying publicly at a prayer meeting where everyone’s expected to do so).  Indeed, it is often helpful to the broader community of believers for everyone to be upfront about their fasts.  If I am giving up meat or alcohol, it can quickly create awkwardness when I start turning down offered food and drink at social occasions, or avoiding such social occasions altogether, if no explanation has been given.  Of course, given that many of us do not occupy social circles in which such fasting is simply expected, we do face the temptation that we announce our fasts as a way of showing that we are part of the cool club of liturgically-minded people that do such things.  That’s something to be on guard against, to be sure, but we needn’t freak out automatically at any public mention of fasting.

A second thing to emphasize is that, if the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, all the more so for Lent.  It’s a human tradition, which may be edifying, but isn’t automatically.  If you’re sick, or you’re pregnant, or you’re malnourished, fasting doesn’t make much sense.  If you haven’t seen your wife in awhile, and Valentine’s Day is two days into Lent, and you want to treat her to a really nice meal and a bottle of wine, then let Lent wait, for Pete’s sake!  Legalism is a genuine danger, and the best way to avoid it is to hold traditions like Lenten fasting very lightly.  If you really think you need to cultivate self-discipline, then maybe you need to be kinda strict with yourself, but if there’s a good reason to make an exception (say your buddy just graduated and you want to take him out to celebrate), then make an exception!  And of course, one thing this means is that, if fasting isn’t helpful for you, if you find yourself just doing it because other people are doing it, or because you think you’re supposed to get some spiritual benefit that doesn’t seem to be coming, then don’t!  There are many many great ways to observe Lent.

Which leads to the third point—of course, fasting is just supposed to be one small part of  the picture.  The Lenten exhortation invites us “to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word.”  If your Lent consists of giving up Godiva chocolate and that’s it, then you probably have, as the CREC booklet worries, missed the point.  All of the other things listed here are more important than fasting itself, though fasting can be helpfully combined with each of these, as I shall outline below.

So, these three prolegomenal points having been made, what are some things that might be gained in this day and age from fasting, and yea, from partial fasting?

Let’s work from the words of imposition used in the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Turn away from evil, and follow Christ.”  

Remember that you are dust…

As I have argued in the past, one of the most valuable uses of the Lenten discipline of fasting can be, quite simply, to remind us that we have bodies, and to remind us of their limitations.  Ironically, in our materialistic age, we are perhaps most at risk of forgetting our bodiliness, because we can maintain it so effortlessly.  In an earlier age, when sickness and hunger were never long absent, when food and drink could often only be won by focused toil, and travel required significant bodily exertion, it was difficult to forget that one was made from the earth, and was therefore radically dependent on the earth for one’s continued strength and existence.  Academics like myself, especially, are prone to think of ourselves as disembodied minds, as drawing all our strength and resources from the power of our own thoughts.  Once you go without food for just 18 hours, it becomes difficult indeed to screen out the stubborn fact of embodiment, and you find quickly that those brilliant thoughts don’t come so naturally when the blood sugar runs low.  Far from encouraging self-righteousness, then, fasting can help to instill the most radical humility, reminding us of how little we can accomplish without the lowly daily gifts of food and drink.  With such humility comes greater gratitude toward God for providing us so richly with such means of sustenance. 

And to dust you shall return…

Along with the awareness of embodiment goes the renewed awareness of mortality.  Again, our need for this is much more urgent today than in most former ages, when death was a fairly common companion.  Most of us, especially young folks like myself, have never actually watched someone die, and rarely experience the death of a close friend or family member.  Scripture is full of exhortations for us to remember our mortality, without which we are liable to forget God, and indulge in prideful fantasies about our own importance or indestructibility.  By bringing us face to face with the fragility of our bodies, their constant reliance on food to maintain their strength, fasting can be a good way of teaching us that these bodies will have an end, and that we must live in light of that end.

It bears noting that these first two closely related functions of fasting are likely to work much better through short regular complete fasts (e.g., not eating for a day, or even a meal, out of each week), rather than through simply giving up some favorite food or drink, but consuming roughly the same amount of total sustenance.

Turn away from evil…

This is probably the most important and often-emphasized dimension of fasting.  But how does it work?  What exactly is the connection between fasting and penitence?  If you are like me, you may have puzzled over this when you first experimented with fasting: “OK, so I’m really hungry now…how exactly is this supposed to make me sin less?  All I can think about right now is a steak, not my sin.”  There are actually several possible dimensions to consider here.

First, fasting can serve as a way of demonstrating the authenticity of our penitence.  This seems often to be the role of fasting in Scripture.  After all, it’s all too easy to say, “Well, dang, I’m sorry God.  I really wish I could stop sinning in this way, and I’ll try to, promise,” and then to move on, forget about it, and promptly sin again.  By fasting, we say to ourselves and to God, “No, this sin is serious enough that I need to actually do something about it.  I need to start changing my lifestyle.  And I’m going to mark and signify that change of lifestyle by changing the way I eat/drink/etc. as I pray about this sin.”  Or it can be a way of saying, “Sin hurts.  Sin has a cost.  By casually asking for forgiveness, I can ignore this fact, but I need to show that I recognize the seriousness of this sin by being willing to suffer a little bit for it.”  Such asceticism can be dangerous, if we start thinking that we can atone for our sin by punishing ourselves for it.  But done correctly, it can simply be an acknowledgement of the fact that habits are formed by associations, and physical discomfort can leaves a deep impression on us.  Just as we discipline a child, causing them physical pain to help them remember the painful cost of sin, so we may need to discipline ourselves by depriving ourselves of ordinary pleasures as we struggle to overcome a sin.  

This leads into a second point, which is that fasting can help serve as a way of disciplining our sinful, or at the very least intemperate, desires.  If the sins of which we are repenting are fleshly sins, sins involving an idolization of comfort, or addiction to pleasure, or an inability to control our physical reactions—a category that can include sins like gluttony, sloth, greed, lust, anger, and many more—then fasting may be particularly appropriate or useful.  This is perhaps particularly obvious in the case of gluttony, where fasting may be a way of directly combating the sin.  However, any sin that involves an overindulgence of the flesh and its desires is one which fasting may help us to overcoming by training us in patterns of self-discipline.  Indeed, although the CREC booklet seems to doubt that practices of “partial fasting”—abstaining from some common habit or particularly preferred indulgence throughout the season of Lent—could serve in any way toward this end, it seems on the contrary that a long-term partial fast may be more effective in disciplining the flesh than short periods of complete fasting.  Denying oneself that usual pint of beer, or eating any kind of meat, day after day may prove more painful on the whole, and will likely tend to form habits of self-control more effectively, than abstaining from food altogether for a day or two.  

Finally, such fasting, while an effective means of responding to known sins, can also help us identify sins we didn’t know we had, and can thus be a helpful aid to the “self-examination” that Lent is often used for.  I may have had no idea that I was a glutton, or overly fond of strong drink, until I find just how hard it is to go without my favorite food or whiskey for a few weeks.  

…and follow Christ

One of the biggest complaints against fasting is that, by causing us to observe Lent in purely negative fashion, by not-doing something, it distracts us from the more important purpose of Lent, which is actively devoting ourselves to Christ and to others.  Accordingly, many churches emphasize the value of “taking something up” for Lent—a new prayer routine, a couple hours a week helping at the homeless shelter, a deeper study of Scripture—instead of “giving something up.”  This is the more important, as Lenten fasting is usually temporary, but the new patterns of devotion we take up may become part of our long-term routine of serving God and others.  However, the two are not mutually exclusive, and for some of us, fasting can help us to take up such positive practices of devotion.  

First, and most centrally, fasting can be a way of focusing us on Christ himself by helping us to remember his sufferings: we take up our own cross in some small way to help us remember his taking up the cross; we follow him both into the wilderness and on his road to Calvary.  Such an emphasis should be qualified carefully, of course, because we mustn’t forget that Christ has died, Christ is risen, his work is done; therefore, our reflection on the work of Christ should chiefly be a reflection on the forgiveness he has already wrought for us, rather than camping out in the asceticism of pre-Calvary.  However, inasmuch as redemption is already/not yet, inasmuch as we are simul justus et peccator and have not yet entered into glory, we may profit by reflecting on the sufferings of Christ, and not merely fast-forwarding to the glory of Easter.

Beyond this, fasting can help us take up the various other activities recommended in the Lenten exhortation: self examination and penitence we have already covered; the others are prayer, practicing works of love, and reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word.  

How might fasting help us pray?  I had always thought that somehow the sense of hunger and weakness was supposed to help focus the spirit and remove distractions, though truth be told, in my own experience, it often seems to merely add an extra distraction.  Perhaps the connection, for many of us, is rather more mundane and straightforward than that.  If we know that we are fasting in order to focus on prayer, then the sensation of hunger can serve simply as a reminder to take a few moments to pray—after all, how often do we find that we intend to pray, and time simply got away from us? Hunger pangs can make good alarm clocks.  Or, if we are fasting completely from a meal or meals, we can resolve to use the time we would otherwise be eating to pray instead.  Most of us probably will find that we spend so little time in focused prayer that even skipping a few meals can give us far more time to pray than we are accustomed.  Fasting may serve in the exact same ways to help us to take up more Scripture reading and reflection: both as a reminder, and as a way of carving out more time.  Although this is another area in which occasional full fasts are likely to be more effective than giving up a favorite food (how does abstaining from meat necessarily enrich one’s prayer life?), an ongoing fast from a favorite activity or habit, as some people practice (say, “fasting” from watching TV) can serve a similar function.

Similar things can be said of “practicing works of love.”  Here, there is perhaps a direct spiritual connection to be made, in addition to the more pragmatic considerations.  In fasting, we are consciously denying ourselves luxuries, things that we usually treat ourselves to, but can technically do without.  If done in a spirit of love, this self-denial may turn our thoughts to those who must do without such luxuries out of necessity, those who can never afford meat, or who go to bed hungry every night.  Fasting may thus serve as a direct stimulus to animate us with compassion and love for the needy, and to move us to act on their behalf.  More practically, it frees up resources of time and perhaps money that we can dedicate to their service.  Just as some Christians are tempted to think of Lent as a convenient time to lose weight that they otherwise wanted to lose, sometimes we can be tempted to think of it as a good time to balance a budget that was being overspent, as less delicacies are purchased.  Better, perhaps, to try to set aside that extra $50 a month saved on groceries for charitable use, and perhaps better still to dedicate time saved to works of service.   

Obviously, with all of this “giving something up to take something up,” the danger is that our changed habits will last only for a season, after which we will revert to our usual complacency and consumerism.  If this is happening, if Lenten practices are having no effect on the rest of our lives, then there is little point, and the practices are in danger of becoming an empty ritual, or worse, a means of trying to earn merit before God: “See, God, see how much I’m denying myself right now?  I think you’ll agree that this should earn me enough brownie points to last me to next Lent, so I don’t have to worry about this self-denial business in the meantime.”  This, I think, is actually one argument in favor of “partial fasting.”  Better to take baby steps that you can keep up consistently than to take off at a sprint only to give up in exhaustion and vow never to try again.  If we fast too aggressively, and it comes to feel like an unbearable burden, we’ll find ourselves sticking with it solely out of pride, and eagerly going back to the status quo.  But if we try to temper our self-indulgence in some small, but still significant way, it may help form habits that will continue to shape our lives well beyond Lent.  

Of course, there’s a balance here, since fasting is supposed to be fasting, and it’s hard to see that many of the spiritual benefits mentioned above could be reaped by “giving up Godiva chocolate” (to use the CREC booklet’s example).  On the other hand, the key point is “if you fast, fast for your own edification.”  I have described here what might be some ways in which fasting might edify, but these will not work for everyone in the same way, or even at all, and so no one need feel bound to try them.  Conversely, no one ought to judge his brother’s fasting or lack thereof.  If you’re so into Godiva chocolate that you think giving it up for Lent might really be a good spiritual discipline for you, far be it from me to tell you it couldn’t be.  

And I should add—lest anyone imagine that this lengthy list of ways that fasting might edify means that I am some kind of fasting warrior, I’m afraid I’m nothing of the sort.  This is much more a list of things I’d like to try than things that I have tried.  Being, indeed, a complete novice in the ways of fasting, I would quite welcome input in the comments as to whether others have found fasting helpful in these ways or not, or in other ways that I haven’t mentioned.


Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom as Social Reality

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, ch. 7—”The Redemption of Society”:

“It [1 Cor. 14.24] is the paradigm for the birth of free society, grounded in the recognition of a superior authority which renders all authorities beneath it relative and provisional.  We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart.  There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing.  We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being.  ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3.18).  The church of Christ, which professes the authority of God’s summons in the coming of Jesus, has the role of hearing it, repeating it, drawing attention to it.  In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectiely, a voice which, when the oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.”
—p. 252

“Freedom, then, is not conceived primarily as an assertion of individuality, whether positively, in terms of individual creativity and impulse, or negatively, in terms of ‘rights’, which is to say immunities from harm.  It is a social reality, a new disposition of society around its supreme Lord which sets it loose from its traditional lords.  Yet individual liberty is not far away. For the implication of this new social reality is that the individual can no longer simply be carried within the social setting to which she or he was born; for that setting is under challenge from the new social cetnre.  This requires she give herself to the service of the Lord within the new society, in defiance, if need be, of the old lords and societies that claim her.  She emerges in differentiation from her family, tribe and nation, making decisions of discipleship which were not given her from within them.  Between the old and new lordships, then, is a step she must take on her own, a responsibility for individual decision; and that, too, is a contribution to liberty, not because it creates a vacuum in which the individual is momentarily free from any society—that is not liberty!—but because it allows her to enrich society by the gift of her self-donation to it.  Individual decision, the act of heart and mind, has now become fully and consciously engaged in and for society; so that society itself is free, being upheld by the free self-giving of each member.  A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all others.  

“Modern liberalism is not yet ready to leap fully armed from the head that first conceived this thought.  This is not yet ‘freedom of conscience’ in a generalized sense.  It is ‘evangelical liberty’, which is to say, the freedom freely to obey Christ.  Yet evangelical liberty has proved to be the foundation of a more generalized freedom, including a certain, not indefinite liberty for misguided and erroneous judgment.  The logic which leads from the one to the other is that of St. Paul, writing about the ‘weaker brother’: ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls’ (Rom. 14.4).  Which is not to say that there is no such thing as evident and unarguable error; nor that each person’s vocation is so hidden that the right and wrong of what he thinks and does is obscure.  It is simply that he has (has, not is) his own master, and his master is not the ruler who governs him in the order of civil society. There are some judgments that may be evident enough, but which do not fall to the ruler to make.  The ruler has to establish a prima-facie interest in the implications for civil order before intervening between andy man or woman and the God who commands.  That is the correct way of stating the liberal doctrine which is often put misleadingly as ‘the separation of law and morality’.  There can be no separation of law and morality; but what there can be, an is, is a sphere of individual responsibility before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake.

“A perennial observation of political philosophy declares that there are two alternative concepts of freedom, a negative and a positive: freedom from control and freedom for self-realisation.  For the sake of exposition one could characterize the two as the freedom-ideal of slaves and the freedom-ideal of aristocrats.  The one consists in the abolition of oppressive constraints, the other in opportunities which are somehow given as a birthright; the one lacks an end beyond the goal of liberation itself, the other never needs liberation to bring its ends within reach.  If we situation the idea of freedom at the point where the church impacts upon society, we shall understand why neither conception will suffice.  An adequate description of freedom has points of affinity with both.  The truth in the negative conception is that freedom is a Gospel which, whether they know themselves to be in need of it or not, is addressed exclusively to those who are, in fact, unfree.  But it is not a Gospel complete in itself, but only the first moment in the Gospel.  The truth in the positive conception is that freedom is evoked and sustained by the command of God.  That command does not merely say ‘Be free!’ and then fall silent; it puts before us a way of freedom, which is the way of Christ’s victory.”
—pp. 254-56


Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom as Potency

Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, pp. 107-108:

“In saying that someone is free, we are saying something about the person himself and not about his circumstances.  Freedom is ‘potency’ rather than ‘possibility’.  External constraints may vastly limit our possibilities without touching our ‘freedom’ in this sense. Nothing could be more misleading that the popular philosophy that freedom is constituted by the absence of limits.  There is, to be sure, a truth which it intends to recognize, which is that the ‘potency’ of freedom requires ‘possibility’ as its object.  For freedom is exercised in the cancellation of all possibilities in a given situation by the decision to actualize one of them; if there were no possibilities, there could be no room for freedom. Nevertheless, there do not have to be many.  Even in deciding whether we will accept an inevitable situation cheerfully or resentfully, we exercise our freedom in choosing between alternative possibilities of conduct.  Where the popular philosophy becomes so misleading is in its suggestion that we can maximize freedom by multiplying the number of possibilities open to us.  For if possibilities are to be meaningful for free choice, they must be well-defined by structures of limit.  The indefinite multiplication of options can only have the effect of taking the determination of the future out of the  competence of choice, and so out of the category of meaningful possibility for freedom.  For example, a decision to marry depends upon marriage becoming possible within the limiting structure of one’s existing relationships.  If that limiting structure were withdrawn, and one had all the conceivable partners in the world immediately available, one could not freely choose to marry any of them.  The empty space for freedom must be defined if one is to move into it.  Furthermore, the decision to marry itself cancels out both marriage and singleness as possibilities, by actualizing marriage as a new limit to which one has bound oneself.  The empty space must be cancelled when one does move into it.  Decision depends upon existing limits and imposes new ones.  When the Holy Spirit makes a person free, that freedom is immediately demonstrated in self-binding to the service of others: ‘You were called to freedom . . . In love be one another’s slaves!’ (Gal. 5:13)”


“A word of God for all things we have to do”

The long-promised discussion on Elizabethan theonomy, although it turns out to be a rather short one, developed amidst a discussion of Puritan biblicism more generally—adapted from the draft of ch. 3 of my thesis.

Unfortunately, Cartwright does not rest content with asserting the supremacy of our duty to God’s glory and our brethren’s salvation over civil concerns.  Indeed, how could he, after long battles in the Vestiarian controversies had ended indecisively, with conformists earnestly insisting that God’s glory and the salvation of the brethren was not in fact at stake?  A more certain rule for resolving the doubtful conscience and adjudicating clashing loyalties was needed—Scripture.

“No man’s authority . . . can bring any assurance unto the conscience,” Cartwright concluded.  Perhaps in “human sciences” the word of man carried “some small force” but “in divine matters [it] hath no force at all.”  Of course, whether the matters in question were “divine matters” or “human sciences” was precisely the point at issue between him and Whitgift.  Whitgift would concede that in divine matters, Scripture alone was our guide, but if the disputed orders and ceremonies were merely civil ordinances, Scripture did not necessarily have much to tell us.  When pressed, then, Cartwright would go so far as to insist that in all actions of moral weight, Scripture was our guide: unless we “have the word of God go before us in all our actions . . . we cannot otherwise be assured that they please God.”  Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”

Cartwright happily swallows the reductio, acknowledging that the guidance of Scripture is needed for the taking up of a straw.  Why?  Because although a class of action may be indifferent in itself, any particular action takes on the moral quality of goodness or badness based on the motive, and the motive, says Cartwright, must always be a desire to please God; since he has already argued that no man may be confident he pleases God except when acting in adherence to the Word, Scripture must in some sense go before us even in the most trivial of actions.  Cartwright has thus, under pressure to find some certain rule for guiding the Christian amidst doubtful and disputed moral decisions, collapsed any distinction between indifference epistemologically construed and morally construed, with the result of rendering the concept largely meaningless.  Since no action is morally neutral, and since the Christian must have guidance in all moral matters, and since Scripture is the Christian’s surest guide, Scripture must be taken to pronounce positively or negatively on all matters.

Even the relative indifference of the adiaphora, it would seem, would have to come from the positive permission of the Word.  And indeed, when Whitgift expresses concern on this score, Cartwright confirms that this is his meaning: “For even those things that are indifferent, and may be done, have their freedom grounded of the word of God; so that unless the word of the Lord, either in general or especial words, had determined of the free use of them: there could have been no lawful use of them at all.“  This is a remarkable transformation of the doctrine of adiaphora; no longer is Scriptural silence regarding a matter demonstrative of its moral lawfulness, but it is constitutive of it, so that this silence is to be construed as a positive act of  permission, without which the matter would have remained morally illicit. 

 

The fundamental difference between the conformist and the precisianist, then, is not merely that the precisianist considers that fewer matters have been left indifferent than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; nor is it merely that the precisianist considers Scriptural guidance on matters that are indifferent to be more detailed and constraining than the conformist does, although that is certainly the case; rather, it is that the precianist considers all the relevant moral criteria to derive from Scripture, rather than merely being expressed in it.  We may see what this difference of approach entails by considering the role of the Mosaic judicial laws in Cartwright’s system.  Whitgift, worrying that the precisianist principle of Scriptural direction for every action would lead not merely to the abridgement of the magistrate’s freedom over ecclesiastical matters, but over strictly civil matters as well, was met with a curious waffling on the part of his adversary.  On the one hand, Cartwright and other precisianists would frequently insist that as ministers of the Gospel, they disclaimed all interest in merely civil and political matters, leaving those to the lawyers; moreover, they denied that the principles they advanced regarding ecclesiastical polity necessitated a similar reconfiguration of civil polity.  On the other hand, however, they at times forthrightly admitted that the laws of England ought to take the laws of Moses as their guide, and were to be condemned as unjust whenever they failed to do so.

This emphasis on the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws has frequently attracted the interest of scholars for its idiosyncrasy among the Protestant Reformers (with the exception of the Scotch Presbyterians, who were in this of a similar mind as their English brethren), and its lasting influence on later Puritan theonomic/theocratic aspirations.  Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue.  The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws.  Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws.  They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding.  Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs.  Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity.  Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it.  Accordingly there is some room for flexibility in application, but not a great deal:

“And as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and the magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny.”

 

This is because, for Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.”  At another point, discussing the requirements for elders, he says “The holie Ghost prescribing by Jethro what officers are to be chosen doth not only require that they should fear God . . . be wise and valiant, but also requireth that they be trusty.”  Jethro’s counsel to his son-in-law can no longer be read merely as prudent counsel, the prudence of which ought to be obvious in similar situations, such as the choosing of church officers, but must appear as a specific prescription of the Holy Spirit, intended for use as a positive law for the church.

This style of reasoning permeates the writings of Cartwright, Travers, and other precisianists, and is undergirded by two syllogisms that we find frequently repeated.  The first finds perhaps its most amusing expression when Whitgift queries the Admonition’s statement that in the Apostles’ time, there was always a careful examination of communicants before they were permitted to receive the Supper—how, he asks, do they prove this in Scripture?  “After this sort,” replies Cartwright: “all things necessary were used in the churches of God in the apostles’ times; but examination of those whose knowledge of the mystery of the gospel was not known or doubted of was a necessary thing; therefore it was used in the churches of God which were in the apostles’ time.”

It should not surprise us to find this sort of reasoning given the precisianist obsession with finding certainty; for the Christian convinced that he must please God in all actions, it was clear that the Church needed detailed guidance in all its practices, and since God must love and favor His church, it stood to reason that he must have provided such guidance in Scripture.  Moreover, since the most specific form of law was the most perfect, the more God loved his Church, the more detailed legislation we should expect.  Accordingly, we frequently find the following form of a fortiori syllogism:

“To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do: I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse, than the estate of the Jews.  Which the Adm. confesseth to have had ‘direction out of law, in the least thing they had to do.’  And when it is the virtue of a good law, to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be: the Answerer in imagining that we have no word for divers things wherein the Jews had particular direction: presupposeth greater perfection in the law, given unto the jews, then in that which is left unto us.  And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I hade showed that a conscience well instructed and touched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions.”

In a remarkable early passage of his Full and Plaine Declaration, outlining the Scriptural plan of Presbyterian polity, Walter Travers manages to combine both syllogisms side-by-side.  God’s care for his people, he says, is apparent in the precise and detailed legislation for the building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament; even though Scripture describes David and Solomon’s changes to the worship and building of the temple without narrating God’s prescription of them, we may safely conclude, given the obvious approval of their actions, that they would have only made such changes by express divine command.  “And,” concludes Travers, “how absurd and unreasonable a thing is it, than especially to think the love and care of God to be diminished towards his Church” that he would omit such express commands in the New Covenant?  

 

In their quest to safeguard Christian liberty, then, the precisianists have so hedged it in with unchangeable divine law that even Whitgift’s cold call to submission seems a charter of freedom by comparison.