Puritanism: A Guide for the Perplexed

Readers of this blog hear a lot about Puritanism, most of it bad.  But what on earth is Puritanism?  What do we mean by the term?  It means a dozens of different things to different people, and in fact always has.  In hopes of helping clear the waters a bit and establishing the context for my own use of the term (which I am toying of discarding in favor of “precisianism,” for reasons you will see below), I’ve adapted the following introductory discussion from my chapter draft on Puritanism, and I hope it is of some use and interest to those who have been scratching their heads all this time:

Between 1567 and 1572, the Elizabethan Church enters upon a decisive new stage, engendering a movement which was to leave a wide and lasting legacy on the Reformed world, particularly in Britain and America, over succeeding centuries, a movement traditionally known as “Puritanism.”  Although a number of scholars have quite helpfully traced lines of development for the Puritan movement back to the Marian exile, or the Edwardian reform, or even the Henrician period, there is wisdom in the preference among contemporary scholars to confine the term to the Elizabethan era and beyond.  While the Elizabethan Vestiarian controversy is quite frequently narrated as the first chapter in this new movement, and is undoubtedly central to its development (as recognized in the previous chapter), there are good reasons for drawing a caesura between its conclusion in 1567 and the outbreak of the Admonition Controversy in 1572, when young radicals John Field and Thomas Wilcox, frustrated by the lack of official response to Puritan complains, published and disseminated a scandalously rancorous Admonition to Parliament.  

The document, clearly intended (despite its name) as a piece of public propaganda, ignited a firestorm of controversy: Field and Wilcox were imprisoned, an official Answere by John Whitgift was commissioned, and battle lines were drawn as pamphlets and counter-pamphlets, treatises and counter-treatises, began to multiply.  The immediate literary controversy, in which Whitgift emerged as the spokesman for the establishment, and Thomas Cartwright as the spokesman for the Puritans, lasted until 1577, but the movement that the Admonition called into being lasted in organized form until the early 1590s, when it had grown so militant that dramatic steps were taken by the bishops and Elizabeth’s Privy Council to quash it.  The personnel of this new movement, however, were rarely the same as those who had fought it out with the bishops over vestments in 1565-67, most of whom had grudgingly submitted when it was clear the policy was inflexible.  Of the twenty scrupulous Protestants who presented a supplication to the bishops over vestments in 1565, only three, says Patrick Collinson, “remained staunch to the radical cause until their deaths,” and most “at once dissociated themselves from the new extremism.”  So much so, in fact, that from 1572 on, “we are evidently witnessing the beginnings of a new movement rather than the conversion of the old.”

And indeed, the issues at stake in the Admonition Controversy are far different, and broader, than those in the Vestiarian.  No longer is the question one of the legitimate scope for resisting imposition of certain ceremonies that troubled scrupulous consciences, a dispute on the margins of the Elizabethan settlement, but it concerns the basic validity of that settlement across the board.  “We in England are so far off from having a church rightly reformed, according to the precscript of God’s word, that as yet we are not come to the outward face of the same,” the Admonition fulminates, throwing down a gauntlet to the bishops and the government.  At stake now is not whether the bishops should enforce strict conformity, but whether the bishops have power to govern the church at all; not whether civil law should presume to bind ministers to wear the cap and surplice, but whether civil authority has any place in the church.  A fundamental platform of the Admonition is the presbyterian doctrine of church government, which, aside from a general sense that lower clergy ought to have more authority in determining church affairs, had been nowhere on the radar in the earlier controversy.  This system of polity is not presented as a suggestion, as that best suited to the edification and good government of the churches, but as a biblical requirement.  This emphasis reflects a shift in attitudes toward adiaphora across the board, with the new Admonitionists suggesting not so much that indifferent ceremonies were being used unedifyingly, but that they were not indifferent in the first place.  As Collinson puts it, the “presbyterians replaced pragmatism with dogma.”  Earlier protests against tyranny in adiaphora, and suggestions that only Scripture could guide us to their right use, hardly seem to provide a basis for these aggressive new claims.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift in the tenor of protest, it must be confessed, remain something of a mystery.  The faultlines in the doctrines of adiaphora and Christian liberty, as we have argued in the previous chapter and shall explore further here, lead rather naturally to the biblicist mutation we find in the Admonition.  The adoption of Presbyterianism, however, appears more surprising, though it can be largely explained by two factors.  The first was the bishops’ complete loss of credibility during the Vestiarian controversy.  While in fact most of them were sympathetic to the concerns of scrupulous ministers, they were called upon to act as enforcers of a policy demanded by their sovereign, who discreetly recused herself from controversy, refusing to lend any official support, or civil enforcement, to the policy she had asked Archbishop Parker to promulgate.  Parker and his colleagues, then, were left in the unenviable position of justifying a policy which they had not crafted, unable to appeal to the sovereign for backing, and thus sure to appear to their opponents like arbitrary, power-hungry clerical tyrants of the sort that the Reformation had meant to rid England.  This, and the passionate attachment of most Englishmen to their sovereign, led those unsatisfied with the resolution of the controversy to focus their animus on the bishops, and begin calling into question the validity of the office in the first place, given its obviously (to them) tyrannical tendencies.  Second, the fact that Beza in Geneva had written sympathetically on behalf of the anti-Vestiarians, while Bullinger in Zurich had sided largely with the bishops meant that dissidents (many of whom had been exiles in Geneva under Mary), began to look exclusively to Geneva to find resources for their cause.  Beza’s presbyterian doctrine, a hardened and doctrinaire version of that which Calvin had pioneered, was taken up by some of these dissidents, particularly Thomas Cartwright, who made a name for himself by expounding the Presbyterian system in a series of lectures on Acts at Cambridge in 1570.  However, it is not enough to explain Cartwright’s Presbyterianism simply as the application of Genevan ideas to England, as has been customary among many historians.  On the contrary, with Cartwright and his associate Walter Travers, we find a systematic development of Presbyterianism, along with a distinctive version of the two-kingdoms doctrine, that went beyond anything Beza had yet articulated and indeed likely exerted an influence on his own crystallization of Presbyterian doctrine.  Certainly, Cartwright’s views on adiaphora, law in Scripture, and the two kingdoms go well beyond those of his hero Calvin, with whom he has too often been simply equated.


Of course, it will not do to let Cartwright speak for all so-called Puritans.  When Collinson speaks of a new movement beginning with the Admonition, he does not intend by this to imply the extinguishment of the old.  On the contrary, the more moderate style of nonconformity, and the more measured calls for the reform of obvious abuses in the administration and preaching ministry of the church, continued well beyond the Admonition Controversy, and indeed outlasted the demise of the hard-line Presbyterian movement in the 1590s.  Collinson and Peter Lake have succeeded in the last few decades in reconfiguring our concept of Puritanismso that no longer is the extreme rhetoric of the Admonition Controversy normative in defining the movement.  Rather, the moderate noncomformity and zealous Protestantism of a Laurence Chaderton (the Master of Emmanuel College at Cambridge from 1584 to 1622), they have argued, is more representative of the ethos of Puritanism, which is thus close to the mainstream, rather than on the dissident fringe, of Elizabethan and Jacobean Puritanism.  

This study can thus not avoid the extraordinarily vexed question of defining “Puritanism,” a question disputed for four centuries and now it appears further from resolution than ever.  Contemporary historians have vied with one another in expressing frustration with the elusiveness of the concept.  Patrick Collinson likens it to an elephant whose shape and attributes are debated by a group of blindfolded men, Christopher Hill to a “dragon in the path of every student of the period,” and W.J. Sheils to a “protean beast.”  If I might add my own metaphor to the discussion, we might say that Puritanismis like an impressionist painting, which appears luminous and distinct from a distance, but dissolves into a chaos of incongruous colors upon closer inspection. 

This ambiguity is perhaps not surprising in view of the fact that the term “puritan” originated as a term of abuse by its conformist opponents, and thus it was naturally long before any puritan acknowledged the term for himself.  As is usual with protest movements, puritanism had far more unity in the eyes of its opponents than of its various advocates, who quarrelled with one another, each denouncing others as either extremists or time-servers, and claiming his own platform as a moderate middle ground.  Elizabethan puritanism combined conformist, reformist, and separatist impulses, which created faultlines not merely between different “puritans” but often within one and the same puritan leader.  So it is that at different points in his career, we find Thomas Cartwright denouncing the Church in England as one that can scarcely lay claim to the title, having denied the kingship of Christ over it, and defending it against Rome as a true and pure church, authentically reformed; Presbyterianism is presented at times as a sine qua non for a church of Christ, at times merely as a desirable ornament.   Peter Lake has thus sought to undermine any attempt to draw a clear and fixed dividing line between “moderate” and “radical” Puritanism, mere conscientious nonconformity and Presbyterianism.  Amid the shifting rhetorical contexts in which Puritan principles were advocated, and the at times turtuous attempts of Puritan leaders to resolve the warring impulses within their own platform, it is no wonder that many modern historians have thrown up their hands in resignation at the attempt to describe a coherent theological or practical agenda for the movement.

A number of a generalizations attempting to define the heart of Puritan doctrine, many rooted in the earliest conformist polemics, have been offered, refuted, and counter-offered in variant forms.  For instance, it has been common to summarize the essence of Puritanism as biblicism; as Christopher Durston and Jacqueline Eales put it, “for the puritan the Bible was elevated to the status of the sole and complete repository of doctrinal and moral truth.”  They go on to quote William Bradshaw that Scripture was “the sole canon and rule of all matters” and Jacobean Puritan Robert Harley’s description of a Puritan as “one that dares do nothing in the worship of God or course of his life but what God’s word warrants him, and dares not leave undone anything that the word commands him.”  Of course, as others have pointed out, a high view of Scripture was not at all unique to Puritans, but was shared by their conformist adversaries; the difference, then, can be identified when it comes to the question of adiaphora.  Puritanism, it has been declared, consists in the rejection of the concept of adiaphora: “the Puritans’ extreme reliance on scripture led them . . . to denounce the whole idea that certain religious observances were ‘adiaphora’—‘things indifferent’—and that the leaders of the church and government had the right to decide whether they were valid and binding.”  Yet this stereotype has been categorically denied by John S. Coolidge in his detailed study of Puritanism and adiaphora, The Pauline Renaissance in England: “The Puritan categorically denies that he means what Conformists nevertheless persist in suspecting that he means: ‘to exact at our hands for every action the knowledge of some place of Scripture out of which we stand bound to deduce it . . .’ .  On the contrary, Puritans sometimes make a point of insisting that there is no precise scriptural directive for Church ceremonies, and that these should therefore not be the same in all times and places.”  And indeed, Peter Lake’s study Moderate Puritans in the Elizabethan Church not only reveals moderates like Chaderton extensively employing the adiaphora concept, but even Thomas Cartwright himself in his critiques of separatism during the 1580s.  Indeed, even in the Admonition Controversy, Cartwright repeatedly grants the validity of the concept, and either contends simply that a particular matter under dispute (e.g., Presbyterian church government) does not happen to be an adiaphoron, or else falls back upon the earlier insistence that adiaphora must be used to edification.  On this basis, Lake and others have denied that a rejection of adiaphora should be understood as part of even the Puritan platform.  Stephen Brachlow, on the other hand, cautions against disposing too readily of this stereotype, noting that harder-line Puritans were subject to intense cross-pressures when it came to this question, unable to do away with the adiaphora concept in certain settings, but hardly comfortable with it.

Another common but unstable stereotype is the idea, loudly and frequently repeated by their conformist opponents, that Puritans were seditious, against the royal supremacy over the Church, ready to “spoil him [the magistrate] of the one half of his jurisdiction.”  Puritan opposition to the royal supremacy, and indeed revolutionary tendencies more broadly, has been a popular subject among modern historians, always eager to find political implications to old theological controversies.  And yet here too the “protean beast” proves elusive, with Puritans of all stripes vying with one another in the fervency with which they affirm their loyalty to the Queen and even her supremacy over the Church.  John Penry, a radical if there ever was one, executed for sedition in 1593, calls the charge “plaine slandering” and protests “Looke whatsoever prerogative in ecclesiastical or civil causes hee or any man livinge can truly attribut unto the civil magistrate, wee do the same.”  Cartwright also never loses an opportunity, in his interchange with Whitgift, to denounce Whitgift’s charges on this score, and insists that on the Presbyterian platform, the Queen would still have wide jurisdiction over religious matters.  Confronted with these protestations of innocence, some historians have suggested that this is a point which tends to divide Presbyterians, who still favor an established church, from separatists, who seek a “reformation without tarrying for the magistrate.”  Yet as the example of Penry, on the verge of separatism when he wrote the tract quoted above, shows, this generalization too falters.  Brachlow’s treatment of the issue in Communion of Saints conclusively shows even hardened separatists doing homage to the concept of the royal supremacy.  Again, however, he suggests that this does not mean that the stereotype is altogether wrong; instead, we find strong cross-pressures which led more radical Puritans to continue making affirmations that they had great difficulty squaring with their doctrine.  Certainly it was the opinion of many conformists at the time, such as Whitgift and Bancroft, that puritans affirmations of loyalty were mere lip-service, and the true thrust of their platform, intentional or not, was destructive to the Queen’s jurisdiction. 

The distinction of Presbyterians and separatists, just mentioned, is another way in which historians have attempted to make sense of the various threads within the Puritan movement.  The former still wanted an established church, legally imposed on the nation as a whole, with a unified institutional apparatus, while the latter argued for individual voluntary congregations of the faithful, free from the coercion of the magistrate or of clerocratic Presbyterian synods.  Certainly this divergence loomed large in the 1640s and 1650s, once Puritans were given the opportunity to put their program into practice, but as Brachlow has convincingly shown, it is somewhat anachronistic five decades earlier, in which any line the historian draws between the two camps dissolves on closer inspection.  Again, he argues, all Puritans were cross-pressured by the desire on the one hand to maintain unity with the national church and the inability to imagine a plurality of “churches” within the same land, and on the other hand, their strong emphasis on the need for “visible saints,” for the church to become in reality the pure community of the “godly” that God had called it to be, and to exclude the lukewarm from its midst.


Given the evident difficulty of drawing stable generalizations about Puritanismas either a theology or as a political-ecclesiastical program, and yet the seemingly indispensable value of the concept, there has been a notable shift among historians in recent years toward thinking and speaking of Puritanismas a “culture,” an “ethos,” or a “mentalité.”  Durston and Eales capture the new emphasis well in their statement “Above all else, puritanism was a movement grounded in a highly distinctive cast of mind—or to use a more fashionable term, mentalité—which displayed itself in the individual puritan as a peculiarly severe yet vibrant spirituality, and within groups of puritans as a unique and dynamic religious culture.”  Along with this has gone a tendency to rely less and less on polemical portrayals of puritanismby its opponents, given the obvious difficulty of mapping their stereotypes onto the messy reality, and more on more on the internal dynamics of Puritanismin its various manifestations, as attested by its adherents and the products of its practical piety.  Moreover, by focusing less on attempts to draw strict dividing lines  between “Puritan” and “Anglican,” contemporary scholarship has been able to recognize much more clearly the extent to which aspects of Puritan theology and culture permeated the Elizabethan and Jacobean churches.  Accordingly, it seems that recent studies have grown increasingly tired of the tendency to rely on the “canonical texts” of Puritanism—the writings of Thomas Cartwright and his close allies during and immediately following the Admonition Controversy—for an understanding the movement, deeming them to have been mined to depletion by now, unlikely to yield much fresh insight.

Unquestionably, the recent flowering of scholarship along these lines has fostered an abundance of new understanding, shattering sterile stereotypes and paving the way for fresh consideration of aspects of Puritan life and piety, and lesser-known Puritan figures that have been previously marginalized.  What it has gained in breadth, though, it may be fair to say, some of the recent scholarship has sacrificed in depth.  That is to say, by adopting a posture of skeptical detachment from the sharp dichotomies drawn by the preeminent theological interlocutors of the period—Cartwright and Travers on the one hand, Whitgift and later Hooker on the other—scholars have perhaps missed opportunities to clearly discern the genuine theological commitments that were at stake and their relation to the received principles and tensions of the magisterial Reformation. If we conclude too hastily that conformist allegations of Puritan “popery” or “Anabaptistry” are mere stock-in-trade polemical jabs, without asking why these identifications were significant to the interlocutors, we will miss substantive emerging differences in ecclesiology and the theology of law and authority.  Given the remarks above about the elusiveness of pinning down Puritan convictions, it goes without saying that many of the theological faultlines are implicit, and take the form of divergent emphases rather than fundamentally contradictory claims.  We must resist the temptation to impute directly to any of these theologians the apparent logical conclusions of his claims, but we must equally resist the temptation to say nothing about those underlying trajectories.  

If we confine ourselves to the period 1570-1593, and to the more “radical puritans” of this period, those determined to erect a Presbyterian discipline, we might do well to jettison the slippery terminology of “puritan” and adopt instead what was in fact the designation of choice in this early period, “precisian.”  This too, of course, was a pejorative term adopted by conformist adversaries, rather than a self-label, but it captures perhaps more clearly the aspects of the presbyterian movement that will dominate my discussion here, and that dominated Whitgift, Bancroft, and Hooker’s critiques of the movement.  

In this, I am following the lead of Dwight Bozeman, who in his recent book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanismto 1638, identifies the theme of “preciseness,” a “zest for regulation,” as lying at the heart of both Puritan theology and piety.  “A primary attribute of the deity they served, ‘exact precise severitie’ was equally a habit and credential of his people.  ‘Walke precisely, or exactly, or strictly in all things,’ enjoined John Preston in a sermon, ‘Exact Walking’ . . . . To ‘walk exactly,’ this eminent preacher and college head explained, is to ‘goe to the extremity.’  It is ‘so to keepe the commandements . . . that a man goes to the utmost of them, . . . lookeing to every particle of them.”  It is clear from this description that by speaking of Puritan “preciseness” Bozeman does not mean to resurrect the stereotype of Puritan as mere nitpicker, preoccupied by a merely negative agenda of removing offenses that trouble his trivial scruples.  John Coolidge, echoed by Peter Lake, has rightly attacked this image, emphasising the very positive vision of reform that drove precisians of all stripes.  But contrary to Coolidge’s sometimes rosy-spectacled revisionism, this positive reform was to be conducted at every point according to strictly predefined rules, under the watchful eye of a rule-loving God.  At the heart of this outlook was the urge to leave as little undetermined as possible, and the conviction that failures to conform to these determinations were punished severely.  

It is not at all hard to see how such an outlook was bound to create deep theological rifts in a church formed by the Protestant spirit of adiaphorism, which contended both that a great deal of the Christian life was left undetermined—or at least underdetermined—by God’s commandments, and that, by virtue of the doctrine of justification by faith, failures to walk exactly were readily pardonable.  The doctrine of Christian liberty, with which the Puritan protest began, is at risk of being lost in a thicket of legalism.

Love, Law, and Christian Liberty

A couple of weeks ago, I tracked down a remarkable document which has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars, a set of “Propositions or articles framed for the use of the Dutch Church in London” on the subject of Christian liberty and related doctrines.  These articles were occasioned by a dispute over the use of godparents in baptism in the Dutch Strangers’ Churches in London, which raised fundamental questions about Christian liberty, adiaphora, and ecclesiastical authority and led ultimately to a schism.  The Dutch ministers therefore drew up a set of articles, attempting to express the magisterial Reformed understanding of these doctrines, and submitted it to the review of the leaders of Reformed churches in Heidelberg, Bern, Lausanne, Zurich, and Geneva.  After incorporating many of the suggested revisions, which were primarily of a stylistic, not a substantive nature, the resulting document was published under the auspices of Edmund Grindal, the Bishop of London with jurisdiction over the Strangers’ Churches.  It thus can lay claim to comprising a kind of pan-Protestant, or at least pan-Reformed, consensus statement on these issues, and encapsulates teachings that we find in Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, and others.  

The key points of the Dutch articles may be summarized as follows:

 1. That Christian liberty is spiritual, which means, among other things, that it consists in a free submission to  constraint, not a freedom from all constraint.  This constraint may be that of divine law, which the Christian must follow, though as a result of rather than a means to justification, or, may be imposed by men, in things left indifferent by divine law.

(Art. I: “CHRISTIAN liberty is not a wandering and unruly licence, by which we may do or leave undone whatsoever we list at our pleasure; but it is a free gift bestowed upon us by Christ our Lord; by the which, the children of God (that is, all the faithful), being delivered from the curse of the law, or eternal death, and from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial law, and being endowed with the Holy Ghost, begin willingly of their own accord to serve God in holiness and righteousness.”

Art. IV: “Conscience is the feeling of God’s judgment, whether that a man be assured out of the word of God of that judgment, or that he make it to himself rashly or superstitiously. But whereas it is the duty of Christians to observe the commandments of their Lord, that indeed is properly called a right and good conscience, which is governed by the word of God. Whereby it cometh to pass, that every faithful man by that revealed word doth examine and weigh with himself, both what he doth, and also what he letteth undone, that he may judge of them both, which is just, and which is unjust.”)

2. Things indifferent are not void of moral content, therefore, but take that content from variable circumstances, and by virtue of those circumstances, exert a moral claim on us.

(Art. V: “Indifferent things are called those, which by themselves, being simply considered in their own nature, are neither good nor bad, as meat and drink, and such like; in the which therefore, it is said, that the kingdom of God consisteth not; and that therefore a man may use them well or evil: wherefore it followeth, that they are marvellously deceived, which suppose they are called indifferent, as though without any exception we may omit them, or use them as often as we list, without any sin.”)

3. There are two main ways in which this claim comes about—(a) the law of charity, by which we are bound to use adiaphora to the edification of our neighbor, and (b) human law, by which we are bound to use adiaphora in accord with the commands of civil or ecclesiastical authority.

(Art. II: “Therefore, sith that he which is the Son of God is ruled by the Spirit of God, and that the same Spirit commandeth us, we should obey all ordinances of man (that is, all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian), and all superiors, which watch for the health of our souls; yea, and that according to our vocation we should diligently procure the safeguard of our neighbour; it followeth, that that man abuseth the benefit of Christian liberty, or rather, is yet sold under sin, who doth not willingly obey either his magistrate or superior in the Lord, or doth not endeavour to edify the conscience of his brother.”

Art. VIII: “Generally, the use of these indifferent things is restrained by the law of charity, which is universal.”

Art. IX: “Specially, the use of these things is forbidden by ecclesiastical or civil decree.”)

4. By virtue of both of these, what is in itself free for the conscience becomes per accidens conscience-binding as an indirect command of God, since he commands us to love our neighbor and to obey the magistrate.

(Art. VI: “Things otherwise indifferent of themselves, after a sort change their nature, when by some commandment they are either commanded or forbidden. Because, neither they can be omitted contrary to the commandment, if they are once commanded, neither omitted contrary to prohibition, if they be prohibited; as appeareth in the ceremonial law.”

Art. IX: “For although that only God doth properly bind the conscience of man, yet in respect, that either the magistrate, who is God’s Minister, doth think it profitable for the commonwealth, that something, otherwise of itself lawful, be not done, or that the Church, having regard to order, comeliness, and also edifying, do make some laws concerning indifferent things, those laws are altogether to be observed of the godly, and do so far forth bind the conscience, that no man wittingly and willingly, with a stubborn mind, may, without sin, either do those things which are forbidden, or omit those things which are commanded.”)

5. However, to prevent tyranny, human authorities may not make laws in adiaphora arbitrarily, but only for purposes of edification, civil order, or ecclesiastical order.

(Art. XI: “They, which for any other cause either command or forbid at their pleasure the free use of indifferent things, than for one of these three, that is, neither for edifying, nor for policy, nor ecclesiastical order; and especially those which do rashly judge other men’s consciences in these matters; offend heinously against God and against their neighbor.“)

6. Conversely, because the conscience is bound only insofar as these purposes are at stake, the Christian remains at liberty if the circumstances giving rise to a law no longer pertain, and it can be disregarded without causing offence.

(Art. X: “And sith these things are not ordained simply for themselves, but in respect of certain circumstances, not as though the things themselves were of their own nature unlawful things (for it belongeth only to God to determine this) in case those circumstances do cease, and so be that offence be avoided as near as we can, and that there be no stubborn will of resisting; no man is to be reproved of sin, which shall do otherwise than those ordinances: as it is plain, by the example of David, in a case otherwise flatly forbidden, when he ate the shewbread.”)

This, however, is to make things rather neater than they appeared in fact.  For in point of fact, a great deal of tension attached to the connection between the two laws mentioned above in point (3)—the law of charity and the law of authority.  Is the latter merely valid so long as it remains a subset of the former, as points (5) and (6) imply?  Moreover, although the Dutch articles could speak of “either ecclesiastical or civil decree” in adiaphora as essentially parallel, it was far from clear just how these two were to be correlated.  Both   In fact, these two problems are closely related, as shall readily appear.

Luther and Melanchthon, as Bernard Verkamp has noted, were keen to deny to ecclesiastical ceremonies not only a necessity of means (intrinsically necessary to good standing with God) but also a necessity of precept (necessary to good standing with God merely by virtue of being commanded by church authorities).  Accordingly, Melanchthon will not use the rather clericalist language of the Dutch articles, by which we have an direct obligation before God to obey the commands of ministers, just as we do of magistrates.  To be sure, we can be bound outwardly in ecclesiastical adiaphora, but this obligation proceeds only from the principle of charity, from the demands of peace, order, and edification—while the concrete nature of these demands may happen to be determined by the command of authority, the connection is contingent, rather than necessary.  Therefore, in ecclesiastical matters, Melanchthon will endorse the reasoning of point (6) above—that should the demands of authority and the demands of charity cease to overlap, the latter may be dispensed with, so long as peace can be maintained.  Interestingly, however, he will not take this tack when it comes to civil affairs, for it would seem to disrupt the fabric of human society far too much if individuals were allowed to judge for themselves when laws were no longer binding.  Accordingly, to the principle of charity, he adds what we might call the principle of wrath, which he finds in Rom. 13:5—that to disobey civil authority is to disobey God and risk His wrath: “These are clear words, showing that obedience is necessary, that disobedience hurts the conscience, and that God condemns it.”  Indeed, he sees no need to qualify the conscience-binding character of these laws as indirect, but attacks “many dreamers [who] have written that worldly commandments do not bind us to eternal punishment, for man can punish no one eternally!”  At other points, however, he suggests that there are certain civil laws which are only contingently or circumstantially binding, or else that if civil laws can never be safely disobeyed, it is because to do so will always disrupt peace and cause offense. If so, this suggests that in fact, even in civil laws, it is only the principle of charity that necessarily binds us to their observance. 

Nonetheless, Melanchthon did not satisfactorily resolve this ambiguity, and because of his heavy stress on the intrinsically conscience-binding nature of civil laws, maintained a discontinuity of sorts between ecclesiastical and civil laws, which he otherwise treated as essentially the same, as adiaphorous ordinances of the “civil kingdom.”  In this scheme, it remained ambiguous what was to be done with civil authorities made laws regarding ecclesiastical ceremonies, as in the Adiaphora Controvery and the Vestiarian controversies.  The republication of Melanchthon’s scholia on “Whether it be a mortal sin to transgress civil laws” as part of conformist propaganda in the Second Vestiarian Controversy, then, hardly resolved the fundamental question.


In his Institutes, John Calvin had tackled the problem more directly and clearly, denying that there was any fundamental difference in the way that ecclesiastical and civil ordinances related to the conscience, but some ambiguity remains.  Both, as Calvin makes clear in Book III, chap. 19, “On Christian Liberty,” are to be understood as matters of the civil kingdom or “external forum,” wholly different from spiritual matters that occupy the “forum of conscience.”  Calvin’s discussion of ecclesiastical laws in IV.10 shows him to be far from VanDrunen and other advocates of the “regulative principle,” who make the “forum of conscience” co-extensive with the institutional church and rule out man-made laws and ceremonies within it.  On the contrary, such ordinances are absolutely necessary, since any human society requires a “form of organization . . . to foster the common peace and maintain concord.”  The particular form, however, is widely variable depending on circumstances, and accordingly our obligation to obey such laws is not necessary, but contingent.  Calvin’s treatment of this issue is close to that given in the Dutch articles, which are almost certainly drawing on the Institutes here.  In their decree regarding meat sacrificed to idols in Acts 15:20, says Calvin, the Apostles do not lay down a new law binding on the conscience before God, but rather “the divine and eternal command of God not to violate love.”  This command is being specified into a particular requirement in present circumstances, and in those circumstances, the Christian is bound to obey; but the circumstances being changed, so that charity no longer concretely demanded these actions, the law could be disobeyed without sin.  

Unlike Melanchthon, Calvin makes the same distinction of contingency and necessity with regard to civil laws, recognizing that Romans 13:5, if read the way Melanchthon and others appeared to, would threaten the principle of Christian liberty in ecclesiastical laws as well, seeing as both shared the nature of human law: “Moreover, the difficulty [of defining conscience] is increased by the fact that Paul enjoins obedience toward the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience’ sake.  From this it follows that consciences are bound by civil laws.  But if this were so, all that we said a little while ago and are now going to say about spiritual government would fall.”  Therefore, the same restrictions must reply to both: “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.”  This “general purpose,” however, is not spelled out by reference to the law of love, but by reference to “God’s general command, which commends to us the authority of magistrate,” although like Melanchthon, Calvin would probably equate the two, arguing that love of neighbor requires subjection to the magistrate, who advances the common good.


While all parties acknowledged the value of a certain division of labor between ecclesiastical and civil authorities, given that ministers would be best placed to identify what edification and order demanded in matters pertaining to worship and church government, and magistrates better suited to judge in matters pertaining to more strictly civil affairs, the asymmetry we have just seen posed a problem.  For if the demands of charity, edification, and order in these two spheres clashed, the civil magistrate held the trump card: the divine testimony that to disobey the ruler (within his legitimate sphere) was ipso facto to violate the demands of charity.  Accordingly, we find an increasing tendency to suggest that even in adiaphorous matters, ecclesiastical authorities have an autonomous, divinely-given jurisdiction over church ceremonies and polity.  We see this in the second of the Dutch articles, where God’s command to obey “all superiors which watch for the health of our souls” is put on the same par as His command to obey “all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian.”  Later on, in article 23, they state explicitly that “It belongeth only to the Consistory, to be occupied in making new laws of discipline.”  Indeed, in article 20, the Dutch ministers imply a juridical authority for the clergy in their sphere that is equal to and separate from that of magistrates in their sphere: “In the Church of Christ, that is to say, in the house or city of the living God, the Consistory, or fellowship of governors, consisting of the Ministers of the word, and of Seniors lawfully called, sustaineth the person of the universal Church in ecclesiastical government, even as every magistrate in his commonwealth.”   

Such authority for ministers in making church laws, would seem to run flat contrary to the original anti-clerical impetus of the doctrine of Christian liberty, and could only be reconciled to it by emphasizing that this authority was not arbitrary, but closely bounded by Scripture.  Accordingly, we find the articles repeatedly emphasising that in making such constitutions, “judgment [must] be taken out of the word of God, what may or ought to be done, or not done” (Art. 8).  Of course, to emphasise this, as we have already seen, was to call into question their status as adiaphora in the first place.  Moreover, since all adiaphorists had admitted that divine positive law could in principle render a matter that otherwise would be indifferent (for instance, some aspect of church polity) to be in fact necessary, and therefore out of the discretion of the magistrate, it was possible to argue that divine law in fact required such an autonomous, Scripturally-regulated clerical jurisdiction.  In the wake of their failures in the Vestiarian controversy, it was just this that some of the English dissenters would begin to contend.


(This post is in lieu of a thorough analysis of and commentary on the articles which I have been planning to post on The Calvinist International, but which I have been prevented from finding time to write.  The above exposition will likely be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 2

(see Part I for context)

Now, let’s turn to consider in detail O’Donovan’s article, “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics.”  In this essay, O’Donovan seeks to address the question, “Do the commands of the Bible apply to us?”  He does so in two stages.  First, he asks the question of the Old Testament, and looks at the way that the Church has traditionally wrestled with the question of the applicability of Old Testament law.  Then, he turns to consider whether a similar strategy could bear fruit when it comes to the moral content of the New Testament.

As soon as he raises the question, though, O’Donovan calls out attention to a distinction: between “claim” and “authority.”  If I am walking down the street and someone calls out, “Stop where you are and don’t move a muscle,” I have first to decide whether the voice is addressing me, or someone else—this is the question of “claim”—and second, whether the voice is one of someone whom I am obliged to listen to (e.g., a police officer), which is the question of authority.  Of course, even a voice without authority may be one worth listening to if it knows something that I do not—perhaps a passerby has noticed that I am about to step into a sinkhole and is trying to warn me of my peril.  In any case, though, O’Donovan says that when it comes to Scripture, including the Old Testament, the Church has from earliest times insisted that it does speak with authority.  The question, then, is one of claim.  To address whether or not Old Testament law laid claim to us—spoke to us, or merely to ancient Israelites—the Church developed a threefold distinction. 

There were three categories: the moral, which do continue to claim us, for they are in fact universal, claiming all people at all times; the ceremonial, which do not, but served only for Israel until the coming of Christ, to whom they pointed—once Christ came, we must still learn from them theologically, but need not heed them as rules for action; finally, the judicial, which were intended only for the political entity of Israel, so they do not continue to claim us directly, although, inasmuch as our own political circumstances may have some parallels, we should continue to learn from them and occasionally apply them.   

O’Donovan raises two chief objections to this categorization: (1) It is anachronistic, because Israel did not see its commands this way; (2) all the commands were contextually time-bound, including the moral ones.  The first objection, he says, misunderstands the purpose of the distinction, which is to say how we can subsequently analyse the commands, not how they were originally understood.  The second will be addressed in what follows.

Now, O’Donovan does not propose to use this distinction in its classical form, although what he ends up with, after drawing his own distinctions, is something quite similar.   


O’Donovan proceeds to show us three different sorts of Old Testament commands that would not continue to claim us: 

  1. Individual commands
  2. Socially-regulative commands
  3. Theologically obsolete commands

Let us look briefly at each of these.

First, he says, some commands are addressed to individuals (e.g., God’s command to Abraham to leave his home); others are addressed universally.   Although it is quite obvious that God’s command to Abraham is addressed only to Abraham (though we may still learn by example), this distinction does run into some objections.

First, some might like to say that all Biblical commands, because all divine commands, because all morality, should be understood to be particular, not universal.  This is the contention of Karl Barth: God addresses each one of us in a unique, immediate summons, and we cannot tell in advance what form this summons will take.  To this, O’Donovan offers the rather commonsensical response that even Barth himself cannot resist talking of summaries that can capture what God summons every individual to (e.g., the Ten Commandments, with universal commands such as the prohibition of murder).  Second, we might ask whether some of God’s commands to Israel were intended, not in as particular a sense as Barth has in mind, but for Israel as a people, a political unit.  This leads us to O’Donovan’s second category—socially-regulative commands.

We have a basis within Scripture itself for the relativization of this category, says O’Donovan: Jesus’s response to the Deuteronomic divorce-law.  

Why can Jesus take this cavalier stance toward Moses?  We might say, “Because the original command was context-dependent.”  But of course, all past commands are context-dependent in some sense, and that does not make them irrelevant.  Context can either tell us that the command did not in fact mean what we might take it to mean, or it might tell us the purpose for which the command or permission was given.  For instance, my son might protest, “But Mommy told me last week that I could watch movies in the afternoon for up to two hours,”to which I could respond, “That was only because you were sick, and she knew you didn’t feel up to anything else.  Now you need to go play outside.”

Jesus approaches the Deuteronomic divorce-law like this.  A complete prohibition of divorce, while ideal, would not have been practically achievable for Israelite society as a whole, so Moses compromised.  This sort of compromise is intrinsic to politics.  

Clearly, then, there are many Old Testament laws of this sort—laws by which God’s people are directed toward the good, but which get only partway there, and do not fully describe the good.  This does not mean they are useless for us; indeed, the Christian legislator, confronted with the same imperfection in society, may want to imitate some of these compromises, as for instance Britain did eventually do on the subject of divorce.

Finally, there are Old Testament commands such as the duty of circumcision, which the Apostle Paul makes clear are no longer binding on the Christian.  How can this be?  He does not see it as a merely particular command addressed to Abraham.  Nor does he argue that it was dependent on Israel’s identity as a political society, and not applicable after the exile.  He argues on theological grounds that the purpose of this command, and many others like it, has been fulfilled in Christ and thus they are superseded.  The early Church, however, only felt at liberty to make this sort of argument for commands of an essentially ritual nature, concerned with the liturgical and purity codes of the Old Testament.


So, what about the New Testament?

Many theologians have not wanted to speak of moral law in connection with the New Testament at all.  Jesus, we are told, offers gospel—good news—a proclamation of God’s embrace of sinners.  He does not come to condemn us by telling us more things that we are meant to do, and which we will surely fail to do sufficiently.  Thus, theologians have wanted to try and translate these imperative statements into descriptive statements—from, “This is what you should do” to “This is the sort of behavior that characterizes my disciples.”  Now, while there is something to this, in that Jesus obviously intends us to extrapolate from some of his specific commands to a more general way of life that we are to follow, we cannot get around the fact that this is a way of life that he is calling for us to follow.  He does not merely describe it as some interesting hypothetical—“wouldn’t it be interesting if people lived like this?”—but is summoning us to make this way of life our own.  So, the New Testament does contain authoritative moral commands.  We are then back to the question of claim: to what extent can we take these commands to be addressed to us?  We cannot, certainly, claim that they are theologically obsolete, like the ceremonial law of the Old Testament; for that was brought to fulfilment by Christ, and there has been no new Christ.  We must then argue that these commands were somehow particular, not universal.  

It is here that O’Donovan turns to face the biggest criticism brought against the concept of Biblical ethics: the problem of historical distance—how can we take seriously for today commands given two thousand years ago?  

To this, O’Donovan says, “We are perfectly entitled to say, if we wish, that a New Testament norm does not claim us, but we are bound to do more than appeal to the lapse of time to prove our case: we must show how circumstances have changed to make the New Testament norm inapplicable to our own situation.”

Now, very often, there will be very significant changes in circumstance.  For instance, many will argue that Jesus’s prohibition of divorce was given in a society where divorce meant that a woman was left entirely on her own resources, liable to fall into poverty and be exploited.  Nowadays, structures are in place to ensure, usually, that this is not the case.  That being so, might we not say that the command no longer applies?  It is as if my son were to say that he can’t walk in the kitchen, because his Mommy told him not to yesterday.  I might point out to him that she only said that because she had just mopped the floor and didn’t want him to walk on it while it was wet; as it is no longer wet, he may walk.  Does this mean that many or most New Testament commands will not apply to us?   The question, O’Donovan thinks, is too simplistic.  Inasmuch as the relevant circumstances have in fact changed, the commands have changed.  However, the fundamental human condition has not changed in two thousand years.  A great many of our experiences, our temptations, our needs, remain basically the same as ever they were before, and to this extent, when the Bible says “do not become angry with your brother” or “do not lust after a woman in your heart” as we saw in last week’s readings, it speaks timelessly.  Even when conditions have changed, though, the command is not thereby devoid of moral content.  Perhaps the kitchen floor is now dry, but the bathroom has just been mopped today.  My son now knows that he is free to walk in the kitchen, but he may extrapolate from yesterday’s command to conclude that he ought now to avoid walking in the bathroom.  We must, says O’Donovan, first exegete the command—determine its original meaning and purpose—and then “re-specify” it to fit a new context.  

Finally, O’Donovan briefly considers the possibility of “socially-regulative” New Testament commands, like the Old Testament judicial law: commands given by church authorities to regulate the life of the community, but not necessarily intended to directly convey enduring moral principle.  There do appear to be some examples, and here the principle of application will be the same—a modern church leader is not bound to follow them, but he should give them serious respect and attention, and inasmuch as circumstances have not changed, he should consider making use of the original law.


What then have we learned?  O’Donovan has tried to pick apart the common claim: “A text thousands of years old cannot be a moral authority for us now, but only for its own particular time and place.”  He has sought to draw our attention to the careful distinctions whereby we can discern which aspects of Scriptural moral teaching are universal, and which are particular, and how even those that are particular are not without any instructive value or enduring relevance.  Commands addressed to particular individuals of course lay their claim only on those individuals.  Commands addressed to humans as a whole will often continue to lay their claim on the human race inasmuch as the fundamental human condition has not changed, although changes in society, culture, and technology may render them inapplicable (though not thereby un-instructive).  Perhaps most liable to change will be those commands intended for the people of God as a social or political unit, since the changing circumstances of time and place render many of these only distantly applicable.  Moreover, in these commands, we should be alive to the possibility that something less than a full moral ideal is being given. 


Having learned all this, then, what might someone committed to the moral authority of Scripture say about the examples at the beginning?   

Specific Old Testament laws against homosexuality do not bind, to be sure.  Even in the New Testament, though, homosexual conduct appears to be condemned.  Perhaps we could argue, however, that this was due to particular forms in which homosexuality appeared in the ancient world.  If so, then inasmuch as circumstances have changed, perhaps the prohibition no longer applies.  We would have to look carefully at the Scriptural texts to discover how particular, and how universal, the rationale was.  Finally, mindful that public legislation does not necessarily aim at perfect morality, but at what is reasonably achievable, we might say that even given a Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, no Christian legislator should try to apply this at a societal level.

Likewise, specific Old Testament laws about debt release do not continue to bind.  Perhaps we would view them as specifically cultic in purpose, and hence entirely obsolete after Christ.  Or else, we would view them as specimens of judicial law, intended to help provide justice in the Israelite polity, but not binding on other polities.  However, inasmuch as the command is predicated on the universal concern that the poor not be exploited because God demands mercy, we might well ask how this command continued to lay its claim on us today.  We must “re-specify” in our own circumstances and look for creative opportunities to end the cycle of debt-slavery and landlessness that afflicts so many in developing countries today. 

O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 1

Last week, I had my first opportunity to lecture for undergraduates.  The course was “Christian Ethics: Sources”; the topic, “Law and Scripture”; the text, Oliver O’Donovan’s 1975 (!) lecture “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics” (published Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), pp. 58-69).  The lecture is very introductory, and has to cover a very wide range of issues in very cursory fashion, so don’t expect anything profound.  But as the role of Scripture as an authority for ethics (and particularly the role of Scriptural law) is such an important and contentious issue in today’s discussions, and so central to my own projects, hopefully this lecture may provide a useful orientation.  

So here is the first half (with all Q&A and references to Keynote slides expurgated):


Rick Santorum is one of many conservative American Christian politicians who will say that the Biblical prohibition on homosexuality must be reflected to some extent in our laws today: God has made clear that marriage must be between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is deviant behaviour, therefore, a Christian president must pass laws forbidding homosexual marriage and discouraging homosexual conduct.  

This might seem, here in Europe, a pretty hardline position, but someone could conceivably argue that it’s not hardline enough.  After all, if we are taking the law of Scripture as our standard, we might well observe that in the Old Testament, homosexuals were not merely forbidden to be married, but they were to be stoned.  Does that mean that a Christian president who wants to take the Bible seriously should actually campaign for homosexual execution?  And if not, then is he really taking the Bible seriously?  What is his ground for not taking such a hardline?  

Here are a few options:

  1. judicial law to be distinguished from moral law—OT judicial rules no longer binding on a Christian polity, which may enshrine the same principles in a different way.
  2. concept of a Christian polity has been done away with, since the political identity of the people of God was done away with in the New Testament
  3. Jesus has taught us a different way, one of overcoming evil through love, so while a Christian may oppose homosexuality, he will not do by means of law.
  4. Jesus’s gospel proclaims love and acceptance of all, so homosexuals are not to be excluded in any sense.  
  5. The Bible is a story of liberation for the oppressed, and this overarching hermeneutic must trump any particular passages; homosexuals are the oppressed in our day, whom the God of the exodus will liberate.


Now, someone might also say, “Regardless of what the Bible says on homosexuality, we should not take it seriously for ethics or law?”  Three common forms of this objection are:

  1. Regardless of what the Bible said, it cannot be taken seriously because it gives us only the morality of a group of Near Eastern people 2,000 years ago.
  2. Biblical teaching on this goes against other sources of ethical knowledge—e.g., science, or consensus.  
  3. The Bible legitimates all kins of patriarchy and oppression; it enshrines an ideology of power and injustice, and we are required to critique it.  


Now, just to prove that all this Biblical law stuff is not all negative, let me use another example for you.

Leading up to the year 2000, a large number of Christians began to campaign for a “Jubilee” at the turn of the millenium, a massive forgiveness of Third-World debt.  It was cruel and unjust that millions of desperately poor people in the Third World should continue to bear the burden of huge, unpayable debts racked up by dictators three decades ago, while the First World countries prospered at their expense.  Many involved in this campaign used an explicit Biblical rationale, hence the name “Jubilee.”  In particular, they draw on the “Year of Jubilee” law of Lev. 25 and the “Sabbath year” law of Deut. 15.

Now, here too, someone, on the basis of taking the Bible seriously, might suggest that the Jubilee campaigners were not going far enough.  After all, they were only cancelling debts (Deut. 15); they weren’t making sure that all real property was returned (Lev. 25) to these poor nations.  Someone else, though, could easily show that the whole project was misguided by attending carefully to the text.  If we’re using the Bible as rationale, do we need to make sure to follow seven-year and fifty-year cycles?  Do we need to insist that these Third World nations neither sow nor reap their fields in the year of this debt release?  Perhaps most seriously, what about in Deuteronomy, where it says that this only applies to fellow Israelites, not foreigners?  Doesn’t that mean that this whole idea of forgiving the debts of other countries is misguided?  Or does it mean we should only forgive the debts of other Christians?


One can readily see how some of the points we made earlier about homosexuality could be brought to bear on this discussion.  We could say that the transition from Old to New means that this Jubilee principle now should be widened to include everybody, not just those of our own nation, or we might say that as it was a law specifically for the political entity of Israel, which is gone, it shouldn’t be applied by any political entity today.  We might say that the principle is fulfilled in Christ, who declares his Jubilee mission in Luke 4: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Of course, this might mean that we are to try to apply this principle all the time, or else we could say that it had a spiritual application, which Christ has fulfilled, so it no longer applies. 

We could use other criteria, such as a hermeneutic of liberation, to say that regardless of the specific OT law is, Christians should apply the liberating message of Scripture as a whole to forgive Third World debt.  Or we might dismiss the ethical normativity of a 2,000-year-old text altogether and make our decision, for or against forgiving the debt, based on independent criteria of natural justice.  

These two examples, then, highlight for us the many obstacles confronting the attempt to adapt the law of Scripture for ethics and law today; but hopefully, they will also show that such an attempt is not pointless, and may teach us a great deal.


Now, let’s summarize some of the issues that have been raised here, and that are often objected when we talk about Biblical law as a foundation for morality. 

  1. To what extent does “law” imply a political embodiment of morality?  Does the political form of much Old Testament law make it un-generalizable?  
  2. The category of “law” treats morality as coming to us a set of general, universalized rules.  In fact, we might want to say, moral demands can only ever be addressed to the individual, summoning him to particular actions in a particular time and place in accord with his particular vocation.
  3. Alternatively, we could complain that Biblical law is too particular a category.  The concern here is the relation of natural law to biblical law—are Biblical commands binding “just because God said so” or because they point us toward what is already the good, which we ought already to be able to recognize as such?  Dr. Northcott has raised this issue in Tuesday’s lecture, and the quarrel between “natural law” and “divine command” theories in his previous lecture.  There’s no reason that an appeal to Scripture as the highest authority requires a rejection of natural law or the acceptance of a “divine command” theory.  However, certainly many forms of “biblicism” have tended in this direction.
  4. The problem of historical distance—can 2,000-3,000-year-old texts be meaningful for us today?  This claim can take the modernist form, which denigrates Scripture because it fails to rise to the level of “enlightened reason,” by which we can judge Scriptural morality and find it wanting. Or it can take the postmodernist form, which denies that any particular era’s claim to morality can be normative—every age is bound within its own assumptions and circumstances, and no past era can claim to provide the norm for any future era. 
  5. The ideological suspicion of Scripture, as providing the justification for oppressive regimes.  This is another version of the postmodern critique, insisting as it does that every community and culture has its own values, which are in fact power-plays on the part of some privileged elite, and that we can recognize these in Scripture and condemn them as immoral for their oppressive results
  6. The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.
  7. The diversity of the Scriptural text: a variety of contrasting voices within each Testament, some of which seem to call us toward moral actions that are condemned by others.

Most of these issues are addressed in some fashion in the O’Donovan article, and I will address them in some depth in this lecture.  Those which are not are addressed elsewhere in O’Donovan’s work and we will give brief attention to them as well in what follows.


First, though, an introduction to O’Donovan’s life and work may be helpful. 

O’Donovan was born in 1945 and did his Ph.D on St. Augustine under the great Augustine scholar Henry Chadwick at Oxford.  From 1972 until 1977 he taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and then until 1982 at Wycliffe College, Toronto. There he married Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, who has since become an eminent scholar in Christian political thought in her own right.  After that, he received the Regius Professorship of Moral Theology at Oxford, where he remained until 2006, at which point he came to take up the Professorship of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology here in Edinburgh.  He has written many books, though not as many as you might expect over such a long career—he prefers to pack several books’ worth of thought into each volume he publishes, and to take his time before bringing out another one.  His three most significant works are Resurrection and Moral Order (1986) which provides a general framework for Christian ethics; Desire of the Nations (1996), which provides the principles of a Christian political theology; and The Ways of Judgement (2005), which applies those principles in an account of how political power should be exercised.

Although he has been writing on ethics now for forty years, his work has been remarkably consistent across that period; indeed, you can recognize in this 1975 article features of his thought that he has continued to develop in his writings up to the present:

evangelical Anglican: O’Donovan identifies with the historic Reformational commitments of the Anglican Church, and thus his thought is grounded in the authority of Scripture, and more importantly, in the revelation of Jesus Christ attested in Scripture.  All of Christian ethics must be a response to the authority of Christ, and it must always be ready to return to its starting point in Scripture.  For this reason, O’Donovan gives a central focus to Scripture and its exegesis throughout his work, which is in fact quite a rare trait among Christian ethicists of his generation.

historically grounded: O’Donovan is, much more than most modern ethicists, very interested in the history of Christian ethics; this is particularly striking in his focused attention on the history of Christian political thought, which is generally neglected among modern ethicists who think the principles of a “Christendom” era simply irrelevant to today’s pluralist context.

an apologist for Christendom: Although that is an oversimplification, and one with which he wouldn’t be comfortable, O’Donovan does believe both in the possibility and the importance of a political order being self-consciously Christian, and has opposed the popular Constantinian accounts (like that of Yoder) which see Christendom as a corruption of the Church as it tried to seize power.

keen sense of history: Related to this, O’Donovan is, in good Anglican fashion, very attuned to the complex, shifting nature of historical circumstances which require the ethicist to be always provisional in his judgments and prescriptions.  However, he is resolute in his opposition to “historicism,” which is the idea that moral norms as such must be historically contingent. 

importance of creation: O’Donovan opposes historicism by appeal to the objective ground of creation, of the ordered structure of the world which God has established, and the ordered shape of the moral life which follows from this.  In this respect, he is in large measure within the natural law tradition, which emphasises that morality finds its ground not in arbitrary divine commands, but in the structure of the world which God has created.  However, he balances this Thomistic orientation with a dose of Barthianism, which insists on our inability to rightly grasp the order of creation apart from its revelation in Christ, who is the centre to which it all points and from which we perceive its meaning.


Having highlighted these issues, we are now in a good position to revisit some of the problematic questions facing the use of Scripture, and especially Scripture as law, as the standard for ethics today.  How might O’Donovan address the seven issues we identified above?

  1. The political implications of the concept of law.  O’Donovan certainly believes that not merely individuals, but politics, must be responsive to the law of God, but he is certainly careful to distinguish the way that Scripture speaks to both of these dimensions today, as well as distinguishing the way these two dimensions are addressed in Scripture itself.  Some biblical law is political law for the society of Israel, whereas some is moral law of enduring significance.  The article we are looking at will deal with this in much more depth.
  2. “Law” addresses itself to all without distinction, whereas morality must address individuals in their particularity.  O’Donovan addresses this objection to in the article, and we will look at it in more detail in a bit.
  3. The relation of natural law to biblical law.  O’Donovan does not address this in this article, but elsewhere in his work, he makes clear that there is a natural law, to which biblical law draws our attention, rather than replacing it.  But we are too prone to err on our own, so natural law is not sufficient; plus, natural law cannot reveal to us Christ or the  and the particular shape that he confers on morality.  
  4. The problem of historical distance.  O’Donovan will address this directly in the article, so we will wait and return to this one as well.  
  5. Scripture as legitimating oppression.  O’Donovan does not address this directly in this article, but we may say a thing or two about how he would reply.  The accusation, of course, in protesting against injustice, assumes some standard of justice whereby Scripture can be called to account: there is a moral authority that can be used to judge Scripture.  But for the Christian, the highest moral authority can only be Christ.  Some of the attack on Scripture as ideology, then, proceeds from a value system at war with the Christian value-system, and hence cannot be accepted.  Some are legitimate complaints, but a close and sympathetic reading of the Biblical texts shoes that they in fact misreading Scripture in making their criticisms.  Finally, some would be legitimate complaints if portions of Scripture were to be read in isolation from one another, but by taking Christ as the centre, who makes sense of the whole, we can recognize the moral problems with these portions of Scripture, without  thereby attacking Scripture as a whole.
  6. The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.  Again, if we accept Christ as the centre, the different emphases and trajectories between the two Testaments can be in large part resolved narratively.  There will still be tensions and difficulties, but not necessarily irreconcilable ones.  The article we are looking at will address some key questions regarding the relationship of Old and New Testaments, so we will return to this.
  7. The diversity of the Scriptural text—contrasting voices within each Testament.  O’Donovan does not address this in the article, but some of the points he makes there could help us here.  If we are attentive to the particular contexts in which various moral commands are given, and the particular justifications for them, and if we look at these within the whole narrative of Scripture, we will find that the tensions which we thought were so irresolvable are in fact usually in harmony.  

(to be continued…)