The Death of Evangelical Ethics

EDIT: It was brought to my attention by one of the commenters that the tone of this post was unduly flippant, harsh, and caricaturing.  In short, I violated my anti-pontification blogging rule.  I stand by all the concerns articulated here, but they should have been voiced in more measured and moderate tones.  Given that lots of people have already seen the post, I won’t attempt to re-write it accordingly, but read it with this apology in mind.

A strange anomaly afflicts our conservative Reformed institutions of higher education.  No other institutions can be relied on to insist, at every possible opportunity, on the importance of our theology for all of life.  As the leader of one such institution often puts it, “Theology should come out of our fingertips”; another common slogan is “Faith for all of life.”  At such institutions, you will hear, nonstop, the need for Christians to “engage and transform culture,” to bring every square inch of creation under the lordship of Christ, etc., a legacy of the neo-Calvinist triumph of the last century.  The great bogeyman in such circles is “Gnosticism,” which refers to any account of the Christian life that is overly intellectualist, insufficiently “incarnational,” which is more about having the right ideas in your head than concrete Christian living.  Given all of this, you would expect such institutions to be zealous for the recovery of the lost tradition of Christian ethics, eager at every opportunity to flesh out a theological account of the moral life, as it relates to business, to politics, to family, to creation, etc.  Surely, such institutions above all would be interested in answering the question posed by Francis Schaeffer, a giant in these circles, “How shall we then live?”

Apparently not.  A consultation of the course catalogs of four leading Reformed-worldview colleges yielded very slim pickings indeed when it came to ethical subjects.  At one school, only 2 courses out of 37 in the Bible and Theology department dealt with ethics, although in fairness, some courses in the philosophy department did as well.  At another school, it was 1 of 34 (plus, again, a few philosophical ethics courses).  At a third, it was 1 of 31, with 2 other courses incorporating substantial ethics content.  At the bottom of this ranking, one school dedicated only one half of one course, out of a total of 24 Bible and theology courses, to the Christian moral life, and didn’t supplement this with any business ethics, political ethics, or philosophical ethics courses.  Of course, this is a rather rough method for determining the actual teaching at those schools, since ethical issues could be woven into other courses, even when they’re not the subject of a separate course.  However, a little leaven of ethical reasoning in a business course is no substitute for systematic and historical reflection on the Christian ethical tradition.  The dismal picture that emerges from this survey confirms, in any case, what I have found autobiographically, impressionistically and anecdotally.  And while my indictment here is focused particularly on Reformed institutions, the same could probably be said of most of American evangelicalism—we simply don’t know the first thing about the history of Christian ethics or about how to go about the task of moral reasoning.  And it shows when we look at the level of much evangelical discourse in contemporary ethical and political debates. Read More

Vermigli on the Task of Politics

In his introduction to his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, Peter Martyr Vermigli has some excellent, pithy remarks about the relationship of politics to ethics.  Vermigli’s schema offers us an attractive articulation of what Jordan Ballor has in a recent post designated “subsidiarity from below,” recognizing that the establishment of virtuous societies must proceed from the individual to the family to the commonwealth.  Yet just because good citizens are a prerequisite for a good commonwealth does not mean that the commonwealth has no role in moral formation; for Vermigli, the order is “circular”:

“I will . . . distinguish practical philosophy by providing the rules that refer to the life and upbringing of one person or man.  If an individual is concerned, it is ethics; if more than one is concerned it is important whether they are many or fewer.  If fewer, the subject is domestic economy; if more, it is politics.”

“Among these moral subjects, the first place is surely held by ethics, then economics, and finally politics.  I see this order as circular.  Through ethics, those who are its students will, one by one, become good.  If they prove upright, they will raise good families; if the families are properly established, they will in turn create good republics.  And in good republics, both law and administration will aim at nothing less than each becoming a good citizen, for they have eyes for the spirit as well as the body, and will take care that citizens live according to virtue.” (In The Peter Martyr Library, vol. 4, Philosophical Works:  On the Relation of Philosophy to Theology, 9, 12)

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 1

Alison Joyce’s recently-published Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology (Oxford University Press, 2012) is a landmark work in Hooker studies and promises to be a touchstone for discussions in years to come.  That said, this ringing endorsement is as much a criticism of the incomplete, scattered, and occasionally incoherent state of Hooker scholarship as it is a complement to Joyce, for this book is not without significant flaws.  It is, truth be told, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde of a book, with two quite distinct objectives tossed together between two covers, without much attempt to tie the two together within a single argument.  

The first of these objectives, which is to provide a systematic survey of the logic of Hooker’s moral theology, beginning with his account of human nature, progressing through his view of the relative authorities of Scripture and reason in moral reasoning, his account of how moral principles are discerned and operate, and his use of casuistry, is by and large effective.  It is not, on the whole, bold or groundbreaking, contenting itself instead with tracking very closely with Hooker’s text, from which Joyce quotes copiously.  Yet, as I am aware of no other book that provides this kind of systematic walk-through of the key pillars of Hooker’s moral theology, the survey is valuable.  There are, to be sure, several points of interpretation that warrant criticism, which I will flag as they arise.  

The second objective, hinted at in chs. 1-2, foregrounded in ch. 3, and making intermittent appearances thereafter, is to mount a polemic against Torrance Kirby and the school of interpretation that argues for a Reformed Hooker.  While occasionally helpful in identifying oversimplifications within this interpretation, Joyce’s arguments here consist by and large of straw men and non-sequiturs, as we shall have occasion to critique in detail throughout this review.  Moreover, her arguments in this regard usually do not follow clearly from her systematic survey—instead, we find arguments like this: “I’ve just shown that Hooker relies heavily on Thomistic categories in his account of the different varieties of law; therefore, Kirby is clearly wrong that he is aligning himself with the magisterial Reformers.”  This only follows if the magisterial Reformers rejected these Thomistic categories, which by and large, they didn’t.  

Over the next couple weeks, I hope to work through the eight chapters of this book in a series of posts, using this as an opportunity to elucidate both the structure of Hooker’s thought, and the problems with contemporary Hooker scholarship—some of which Joyce avoids, but some of which she exemplifies.  Here, I shall quite concisely cover chapter 1, “Introduction,” and chapter 2 “Hooker in Historical Context.”

In her introductory chapter, Joyce surveys briefly the place of Hooker within the development of Anglican moral theology as a whole, and the diverse ways he has been appropriated.  This is a balanced and useful section, on the whole, acknowledging the anachronism or imprecision of various concepts often attributed to Hooker, such as the famous Anglican “three-legged stool.”  However, while acknowledging that there may be some anachronism in the very concept of Anglicanism at this period as a via media and in Hooker as a formulator of it, Joyce appears oblivious to the extent to which her own determination of context—Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology—has set the terms of her interpretation in a way that a priori leaves key issues out of consideration.  By choosing to narrate Hooker as a distinctively Anglican thinker, within a distinctively Anglican tradition (one which he is taken to have essentially started), Joyce de facto accepts, despite her protestations, the old via media account, and also relieves herself of the responsibility to engage in any detail with Reformed moral theologians antecedent to and contemporary with Hooker.  

Her introductory chapter issues two prominent promissory notes about the method which she will follow, and we should take note of them here, so that we can trace throughout whether she makes good on them.  First, she tells us that

“the principle aim of this book is, therefore, to examine in detail the moral dimension of the writings of Richard Hooker in its own terms, and attempt to set this within the broader context of his theological thought.  It is this, rather than any attempt to argue for (or against) the continued relevance and lasting authority of his thought, that will provide the chief focus of its concerns, in an endeavor to avoid some of the more serious difficulties and distortions that have characterized certain earlier studies. . . . It is intended that this volume, which sets out to examine Hooker’s moral theology in its own terms, with no investment in claiming his perspectives for any particular theological, ecclesiological, or moral tradition, will provide a clearer and more informed understanding of Hooker’s work in general, as well as his specific contribution to Anglican moral theology.” (15)

In other words, Joyce is seeking to occupy a very Hookerian sort of high ground when it comes to interpreting Hooker—unlike other writers, she will be impartial, objective, interested only in the truth of the matter, without any eye to contemporary controversies.  In short, she will seek to be the sort of writer that Hooker has often been presented as, timeless, objective, and unruffled.  It is ironic, then, that her second methodological objective is to puncture this portrait of Hooker, to show that in fact his objective persona is a rhetorical construction, and he is in fact very polemically motivated:

“Fundamental to this entire enterprise will be a careful evaluation of the nature of Hooker’s prose style and mode of argumentation, including in particular his use of rhetoric and irony.  As we shall see in Chapter 3 and elsewhere, it is instructive to observe how often Hooker’s text has been misinterpreted by commentators who fail to take adequate account of this aspect of his writing.” (15)  

“One of the reasons why Hooker has been subject to such divergent interpretations throughout the history of his reception is that the tone of his work is often disputed, particularly in those instances where some commentators take his words at face value, while others discern an irony that, in effect, renders his meaning the precise opposite of that stated.” (17)  

As will become clear in the following chapters, by “some commentators” she has in mind primarily Torrance Kirby and his allies.  In other words, just as she thinks Hooker pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda, so her book pretends to be objective and systematic, but is in fact pursuing a polemical agenda.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in principle—part of what I will argue in response to her Chapter 3 is that the ideal of “objectivity” shorn of polemical objective is itself not merely anachronistic but absurd.  The question about her polemic, then, will be how well it hits home.

What about her objective of reading Hooker “in his own terms”?  This sounds like a laudable goal; however, it is rather unhelpful to try to interpret a historical thinker only with reference to himself, rather than with reference to the intellectual atmosphere in which he is working and the thinkers he is responding to.  Thankfully, in chapter 2, Joyce declares that “the importance of reading Hooker in light of that context cannot be over-emphasized” and complains that “one of the problems that has bedeviled much Hooker scholarship in recent years is the extent to which his work has been lifted out of its historical setting and mined for insights or quotations that are deemed to be of relevance to the Church in the modern world, with inadequate reference to, or acknowledgement of, the original context of his writings.”  Given the importance of this historical context, it is notable, and troubling, that Joyce devotes a scant 25 pages to sketching the history of Elizabethan England and its theological controversies, introducing the puritan and conformist polemics that made up the background for and occasion of Hooker’s own writing, narrating the life of Richard Hooker and how the Lawes came to be written, and outlining the overall structure of the Lawes.  Were Joyce to engage in frequent asides later on in the text to relate Hooker to Cartwright or Calvin or Bancroft or Bullinger, this quick fly-by might be adequate, but as it is, this is pretty much all we get as far as historical and theological context.  

A fully adequate account of Hooker’s context would include at least the following: (1) a consideration of medieval scholasticism; (2) a consideration of other 16th-century English moral theologians; (3) a consideration of other 16th-century Protestant theologians, particularly the more scholastically-inclined, such as Melanchthon, Vermigli, and Zanchius, but also of course the Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger; (4) a consideration of 16th-century Catholic theologians, such as Suarez; (4) a consideration of the Elizabethan establishment and its controversies; (5) a close consideration of the theological commitments of both Puritans and conformists; (6) an account of Hooker’s own life, and the events that led up to the writing of the Lawes.  What Joyce offers us here is only a highly-condensed version of (4) and (5), with (5) in particular making little effort to investigate the theologies of the disputants, and a fairly adequate account of (6).  (1) appears in bits and pieces in the following chapters, as Hooker’s relation to Aquinas in particular is frequently discussed.  Now, it is probably asking too much for any one book to cover all six of these bases thoroughly, but given Joyce’s ambitious aim to provide a systematic overview of Hooker’s thought in the context of his own era, one would have hoped for a bit more.  The lack of (3), in particular, proves harmful at later points in the exposition.

Although the sins in this chapter are primarily those of omission, rather than commission, there are a two of the latter worth mentioning.  On page 23, she says that

“Many of those who had returned from exile [in 1559] brought with them hopes of a new life within a fully Protestant regime; in this context, Lake has noted the particular appeal of a presbyterianism based on the Geneva model.  Their frustration at finding in the Elizabethan Settlement an English Reformation that remained only partial and, in their view, awaiting its completion, fueled their calls for further reform.”  

This narrative manages to almost entirely remove the 1560s from the historical record—the events of this decade occupy only a single sentence before Joyce goes on to describe the aggressive promotion of Presbyterianism in the 1570s.  In point of fact, although a number of exiles did return from Geneva in 1559, there is little evidence of any real push for Presbyterianism at this time; unsurprising, since Calvin himself had no real problem with the English episcopate.  That came later, as a reaction against the bishops’ perceived role in the Vestiarian Controversy.  That is to say, it was as a response to the trials of conscience created by controversies over “things indifferent” that Puritanism initially emerged, not as a Genevan presbyterian colony in England.  Recognition of this could help provide at key points a fuller account of Hooker’s apologetic purpose than Joyce is able to offer.

Likewise, on p. 37, we have one of the strongest of Hooker’s polemicism, a hint of what is to follow in ch. 3:

“Interestingly, Knox is at pains to stress that the conflict between Hooker and Travers was not personal, stressing the mutual respect that, in his view, they appear to have had.  However, aside from the fact that it is questionable how far the tone of the recorded comments upon which Knox bases this judgment was anything other than purely politic, I shall be demonstrating in the following chapter that both Bauckham and Knox significantly underestimate the vitriol that Hooker was capable of directing against his opponents, thinly disguised as it was under a carefully constructed literary persona of cool, objective rationality. . . . It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the force that drove the specifically polemical aspects of his writing was, at some level, deeply personal.  Indeed, as MacCulloch has observed: ‘One of the major and admirable features of his work is that he was not out to please anyone: he was an unusually wealthy clergyman who had apparently turned away from the clerical career ladder, and he seems to have written to satisfy himself.'”

It is striking here how Joyce has managed to turn MacCulloch’s compliment into an insult. Where MacCulloch means that Hooker undertook the Lawes for the sake of his own intellectual satisfaction regarding the issues at stake, and out of genuine loyalty to the Church that was being impugned, Joyce manages to narrate it as if he wrote out of personal bitterness and vindictiveness against Walter Travers and other Puritans.  There is no evidence for this, even if the evidence to the contrary may be dismissed by saying that such remarks were “purely politic.”  It is worth observing here the prevalence of this hermeneutical method in contemporary scholarship—anything kind or generous that a writer says about an opponent must be read as “purely politic,” disguising their true feelings, and anything critical they say must be read as personal vindictiveness.  Whether the charge of vitriol—”cruel and bitter criticism”—can be sustained, we will decide in the following chapter.  However, for now it is worth noting Alexander Rosenthal’s helpful observation in this regard:

“Hooker regards the contentions of the extreme Calvinist party as involving dangers of the utmost gravity. . . .  At the same time he strives on a principle of charity to distinguish between the error and the personal sincerity of those who err. . . . A fair approach would be to accept that Hooker does not endeavor to judge the motives and intentions of his opponents (whose earnestness he is prepared to concede), but finds that the issues, which divide them, are pregnant with profound implications for the theology and indeed the polity of the English church and commonwealth.” (Crown Under Law, 4)

Rosenthal, I think, overstates his case a bit here—Hooker was human, like all of us, and quite able to fall prey to the temptation of insinuating evil motives of his adversaries at points.  But I think Rosenthal is right about his overall goal.  His polemic is directed at his adversaries’ dangerous ideas, rather than at his adversaries themselves.  We will have occasion to consider this much more closely in the review of Joyce’s third chapter.

Hooker in the Bedroom

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

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

License to Kill? The Morality and Legality of Self-Defence

In a recent exchange on Facebook, I tried to explore the legal and ethical questions raised by a recent shooting in Oklahoma, and, having failed to get a debate going there, thought I would explore them further here.  A young teen mother, recently widowed, and home alone with her infant son, was besieged in her home by two men, one armed with a 12-inch hunting knife, demanding entry.  The woman grabbed her pistol and 12-gauge shotgun (what do you expect? it’s Oklahoma!), retreated to her bedroom with her baby, called 911, and aimed both guns at the front door.  She asked the 911 operator if it was fine for her to shoot the intruders if they entered.  The operator replied more or less, “I won’t tell you should, but I won’t tell you shouldn’t.”  As soon as the man with the knife broke down the door, she fired the shotgun and killed him instantly; the other man, on the other side of the house, fled as soon as he heard the shots fired.  The woman was not prosecuted.   

In the media, this was reported with a clear tone of approbation, hailing the gritty heroism of the young mom, and the woman, without any hesitation or apparent remorse, declared that she would do the same thing again if need be.  My friend on Facebook (whose response was fairly typical of most readers) linked to the story as a case of why gun laws and self-defence laws in the US were so great; in France or England, he said, the woman would be prosecuted (for the record, this is not quite true: both French and English law permit the use of reasonable and proportionate force in self-defence and defence of one’s home; while gun laws in those countries would certainly limit the range of acceptable weapons that the young woman could have had in her home, she would not have been left without viable options.  And, for the record, there is no indication that these strict gun laws make society more dangerous, as my friend implied; on the contrary, murder rates in the UK and France are 1/4 of the US murder rate).  Others joined into the discussion more or less to vaunt about how this was a fine example of the American way—”if you set foot in my house, I’ll shoot ya!”

But is this a cut-and-dried case of legitimate self-defence?  Not quite.  Of course, before going any further, I should say that my point here is not to impugn the actions of the young mother.  One could hardly have asked her to have been less trigger-happy in such a terrifying situation, and no equitable legal authority, it seems to me, should prosecute her.  Nonetheless, there is a difference between the right thing to do and what is understandable and forgivable, and the gloating response of most readers of the story suggests a disturbing lack of ethical sensibility. So I would like to use this as an opportunity to reflect on what law and ethics ought to say about such cases in general, not to cast any blame in the woman in this particular case (especially as I know far too little about the details of the case to be certain if the conditions discussed below were met or not).


There are, it seems to me, potentially four different levels at which to consider this question—the ethical ideal, the ethical permissibility, the legal permissibility, and the legal enforcement (though these will not always be different).  The first concerns the question: what is the morally best response, from a Christian perspective at any rate?  I confess that I am still not clear on the answer to this question.  Most of the Christian ethical tradition has always considered killing in self-defense to be perfectly appropriate, but I have never been entirely comfortable with this conclusion, or with the arguments usually used to reach it; certainly, the New Testament and the earliest Christian tradition do not seem to share this perspective.  Of course, it might be argued that the young woman was killing in defence of another—her infant son—which all but pacifists would endorse as the right thing to do, but this is perhaps not a strictly accurate description, given the apparent intentions of the intruders (However, if it turns out it was a matter of defending her son, not herself, that would not change any of the principles below, I don’t think).  On the whole, my (unsettled) view is that to kill in self-defence is not morally ideal, but it may well be morally permissible, which is to say it can be done without sin.  

However, for it to be an un-sinful action, certain conditions would have to be met, among which the following four appear to me particularly salient: (1) there is strong indication that the assailant intends to do potentially mortal harm to you; (2) there is no escape route; (3) the assailant is warned of his peril, and given every opportunity to reconsider and retreat; (4) the intention is to simply to stop the assailant, not to kill him unless that is absolutely necessary (e.g., if you are pinned down with no escape route and he is armed with a gun, in which case merely disabling him might not neutralize the threat).  I do not know all the details of this situation, but it appears that only the first two conditions were met—there was good reason to believe the assailants intended to attack her, not merely her property, and because there were two of them, one on each side of the small house, there was no escape route.  However, it does not appear that the third condition was met, since (a) the assailants were armed only with one knife between them, and would have been rash indeed to continue the attack if they knew they were up against a pistol and 12-gauge shotgun, (b) the second assailant fled as soon as he heard the sound of gunfire, suggesting that this was not something they were prepared to face, and (c) the first assailant was shot as soon as he broke down the front door.  Nor does it appear that the fourth condition was met, given that (a) he seems to have been killed immediately, and (b) the woman implied in subsequent interviews that she had fully intended to kill him.

Now, what should the law say?  Well, my first instinct is to say that the law ought to approximate the moral permissibility as much as is possible.  This will not always be the case (there are certainly a number of things that we would say are morally impermissible, which the law ought not to attempt to regulate), but when we are talking about matters of life and death, the law should be concerned to draw the line right at the point of moral impermissibility.  Now, I say “as much as is possible,” because many of the factors that might make a given action morally unacceptable may be beyond the reach of the law to accurately determine.  In this case, however, I think we would want to say that a good law would for the use of reasonable and proportionate force in self-defence—which is to say that, to the extent that one’s person genuinely was (or genuinely appeared to be) threatened, and to the extent that force was one’s only (or only reliable) recourse, to that extent, force is justified.  So, if an intruder is unarmed (and otherwise unlikely to be capable of inflicting mortal harm), deadly force would not be justified; and if an assailant can be disabled or otherwise eluded without deadly force, deadly force would not be justified.  Now, as a principle, the standard of reasonable or proportionate force may be difficult to apply in particular circumstances, but it seems a good legal principle, more ethical at any rate than the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” operative in Oklahoma and most US states, which allows a homeowner to employ deadly force against any intruder believed to have unlawful intent, with no duty to take advantage of an opportunity for retreat. 

As it turns out, the biblical guidance we have on the subject appears to bear out my first instinct here (always nice when that happens, eh?).  In the Old Testament law, which, while not always functioning as a good guide to ethical ideals, often serves as a good indicator of what should be considered morally permissible, or at any rate, worth socially tolerating, we have a case law that bears directly on this in Exodus 22:1-3.  This case law stipulates that if a thief is killed breaking into a house at night, the killer will not be held guilty before the law; however, if he is killed in the day, it will be homicide.  The Jubilee Foundation has an excellent discussion of the intention and application of this law, and how it might apply to contemporary issues of self-defence.  The gist, however, appears to be that at night (before artificial lighting), a homeowner will probably not know the intention or the threat posed by an intruder, and will probably not be in a position to seek assistance if he or his family is mortally threatened.  Therefore, he is permitted to kill first, ask questions later.  However, if it is daylight, then he is in a better position to assess the threat, to escape, or to seek assistance, and may only kill in direct self-defence, not merely  because an intruder has broken into his home.  Now, of course the application of this law will be somewhat different in a modern setting, when we have firearms, 911, and electric lights.  The general principle, however, seems to be that (1) deadly force is only justified in defence of life, or when there is good reason to believe that life is being threatened, and no time to determine clearly if it is or isn’t; (2) deadly force is not justified when mere property is being threatened, or when one may ensure one’s safety without deadly force; (3) when in doubt, the law should give the benefit of the doubt to the person attacked. 

This last point leads to the last question, that of legal enforcement.  In the Old Testament law just mentioned, law-as-written and law-as-enforced are elided, since what we have here is a case law, and a system in which justice simply does not exist outside of its concrete administration by local judges.  For us today, the concrete administration of justice is separated from the creation of legislation, and it is in the administration of justice that the important principle of “equity” comes in—the idea that it is not always necessary or helpful to impose the full rigour of the law, given the circumstances.  This is important in the Oklahoma case before us.  To my mind, the Oklahoma law (which follows the Castle Doctrine) is unjust.  The young woman’s actions (killing as first resort, not last resort) were also unjust.  However, no equitable judge should punish her for them.  She was 18, had been widowed the previous week, had a infant child, and was alone and terrified at night.  Did she fail to warn the intruders that she had a gun and was prepared to shoot simply because she was scared, or because she wanted to kill them?  Perhaps we will never know.  But she should be given the benefit of the doubt, and considered to have acted in what seemed to her at the time the only way to defend herself.


Nonetheless, excusing her action is not the same as praising it, glorying in it, or using it as proof that every citizen should be armed and empowered with sweeping rights to kill in defence of self and property.