Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.   Read More

The Mystery the Greeks Deride

My wife suggested reading through Athanasius’s On the Incarnation as a family read-aloud this Advent Season, and it is proving to be one of her finest suggestions yet.  I’d forgotten just how rich and profound this little book was!  (And I learned, paying careful attention to the introduction this time, that Athanasius was probably only twenty years old when he wrote it!) A couple gems from the first chapter: 

“That mystery the Jews traduce, the Greeks deride, but we adore; and your own love and devotion to the Word also will be the greater, because in His Manhood He seems so little worth.  For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident.  The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes most fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as ‘human’ He by HIs inherent might declares divine.  Thus by what seems His utter poverty and weakness on the cross He overturns the pomp and parade of idols, and quietly and hiddenly wins over the mockers and unbelievers to recognise Him as God.”

“We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.  There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

“Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in the process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion.  For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.  The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.  By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.  So is it affirmed in Wisdom: ‘The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.’  And being incorrupt, he would be henceforth as God, as Holy Scripture says, ‘I have said, Ye are gods and sons of the Highest all of you: but ye die as men and fall as one of the princes.'”


Embracing the Fall

One of the most frequent motifs of Reformed pseudo-theo-economics is that of human depravity, and Hall and Burton are no exception.  Chapter 2 of their book is called “The Fall,” and is essentially dedicated to telling us that Calvinism has done the world the service of recognizing that man is fallen and depraved, and therefore we should not expect him to act otherwise.  We all know where this is going, right?  Capitalism is the best economic system because it assumes fallen men and sinful desires, and seeks to balance such sinful desires against each other rather than pretending they don’t exist, like utopian socialism.  This is, predictably enough, Hall and Burton’s argument.  

Yet how often have we paused to consider just how singular this ethical move is?  Man is sinful, and therefore we as Christians should seek an ethical system that works with man’s sin, rather than against it.  Huh.  But isn’t it redemption, rather than fallenness, that is the core of Christianity?  Plenty of pagans have been able to figure out that the world is a fallen and sinful place; what they haven’t been able to offer is any account of how it might be redeemed.  If Christianity’s main ethical contribution is the observation that man is sinful, then we might as well pack our bags and give up.  Just to get an idea of how bizarre Hall and Burton’s move is, let’s imagine another sphere of life–sex.

As Christians, we know that man is depraved, and this means that he is characterized by all kinds of distorted sexual desires.  Lust, pornography, rape, and infidelity are the norm in human societies after the Fall.  We need to think not about some utopian ideal of sexual fidelity, but about how to realistically work with a world of sex-crazed humans.  We should expect all these things, and we shouldn’t deny them, but accept them.  Sure we should put some limits to preserve order and restrain these fallen impulses a bit–perhaps we should say that as long as you keep all sexual acts consensual (or if pornography, private), so no one gets harmed or taken advantage of, then it’s fine.  Realism is better than utopianism.  

When put this way, we immediately see the absurdity.  But we accept this rhetoric in economics all the time.  Here’s what Halll and Burton say: 

“Confiscation, violence, theft, and prodigality may occur, but seldom does philanthropy of a scope larger than the family appear in primitive society.  That may be a commentary on the fallen nature of man.  It may also be a clue for businesses and economies, indicating how they will best function in reality….Due to the fall, an economic golden age in which all humans glorify God with their wealth is not anticipated prior to the establishment of the New Jerusalem.  Instead, we expect selfishness, conflict, theft, destruction of property, and strife in economic and business sectors.  Rather than living in denial of such realities, we should seek enduring solutions that take them into account.  Anyone who begins with the expectation of a utopia will quickly become frustrated by the fallen nature of our universe.  Realism in business and profit sectors is a better beginning point than utopianism.  Thus, Calvinism explains what and why to expect in the marketplace because it has a realistic understanding of the nature of man.  The children of Calvin will be profoundly and inevitably dystopian.” 

In every other sphere of life, we recognize that Christian ethics involves first a sober diagnosis of man’s fallen condition, second, a proclamation of hope that it need not be this way, but by virtue of Christ can be otherwise, and third, a demanding call to transcend these sinful desires and have them remade in imitation of Christ.  Why is it that only in economics, we abandon this basic structure of Christian ethics, and suggest that there is this whole area of life in which we are to more or less accept our fallen condition as normative, with a few gentlemanly constraints to keep us from descending into hedonism?  Perhaps there is a good reason, but if so, I would dearly like to hear what it is.    

I should perhaps add as an aside that, as elsewhere in their book, Hall and Burton do not convincingly enlist Calvin in their project.  They offer no quotes in which Calvin suggests that, as a result of his doctrine of depravity, we should embrace an economic system that institutionally accepts depravity.  Rather, his doctrine of depravity serves as a means for him to diagnose our sinful propensities to geed in the economic sphere, greed that is to be confronted and resisted, not institutionalized.