God is Greater than Our Hearts

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh

Palm Sunday 2013 (March 24th)
1 John 3:18-24

Lord, we thank you for the blessing of your Word.  We thank you, as we enter into Holy Week, that through the death and resurrection of your Son we have confidence to enter into your presence, and receive from you anything we ask.  We pray that we would receive from you hearts open to your word, hearts free from condemnation and ready to hear your comfort, minds attuned to what John is trying to tell us here.  I pray that your Spirit would speak through me today, that I might speak truly about you, and that I would be able speak to the hearts of all those present.  In the name of Christ and the power of the Spirit we pray.  Amen.

When we were very young—around age 10, I think—my sister and I went through a period of spiritual doubt.  Being a no-nonsense sort of guy, even at that age, it didn’t last too long or strike too frequently for me, but I recall that for my sister, it was something of a regular ritual.  We had picked up from somewhere—not from my parents, certainly, or even our church, but perhaps just from breathing the air in the Bible Belt—that we were supposed to “get saved” by “asking Jesus into our hearts” in a moment of prayer and penitence.  The mechanics were frustratingly vague, but the idea was that, if you prayed really hard and really meant it, that you would experience a sudden wave of peace, and confidence that Jesus was in you, and had saved you, and you now had a free pass that you would you get you to eternity, and needn’t worry again.  But of course, worry we did.  After awhile, we would wonder, “Yeah, but did I really mean it?  Did I say the words in the right order?  Did I really feel Jesus in my heart, or did I just think I did?  Maybe I should try again, to make sure.”  And so it would go, time after time.  I think my sister, being blessed with earnestness but cursed with a short attention span, must have gotten saved at least two dozen times.

By now this seems a bit silly.  But we were, in our own little way, struggling with the problem that has tormented millions of souls through the centuries—the problem of assurance.  How do we know that we belong to the truth?  How do we set our hearts at rest before him?  In hindsight, it seems clear why we had so much difficulty gaining genuine assurance this way.  “Let us love in actions and in turth, and not with words or speech.”  This prayer was just talk, and so it seemed much too easy.  The momentary peace would pass, and we would ask, “Really?  That’s it?  Nah, that can’t have done the trick; I have to try harder.  There must be more to it than that.”  And in a way, we were right.  There is more to it.  To know that we belong to the truth, we have to live it.  To know that God’s love abides in us, we must abide in love.  When God loves us, and we receive that love, he makes us into channels of his love, pouring it out on our brothers and sisters.  By living out that love, John says, “we know that we belong to the truth.”  

But this leads to the opposite problem.  If we must love in actions and in truth, how can we ever be sure that we’ve loved enough?  Have we really loved as we should?  The best of us fail over and over again.  How then can we assure our hearts before him?  One man’s struggle with this question may be said to have changed the course of history.  Many of you probably know the story of Martin Luther, and how he spent years as a devout monk, fasting, praying, ministering, doing everything he could to “love with actions and in truth” in order to set his heart at rest, and finding instead that because of it he loved God less and less.  He later wrote, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.”  For him, the moment of liberation came when he realized the meaning of the verse, “The just shall live by faith.”  “All at once,” he said,” I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”  Actually, this experience helped Luther see this passage in 1 John in a different light, as we shall see in a bit.

So John, like any pastor really, finds himself having to address both types of people.  Some people think that following Jesus is easy, a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts.  To them, John has stern words in this chapter: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  But he knows also that for others, these stern words will be a source of anxiety.  Some people are following Christ seriously, are abiding in God’s love, and yet worry that they’re never doing enough.  For these, he wants to offer comfort.  There are some of us here who probably need to hear each message—perhaps each of us, at different points in our lives, need to hear both.  How is John to fit both messages together?  John loves to speak in paradox and in poetry, and in this passage we find him at his richest, most elusive, and most paradoxical, as he seeks to show us that abiding in love, and having faith, are not two different things, but two sides of the same coin.  For even when he speaks of our “knowing” that we are of the truth based upon our acts of love—and John uses this sort of language repeatedly in the epistle—this kind of “knowing” turns out to be not an evidential knowledge, but an experiential knowledge, a knowledge of faith.

This theme of knowing is an obsession of John’s in this epistle.  This tiny letter contains 1/10 of all of the New Testament’s occurrences of the word for “know”—ginosko.  Another 1/4 of the New Testament occurrences occur in the Gospel of John.  Why this obsession?    Well, you may remember that the context of John’s writings, especially 1 John, is the appearance of “Gnostic” groups within the church.  The word “Gnostic” comes from ginosko, because the Gnostics claimed a special inner knowledge.  They had received true enlightenment, they had received certainty.  Because they had the right ideas, they knew that they were of the truth.  How could the other Christians know?  “By loving one another?” they sneered.  How could that ever give “knowledge”?  John wants to reassure his readers that by abiding in the love of God, they can know, but their knowledge is one that comes through the experience of loving and believing, not from mystical illumination or philosophical insight. 

John is also here intentionally recalling a passage from the Gospel of John—Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in chapters 14-17—the words and themes from that passage appear over and over in these verses.  As we begin Holy Week, we should imagine what it was like for Christ’s disciples that night, when Jesus suddenly tells them that he is about to leave them.  Jesus begins his discourse there by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1), even though, from now on, they will have to walk by faith and not by sight.  But how will they know that Jesus is with them?  How will they know they are still following in his footsteps?  They ask this question, the same question with which we struggle, several times, and Jesus never gives a direct answer.  He never gives them a scientific or philosophical proof.  “Believe” he says.  “Love” he says.  “Abide in me,” he says.  “Listen to the Spirit.”  John gives the same answers in this passage. 

He begins by saying that we can know that we are walking with Jesus if we love in actions and in truth.  (Even though in the NIV that some of you have there, it looks like verse 19 is beginning a new thought, John is more likely starting off by referring back to verse 18.)  Now John doesn’t mean that we earn God’s love by our love for one another, but that this is how we show it and experience the reality of it.  God’s love in us can’t help but overflow into our love of one another, and our love toward one another can’t help but overflow into love God.   We love, because he loved.  This is why John says that “by this we shall know that we belong to the truth.”  

But still, we worry, with Luther, that this answer doesn’t help us.  Because we often don’t experience ourselves as loving one another in actions and in truth.  Given that we are all sinners, how can we even begin to know we are of the truth based on our actions?  Here we get to see John’s witty word-play.  In verse 20, he says, “For whenever our heart condemns us”—the word for “condemn” there is kata-ginosko—literally, “to know something against.”  This is our problem after all, isn’t it?  Our consciences know us too well.  They know about that time that we did close our heart against a brother in need, that time when we hated our sister, that time when we refused to forgive our parents, that time when we envied our coworkers or spoke evil of our boss.  If we stop to ask ourselves, “Do we love in actions and in truth?” our hearts will rush forward like a crowd of tattling children, ready to accuse us before God, to remind us just how unloving we are.  We want to know that we are in the truth, that we abide in God, but instead, our hearts know too much against us.  No, we can’t be.  Maybe we’re just not cut out to be Christians after all.  

But what looks like humility here turns out to be pride.  In our pride, we refuse to listen to what God says about us, we refuse to hear the word of forgiveness.  Soren Kierkegaard speaks of “a pride too cowardly to submit to being helped, anguish for sin which shuns holy cleansing as disease shuns medicine.”  And in one of his books he has a great discussion of what he calls “the sin of despairing over one’s sin.”  When we do this, we may feel like we are hating sin more than anything, by recognizing how serious it is, but actually, we are giving ourselves over to sin.  We are listening to sin and to Satan (who is called “the Accuser” throughout Scripture) instead of to God.  When we do this, says Kierkegaard, sin “insists on listening only to itself, on having dealings only with itself; it closes itself up within itself, indeed, locks itself inside one more inclosure, and protects itself against every attack or pursuit by the good by despairing over sin.”  When we do this, we often say, “I can never forgive myself.”  This is technically true, because indeed we have no power to forgive ourselves; only God can forgive sins.  But then we go further and say, “God can never forgive me.”  What is this but to set ourselves against God?  To tell him that he can’t do what he’s promised?  This is us pretending to be greater than God.  But no, says John.  You are not greater than God, whenever your heart condemns you.  “God is greater than our hearts, for he knows all things.”  Your heart may think it’s so clever and sophisticated and serious about sin, because it knows something against you, but guess what?  God knows all that and more.  God is greater.

John’s image here is like a courtroom, in which we are arguing with our conscience, trying to convince our heart of our innocence, despite everything it knows against us.   We are losing the battle.  Witness after witness is called in on the other side.  But then in steps God, and he has the trump card.  “I know everything,” he says, “and you need not fear.”  

But why should this be a comfort?  If God knows everything about us, shouldn’t we be more terrified?  If our heart knows something against us, and God is greater than our hearts, how much more must he know against us!  He knows every evil thought, and secret desire, every bad motive, from when we were conceived until now.  Actually, this is how most scholars had been reading this verse all through the Middle Ages.  You had better love in actions and in truth, because if you don’t, and your heart condemns you, God is greater, and knows more, and will condemn you all the more.  But Luther came along and said no, that is not what this verse means; that is not what John is trying to tell his readers.  “If you lack works, yet you should not lack faith.  Even if persuasion is lacking, yet faith and hope are greater.  Although we should consider ourselves unworthy, yet we should accept the grace that is offered and the Gospel.  Even if our conscience makes us fainthearted and presents God as angry, still ‘God is greater than our heart.’  Conscience is one drop; the reconciled God is a sea of comfort.”  God knows all things, he knows everything we ever did, and yet he says that he loves us.  Our conscience rushes forward, ready to condemn, “But what about the time I did this terrible sin?”  But God does not need to listen.  God already knows about that.  

We see this over and over in the Gospels.  Early in his Gospel, John tells us, “Jesus did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”  This sounds ominous.  But then, how does it play out?  He comes to the woman at the well in chapter four, and “tells her everything she ever did,” as she puts it.  He knows that she has had five husbands, and is currently having an affair with a sixth man.  And yet what is his word to her?  “I will give you water springing up unto eternal life” (4:14).  In chapter 8, the Pharisees bring before him an adulterous woman.  He knows all about her sin.  And what is his word to her?  “Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more” (8:11).  And in Luke chapter 7, there is “the woman who was a sinner,” as she is described, who comes in to a dinner party and anoints Jesus’s feet with oil.  The host, Simon, is appalled, and mutters, “If Jesus were really a prophet, he would know how wicked this woman was and wouldn’t let her touch him” (7:39).  But Jesus does know, he knows all about it, and what does he say to her?  “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).  

See, God knows all things, which means he knows one thing certainly that we, in our sin, can never seem to get a handle on—who he is, what he is like.  He knows that he is a forgiving God.  More than that, he knows what Jesus has done, what he has done in Jesus.  This sacrifice, this forgiveness, is always before his mind, whereas we are prone to forget and doubt it.  There is a beautiful hymn that declares, “Between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  We are in a courtroom, our conscience condemning us, and we, powerless to defend ourselves, and in comes God, God who is greater than our hearts, and he holds up before the court a lamb, the lamb that was slain for us, and says, “Your sins are forgiven you.  Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

But we will still object.  How do we know this forgiveness is for us?  After all, it’s not for everyone, is it?  But John is speaking to us, us who have heard the word of life, who have heard Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness and his new commandment that we love one another, and who have tried to keep it.  This is why our heart condemns us, is it not?   If we didn’t even care about loving in actions and in truth, if we never bothered with the whole business at all, why would we find ourselves there, in an argument with our conscience?  Some people shut their hearts against their brother and against the love of God, and go their merry way.  But that’s not what John is talking about.  He is talking those who hear this command to love, and say, “Yes, I want to do that.  I want the love of God to abide in me.  But I’m just not doing good enough.”  “Aha!” says John, “Just what I needed to hear.  Come to Christ and hear his comfort. Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you.’”

I love the story in the Gospels about a man who begs Jesus to come and heal his demon-possessed son.  “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” he cries.  Jesus replies, “If you can?  All things are possible to him who believes.”  The man answers “Lord, I believe.  Help thou mine unbelief!” (Mk. 9:22-24).  Isn’t this all of us?  How often do we find ourselves crying out this way to God?  “Yes God, yes, I believe, or want to believe, your promise.  Please help my unbelief.  I want to love you, please help my unlove.”   And who is it who helps us in our weakness?  It is the Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus promises to send in his Last Supper discourse.  And so we have the same promise here at the end.  How do we know that we abide in God and he in us?  How do we know that we are in Christ, that his love flows through us?  By the visible evidence of our love for others, yes, but that will not always be enough to convince our fickle hearts.  “By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”

By this we come to the point where our heart does not condemn us, where we have confidence before him, confidence that we are in the truth, confidence that the love of God will make itself visible in our lives, confidence that we can come into the presence of God in prayer, and ask him whatever we want.  John says here “we receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.”  This sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Whatever we ask?  So, if I obey God perfectly (which I won’t do in any case), I could ask him anything, and he’d just do it?  He’d make my son sleep through the night?  No, this isn’t the idea.  John returns to this in chapter 5—”This is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to His will, he hears us.”  But isn’t that just circular?  What’s the point of asking if it’s already according to his will?  God’s already decided what he’s going to do.  But this isn’t John’s point.  The point is that when we are believing in Christ and obeying his commandment to love, we are becoming like him—our own wills are becoming conformed to his.  We abide in Him and He in us.  For this reason, we learn to want the same things he wants, and to ask him for the things he wants to give.  As we grow closer and closer to him, we have greater and greater confidence that we are walking in his will, and hence, when we come before him in prayer, we will receive that which we are asking for.  And again, our guarantee in this is the Spirit within us, who, as Paul says, comes to help us in our weakness when we try and pray: “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

As we come to the beginning of Holy Week, we too should be turning, with John here, back to the words of Jesus in the Last Supper discourse.  “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said.  Why?  Because although he was going away, it was for our sake that he went away, to make a way for us to come before the Father with confidence, fearing no condemnation.  And he promises that we will not be left alone, in doubt and worry.  For after Good Friday and Easter come Pentecost.  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Therefore, let us love in actions and in truth, let us love God whom we have not seen with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and let us love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen as ourselves.  And whenever our heart condemns us, let us listen not to the accusing voice of sin, but to the testimony of the Spirit, for God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

May God give us the grace to listen to Him today.

Lutheran, Reformed, and the Danger of Historical Hindsight

At every point in his task, the historian is faced with two essential and frequently-conflicting duties: the responsibility to tell us what really happened, and the responsibility to tell us the significance of what happened.  Without the latter, all he provides is a disjointed chronicle, a sequence of happenings with no clear logic to them, which is not history.  But as soon as he attempts to tell us the significance of what happened, he risks undermining his first responsibility.  For to make sense of what happened, he must place it in a narrative, make it part of an unfolding process with an inner logic and coherence, a causal sequence that has a certain air of inevitability.  But of course, that is not how events actually happen.  The narrative into which the event is later placed does not yet exist when it takes place; the subsequent events are all as yet contingent, not inevitable.  To describe an event, then, in light of the events that succeeded it is to be, in a certain sense, false to it, since none of those who experienced it (unless they are remarkably prescient) experienced it in that light.

Peter Leithart provides a compelling illustration of this problem in Deep Exegesis, discussing the example of the Defenestration of Prague—when the Bohemians threw two imperial ambassadors out the window of Prague Castle (they were lucky enough to land safely in a pile of manure), setting in motion a chain of events that caused the Thirty Years’ War.  It is customary, therefore, for historians to describe the Defenestration as the event that started the Thirty Years’ War.  And yet while clearly true in one sense, at the time, this was far from true.  It was not clear at the time that anything more than a diplomatic insult had occurred; a war was far from inevitable, much less one lasting thirty years.  In this case the falsehood is perhaps minor and forgivable, and in any case the task of history cannot do without such narratives, but in other cases this hindsight viewpoint perpetrates much more serious misconstruals of events, portraying radically contingent events as an inevitably unfolding sequence, obscuring the fact that the final outcome long hung in the balance.

Perhaps it is merely because I spend more time in the field, but it is my suspicion that Reformation historians are particularly prone to this kind of hindsight bias.  It is not hard to see why.  What was at the time a chaotic and inchoate reform movement or cluster of reform movements, led by dozens of men from different backgrounds, of different abilities, and possessed of different visions, eventually brought forth a set of fairly well-defined denominational traditions: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist—each of these capable of further subdivision, especially the Reformed.  Seeking to bring order out of the chaos of the sixteenth-century, nothing is easier than for historians to take these later divisions as their starting point, and proceed to narrate the Reformation as the seemingly-inevitable unfolding of nascent disagreements into these permanently-divided traditions.  Indeed, a sort of contest ensues, whereby historians try to outdo one another in finding the earliest seed of these subsequent divisions: the development of the Reformed can be traced by to 1550—no, 1540—no, 1530—no, 1520. 

One cannot deny, of course, that these efforts are often fascinating and instructive, helping to make sense of later developments that otherwise would seem random and illogical, without precedent.  We cannot do without these attempts to draw out the enduring significance of 16th-century events.  But we must be careful not to let them cloud too much our understanding of what really happened, or to flatten out complex spectrums of disagreement into two rival incompatible positions.  Reformation historiography, in many ways, is still just beginning to come to terms with the extent of its hindsight bias.  The myth of Anglicanism as an independent movement, discernible as such from the beginning, is dying very hard indeed.  The sharp and straightforward divide between “Erastianism” and Calvinist ecclesiology, between Zurich and Geneva, is another favorite narrative schema, which despite being rendered increasingly untenable by fresh scholarship, continues to hold sway in most Reformation histories. 


Perhaps the most pervasive such hindsight dichotomy, which continues to bedevil Reformation scholarship, seriously impairing understanding of how the key actors at the time actually perceived themselves and their work, is the Lutheran-Reformed divide.  Of course, clearly enough, the two traditions had diverged quite decisively and irremediably by the end of the 16th century, and went on to develop independent bodies of theology, liturgy, hymnody, etc.  Moreover, clearly enough, the disputes between them can be traced well back into the early Reformation period, and were fought out sharply by some participants.  Few sensible historians could deny, I think, that after the death of Melanchthon in 1560, the two branches had diverged fundamentally and, barring a radical reversal, irreconcilably—though even this was probably not clear to many observers at the time.  But few historians are content with this claim.  

On the contrary, nothing is more common in Reformation histories than to find a line like this: “Once it became clear that Luther and Zwingli would not come to agreement on the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, a split became inevitable between the Lutherans (or, to use the terminology of the day, the “evangelicals”) and the Reformed” (Glenn Sunshine, “Discipline as the Third Mark of the Church: Three Views”).  The Colloquy of Marburg, 1529, is identified as this decisive point of disagreement, the watershed from which, inevitably, flowed forth two distinct streams of the Reformation.  (Needless to say, once this watershed has been anchored in the minds of historians, they cannot rest content with it, but proceed backward to the beginning of Zwingli’s teaching in the early 1520s as the point of departure.)  And of course, if the two streams are already fundamentally distinct after 1529, then historians have no hesitation in discussing “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians as clearly separate groups in the 1530s, 1540s, and so on, despite the ambiguities and anachronisms thus produced, and in explaining events in terms of the deep-seated and irreconcilable conflict between these two (so that theologians are forever being described as “doing X in order to distance themselves from the Reformed” or “doing Y in order to conciliate the Lutherans” and so on).   

It almost goes without saying, however, that if we are describing the events of the 1530s and 1540s from the point of view of the self-understanding of those involved, this dichotomy rarely holds.  Most Protestants, at this time, viewed themselves as part of a single group, within which there existed significant differences of opinion on certain points, along what was a fairly continuous spectrum, rather than a simple dichotomy.  Of course, historians have increasingly recognized the common ground between Calvin and Melanchthon, for instance, but what is true remarkable is that not even Marburg was the great Parting of the Ways that it has been routinely identified as in subsequent narratives.  On the contrary, the theologians who gathered at Marburg were conscious of significant potential disagreements beforehand, and recognized the importance of coming to some kind of unity, to ensure the success of the Reformation.  And believe it or not, they succeeded in large part.  at the conclusion of the meeting, they drew up 15 Marburg Articles, covering the different topics they had debated.  On fourteen of the articles, they professed themselves in full agreement; the Eucharist was the only one where differences remained, and even here, they were able to delineate significant areas of common ground.  Melanchthon considered the meeting a good success, and many theologians over the following years had great confidence that the remaining disagreement would be readily resolved.  

And indeed, so it might have seemed to be by the 1540s as key leaders Calvin and Melanchthon reached a meeting of the minds—only for renewed conflict in the 1550s to drive a deep wedge between the parties.  In hindsight, of course, we can see that not only on the Eucharistic issue, but on other matters as well, “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians were starting to highlight different themes which would give in the end a fundamentally different character to the two traditions.  We would be foolish to do without the benefit of this hindsight; but we are foolish also when we allow it to blind us to a clear vision of events as they actually occurred.

Tetzel on Craigslist: Commodification and the Demise of the Commons

In his incisive and thought-provoking new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel invites us to step back and take stock of the results of the rapid expansion of market logic into every area of life that the last generation has witnessed.  Economics has transformed itself from a discipline concerned with the production, exchange, and allocation of material goods and services to a master-science claiming to describe the logic of all human social relations in terms of cost-benefit analyses.  In tandem with this theoretical shift has come the increasing subjection of areas of life once governed by non-market norms to the logic of free exchange driven by supply and demand.  Many today, including (perhaps especially?) many Christians may have difficulty in seeing what is wrong with this trajectory—after all, doesn’t this represent the triumph of free, voluntary social relations over against coercive, top-down ones (for a critique of this gross oversimplification, see here)? 

 Inasmuch as the logic of the market, though, is amoral and nonjudgmental—it doesn’t matter what you want and why as long as you’re willing to pay for it—Christians should be deeply concerned, and should heed Sandel’s call to bring morality back into the picture, asking about the moral consequences of subjecting more and more of our lives to the logic of exchange (especially as Sandel himself does not provide a theological basis for this moral concern).  Accordingly, I want to reflect here on the first set of phenomena he examines, “Jumping the Queue,” from a more explicitly theological standpoint.


In his first chapter, Sandel surveys at a variety of cases, around the world, in which the “ethic of the queue”—first come, first served—has been replaced by the “ethic of the market.”  The examples range from the relatively innocuous (the option to pay extra for a “fast track” pass at an amusement park) to the somewhat more troubling (the option for solo drivers to pay extra to use the carpool fast lane in crowded cities) to the downright dirty (lobbyists paying homeless people to stand in line for them overnight so they can be assured a place in Congressional hearings).  

From the standpoint of the Christian ethical tradition, these developments might be described as a “demise of the commons.”  As I have discussed at length on this blog before, the Christian ethical tradition long insisted on the priority of common use over private property.  That didn’t mean that private property was unjustified, but it meant that it did have to be justified.  It wasn’t a self-evident, self-justifying fixture of the natural order.  For the Christian, God has created the world for the use of all his creatures, and above all, for the use of mankind.  Since all men are created equal, the world’s resources are intended to provide equally for the needs of all.  As an institution, then, private property is to be justified on the basis that it can most effectively facilitate the use of the earth to meet the needs of all.  This being the case, any given holder of private property possesses his title on the moral condition that it be used not for his mere private benefit, but for the community at large.  The ongoing commitment to common use may be demonstrated in a private property economy in at least three ways: 1) by the use of private property in such a way that its fruits accrue to the benefits of others—preeminently employees and customers; that is to say, if I am the proud possessor of an apple orchard, I can ensure that the orchard serves common use by paying the apple-pickers a good wage and by selling the produce on to customers at a just price—but not, say, by intentionally allowing half the apples to rot so as to drive up the price of the others and make a better profit; 2) by the redistribution of the profits of private property to society at large, or to the needy—this can occur through taxation, or through voluntary giving to charity, or both; 3) by the preservation of certain areas—whether physical spaces, particular resources or services, or kinds of social relations—from private appropriation, maintaining them as common resources which everyone can use within the constraints of certain rules of fairness (rivers and oceans, for instance, are generally treated this way).  

 A good economy will combine all three.  The second, I would suggest, is the worst, because it does not necessarily challenge the logic of private right—you can do whatever you want with your property, and make as much money as you want, just share a little of your plunder with the rest of us when you’re done, will you?  When voluntary charity is the form of redistribution, the selfish logic can in fact be reinforced, as the giver thinks of himself as a magnanimous benefactor sharing from what is rightfully his alone, rather than someone recognizing the claims of others on the fruits of the earth.  Nonetheless, society today favors the second most of all, whether in its coercive forms (as the left prefers) or its voluntary (as the right prefers), because it is the least intrusive on the logic of private possession.  The third used to be recognized in many ways and institutions throughout society, but these are being steadily eroded.  Sandel’s examples draw particular attention to this phenomenon, particularly notable in the practice of ticket scalping for free public events or services (in China, scalpers wait in line for $2 doctor-appointment tickets, and then sell them to the desperately ill for much higher prices; in New York, free Shakespeare in the Park community theatre tickets are resold on Craigslist for $125).  Deeming such public services inefficient, we increasingly prefer to withdraw them from the sphere of common use and auction them off to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this tendency is an inevitable result of the Lockean logic within which we have long justified private property.  For Locke, private property exists not as a means to common use, but as an extension of our right of self-possession.  We have an inalienable right to ourselves and our own actions; therefore, why not to those things with which we have “mixed” ourselves in the form of our labor?  A free community theatre presents itself as the possession of the whole public, which we are free to come and share in, but which we cannot simply appropriate and make it our own.  But if Locke is right, why not?  My money, as the product of my labor, is the extension of myself, and there is no reason to appropriate to my own exclusive use whatever my money can buy, whether it be the fast lane or a ticket to a papal Mass ($200 on Craigslist for Benedict XVI’s first visit to the States).


In embracing this logic, and asking, “Where’s the harm?” Protestants are forgetting their theological heritage.  After all, more than anything else, the Reformation was a rejection of the commodification of religion, the subjection of God’s grace to the logic of exchange and private acquisition.  Late medieval Catholicism, after all, did a booming trade in souls and spiritual benefits.  Indeed, the phenomena of “jumping the queue” which Sandel documents has its precise complement in the indulgence trade which sprung up in the late Middle Ages, and the many other ways by which those willing to pay could speed their souls to heaven—almsgiving, funding private masses, even hiring surrogates to fight in a crusade.  The rich were able to buy a fast-pass to heaven, to “jump the queue” of purgatory.  Why does this trouble us?  Well, the issue of inequality, as I have just hinted, is obviously part of the problem, and Luther’s war against indulgences was motivated in large part by his anger at the oppression of the poor it entailed.  The rich nobleman, with a modest outlay, could pave his golden highway to heaven without great difficulty, while the mass of poor peasants felt shut out of the kingdom, scrimping and saving their meager resources to purchase indulgences.  Sandel, of course, draws attention to the same problem of inequality in the phenomena he looks at.  The queue is the great equalizer.  The richest must wait as long as the poorest to go through security at the airport.  The poorest has just as much opportunity to see Shakespeare in the Park as the richest.  Where the ethic of the queue dominates, income inequality is not a major issue, because the poor man’s lower income does not bar him from access.  He has rights of common use.  But the more the ethic of the queue is replaced with the ethic of the market, the greater the benefits of the rich.

To apply this logic to salvation, as the late medieval Church did, was to utterly corrupt the grace of God.  The Christian faith is not a private possession to be bought and sold.  God is not a marketable commodity.  In response, Luther preached a spiritual economy of free grace, of a great common spiritual possession that we were invited to enter into and share in.  Just as the physical world was created for the common use of mankind, not for the purpose of being parceled off to the highest bidder, so our heavenly inheritance was a shared possession to which we were given a birthright by the grace of Jesus Christ, not a store of merit to be purchased by those who could afford it.  

But as this picture shows, the problem is not just inequality.  Conservatives, indeed, would reject Sandel’s concern about inequality and would defend the onward march of commodification on the basis that we live in a meritocracy, that the rich are rich because they’ve earned it, and the poor are poor because they haven’t.  Everyone has, in principle, an equal chance to get those Shakespeare in the Park tickets even if they cost $125, because everyone has an equal chance to make that money, if they’re just willing to sweat and toil enough for their slice of the pie.  Let’s ignore for now how little this picture resembles reality.  The problem is, as Sandel argues, that more than just inequality is at stake.  Even if everyone had equal opportunity to buy and sell children, for example, doesn’t mean they should.  Some things simply shouldn’t be treated as commodities, because this flies in the face of their proper nature, corrupting the way we view them.  Children are an obvious and extreme example, but perhaps, he suggests, the same concern applies even to community theatre or papal masses.  Some things lose their real value when we try to put an exchange value on them.

Again, the case of Luther’s protest is instructive.  Inequality was not the only problem with the late medieval religious economy.  After all, you didn’t have to be rich.  It was handy to be rich, because then you could get the benefits without working; but if you were poor, you could still get in the fast lane to heaven too—if you worked hard enough: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, deeds of charity, rituals, etc.  Ultimately, the Church could counter, it was a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.  But that was precisely the problem.  Luther understood that this corrupted the whole nature of what was on offer.  The favor of God wasn’t something you worked for, but something you were freely given.  It was something that belonged to you by virtue of being in the family of God—in Christ, we are sons and fellow-heirs, not hired laborers trying to earn our keep.  


Perhaps by thinking through the theological implications of how the logic of exchange corrupts our relationship with God, privatizing us into self-interested agents, we may gain insight into how the logic of exchange, when extended beyond its proper boundaries can tend to corrupt our human relationships, substituting the agenda of acquisition for the agenda of participation.  


Addendum: An additional thought—lurking behind all this is the question of plenitude vs. scarcity.  That, of course, is the major disanalogy between what Sandel is talking about and what Luther was dealing with.  God’s grace really is infinite, which is why it’s so wrong to treat it as a finite commodity to be apportioned out, whereas Chinese medical appointment tickets are genuinely finite.  Not only do you not have to pay for Jesus, you don’t have to stand in line for him either.  There is no limit on how many people can participate in the common good that is God’ s grace, but there is a limit to how many people can participate in the common good that is Shakespeare in the Park. It is the scarcity of something that convinces economists that it should be apportioned by market mechanisms.  Of course, I think that it is precisely our sense that certain things should not be scarce, should be treated as unlimited goods, that in many cases informs our sense that it is wrong to pay for them.  Is this just self-delusion, trying to pretend that things aren’t scarce when they are?  Or ought we to cultivate such an attitude?  To what extent is the perception of scarcity self-fulfilling?  All such questions I shall merely raise for now, not attempt to answer.

Love and Law: A Protestant Conundrum

One way of characterizing an ongoing tension in early Protestant political theology, I will suggest, is as a tug-of-war between articulations of civil obedience in the key of Romans 13:1 and of Romans 13:8.  Both can claim Luther as an heir; both are attempts to square the crucial doctrine of Christian liberty with an ongoing duty to obey the legitimate authority of the magistrate.  On the one hand, liberty could be absolutely closeted away in the spiritual kingdom, and an uncompromising demand for obedience proclaimed in the civil kingdom.  Certainly many have seen this as the legacy of Luther’s political theology—Quentin Skinner in particular.  This strand of Protestant political thought rests exegetically on a peremptory invocation of Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  To the question, “How can we be conscience-bound to obey civil law if by Christian liberty, we are bound only to God” this line of argument answered simple, “To obey the magistrate is to obey God.  Therefore you are conscience-bound.”

 On the other hand, another line of reflection could take its cue from Luther’s fascinating “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, in which the Christian’s outward subjection in this life was compatible with his inner freedom because the Christian was one who, by love, subjected himself to authority for the sake of others.  As Luther puts it beautifully in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth; ratherhe lives only for others and not for himself. To this end he brings his body into subjection that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others. . . . Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation.  Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbour. . . . This is a truly Christian life.  Here faith is truly active through love, that it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.”  

This kind of political theology could be said to rest (although as a matter of fact, it very rarely did exegetically) on Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”

Moreover, one might characterize Romans 13:5 as the real crux in this tug-of-war: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”  It was possible to take “wrath” to mean “human wrath and punishment” and “conscience” correspondingly to mean “fear of divine wrath and punishment,” since, after all, to disobey the political authorities is simply to disobey God in them.  This emphasis of course tends to have the effect of squelching the law-of-love approach, of rendering Christian liberty altogether irrelevant to the discussion.  But on the other hand, it was possible to take this “but also” as really a “but instead” and to take conscience as meaning “for the sake of love”; since “perfect love casts out fear,” the Christian’s political obedience is to be one motivated by love—love of neighbour preeminently—not fear (you will recall this as a common theme of some of my own reflections on Romans 13).  Martin Bucer was perhaps picking up on something like this in his exegesis of Romans 13:5: “But because it is necessary for us to be subjected to them from the soul and voluntarily, not coercively, it is then expressed: ‘Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not on account of wrath only, but also on account of conscience.'”


It is fascinating to observe this tug-of-war in two of the greatest early Protestant systematicians, Melanchthon and Calvin.  

We find the latter emphasis in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci (“if they command anything that is for the public good, we must obey them in accordance with Rom. 13:5: ‘Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.’  For love constrains us to fulfill all civil obligations.”), but it is gone by the 1555 edition, where the passage is now glossed as reminding us that human laws “can bind us to eternal punishment.”  In the 1541 Epitome Moralis Philosophiae, this darker tone heavily predominates, with Melanchthon taking the first motive of 13:5 to refer to human wrath and the second motive, “conscience,” to refer to divine wrath: “And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it . . . with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent.”  Nonetheless, in his treatment of ecclesiastical laws, Melanchthon still emphasizes that our obedience is dictated by the law of love, our recognition that laws of order are necessary for the peace and edification of the church, and that to violate them will likely cause offense and discord.

Calvin’s emphasis is much clearer, carefully developing throughout IV.10 an account of obedience to church laws that it is dependent on the law of charity, rather than making such laws binding in themselves.  Moreover, unlike Melanchthon, he recognizes the need to apply the same standard to civil laws, which he discusses in explicit engagement with Romans 13:5, concluding, “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.”  The suggestion here is that insomuch as laws serve the common good, to obey them is to love the neighbor, and to disobey them, indeed, even to disobey otherwise unhelpful laws, will cause offence and disorder and hurt the common good; hence, the law of love calls us to free submission to the laws.  Nonetheless, even Calvin proves uneasy about the implications of this, implying as it does that, if a subject judges that a law can be disobeyed without hurt to the neighbor, he is free to disobey.  Accordingly, the explicit discussion of civil authority in IV.20 of the Institutes is developed largely within the key of 13:1, not 13:8. 


And what about for the greatest 16th-century systematician of them all—Hooker?  Ah, now that is an interesting question . . . and for the answer, you’ll have to wait for the thesis. 😉

Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  

Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.