Love, Law, and Christian Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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.

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. 😉

Freedom From Oneself: Christian Liberty in the Lutheran Reformation

For the past week, I’ve been so engrossed in trying to write an epic narrative of the rise and fall of the doctrine of of adiaphora–“things indifferent”–in the Reformation, that I’ve had no time for blogging, alas.  I haven’t even had time to distill some of the salient bits properly to post here.  So instead, I will just offer you a raw, uncut, uncensored, unedited excerpt from my rough draft.  This is the bit on Luther, who always makes for an exciting read.  


The three standard components of the doctrine of Christian liberty, stated later most lucidly by Calvin, are as follows:

  1. “that the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness.” (III.19.2)
  2. “that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.” (III.19.4; also particularly well-put by Melanchthon: “freedom does not consist in this, that we do not observe the law, but that we will and desire spontaneously and from the heart what the law demands.”)
  3. “regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.” (III.19.7)

It is critical that we understand the doctrine of adiaphora in this context if we are to understand its inner logic and guard against the misunderstandings that quickly took hold among both opponents and supporters of the Lutheran Reformation and were to plague all the reformations of the sixteenth century. 

Roughly put, we might want to say that the first part of Christian liberty consists in internal freedom, the second part consists in internal freedom in external obedience (voluntary obedience to the moral law of outward conduct), while the third part consists in external freedom.  But this would be a critical mistake (one made by many of Luther’s followers), failing to recognize the way in which all three parts of the doctrine are shot through by Luther’s “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, beautifully and masterfully articulated in his classic The Freedom of a Christian Man

“For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely….Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object–that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour….Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.”  

The freedom of a Christian man is not so much a freedom for oneself, but a freedom from oneself, a liberation from the preoccupation with one’s own salvation and merit, from fear that one is not toeing the line and meeting the standards; instead, he can actually focus on serving his neighbor.  “No longer does he need to use his neighbor as party to some moralistic scheme of proving himself worthy,” explains Bernard Verkamp.  “Now instead, his love of neighbor can be genuinely altruistic.” (57)  Thus confident of his standing before God and animated by love of neighbor, the Christian can let this law of love take the place, to a certain extent, of all other laws–divinely-revealed laws in Scripture will serve merely as rules of thumb about what love will require in particular circumstances, while human laws can only serve as rules of thumb about what love might require in particular circumstances.  Such laws still have their place (both sorts), but it is a place subordinated to the agenda of the law of love.  While the principles of the divine law serve as divinely authorized sign-posts as to the form that love should take, and hence must be carefully, though freely, heeded, in the adiaphora, we are called to a creative response to circumstances, which takes into account, but is not slavishly bound to, existing laws.

Luther cites the example of St. Paul circumcising Timothy, so as not to offend the weak, while later refusing to circumcise Titus, so as not to give in to Judaizers.

Since Christian freedom is an inner freedom that expresses itself in outward servitude, it is not nullified by external bondage, as Luther is careful to explain. 

“Any man possessing this knowledge may easily keep clear of danger among those innumerable commands and precepts of the Pope, of bishops, of monasteries, of churches, of princes, and of magistrates, which some foolish pastors urge on us as being necessary for justification and salvation, calling them precepts of the Church, when they are not so at all. For the Christian freeman will speak thus: I will fast, I will pray, I will do this or that which is commanded me by men, not as having any need of these things for justification or salvation, but that I may thus comply with the will of the Pope, of the bishop, of such a community or such a magistrate, or of my neighbour as an example to him.” 

Calvin puts it even more sharply, asserting that if someone is obliged to abstain from meat for their entire life out of regard for their neighbor’s weakness, they are not on that account any less free. (III.19.10)

An interesting corollary of this (which will become quite important as our narrative goes on) is that the one who insists on an outward expression of liberty thereby reduces the doctrine back to a new legalism.  As Verkamp says, “Those who, like Karlstadt, would insist that certain human traditions must be abolished and rashly proceed to do so, err no less, Luther said, than the papists.  Theirs is simply a new type of tyranny.  The papists destroy freedom by commanding, constraining, and compelling Christians to do things which God has not commanded or required; Karlstadt and his kind do so by forbidding, preventing, and hindering the Christian from doing that which is neither prohibited nor forbidden by God.”  The very indifferency of the adiaphora meant that to assert one’s external liberty in them would be to attribute to them more significance than they actually possessed, to make one’s faith dependent again on externals.  Stephen Gardiner lodged this very charge against the Reformers in his Contemptum humanae legis (1541): “Tell me I pray you how these things agree in constancy and continuity of doctrine: we are by only faith justified and made acceptable to God, according to your doctrine, and yet a large part of our controversy bears upon food and wives.  If those things do not pertain to justification, why do you who are reclaimed from the elements of the world contend about them, as if without them no happiness could find place in a Christian man?”

As the example of Karlstadt, however, and the charge of Gardiner suggest, this dialectic would prove difficult to maintain in practice.   When Karlstadt and many of the radical Reformers sought to put Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty into visible practice, ripping away all of the un-Scriptural trappings that seemed to shackle the Church, it is not hard to see where they got the idea.  It was easy to miss Luther’s own qualifications of the doctrine amidst the forceful rhetoric of liberty and sola Scriptura, and in any case, Luther himself provided precedent of this self-assertive kind of Christian liberty, insisting in On the Freedom of a Christian Man that toward “wolves” who urge ceremonies upon as as necessary, “we must resist, do just the contrary to what they do, and be bold to give them offence, lest by this impious notion of theirs they should deceive many along with themselves. Before the eyes of these men it is expedient to eat flesh, to break fasts, and to do in behalf of the liberty of faith things which they hold to be the greatest sins.”  He himself was soon to provide a particularly shocking example of this behaviour in his marriage to Katerina von Bora.  

Of course, in this same passage, Luther went on to advise precisely the opposite course of action before the weak in faith who needed to be initiated slowly into Gospel liberty, but this was precisely the problem with the doctrine–there were no fixed rules!  The whole point, after all, was to be ready to respond as love demanded in concrete circumstances.  Although he might issue some general guidelines, Luther could not establish a priori which response in the adiaphora would be right or wrong; might even Karlstadt’s actions have been more or less the right ones under slightly different circumstances?  It would be easy to attack Karlstadt and other radical reformers as unprincipled, self-serving libertines, who perverted the doctrine of Christian liberty for their own pleasure, failing to understand that it was not a freedom for oneself but a freedom from oneself, and the magisterial reformers were certainly quick to launch these sorts of attacks.  No doubt this was often enough true, and many Protestants quickly twisted liberty into license.  But this need not be the explanation for every form of radicalism, as becomes clear by the time you get to characters like the Puritans, who, whatever Anglican polemicists might try and say, hardly look like libertines.  

An externalization of Christian liberty that forcefully rejected unbiblical ceremonies could very well be motivated by a desire to love and edify the neighbor.  If one was convinced that the ceremonies were being Pharisaically demanded in a way that hinder the proclamation of evangelical liberty, or were weighed down with superstitions that would turn Christians away into various forms of idolatry and works-righteousness, then one must refuse and reject such ceremonies.  All the magisterial reformers themselves said so.  But they also said that if rejecting the ceremonies would cause the weak to stumble, or if the ceremonies were edifying, not harmful, they should be retained.  Such a dialectic, difficult enough to apply accurately in the best of circumstances, was certain to only become more difficult as Protestant churches increased in size, and whole princedoms and finally kingdoms became Protestant.  For surely, if not in an individual congregation, certainly in a whole region there would be both “Pharisees” and “the weak”–some who needed to be showed the needlessless of the ceremonies, and some for whom the ceremonies were still needful; some whom the ceremonies led astray into superstition, and some whom the ceremonies legitimately edified.  Disagreements over proper practice in the adiaphora were sure to proliferate as the infant Reformation grew and spread.  

(stay tuned for more, hopefully)

A Closer Look on Melanchthon and Private Property

A few months ago, as part of my ongoing side-project of reflecting on the relation of Christian ethics to private property, I posted a discussion of a passage from Melancthon’s 155Loci Communes on the subject, from the chapter on the distinction between “commandments” and “counsels.”  In this passage, he castigates the Anabaptists for their attempt to do away with the order of private property, which he insists is divinely ordained.  At the time, I critiqued Melanchthon, suggesting that he was an example of the shift away from the medieval understanding of private property as a pragmatic adjustment of the natural state of common ownership to the modern understanding of private ownership as itself completely natural and perpetual.   My friend Peter Escalante informed me that I had badly distorted Melanchthon on this point, arguing that he was in fact well-aligned with the medieval consensus, and I so I offered something of a retraction. Now at last I can shed a little more light on Melanchthon’s view.  
Sure enough, if one looks at the first edition of the Loci, the 1521 edition, one finds a presentation that is much more equivocal about the status of private property.  Expounding the natural law, Melanchthon argues that there are three main laws of nature: “1. God must be worshiped.  2. Since we are born into a life that is social, nobody must be harmed.  3. Human society demands that we make common use of all things.”  

Wow.  So the common use of worldly goods is not merely a nice idea, but one of the fundamental laws of nature, on par with “God must be worshiped”?  Looks like it.
“The third law, about the common use of things, obviously arises from the very nature of human society.  For if the saying ‘Friends have all things in common’ ought to be valid when a few friends are involved, why should it not hold among all men?  It should, since all are supposed to cling together as brothers do with brothers, children with parents, and parents with children.  For the law not to inflict harm has commanded this.”
So, is there any place for private property?  Yes indeed.  For we aren’t living in our natural state anymore, but in sin:
“But because human avarice does not allow that we use all things in common, this law had to be corrected by the one above, the law that no one be harmed.  Things must be shared to the extent that the public peace and the safety of the group permit.  For as a rule inferior laws are corrected by higher ones, and public sharing must be regulated according to some limit.”  
In the state of sin, a perfect common property regime is unlikely to last for long without causing strife, and so it must be modified as necessary to provide for peace.

“Therefore, another law must be subjoined to the third, namely, that property must be divided, since the common welfare of the multitude so demands.  Furthermore, since it is a condition of human affairs that there is need of at least some sharing of property because by nature things ought to be in common, it has been decided that their use be shared, for instance, through contracts, buying, selling, leases, rents, etc.  And here you discern the origin of contracts….One must not look for any other model of a well-constituted state than that state in which it is possible to observe the rule that friends must share.  Thus contracts have been devised through which the goods of each are shared by the many so that there may be at least some sharing of things.”

In other words, private property is introduced in a state of sin as a way of realizing the original natural good of common use.  If we can’t have a truly common property regime, then we should come as close as we can to achieving the same end under a private property regime.  This stance (which looks like Option 5B or possibly 5A on the taxonomy of private property justifications I provided here) is actually less affirming of private property than Aquinas–it is more Augustinian–since St. Thomas believed that the specification of private property might have happened anyway even without sin.  But the basic logic is quite similar.  

However, there does seem to be a marked shift by the time we come to the 1555 Loci.  Not surprising, really. Back in 1521, in the first flush of the Reformation’s success, the Reformers were filled with evangelical optimism and perfectionism; the Anabaptist utopianism had not yet come to stand in opposition to the mainstream reformers.  By the middle of the century, however, a hard-nosed realism and cynicism has set in. Men are a wretched and on the whole irreformable lot; some will be saved, but the majority just need to be restrained.  In such a milieu, anything other than the existing private property arrangements is going to sound hopelessly idealistic.  No surprise, then, that we should find Melanchthon here indulging in a furious polemic against the Anabaptist opposition to private property, something which he might have disagreed with in 1521, but hardly set himself against so ferociously.  In this polemic, he argues that property is not merely a good, but a a duty–voluntary poverty is simply wicked hypocrisy, and a violation of the divine order of property.  

This polemic corresponds to a considerably flattened account of the justice of private property in his exposition of the law.  In the 1555 Loci, this comes in an exposition of the Ten Commandments as the basic principles of natural and divine law.  In speaking of the seventh commandment (eighth for us Reformed), he says,
“Let us learn from this commandment that God himself has established ownership of property and reasonable laws to regulate it.  It is comforting to know that the laws by which we live and have property are pleasing to God, for then a believing man can work with a clear conscience to maintain himself in such an order, and can invoke God’s blessings and aid….
“Note this in reference to the devilish Anabaptists.  They argue that all goods must be held in common and boast that it is a mark of great holiness to break up property….Against such madness one should consider and uphold the beautiful wisdom contained in this commandment.
“Because possession of property is right and pleasing to God…God erects a strong wall around each householder for the sake of his shelter and goods, namely this his law, ‘You shall not steal.’  Our hearts and hands should not desire another’s goods nor acquire them, except as God has ordained an exchange by agreement and equal payment.  In this life we need various things, and God gives to one the fruits of the earth, to another, wool and cloth.  Therefore, to facilitate exchange, God himself ordained contracts, buying, and selling.  He desires us to use these means to preserve equality, for otherwise we would soon consume one another.”
It is impossible to deny a striking contrast.  Here there is no overarching right of common use that precedes and gives purpose to the order of private property (although there is still a hint of this at the end in the remarks, reminiscent of those from 1521, that contracts enable common use within a private property regime); here there is no qualification to the divine ordination of property–indeed, here it might appear that private property was natural and perpetual, rather than an adjustment to the natural order as a result of the Fall.  And whereas in the 1521 discussion, we might’ve been left with the impression that a common property regime was still a live option under certain circumstances and a praiseworthy one, here any such notion is castigated as “devilish madness.”  What we appear to have now, in short, is an Option 4A or even an Option 3 account of the justification of private property.  It may well be that Melanchthon here has not actually changed the logic of his theory.  If pressed to explain the natural-law basis of private property, he might still follow the structure of the 1521 account.  But the rhetoric has certainly changed.  And in my experience, rhetorical shifts often precede and influence theoretical shifts (e.g., as I argued happened in the case of sola Scriptura).
Of course, none of this is intended to single out Melanchthon for criticism.  My sense (thus far relatively unconfirmed by careful research) is that this shift was fairly prevalent in the sixteenth century, among Protestants and Catholics.  Hopefully one day I’ll be able to confirm that one way or another.

(If I’ve still got it wrong, Peter, don’t hesitate to come down on me hard again. 😉 )