Lo and Behold–a Dissertation!

For weeks and months, I had been bumbling along, sure that I wanted to do a dissertation on the use of Scripture in Reformation political thought, but unable, it seemed, to find a topic that was even compelling to me, much less the rest of the world.  I picked up Vermigli, listened to him patiently, but found myself yawning at his arid polemics.  Bullinger proved a blustery windbag, and besides, he spoke German, and I didn’t.  What about Cartwright and Whitgift?  Too petty and contentious.  The Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos intrigued me, but I didn’t want to spend the next three years with Frenchmen and their strange tongue.  At last I lighted upon Hooker with the joy of a desert wanderer who, exhausted of chasing mirages and near death’s door, stumbles at last upon a true oasis.  But this was a name, not a thesis.  Why should anyone care about Hooker?  Thus far the only convincing connection between Reformation and modern political theology that I felt inclined and competent to address was VanDrunen and all his dangerous doctrines.  But I couldn’t very well write a dissertation dedicated simply to refuting VanDrunen.  

Then, last Wednesday, I had an epiphany.  The catalyst: the sight of Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics on my shelf, put there by my friend and desk-mate Jeremy Kidwell, who thought I might find it useful.  I hadn’t so much as opened the book yet, but the sight of it was enough.  I knew what I had to do: I had to read and take voluminous notes on this book, on Joan O’Donovan’s Theology of Law and Authority in the Reformation, and on John Witte, Jr.’s The Reformation of Rights.  I had to glance back at the passages in VanDrunen on Christian liberty.  And I had to read over again a short but pregnant passage in Melanchthon’s Epitome Moralis Philosophiae that I had come across more than a year ago and mentally bookmarked for future reference.  I resisted the temptation to stop and conceptualize or outline.  The time for that would come–for now, I must simply stuff my brain.  The gamble paid off–one week after the initial epiphany, Wednesday around one PM, as I looked through the VanDrunen and the Melanchthon passages, the mental sirens started going off.  I opened up a blank word document to start outlining some key ideas.  But instead of an outline, an essay starting pouring out, and faster than I could write, the various ideas that had been banging around in my head for months starting snapping together, like magnets brought into proximity.  I wrote as if taking dictation, pausing only for various changes of location and necessary social obligations, and by midnight it was complete.  Yesterday O’Donovan approved it, and I am now leaving port and setting sail on the epic voyage.  Here, for those of you with the time and inclination to read it, is the proposal-essay:

Although it may not seem at first fertile ground in which to find the seeds of modern liberal democracy, early Calvinism has in recent years received pride of place among historians and ethicists seeking to reconstruct the sources of modern secular politcs.  Several modern theological ethicists who are eager to affirm the sanctity of the secular, and preserve it inviolate from the incursions of militant American evangelicals, have appealed to the early Reformed traditions as witnesses for a theological justification of strict church/state separation.  Involved in this dispute, of course, are questions about the proper role of Scripture in the political sphere: whereas many Christians feel fervently the need for Scripture to speak to every area of life, to extend as far as Christ’s lordship does, others have argued strenuously that if Christians are to engage with politics in a pluralistic society, they must be able to speak in secularized language, to advocate for a moral political order in terms that are universally acceptable–in other words, they must use natural law.  Some may argue this merely as a rhetorical strategy–we must speak a non-theological language, in order to accomplish particular theological ends in the civil realm.  Others, however, have been prepared to argue as a matter of principle for the irrelevance of particular theological convictions for the political sphere.  

One such ethicist is David VanDrunen, who believes that the early Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms provide the theological tools for such an agenda.  The basic thrust of his contention is that the Reformed learned how to distinguish sharply between the civil kingdom (the state and civil society) and the spiritual kingdom (the visible church), and learned to apply quite different laws to the regulation of these spheres–the civil kingdom was regulated by the natural law that was shared by all men, while the spiritual kingdom was regulated by Scripture alone.  VanDrunen presents this paradigm as an outworking of the doctrine of Christian liberty: Christian liberty applies in the spiritual kingdom, where we are free from every authority but Scripture, while it does not apply in the civil kingdom, where we are bound by authorities ruled by prudential considerations of natural law.  Now, given that the original purpose of Calvin’s distinction regarding Christian liberty, explained below, was to reinforce political conservatism–we remain bound to obey the civil magistrate usque ad aras–it seems odd at first that VanDrunen would find in this the germ for a liberated modern politics.  However, when we reflect more carefully on Calvin’s statement of Christian liberty, we note an inversion: the lack of liberty for the individual in the civil kingdom corresponds to a greater liberty for the ruler, while the greater liberty for the individual in the spiritual kingdom corresponds to a constraint upon ecclesiastical leaders, bound as they are not to legislate beyond Scripture.  The rulers of the civil sphere have the freedom to apply natural law and devise any laws not directly contrary to Scripture; if we once introduce the constitutional radicalism that citizens are to some extent their own rulers, then the constraint on liberty in the civil kingdom actually becomes a liberation: Christian citizens are free to engage in politics on the broad playing field of natural law, without having to conform their policies directly to Scripture.  Unsurprisingly then, VanDrunen simultaneously embraces a correlative concept of the spiritual kingdom, in which the ostensible “Christian liberty” actually becomes a tight chain binding the Church, to restrict itself to narrowly ecclesial, rather than civil concerns, since only the former are taken to be authoritatively laid out in Scripture.  

VanDrunen’s account of the Reformed doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms is highly tendentious, and fails to offer a fully authentic historical account of key early figures like Calvin.  However, I will seek to argue that, although VanDrunen himself passes over the Elizabethan Puritans with little comment, it was they who came closer than any other Reformed group to espousing the kind of natural law/two kingdoms dialectic that VanDrunen and others wish to appropriate.  For it is they who most explicitly make the visible church out to be a separate juridical polity alongside the civil kingdom, governed in detail by its own standard of law–the Scripture.  I shall then appropriate Richard Hooker’s devastating criticism of the foundational assumptions of Puritanism to show the impossibility of such a neat compartmentalization of natural and divine law.  VanDrunen is right, however, to see the doctrine of Christian liberty as foundational, so I will focus throughout on the Protestant attempt to find a satisfactory synthesis of law and liberty.


The Reformation was predicated on a doctrine of Christian liberty, on the freedom of God’s grace, and the freedom of the Christian who is caught up in it; this freedom was originally seen as a protest against institutional contraints that would confine the gospel and the Christian, it was seen as a protest against the law that would seek to bind the believer in fear before God and man, instead liberating him to stand in confidence before both.  But the doctrine, like any assertion of liberty, soon proved rather too volatile to be left unqualified.  Institutional structures must remain, which meant that for Luther, the liberty of the believer was soon sequestered in the internal forum of the conscience, which can never be bound or bullied when it comes to the gospel.  In the external sphere, though, rules still must apply, and people must follow them, if there is going to be any order in either church or state.  This was not, as the cynic might have it, merely because of of the need to placate the powers that be.  Rather, it was in part necessary for the protection of liberty itself.  Every unqualified assertion of liberty destroys liberty, because the liberty of one to do as they desire is an imposition on what those around them desire.  So it is in the Church.  For one person to be free to practise the faith as they desire means they are sure to offend their brother, while for that brother to be free from offense may require that the first person be offended by not being permitted to act in a certain way.  If the Church as a corporate body is to have freedom to pursue its common good, the freedom of its individual members must be curtailed to some extent.  

Carefully sensitive to the dilemma thus raised, Philipp Melanchthon in his Epitome Moralis Philosophiae sought to define quite carefully the relationship of law and liberty.  First he argues for a fundamental distinction between the binding force of civil laws and ecclesiastical laws.  In the former, he says, we are bound not merely by fear of coercion, but by conscience as well (which nearly, but not quite, reduced to fear of divine coercion).  In the latter, however, we are merely bound by the law of charity–that is, we must obey them insofar as failure to do so will cause our brother to stumble.  They are conditionally binding, not unconditionally so.  Although the details of his argument manifest significant unresolved tensions, the overall conclusion yielded serves his purpose–we must not let ourselves be bound by a slavery of fear when it comes to obeying ecclesiastical ceremonies and customs, but, as they are needful for discipline and order’s sake, we must not lightly cast them aside either, as this would be to sin against our brothers and sisters.  Melanchthon’s answer was to prove very influential in the Anglican context, being reprinted in a prominant pamphlet during the Vestiarian controversy under the title “Whether it be a mortall sin to transgress civil laws.”  For the Puritans in this controversy, however, Calvin was easily the most influential figure, though their doctrine of Christian liberty proved quite unfaithful to him.

Calvin’s own teaching on the subject is far from clear.  John Witte, Jr. suggests that two phases may be discerned: an earlier one in which Calvin is closer to the original Lutheran impulse to give liberty to the individual believer, and a later, institutionalizing phase in which Calvin feels the need to curtail the individual believer’s liberty in favor of the liberty of the Church as a whole, which means its governing structures.  This shift, Witte believes, can be related to a shift in Calvin’s understanding of the two kingdoms.  For Calvin, like Melanchthon, conditions the doctrine of Christian liberty with a two kingdoms doctrine: in the spiritual kingdom, the believer cannot be bound to anything not commanded in Scripture, while in the civil kingdom, the believer can be bound by things not commanded in Scripture, only not by things forbidden in Scripture.  The laws of civil authorities, so long as they do not command against God, are fully binding.  

The question arises, however, how we are to define these two kingdoms.  For the early Calvin, like the late Luther, these kingdoms can be seen largely in internal/external terms: the spiritual kingdom, since it is inherently spiritual and internal, lacks an external institutional form and so cannot, of course, promulgate binding laws; its only laws are the spiritually binding laws of Scripture.  However, for the later Calvin, the Church has come to be seen as external institution in its own right, a visible polity alongside and closely conjoined with the civil polity.  With this move, it would seem, the binding, lawlike character of the civil kingdom insinuates itself into the spiritual kingdom as well.  The earlier paradigm, allowing complete liberty to believers within the Church, left the Church no power to regulate itself beyond the mere preaching of the word.  Now, if the Church was to regulate itself, it would need to be able to make rules which would need to be on some level binding on its members; but according to the doctrine of Christian liberty, these laws could not be strictly binding on believers, going as they did beyond Scripture.  The Melanchthonian solution was possible, according to which the laws were not binding according to strict law, but according to the law of charity.  But the more the Church was construed as a visible juridical polity, the more difficult it became to maintain such a distinction.  If the Church required rules of good order, and if such rules had to be imposed and guarded by the public authorities of the Church, and if some kind of coercive sanctions were necessary to do this (as they were increasingly seen to be) then for all practical purposes, believers’ liberty was extinguished.  

It was possible to still continue along this track and still rescue the letter (though not the spirit) of the doctrine of Christian liberty by a crucial transposition–what if all laws of good order were Biblically binding?  What if they were not, in fact, adiaphora?  If this were so, then in making such rules, the Church would be requiring of believers nothing beyond what Scripture itself required, and of course, if the Church were to make any other rules (e.g., episcopacy rather than the divinely-mandated Presbyterianism) then it would be violating Christian liberty.  It is readily apparent that in making this move, Christian liberty is, for practical purposes, extinguished and converted into legalism.  Calvin himself therefore, while sliding toward legalism in his later life, never explicitly made this move, which would in any case have required a fairly dramatic flattening of the relationship between divine and human law, something Calvin knew better than.  

Under the influence of John Knox and his biblical absolutism, however, the English Puritans were able to make this move.  Indeed, this may have been prompted by another antinomy in the Melancthonian formulation, a paradox that the Anglican divines themselves wrestled with in the Vestiarian controversy.  The problem was this: if a particular ceremony (e.g., vestments) is neither forbidden nor commanded by Scripture, then it may be authorized, but not required, by the Church.  For the Church to strictly require it would be to violate Christian liberty, and therefore believers would have the right to disobey it—not because to obey it would be in itself a violation of divine law, but because to obey it would be to grant the validity of such a requirement, a requirement that, by violating Christian liberty, constituted a violation of divine law.  What if, however, the civil authority opted to require this ceremony?  After all, given the close coordination of civil and ecclesiastical affairs, it was difficult to say with certainty that this was outside the magistrate’s jurisdiction.  Inasmuch as the magistrate was requiring that which ought by all rights to be adiaphora, this was clearly wrong, and it would seem could be lawfully disobeyed.  However, inasmuch as this ceremony was not in itself forbidden by God, was not the Christian required to obey the magistrate in this case?  After all, the standard teaching had been that the doctrine of Christian liberty did not apply in the case of civil laws; here, the law must be obeyed so long as obedience was not directly contrary to God.    The dilemma proved quite difficult to resolve, and it is thus unsurprising that the Puritans, seeking a more clear-cut paradigm with which to adjudicate the lawfulness of church ceremonies, decided to do away with the category of adiaphora within the church entirely: all policies of the Church must be either commanded or forbidden by divine law, that is, Scripture.

Now that Scripture had taken on the role of a divine legal constitution for an alternative polity standing alongside the civil kingdom, instead of a comprehensive guide for life in the Christian society, its function for the civil kingdom would seem to have been dramatically attenuated.  Now that adiaphora were essentially expunged from the visible Church, civil affairs themselves became the adiaphora–those matters on which the Church had no authority to adjudicate, and which it therefore left for the rulers to act as reason and the general guidelines of Scripture dictated.  On the other hand, however, the clear superiority of the divine law in Scripture over the merely human civil law tended to suggest that the civil realm too should be ordered to that law in a theocratic arrangement.  As it turned out, Puritanism found itself for several generations in an unstable oscillation between these two poles, half-inclined to leave civil affairs entirely in their own sphere, half-inclined to bring them into the orbit of the spiritual kingdom, dictated to by the Word through the ministers. 

Richard Hooker eschewed both these tendencies, and saw more deeply and clearly than any of his contemporaries that the Puritan development constituted a retreat into Catholic legalism; that, in the struggle to maintain the liberty of the individual believer and the liberty of the institutional church, both had been abolished.  Hooker’s response consisted of at least three key moves, the first  of which took him back to the earlier Reformers and the second and third of which took him back beyond them in order to point a more coherent way forward.  

His first move was to return to the earlier Reformers and to reassert the unity of the corpus Christianorum–of a distinction between the two kingdoms that put the externals of both church and state in “the civil kingdom.”  While he was certainly Erastian, Hooker was far from seeking to dissolve any distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions–indeed, the very title of his magnum opus displays the importance for him of a distinctive “ecclesiastical polity.”  However, both jurisdictions were crucially to be understood as belonging to the same external and social sphere, and thus as both being administered by human law.  For Hooker, the crucial division in law was not between the natural law and the divine law, but between these two on the one hand, fixed and immutable, and human law on the other, necessarily mutable.  For human law was simply the application of either the laws of reason or of Scripture to particular times, places, and circumstances, which necessarily admit of variable applications, whether in purely civil or ecclesiastical affairs.  

This understanding enabled a second move–to revisit the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and clarify the ambiguities it created.   Instead of allowing one sphere to be governed by the rule “nothing contrary to Scripture” and another by the rule “nothing except directly according to Scripture,” Hooker saw the need for one rule to apply to all external human affairs: “all things according to the general guidance of Scripture and nothing contrary to its explicit teaching.”  Hooker understood that to be brought to bear on an infinite variety of changing particular circumstances, Scripture was necessarily mediated through reason and tradition.  Civil affairs then were governed by the law of reason, but always as illuminated and interpreted by Scripture, while ecclesiastical affairs were governed by the divine law of Scripture, but always as illuminated and interpreted by the law of reason. 

Where does all this leave the doctrine of Christian liberty?  For Hooker, this law can only apply in the immediate realm of faith, the true spiritual kingdom in which the believer is bound directly to Christ, where no human law can rightly interfere.  However, in the mediated realm of human society, whether this be civil or ecclesiastical, we are bound by laws.  Given the choice stated above between a liberty of the individual believer over against the Church, and a liberty of the Church over against the individual believer, Hooker then opts for the latter in order to safeguard the common good of the spiritual society–just as civil laws curtail the liberty of subjects to safeguard its common good.  Hooker’s ecclesiastical polity has the power to issue binding legislation on adiaphora.  But notice that this is in fact precisely in order to resist legalism, and retain a sphere of rational freedom for the visible Church.  


In fact, I would suggest that Hooker’s conception of law does in fact, even while extending the range of law, make it less “legalistic.”  Let us recall Melanchthon’s distinction between the ways in which civil and ecclesiastical laws bind.  For Melanchthon, the former are binding both by their coercive force, and by force of conscience, understood primarily as a fear of divine coercion.  The latter are binding only insofar as the rule of charitable concern for the common good requires.  I would argue that in Hooker’s conception, Melanchthon’s “ecclesiastical” laws are folded into the “civil,” but in such a way that the freedom of the latter pervades the whole.  For Hooker, law is fundamentally a directive, rather than a coercive rule; for humans, law is the function of the will’s free embrace of the goodness proper to its nature–as F.J. Shirley puts it, “Man is of creatures alone able to choose whether he will take his due place in creation, and the essentially voluntary nature of his actions demands that the law which governs him shall be primarily directive and persuasive, not arbitrary and coercive.  He may obey and disobey; ‘he doth not otherwise than voluntarily the one or the other’, and these laws are incumbent upon him to keep simply as a man, whether or not he be a member of a commonwealth.”  The binding force of conscience consists not in fear of divine coercion, but in love of divine goodness.  Likewise, the coercive human element of law is not rightly seen as a foreign imposition, but given Hooker’s insistence on the necessity of consent for civil authority, and the unity of the political body, the law is to be understood as that by which each subject freely binds himself.  In all law, therefore, we are given to understand by Hooker, we are bound inasmuch as reason, formed by charity, directs us to seek that which the common good of our nature and society require.  Even when we deem the law to be unjust, we are bound to defer in our judgment to that of the whole, insofar as concern for the common good teaches us to recognize that disobedience would for the time being do more harm than good to the community.   

As a constructive development of Hooker’s conception of law, then, I will suggest that, although he himself does not make this explicit move, we could consider all laws to be binding only insofar as they are specifications of the law of love.  Such a move is suggested by Hooker’s Augustinian concept of the reason’s embrace of the good as an inclination of love, and by his understanding of the love of God and love of neighbor as comprising the fundamental content of the law of reason.  Such an understanding of law-observance as the voluntary subordination of love–simultaneously completely free and a slave of all–can serve as a means of recovering the full riches of the original Lutheran conception of Christian liberty.

As a more direct constructive application of Hooker’s thought, I will argue that his understanding of the always-cooperative role of Scripture and reason in both ecclesial and civil affairs offers a much more helpful paradigm for Christian civil engagement than that which seeks to confine each authority within its own designated sphere.  Christians may step into the political arena with confidence that God’s laws have much to teach it, but with a healthy humility that recognizes that a diversity of circumstances prevents any hasty one-size-fits-all theological solution; they may thus make use of the insights of unregenerate reason in patiently devising policies conducive to the common good, and ordered to the eschatological good that perfects, rather than abolishes, nature. 


Melanchthon and the Re-validation of Private Property

(following off of the background provided by the previous post)

The Anabaptists, says Melanchthon, say “that Christian men should not own property, but should have all good sin common, and they make a command of this.”  The monks, meanwhile, “say poverty is a counsel, a special holy work.”  These opinions, he declares, “are erroneous and false.”  Why? 

“The seventh [eighth for us] commmandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ shows that it is right, and a divine order, to have property.  These grave words of the seventh commandment confirm the right to have property for every one, and they draw a wall about each one’s house and trade.” 

For this to be Melanchthon’s first move is quite fascinating.  For here we see, already, the standard argument format used by modern Protestant pro-capitalist apologists: if the Bible says “do not steal,” then this makes clear that private property is held in very high regard by Scripture and must be safeguarded against any intrusions.  The commandment thus shifts from being read primarily as a safeguard against the predations of the strong upon the weak (see Patrick D. Miller, “Property and Possession in Light of the Ten Commandments,” in Having) to being read primarily as as an unqualified positive endorsement for the position of property-holders everywhere.  Private property is shown by these four words to be part of “a divine order.”  

Melanchthon elaborates:

“the orderly regulations of the human race in authority, courts, punishments, marriage, property, buying, and selling are so decreed and maintained through divine wisdom and power, that the devils which oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them.  And order in the human community is a clear testimony to God….Through his beautiful order God would be known, and through such means and bonds he wants us to be drawn together, and to serve one another….this characteristic of the physical order, ownership of property, is pleasing to God.”  

Wow.  There you have it all in a nutshell.  The laws of economics are part of the structure of the universe as God has programmed it, and even those who “oppose such regulations may not completely destroy them”–this is a standard of modern pro-capitalist literature.  But most interesting is the complete elision of the careful distinctions that the Thomist tradition had drawn regarding the natural and unnatural dimensions of private property.  The institution of private property is no longer presented as a prudent human development of the natural order so as to better realize its potential, but is presented as itself part and parcel of the divinely ordained natural order.  Private property is thus assimilated as a postulate of the natural law, 350 years before Leo XIII made this move in Rerum Novarum

Since private property a postulate of the natural law, the abandonment of private property is read as a violation of the natural law–not only not meritorious but downright wrong: “The voluntary abandonment of one’s own goods in the erroneous opinion that begging is a holy work of divine worship is not only not a counsel but a lie, a mistake.”  After all, the one who renounces his own property will be made dependent on the property of others, and will thus be in a sense stealing: “Also, whoever obtains bread from another by begging, if he himself has property and has forsaken it without being persecuted, if he does not perform some honourable work such as teaching to obtain bread, if he is able and not prevented from working, he is a thief.”  

There you have it–the Protestant work ethic!  We have all heard this before–Marvin Olasky sputtering with righteous indignation against anyone who does not work to earn his living, for instance.

Of course, none of this means a renunciation of charity:

“When God gives property and a tolerable trade, we should first of all know that having property is pleasing to God; and we should acknowledge it as a gift from God, thank him for it, and ask God to sustain and bless our poor children with the benefits of our trade.  And we should ask about the correct usage.  With regard to this, everyone should look carefully at the lovely passage in Solomon, ‘Out of your spring let the little brooks flow…however, you alone are to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to you” (Prov. 5:15, 17) [Never mind that Solomon was talking about semen, not money.]  You should preserve the ground and principle benefit for the virtuous rearing of your children, but as much as possible you should distribute the fruits to others, to the churches, to schools, and to the poor.  This passage expressly confirms property, and gives instruction about its use, teaching both how to economise and how to limit liberality.  From the spring let the brook flow out to others, but this does not mean that you are to repudiate your house and goods.”

Of course, the note of charity and liberality here remains strong, stronger than in most contemporary discussions.  And at first glance, it may appear that nothing here has changed significantly from Aquinas–property is to remain under private potestas procurandi et dispensandi, (“the power to procure and dispose”), while being put to common use, though the owner’s first responsibility is to use it for the needs of his immediate dependents.   However, there has been a subtle but significant shift.  Common use, rather than preceding and serving as the ground for private disposition, comes afterward, almost as an afterthought (not, perhaps, an afterthought for Melancthon, but a few centuries of human selfishness had little trouble in making it so)–we first acknowledge our property as a wholesome component of the divine order, and then we turn to ask about how we might use it correctly.  The generous use, on Melancthon’s assumptions, and his mistranslation of Prov. 5, is tightly constrained by our responsibility to remain in full control of our property, “to remain master of it, so that it does not become alien to us.”  In earlier Christian thought, while the counsel of poverty was not a requirement upon all, it was, as a principle of “perfection,” the illustration of the goal or endpoint toward which all were to strive.  Although most Christians were called to retain the disposition of their own property, they were to live as if it was not theirs, as if it was alien to them; they were to consider it as belonging first and foremost to others.  As the Didache put it,  “You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother, and not claim that anything is your own.” For Melanchthon, however, it was critical that all regarded their property as their own, and maintained a close and prudent management of it even in their generous exercise of charity.  

Counsels or Commandments: The Protestant Line through the Heart

In his Loci Communes, Philipp Melanchthon turns at chapter 8 to address “the Distinction of Commandment and Counsel,” which as mentioned in my previous post, has been growing on my mental radar of late as a key player in my ethico-political ambiguities.  Most intriguingly, though, Melancthon turns specifically to consider this distinction in terms of the lawfulness of private property, an issue I have been reading and writing on for the past several months.   

My bold, tentative thesis that emerges from this brief passage: it was the Protestant dissolution of the tension between the commandments and counsels that naturalized the moral justification of private property and thus paved the way for the development of the capitalist principle of absolute private property rights, in which one’s freedom to do entirely as one wished with what one owned preceded and relativised any legal or moral claim that could be made on one’s property.  Bold thesis, right?  (If you have any idea what I’m talking about, at least.)  I’ll sketch out the background of the distinction of commandment and counsel, and the Protestant reaction to it, in this post, and in the following one, I’ll develop how Melancthon applies it to the question of property.

So, let’s take a tour through 1,500 years of Christian ethics. 

Before the coming of Christ, we have the moral law, which is, as the WSC so eloquently puts it, “summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments.”  Scholastic thinkers identify the Ten Commandments also as a summary form of the natural law, engrained in mankind from creation, and in principle knowable (though not necessarily successfully known) by all men.  The principles of natural law serve as the basis not only for moral living, but for political justice.  We see this in the Old Testament, where the civil laws of Israel are given as elaborations and case-law applications of the basic principles of the moral law.  

Enter Jesus, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you,” and issuing a new set of moral norms that seem to go beyond those of the Old Testament (and of natural law).  Now, we can hedge and qualify and say a lot about how the Sermon on the Mount, for instance does not overturn the Law, but fulfills it–it continues and intensifies the original trajectory, rather than simply contradicting it.  But be all that as it may, it does seem to go further in its call for holy living.  Where the old law (and the natural law) permitted–or indeed, one might say mandated–a just use of force in repelling force, Jesus seems to call us to a love that overcomes evil with good, that turns the other cheek.  But does this mean it is no longer permissible to defend ourselves, for instance?  Certainly the earliest Christianity carried with it a strong radical, perfectionist edge, but as it settled down to life in history, and grappled with the responsibilities involved in running a Christian state, the tension began to be felt quite sharply, the impossibility of using the evangelical law as the law for everyone.  

The neat solution devised (this is of course very oversimplified, glossing over a millenium’s worth of debates) was the distinction of commandments and counsels, which said, more or less, that although it was perfectly lawful and not sinful to live in accordance with the basic principles of the moral/natural law, it was even better, if possible, to follow the “counsels of perfection”–the extra moral demands of the evangelical law.  Melanchthon summarizes the definitions:

“A commandment is so called because it speaks of necessary obedience.  Everything that is contrary to the commandments is sin, and this brings eternal punishment if man is not converted to God.  A counsel is a doctrine, not a commandment; it does not demand a work, even though it praises the work as blameless and useful.” 

Three points of the evangelical law in particular were singled out by the medievals: non-violence, renunciation of personal property, and celibacy.  The monastic orders observed these, but most laymen were not expected to, and of course the political realm was not expected to operate according to these principles, but according to the natural law commandments.  This resulted in two levels of Christianity–first-class Christians, who observed the counsels, and second-class Christians, who observed merely the commandments.  Both were legit, but one was holier than the other.  Of course, it is not difficult to see how neatly this tied in with the emerging two-tier paradigm of nature and grace, with natural law governing laymen and the political sphere, and the law of grace governing the full-time Christians, so to speak.  


An unsatisfactory situation, no doubt, and one against which Luther forcefully reacted, rejecting the distinction between commandments and counsels, and insisting that all Christians were the same, and were bound to the same standards.   A short paragraph in Melanchthon’s discussion give some insight as to why: 

“First, it is obvious that our works cannot merit forgiveness of sins; so also are our works not perfection, for in this weak life we are still far from fulfilment of the law, and much sin, doubt and disorder remain in us, as Job 9:2 says, ‘No man is justified before God.’ Therefore it is empty blindness when men extol their own works as perfection, as if such works were a complete fulfilment of the divine law, and as if such holiness were higher than commanded works.”

In other words, since man is not justified by works, then what could it mean for the counsels to be better than the commandments?  They couldn’t contribute any justifying merit, and since for the Reformers, justification is the central question, there’s no sense in the distinction.

The Anabaptists took Luther to be saying, more or less, that all were bound to follow the counsels, and the commandments were out (although they did not accept celibacy as one of the counsels).  However, Luther quickly became alarmed by the radical, perfectionist, and legalistic direction that this led, and rejected Anabaptism as a false understanding of his teaching.  In his later work, he basically re-introduced the commandments/counsels distinction, but this time, internally and individually, instead of outwardly in the Christian community.  It was a line through the heart of each Christian, not through the Christian community.  All Christians were called to live outwardly in accord with the commandments, but to have their inner attitudes governed by the counsels.  All of this development thus far I have traced, more or less, in my series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount, which I never finished, but of which we could perhaps consider this a continuation.

The magisterial Reformation, following the later Luther, basically jettisons the counsels of perfection from the socio-political sphere, and lodges them merely in the inward motions of the Christian heart.  So, for instance, you not only may, but ought, to fight back with force (deadly force if necessary) against an aggressor, but with charity in your heart toward him all the while–you must use your outer fist, while turning your inner cheek.  What this means is that the laws of political ethics become not a baseline for preserving order, within which a fuller social ethics can be fostered by the Church, but become themselves the only standard of social ethics.   


A couple examples may clarify.  For Augustine, the laws ought to permit killing in self-defense, but Christian ethics ought not to allow it.  In On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, he turns to discuss the subject.  Intriguingly, his opening opens the door to take the later Lutheran route, but promptly shuts it:

Augustine: First we ought to discuss, I think, whether there is any lust in the case where an attacking enemy or an assassin in ambush is killed for the sake of life, liberty, or chastity.  Evodius: How can I think that men lack lust for the things that they can lose against their will?  Or, if they cannot lose these things, what need is there to go as far as murdering a man for them?” 

Augustine, in common with Luther, recognizes that the key moral problem is of the inward lust, but whereas the magisterial Reformers at this point would answer Evodius by saying, “No, we can  act in this way toward the enemy without any accompanying lust in our hearts, but preserving all the while charity toward the aggressor and acting out of mere concern for justice,” Augustine concurs with Evodius–the outward action is the expression of the heart.  He and Evodius then go on to develop a careful justification for why, given that the action of violent self-defense is itself wrong, the laws may still justly permit it.  The magisterial Reformation, however, will conclude that not only should the laws permit such, but because they permit it, and are an expression of the natural law when they do so, that it is therefore morally right to use violent self-defense, and–here’s the kicker–morally negligent not to do so.  

Another example: Augustine famously argued in his letter to Macedonius for clemency toward convicted criminals.  While acknowledging that there was genuine justice in the penalties prescribed by law for criminals–including capital punishment–Augustine argued that nevertheless, it was even better and more Christlike, to pardon them if possible, and he maintained that the Church had a duty to intercede for such pardon and work for it.  In Bk. 4, ch. 14 of his Loci Communes, Peter Martyr Vermigli took Augustine to task for this argument in no uncertain terms, mounting a vigorous and unequivocal point-by-point refutation.  The gist of his argument (about which I have been planning to post for a year now; hopefully I will have a chance to discuss it fully in a later post) is that, since the laws are just in requiring the full penalty, based as they are on the natural law and the Old Testament, it would be unjust and therefore wrong for the magistrate to do anything other than impose the full penalty.  And it would therefore be unjust and wrong for any clergyman to exhort the magistrate to impose anything less than the full penalty of justice.  All of Augustine’s arguments drawn from the teaching of Christ Vermigli considers irrelevant–this evangelical law pertains only to the inward disposition of the heart.  So the magistrate must of course act with full charity and non-judgmentalness in his heart, but this should not in any way affect his actions.

This, I take it, is the fundamental move of Protestant ethics and political ethics, and, understandable as it is in reaction both to the Catholic two-class system and the Anabaptist legalism, I can’t help but consider it a very unsatisfactory move.  So, let’s turn in the next post to see how Melancthon develops this with respect to property.

Peter Takes Two Swords to My Two Cities

Well, at long last, it has appeared.  Deep in the foundries of his labyrinthine mind, Peter Escalante has been forging one post to beat them all, one post to find them, one post to bring them all and in Geneva bind them.  (Hey, if you look at the post, you’ll see that he brought Lord of the Rings into it first, so don’t blame me!) 

Ever since my post “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?” questioning Wedgeworth’s “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom,” and the subsequent discussion that took place largely in the comments section of Wedgeworth’s post, Peter has been promising to smother my “neo-Anabaptism” under a heap of arguments that would make Calvin’s Institutes look like an issue of Reader’s Digest.  He has done so, at last, and you can amble over there yourself now to inspect the scene and determine whether a post-mortem is in order.  

EDIT: In case it wasn’t clear, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I consider Peter a personal friend.  No hostility whatsoever.

I consider it a great compliment (and I mean this in all sincerity) to be rebutted by someone as learned as Mr. Escalante, and, although perhaps not up to the British standard of deft, white-gloved refutations, he has been as gentlemanly as I could wish.  However, as I posted over there in an initial reaction comment, his whole undertaking seems to have been somewhat misdirected, in that he constructed his post as a refutation of my manifesto.  But of course, “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities” was not a manifesto, but was intended at least as some summary questions and objections to Wedgeworth’s manifesto.  The goal was to elicit clarification from the “decretist” camp, and Escalante’s reply has obliged with some very helpful clarifications.  However, by taking some of my brief and partial summary statements as a thorough explication of a position, he has, I think, mis-read and miscritiqued some of them.  Hopefully over the next couple weeks, I will be able to follow up on some of these points here, explain where I agree with his position (as I certainly do at many points, now that I’ve seen it stated so comprehensively) and clarify the points where I do not.  For now, a couple brief remarks (these excerpted almost verbatim from the comment I just posted over there):

One very brief point where he seem to have misunderstood me (understandably, as I hadn’t fleshed this out thoroughly in my original posts) regards the relationship of the “State” and the “City of Man.”  Peter say that I basically think “State=City of Man=Kingdom of Satan,” which he says is un-Augustinian. Well certainly that is un-Augustinian, but I never intended to make either of those equations. In the Civitas Dei, the State is as it were the most visible institutional representation of the City of Man, but it is not simply reducible to it…it’s much more complicated than that. “More complicated? Do elaborate,” he will certainly say, and I shall try to, but not just here and now. And of course the City of Man is not the “Kingdom of Satan” simpliciter…Despite his forceful emphasis on the all-corrupting influence of the libido dominandi, Augustine clearly held that human nature, although corrupted, was still intact, and so approximations to virtue and to civic and social good were still possible in the City of Man.

More importantly, and more intriguingly, as I read Peter’s final section, where he dissect the points where I claim “Church” and “State” are in competition, it struck me that the key difference may lie at a rather different point (or is best seen from a different angle) than where he seemed to be putting it. My main concern, I think, revolves around the relationship of “natural law” and evangelical law, to try (probably unsuccessfully) to put it in a nutshell. It’s a question of ethics.

Basically, I am uncomfortable at the way the Reformers tried to rebut the Catholic distinction between the commands and the counsels of perfection. The Anabaptists absolutized the counsels of perfection into a new legalism…that can’t be right. But the magisterial Reformers responded by basically dissolving away the counsels of perfection, and blunting the hard, radical edge of Christian ethics to subsume it back into the changeless categories of the old moral law, the “natural law,” etc. That’s what rubs me the wrong way. And so in saying “the Church” responds to enemies in a certain way, or cares for the weak in a certain way, I’m contending that Christians are to be visible as a community with a social ethics that is not simply expressed in the laws of political justice.

Of course, Peter will reply that this just proves I’m Anabaptist.  But, I contend that I am not simply ruling out the ethics of the political realm as something to be entirely shunned by and excluded from the Christian community. Rather, the political remains a part of the life of the Christian people, but is always being challenged, pushed, and prodded by an evangelical ethics that remains ever dissatisfied with merely natural political justice. Now, of course, I’m just sounding like O’Donovan, and not far from Peter at all, so this can’t be all I really intend to say…obviously, I have a more radical agenda than that, right? Yes, probably so. And I’ll try to uncover the contours of that over the next few weeks.

In particular, in my very next post, I’ll be looking at the relationship between commands and counsels of perfection in Melanchthon, who I was just reading before I saw Peter’s post.