Obamacare in Perspective

[EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: A lot of people are being directed to this as a response to Wilson’s recent “Sermon to the Government and Legislature of Idaho.”  In fact, it was written and posted before that sermon.  However, many of the concerns voiced here certainly apply (along with additional ones) to what was said there.]

Let me begin with a few (big) caveats.  I’ve been out of the country for three years now.  That provides some helpful perspective, I hope, but it also means I’m pretty ignorant.  Way back three years ago, when the original healthcare battles were being fought, I paid a good deal of attention, but never read up in detail on the final bill, which seemed to me to be a very poor piece of legislation, a compromise that combined the worst elements of both sides.  Since then, I’ve turned a blind eye to the continued bickering, protesting, anathematizing, and so on that has continued to dog “Obamacare.”  I mostly ignored all the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, and I’ve read very little on the details of that decision.  I’m basically glad John Roberts did what he did, if only because I felt like the whole brawl needed a referee to step in and say “Time out.  Let’s not do anything rash in the heat of the moment.”

So, if you want to lob rotten tomatoes at me, I understand.  But as a few folks really encouraged me to post these thoughts, I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there anyway.  In any case, the important questions here are at the level of theo-political principles, not the particular details of Obamacare.

Among Christians, perhaps particularly Reformed Christians, one is likely to hear these days that this is the last straw.  Our government has crossed the line.  It is the Leviathan, the Beast now.  It has thrown out of the window “biblical principles of limited government,” making itself out to be infinite, to be God, to be Savior. Christians have a duty to resist it now, in some form or other (whatever that means…).  If we aren’t going to stand up for “biblical principles of limited government,” then who is?  Needless to say, I think this is a deeply misguided line of attack.  


For one thing, if it’s really so black and white, and so serious, then what do these statements say about the tens of millions of American Christians who support something like Obamacare?  Or the scores (maybe hundreds) of millions of Christians worldwide who support universal health care?  For another, if these biblical principles of limited government are so obvious, could we at least hear a frank admission from most of their advocates that they have only become obvious to Christians quite recently.  We could pick examples from the 4th century or the 19th, but let’s just stick with the Reformation, since I know that best, and that’s when all our greatest heroes lived, right?  Calvin’s Geneva—really limited government, right?  Ha!  It would be hard to think of a more meddlesome commonwealth!  Almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives—religious, economic, entertainment, apparel—were closely regulated.  “Oh, but that was by the church, so it was OK.” (People will really say that, you know.)  Well, not really, no—just check out my recent post on the politics of Geneva.  How about Martin Bucer, author of that great Biblical treatise on government, On the Kingdom of Christ.  If he published that book during the Cold War, he probably would’ve been imprisoned as a Soviet propagandist.  Bucer’s Christian magistrate has his hands in everything—agricultural legislation, suppressing trade of luxury goods, education, church-building, welfare, etc., etc.  

Now, we’re perfectly free to say, “Well yes, the Reformers were a bit totalitarian in their view of the Christian prince’s scope of responsibility, but we have since learned better, and we have the Bible verses to prove it.”  But if men so zealous for fidelity to Scripture in every area of life saw no contradiction between what we now would call “command economies” and the Bible, this should at least temper the zeal of those who think that the plain teaching of Scripture is at stake.


But let’s turn now to ask what this plain teaching of Scripture is.  The only possible guidance one can get out of the New Testament is Romans 13:4, which only helps you if (as a remarkable number of otherwise intelligent people have done) you take it as providing a complete description of the legitimate scope of governmental activity. Is universal healthcare a way of executing wrath on the evildoer?  Doesn’t look like it, so obviously it’s not legitimate—so the argument goes.  In the Old Testament, libertarians must face the inconvenient fact that Exodus through Deuteronomy seems to offer an incredibly meddlesome law code, complete with shocking infringements on private property like the gleaning and jubilee laws.  Of course, the ready response at this point is that these are “laws” only in the moral sense, which God’s people, as individuals, are responsible before him to obey, but they aren’t civil laws, so it’s OK.  Having done a good bit of work in this area, I have little hesitation in saying that this is anachronistic to the point of incoherence.  

Ah, but then we come to 1 Samuel 8, a favorite passage among the monarchomachs, which portrays various kinds of governmental overreach as a divine judgment upon the people.  Indeed, our modern-day Christian libertarians are eager to point out vs. 15 and 17, where Samuel tells the people the appalling prediction that this new king will tax 1/10th of their produce.  Well, there you have it, we are told.  Tax rates of 10% and over are unbiblical.  But one might just as well complain that we have police forces, complex legal institutions, separation of powers in our government, standing armies, and pay our taxes in cash, not grain—all contrary to ancient Israel.  The simple fact is that a more complex society demands a more complex (and more expensive) government structure.  In any case, it’s worth noting that Scripture itself appears to recognize this, praising expansions of administration under godly kings—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah. The godly kings are involved in all kinds of stuff—religious reform, economic reform, judicial reform, major building projects, military expansion, etc.—and they’re praised for it.  It’s not so much the scope of royal power per se that seems to the problem, but the use of it. The problem with the wicked kings is that they used the great scope of their power for wicked ends.

To be sure, in Scripture, we are given certain key principles of “limited government.”  Above all, the principle that God stands above and behind all governments, it is He who raises them up and casts them down, it is to Him that they are accountable.  Governments cannot therefore seek to usurp his place.  They cannot claim powers that are only his.  They can not claim dominion over the whole world, or over human hearts.  They cannot claim to define good and evil; rather, they are bound to the moral law he has established, and will be judged by Him if they violate it.  While certainly not explicit in Scripture (all the attempts of 17th-century republicans notwithstanding!) we can also certainly develop from Scripture they idea that it is good for government to find ways to incorporate the consent of the governed.  Indeed, we could continue along such lines, attempting to extrapolate reasonable principles from Scripture as to what governments ought to do and not to do.  But already, we have moved beyond clear biblical principles (the violation of which is rebellion against God) into the realm of prudential reasoning. 


If we’re looking for a list of enumerated powers, some very clear limits on the sorts of things government can legitimately take responsibility for, I’m afraid the US Constitution is where you’ll have to look, not the Bible.  Christians today who claim about the ungodly expansion of government tend to confuse these two—the generic Biblical limits on government (don’t usurp the place of God)—with the concrete American constitutional limits on government.  We seem to think that if a government transgresses these latter, it has claimed freedom from all bounds, has claimed equality with God.  In particular, we are told that the judicial decision last week constituted a claim that the US government has a prerogative “without limit.”  Really?  Did John Roberts yesterday just certify that the US government has sovereignty over any territory on earth it desires to occupy?  Did John Roberts just certify that the US government can tell you what you’re allowed to read? which church to attend?  which God to believe in?  Hardly.  Of course, there is no doubt that the US government, by its sheer scale and pervasive wickedness, has bestial proclivities, a tendency to make itself into an idol which must be served, to make its own glorification the end of its existence.

But where will we draw the limit, if we abandon the enumerated powers of a strictly construed Constitution?  If we don’t draw the line in the sand here, then where will it stop?  There are no criteria, we are told.  But this is to assume that the only criteria we have to work with are neat, concretely defined little checkboxes: national defense? Check.  Police service? Check. Regulate interstate commerce? Check. Issue drivers licenses? Check. Define the meaning of marriage? Check. Ban abortion? Check. 

The fact is, a great many nations of the world get by just fine without the kind of written limit that we are asking for.  The idea of a Constitution with enumerated powers is by no means a ubiquitous one.  Britain has no such thing.  Britain relies on a slowly developing common law tradition, in which precedent, popular consent and the principles of natural equity serve as limits upon the legitimate scope of government action.  Of course, I suppose most of the Christian Right, would have few qualms about dismissing much of the rest of the world, including Britain, as totalitarian.  But this is just a combination of naïveté and hubris, or else depends upon the possession of a reliable concrete standard for defining what counts as totalitarian.  And in any case, ultimately, the US too must fall back on these kinds of limits. If nothing else, this controversy is proof that a constitution with enumerated powers is insufficient.  There is too much room for disagreement about how much these powers may be stretched, and even how much of a straitjacket a 220-year-old Constitution should be.  Ultimately, while the Constitution provides certain limits on the scope of our government’s powers, legal precedent, popular consent, and the sense of natural equity play a bigger role.


But, aside from the Constitution, do we have no standard for determining the just limits of government?  What do Scripture and natural law have to tell us?  A good two kingdoms theology  will warn us against the danger of seeking for detailed guidance on matters pertaining to the civil kingdom in Scripture.  Even where Scripture does give detailed guidance, it is the nature of such matters is to be variable according to time and circumstance, so there is no a priori guarantee that the guidance still applies (e.g., the 1 Sam. 8 taxation question above).  What does necessarily still apply (the “equity” of the law) does so because it belongs to the natural law, with which Scripture is “fraught,” according to Hooker.  The general principles of Scripture and the natural law will coincide in helping us see that certain things governments might try to do are intrinsically beyond their God-given limits.  So, although it is somewhat question-begging, we can of course start by saying that government oversteps its limits if it ever commands us to act contrary to the moral law, such as ordering its citizens into a blatantly unjust war, or requiring doctors to prescribe abortifacients, or requiring ministers to marry gay couples.  Of course, such situations may require a good deal of discernment, and most cases are not so obvious.  Natural law will also require that government abide by principles of justice, commutative and distributive.  These too require discernment, and it is not always clear what belongs to the fundamental moral law and what are mere changeable positive laws of Scripture; thankfully, the Christian tradition of moral theology has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for us on this point.   Most importantly, we can lay down, on the basis of a good two kingdoms theology, that government must never seek to intrude itself upon the realm of belief or to idolatrously claim religious devotion (though again, it requires a great deal of work to cash out what constitutes such violations and what does not).

In any case, though, natural law does not function well as a detailed set of prescriptions, or even a set of deductive principles from which we may arrive, a priori, at a detailed set of prescriptions.  That is not the sort of thing it is, since it reveals itself in prudential reasoning in ever-changing circumstances which pose ever-new demands.  Rather, it functions best as a means of testing, a posteriori, certain proposed actions, and seeking to discern whether they violate fundamental norms—in other words, much more in the manner of a common law tradition than an attempt to establish enumerated powers.  So we do have means of determining the just limits to government, but they are no silver bullet or infallible answer key; they require a great deal of attention to particular needs and constraints.


So, finally, to come back to Obamacare, what might such limits have to say to this particular question?  Has some fundamental line been crossed, now that the government can “coerce us to buy something”?  Well, hardly.  Although I haven’t read the opinion, I think Roberts was quite right in his basic view of the situation.  To describe the individual mandate as a market transaction that you were required to engage in was the Obama administration’s attempt to compromise with the market model they were confronted with.  In most health care systems, it is quite clear that the government is ensuring the provision of a service, and requiring you to pay for it in some way or another—in other words, taxing you for it.  

Now, you can try to be a consistent anarchist and insist that all taxation is theft, but if not, you’re going to have to grant that we already accept any number of “coerced purchases” through taxation.  We pay, through our taxes, for defence from enemies and from criminals, for the provision of justice at the courts, for the maintenance of a stable currency, for government safety inspections in various industries, for a transportation network, for weather measurement and forecasting, for public parks for disaster management and response, etc. (just to pick a few items that even arch-conservatives are unlikely to object to, though you never know these days).  Of course, I have argued before, and will continue to argue, that it’s really misguided to think of such taxation in terms of coercion—or rather, it is only coercive if you first choose to think of it as such.  But in any case, is there something special about healthcare that makes it categorically inappropriate for us to be taxed for the provision of, whereas it is perfectly fine to tax us for the provision of firefighters?  In both cases, the reasoning is, “Some unforeseen peril or harm may suddenly come upon a citizen, which he does not have the means to rescue himself from on his own. As part of ensuring that we, as a society, take care of one another in our need, we tax citizens to provide the means to protect and care for them in their need.”  Indeed, it seems rather easier to justify taxation for healthcare than taxation for transportation, for instance.  Now, none of this is to say that universal public healthcare is necessarily a good idea, and certainly not that the particular ugly hybrid enacted in the US is a good idea.  It may be poorly-conceived in any number of ways.  But this is quite different from saying it is a grave injustice, a mark of rebellion against God, etc. 

When we want to ask whether government has become tyranny, the chief question to be asked is whether it is seeking to serve the common good of its people, or whether it has turned aside to serve the private good of the governors.  The tyrant has classically been identified as the one who turns on his own people, plundering them for his own private gain (to be sure, there are ideological tyrants, like Hitler, who oppress for the sake of some perverse higher end—but is that really what we’re dealing with?).  This is the problem with Tea Party-type cries of “tyranny.”  Where are the millions and billions that Obama is stealing from the American people to fill his own bank account?  Actually, he, and almost all other government officials, make considerably less than most private sector executives.  “Oh, well it’s not money, of course,” we’re told, “it’s the quest for power for power’s sake.”  Well maybe, in the case of some people.  But in general, most people who advocate universal healthcare do so on the basis of genuinely trying to serve the common good.  They may certainly be going about it in the wrong way, but that doesn’t make them tyrants.  


To show the ways in which Obamacare is flawed, we cannot point to some cut-and-dried Bible verse, or some blindingly obvious principle of justice.  We will have to resort to detailed arguments and analyses, to the much more difficult but more rewarding task of persuasion, to show the ways in which justice and the common good are undermined, rather than advanced.  And we will have to live with the fact that some Christians of good will may continue to disagree with us.  And wherever there is legitimate room for disagreement about what the common good requires, then we are not talking about an issue of conscience on which we are bound “to obey God rather than men.”  Many are loudly declaring that Christians need to stand up and resist this evil; otherwise, we are obeying men rather than God. The implication, of course, is that the tens of millions of Christians who disagree with them on this (within the US alone) are in rebellion against God.  Really?  Are we willing to go that far?    No, it seems quite clear to me that what we are differing about is a question of the best pursuit of natural goods within the civil kingdom, a matter in which Scripture and the natural law will inform us but may not lead us to any one certain conclusion.  That being the case, we are certainly free to continue to argue our case, but we are not free, it seems to me, to disobey our rulers.  “Our judgments we are bound in this case to suspend,” as Hooker would tell us on such a matter—obeying the law even as we critique it.  

Grace Perfects Nature: Hooker on Nature’s Threefold Need for the Supernatural

(The following is a fragment of a thesis chapter draft I’ve been working up; it restates and repackages a number of matters that I’ve touched on here before, hopefully in a more satisfying and systematic way.)

Although Hooker lays great stress on the independent integrity and perspicacity of the order of nature, which has moral weight on its own, apart from the provision of special revelation, Hooker’s valorization of reason and nature is often overstated by his interpreters.  In fact, I would suggest, there are three crucial qualifications on the “autonomy” of nature and reason.  First, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of encompassing their own end; nature cannot be considered a self-enclosed compartment, nor can reason be satisfied merely with the task of investigating creation.  This much is clear already from Hooker’s inclusion of the first great commandment as one of the prescriptions of the law of reason, however, he will have much more to say in support of this claim in Book I, chapter 11, insisting that man’s final end is one beyond nature—God.  Second, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense of being capable, on their own, of reaching their final, supernatural end.  On this point, Hooker is particularly nuanced, attributing most of this incapacity to the reality of sin, but acknowledging a dependence on divine grace even in the state of innocence.  Third, nature and reason cannot be autonomous in the sense that the gift of revelation serves solely to provide a path to the supernatural end, and leaves reason perfectly adequate on its own for all natural purposes.  Let us investigate each of these three points in turn.  

Hooker begins chapter 11 by returning to his statements early in chapter 5, where he introduced the law of reason, saying that it was the way in which man sought the unique goodness proper to his nature.  Everything created, he says, must have not merely particular goods, but a final good, “our Sovereign Good or Blessednessness, that wherein the highest degree of all our perfection consisteth, that which being once attained unto there can rest nothing further to be desired.”  Indeed, when we look at created goods, we see how they each serve not as goods in themselves, but as instruments unto some higher good: “we labour to eat, and we eat to live, and we live to do good, and the good which we do is as seed sown with reference to a future harvest.”  However, if this merely continued in an infinite regress, “whatsoever we do were in vain. . . . For as to take away the first efficient of our being were to annihilate utterly our persons, so we cannot remove the last final cause of our working.”  Therefore, he concludes, “something there must be desired for itself simply and for not other.”  For animals, mere continuance in being is an end in itself, but not for man.   For man, as the highest order of being, “doth seek a triple perfection: first, a sensuall, consisting in those things which very life it selfe requireth as necessary supplementes, or as beauties and ornaments therof; then an intellectuall, consisting in those things which none underneth man is either capable of or acquaineted with; lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting in those things wherunto we tend by supernatural meanes here, but cannot here attain unto them.”  This last, the  “spiritual and divine” good, must be infinite, for it is that final good “which is desired altogether for itself,” a desire that would be evil if bestowed on anything finite. 

So what is this final spiritual good, this supernatural end?  It is union with God.  For “No good is infinite but only God; therefore he is our felicity and bliss.  Moreover, desire tendeth unto union with that it desireth.  If then in Him we be blessed, it is by force of participation and conjunction with Him. . . . Then are we happy therefore when fully we enjoy God, as an object wherein the powers of our souls are satisfied even with everlasting delight: so that although we be men, yet by being unto God united we live as it were the life of God”.  (This description of man’s blessedness will be very important later on for our discussion of Christology.)  Hooker goes on to specify further this condition of blessedness: it must be “according unto every power and faculty of our minds apt to receive so glorious an object”—”both by understanding and will”; it must be perpetual, a perpetuity that cannot proceed from any natural necessity within us, but “from the will of God, which doth both freely perfect our nature in so high a degree, and continue it so perfected.”

Now this desire for supernatural happiness, Hooker is at pains to establish, is itself natural, for all men have it.  It is not in our power not to desire this, he says.  Therefore, being naturally desired, it must in some sense within natural capacity: “It is an axiom of Nature that natural desire cannot utterly be frustrate.  This desire of ours being natural should be frustrate, if that which may satisfy the same were a thing impossible for man to aspire unto.  So man’s reason is not enclosed within the bounds of creation, but naturally transcends these bounds, by desiring and striving unto the supernatural end of union with God.  If natural desire, then, is not “frustrate,” is natural reason capable on its own of achieving this end? 

Certainly not as man now finds himself.  For “this last and highest estate of perfection whereof we speak is received of men in the nature of a reward,” for works of obedience to the Creator.  This would have been Adam’s path to perfection and bliss had he not fallen.  However, Hooker is careful to qualify here, quoting “the wittiest of the school-divines” (Scotus) that we do not speak of this reward in terms of strict justice, as if God were “bound to requite man’s labours in so large and ample a manner as human felicity doth import; inasmuch as the dignity of this exceedeth so far the other’s value.”  Even in man’s natural state, then, the supernatural end of blessedness could only come “by the rule of that justice which best beseemeth him [God], namely, the justice of one that requireth nothing mincingly, but all with pressed and heaped and over-enlarged measure,” (ibid.) and the perpetual continuance of that blessedness infinitely transcends mere natural justice.  In any case, however, says Hooker, this is a moot point, for Adam failed, and what man now living can present his works, such as they are, before the throne of the Almighty and demand such a reward?  “There resteth therefore either no way unto salvation, or if any, then surely a way which is supernatural, a way which could never have entered into the heart of man as much as once to conceive or imagine, if God himself had not revealed it extraordinarily.” Thankfully for us, this latter is the case, and God has revealed a means, transcending any capacity of reason, whereby we might be granted this highest end of our desire.  

This supernatural duties thereby revealed are faith, hope, and charity, and are not merely beyond natural capacity to do, but even to know.  “Laws therefore concerning these things are supernatural, both in respect of the manner of delivering them, which is divine; and also in regard of the things delivered, which are such as have not in nautre any cause from which they flow, but were by the voluntary appointment of God ordained besides the course of nature, to rectify nature’s obliquity withal.” 

This last distinction leads us to a third point.  Thus far, we might be excused for understanding Hooker to say that nature falls short only of encompassing its naturally-desired supernatural end, but not of merely natural ends.  On this reading, the revelation of divine law would serve merely to establish supernatural duties, which would serve merely to lead us to God, while reason remained perfectly adequate to guide us in natural, civil duties toward our fellow man.  Certainly Hooker has already said a great deal in praise of reason’s ability to guide us in such endeavors, and will continue to say a great deal throughout the laws.  After all, God’s wisdom comes to us in many ways, all of which are to be respected and valued in their particular place: “Some things she openeth by the sacred bookes of Scripture; some things by the glorious works of nature; with some things she inspireth them from above by spirituall influence, in some thinges she leadeth and trayneth them onely by worldly experience and practise. We may not so in any one speciall kind admire her that we disgrace her in any other, but let all her wayes be according unto their place and degree adored.”  However, Hooker does not in fact think that the law of reason is so self-sufficient even within the realm of natural duties, or that Scripture has nothing to say about such duties (the conclusion that VanDrunen implies).  Nor does he think the converse (which proceeds from the same misunderstanding) that the supernatural law, being once delivered, can serve as a substitute for the law of reason (the conclusion that the Puritans implied).  

Rather, he declares at the outset of ch. 12, “When supernatural duties are necessarily exacted natural are not rejected as needless.  The law of God therefore is, though principally delivered for instruction in the one, yet fraught with precepts of the other also.  The Scripture is fraught even with laws of Nature.”  In re-directing us to our final end, Scripture cannot but re-direct us also with respect to our finite ends, since these are ultimately oriented toward that final end of union with God.  If we pursue finite goods with a view toward possession of God as highest good, then our dis-orientation from our final end, as a result of sin, cannot but distort our grasp of finite ends.  Consequently, the re-orientation provided by revelation will set us back on our natural path and illuminate that path again for us.  

We must distinguish, therefore, between “supernatural law” in the sense of origin and object.  Inasmuch as divine law reveals supernatural duties, it is, as Hooker has just said, supernatural both in respect of its origin (we could not know it but by special revelation) and in respect of its object (it concerns those duties which comprise our supernatural path to our final end).  However, divine law also reveals natural duties; in these it is supernatural in respect of origin, but not of object.  This distinction—between divine laws that are strictly soteriological, and divine laws that are also natural—is of course absolutely crucial for Hooker throughout the Lawes, and corresponds again to the two kingdoms distinction.  It is this which enables him to maintain sola Scriptura strictly within the arena of supernatural duties, while insisting that Scripture and the law of reason can be mutually interpreting in the arena of natural duties.

After delineating at some length the ways in which the law of reason can fail to adequately inform us of our natural duties, Hooker recapitulates with admirable concision and precision the triple dependence of the natural on the supernatural:

“We see, therefore, that our sovereign good is desired naturally; that God the author of that natural desire had appointed natural means whereby to fulfil it; that man having utterly disabled his nature unto those means hath had other revealed from God, and hath received from heaven a law to teach him how that which is desired naturally must now supernaturally be attained.  Finallie we see that because those later [the supernatural] exclude not the former [the natural] quite and cleane as unnecessarie, therefore together with such supernaturall duties as could not possiblie have been otherwise knowne to the world, the same lawe that teacheth them, teacheth also with them such naturall duties as could not by light of nature easilie have bene knowne.”

O’Donovan, Law, and Scripture Lecture, Pt. 1

Last week, I had my first opportunity to lecture for undergraduates.  The course was “Christian Ethics: Sources”; the topic, “Law and Scripture”; the text, Oliver O’Donovan’s 1975 (!) lecture “Towards an Interpretation of Biblical Ethics” (published Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976), pp. 58-69).  The lecture is very introductory, and has to cover a very wide range of issues in very cursory fashion, so don’t expect anything profound.  But as the role of Scripture as an authority for ethics (and particularly the role of Scriptural law) is such an important and contentious issue in today’s discussions, and so central to my own projects, hopefully this lecture may provide a useful orientation.  

So here is the first half (with all Q&A and references to Keynote slides expurgated):


Rick Santorum is one of many conservative American Christian politicians who will say that the Biblical prohibition on homosexuality must be reflected to some extent in our laws today: God has made clear that marriage must be between a man and a woman and that homosexuality is deviant behaviour, therefore, a Christian president must pass laws forbidding homosexual marriage and discouraging homosexual conduct.  

This might seem, here in Europe, a pretty hardline position, but someone could conceivably argue that it’s not hardline enough.  After all, if we are taking the law of Scripture as our standard, we might well observe that in the Old Testament, homosexuals were not merely forbidden to be married, but they were to be stoned.  Does that mean that a Christian president who wants to take the Bible seriously should actually campaign for homosexual execution?  And if not, then is he really taking the Bible seriously?  What is his ground for not taking such a hardline?  

Here are a few options:

  1. judicial law to be distinguished from moral law—OT judicial rules no longer binding on a Christian polity, which may enshrine the same principles in a different way.
  2. concept of a Christian polity has been done away with, since the political identity of the people of God was done away with in the New Testament
  3. Jesus has taught us a different way, one of overcoming evil through love, so while a Christian may oppose homosexuality, he will not do by means of law.
  4. Jesus’s gospel proclaims love and acceptance of all, so homosexuals are not to be excluded in any sense.  
  5. The Bible is a story of liberation for the oppressed, and this overarching hermeneutic must trump any particular passages; homosexuals are the oppressed in our day, whom the God of the exodus will liberate.


Now, someone might also say, “Regardless of what the Bible says on homosexuality, we should not take it seriously for ethics or law?”  Three common forms of this objection are:

  1. Regardless of what the Bible said, it cannot be taken seriously because it gives us only the morality of a group of Near Eastern people 2,000 years ago.
  2. Biblical teaching on this goes against other sources of ethical knowledge—e.g., science, or consensus.  
  3. The Bible legitimates all kins of patriarchy and oppression; it enshrines an ideology of power and injustice, and we are required to critique it.  


Now, just to prove that all this Biblical law stuff is not all negative, let me use another example for you.

Leading up to the year 2000, a large number of Christians began to campaign for a “Jubilee” at the turn of the millenium, a massive forgiveness of Third-World debt.  It was cruel and unjust that millions of desperately poor people in the Third World should continue to bear the burden of huge, unpayable debts racked up by dictators three decades ago, while the First World countries prospered at their expense.  Many involved in this campaign used an explicit Biblical rationale, hence the name “Jubilee.”  In particular, they draw on the “Year of Jubilee” law of Lev. 25 and the “Sabbath year” law of Deut. 15.

Now, here too, someone, on the basis of taking the Bible seriously, might suggest that the Jubilee campaigners were not going far enough.  After all, they were only cancelling debts (Deut. 15); they weren’t making sure that all real property was returned (Lev. 25) to these poor nations.  Someone else, though, could easily show that the whole project was misguided by attending carefully to the text.  If we’re using the Bible as rationale, do we need to make sure to follow seven-year and fifty-year cycles?  Do we need to insist that these Third World nations neither sow nor reap their fields in the year of this debt release?  Perhaps most seriously, what about in Deuteronomy, where it says that this only applies to fellow Israelites, not foreigners?  Doesn’t that mean that this whole idea of forgiving the debts of other countries is misguided?  Or does it mean we should only forgive the debts of other Christians?


One can readily see how some of the points we made earlier about homosexuality could be brought to bear on this discussion.  We could say that the transition from Old to New means that this Jubilee principle now should be widened to include everybody, not just those of our own nation, or we might say that as it was a law specifically for the political entity of Israel, which is gone, it shouldn’t be applied by any political entity today.  We might say that the principle is fulfilled in Christ, who declares his Jubilee mission in Luke 4: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Of course, this might mean that we are to try to apply this principle all the time, or else we could say that it had a spiritual application, which Christ has fulfilled, so it no longer applies. 

We could use other criteria, such as a hermeneutic of liberation, to say that regardless of the specific OT law is, Christians should apply the liberating message of Scripture as a whole to forgive Third World debt.  Or we might dismiss the ethical normativity of a 2,000-year-old text altogether and make our decision, for or against forgiving the debt, based on independent criteria of natural justice.  

These two examples, then, highlight for us the many obstacles confronting the attempt to adapt the law of Scripture for ethics and law today; but hopefully, they will also show that such an attempt is not pointless, and may teach us a great deal.


Now, let’s summarize some of the issues that have been raised here, and that are often objected when we talk about Biblical law as a foundation for morality. 

  1. To what extent does “law” imply a political embodiment of morality?  Does the political form of much Old Testament law make it un-generalizable?  
  2. The category of “law” treats morality as coming to us a set of general, universalized rules.  In fact, we might want to say, moral demands can only ever be addressed to the individual, summoning him to particular actions in a particular time and place in accord with his particular vocation.
  3. Alternatively, we could complain that Biblical law is too particular a category.  The concern here is the relation of natural law to biblical law—are Biblical commands binding “just because God said so” or because they point us toward what is already the good, which we ought already to be able to recognize as such?  Dr. Northcott has raised this issue in Tuesday’s lecture, and the quarrel between “natural law” and “divine command” theories in his previous lecture.  There’s no reason that an appeal to Scripture as the highest authority requires a rejection of natural law or the acceptance of a “divine command” theory.  However, certainly many forms of “biblicism” have tended in this direction.
  4. The problem of historical distance—can 2,000-3,000-year-old texts be meaningful for us today?  This claim can take the modernist form, which denigrates Scripture because it fails to rise to the level of “enlightened reason,” by which we can judge Scriptural morality and find it wanting. Or it can take the postmodernist form, which denies that any particular era’s claim to morality can be normative—every age is bound within its own assumptions and circumstances, and no past era can claim to provide the norm for any future era. 
  5. The ideological suspicion of Scripture, as providing the justification for oppressive regimes.  This is another version of the postmodern critique, insisting as it does that every community and culture has its own values, which are in fact power-plays on the part of some privileged elite, and that we can recognize these in Scripture and condemn them as immoral for their oppressive results
  6. The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.
  7. The diversity of the Scriptural text: a variety of contrasting voices within each Testament, some of which seem to call us toward moral actions that are condemned by others.

Most of these issues are addressed in some fashion in the O’Donovan article, and I will address them in some depth in this lecture.  Those which are not are addressed elsewhere in O’Donovan’s work and we will give brief attention to them as well in what follows.


First, though, an introduction to O’Donovan’s life and work may be helpful. 

O’Donovan was born in 1945 and did his Ph.D on St. Augustine under the great Augustine scholar Henry Chadwick at Oxford.  From 1972 until 1977 he taught at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and then until 1982 at Wycliffe College, Toronto. There he married Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, who has since become an eminent scholar in Christian political thought in her own right.  After that, he received the Regius Professorship of Moral Theology at Oxford, where he remained until 2006, at which point he came to take up the Professorship of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology here in Edinburgh.  He has written many books, though not as many as you might expect over such a long career—he prefers to pack several books’ worth of thought into each volume he publishes, and to take his time before bringing out another one.  His three most significant works are Resurrection and Moral Order (1986) which provides a general framework for Christian ethics; Desire of the Nations (1996), which provides the principles of a Christian political theology; and The Ways of Judgement (2005), which applies those principles in an account of how political power should be exercised.

Although he has been writing on ethics now for forty years, his work has been remarkably consistent across that period; indeed, you can recognize in this 1975 article features of his thought that he has continued to develop in his writings up to the present:

evangelical Anglican: O’Donovan identifies with the historic Reformational commitments of the Anglican Church, and thus his thought is grounded in the authority of Scripture, and more importantly, in the revelation of Jesus Christ attested in Scripture.  All of Christian ethics must be a response to the authority of Christ, and it must always be ready to return to its starting point in Scripture.  For this reason, O’Donovan gives a central focus to Scripture and its exegesis throughout his work, which is in fact quite a rare trait among Christian ethicists of his generation.

historically grounded: O’Donovan is, much more than most modern ethicists, very interested in the history of Christian ethics; this is particularly striking in his focused attention on the history of Christian political thought, which is generally neglected among modern ethicists who think the principles of a “Christendom” era simply irrelevant to today’s pluralist context.

an apologist for Christendom: Although that is an oversimplification, and one with which he wouldn’t be comfortable, O’Donovan does believe both in the possibility and the importance of a political order being self-consciously Christian, and has opposed the popular Constantinian accounts (like that of Yoder) which see Christendom as a corruption of the Church as it tried to seize power.

keen sense of history: Related to this, O’Donovan is, in good Anglican fashion, very attuned to the complex, shifting nature of historical circumstances which require the ethicist to be always provisional in his judgments and prescriptions.  However, he is resolute in his opposition to “historicism,” which is the idea that moral norms as such must be historically contingent. 

importance of creation: O’Donovan opposes historicism by appeal to the objective ground of creation, of the ordered structure of the world which God has established, and the ordered shape of the moral life which follows from this.  In this respect, he is in large measure within the natural law tradition, which emphasises that morality finds its ground not in arbitrary divine commands, but in the structure of the world which God has created.  However, he balances this Thomistic orientation with a dose of Barthianism, which insists on our inability to rightly grasp the order of creation apart from its revelation in Christ, who is the centre to which it all points and from which we perceive its meaning.


Having highlighted these issues, we are now in a good position to revisit some of the problematic questions facing the use of Scripture, and especially Scripture as law, as the standard for ethics today.  How might O’Donovan address the seven issues we identified above?

  1. The political implications of the concept of law.  O’Donovan certainly believes that not merely individuals, but politics, must be responsive to the law of God, but he is certainly careful to distinguish the way that Scripture speaks to both of these dimensions today, as well as distinguishing the way these two dimensions are addressed in Scripture itself.  Some biblical law is political law for the society of Israel, whereas some is moral law of enduring significance.  The article we are looking at will deal with this in much more depth.
  2. “Law” addresses itself to all without distinction, whereas morality must address individuals in their particularity.  O’Donovan addresses this objection to in the article, and we will look at it in more detail in a bit.
  3. The relation of natural law to biblical law.  O’Donovan does not address this in this article, but elsewhere in his work, he makes clear that there is a natural law, to which biblical law draws our attention, rather than replacing it.  But we are too prone to err on our own, so natural law is not sufficient; plus, natural law cannot reveal to us Christ or the  and the particular shape that he confers on morality.  
  4. The problem of historical distance.  O’Donovan will address this directly in the article, so we will wait and return to this one as well.  
  5. Scripture as legitimating oppression.  O’Donovan does not address this directly in this article, but we may say a thing or two about how he would reply.  The accusation, of course, in protesting against injustice, assumes some standard of justice whereby Scripture can be called to account: there is a moral authority that can be used to judge Scripture.  But for the Christian, the highest moral authority can only be Christ.  Some of the attack on Scripture as ideology, then, proceeds from a value system at war with the Christian value-system, and hence cannot be accepted.  Some are legitimate complaints, but a close and sympathetic reading of the Biblical texts shoes that they in fact misreading Scripture in making their criticisms.  Finally, some would be legitimate complaints if portions of Scripture were to be read in isolation from one another, but by taking Christ as the centre, who makes sense of the whole, we can recognize the moral problems with these portions of Scripture, without  thereby attacking Scripture as a whole.
  6. The diversity of the Scriptural text: Old Testament vs. New.  Again, if we accept Christ as the centre, the different emphases and trajectories between the two Testaments can be in large part resolved narratively.  There will still be tensions and difficulties, but not necessarily irreconcilable ones.  The article we are looking at will address some key questions regarding the relationship of Old and New Testaments, so we will return to this.
  7. The diversity of the Scriptural text—contrasting voices within each Testament.  O’Donovan does not address this in the article, but some of the points he makes there could help us here.  If we are attentive to the particular contexts in which various moral commands are given, and the particular justifications for them, and if we look at these within the whole narrative of Scripture, we will find that the tensions which we thought were so irresolvable are in fact usually in harmony.  

(to be continued…)

Leithart Comes out Swinging for Natural Law

In an invigorating new post at First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart argues, as one might expect him to, for the importance of Christians being willing to say “Jesus is Lord” and use the Bible in the public square, against any theories of secular natural law that imply the possibility of common, atheological norms for political life.  

But, in what is at the very least a significant shift from his usual emphasis, Leithart grants the basic validity and importance of natural law as a key pillar of theological ethics and Christian public life: 

Natural law theory has many uses. Using its categories, we explore the contours of creation to uncover the pathways the Creator has laid out for us. Natural law reasoning can demonstrate the “fit” between creation and revelation. The fact that women, not men, bear babies is ethically significant, as is the fact that human beings talk but animals don’t. Natural law is rhetorically useful for advancing arguments and purposes that would be rejected out of hand if stated in overtly religious terms.”

The problem comes only when we pretend that we could give meaningful content and force to this natural law without any recourse to revelation, or that we can wave the banner of natural law without waving the banner of King Jesus.  

Though the post is quite short and offers only the merest hints about what this relationship looks like for Christian theory and practice, perhaps it is not too much to see here a good dose of Hooker, for whom “nature hath need of grace and grace hath use of nature.”

Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)