Gleaning from Richard Bauckham

Readers of my old blog may recall that around two years ago I was wrestling for several months with how to understand and apply the Old Testament economic laws–their relative moral and judicial significance, in particular.  Well, the conclusions that took me six months and research and writing to haltingly articulate, Richard Bauckham, with disarming surefootedness, manages to establish in five splendid sentences of his book The Bible in Politics (which, by the way, I cannot recommend highly enough, and hope to be blogging frequently about over the next week or two).  I here quote most of the fantastic paragraph in which these five sentences appear:

“The law, as we have seen, is concerned with broad principles of social morality and with illustrating their specific application.  The specific examples include both laws enforceable in the courts and moral exhortations.  Leviticus 19:9-10 [the law of gleaning] is not in the form of judicial lw and, we may guess, would not normally have been enforced in the courts.  But on the other hand, it would have been open to the elders in any particular local community to choose to enforce it with legal sanctions.  In any case it had the force of social custom, which in small, close-knit communities like those of ancient Israel can be very effective. In such a society, social disapproval, which itself is inseparable from shared religious beliefs, can be as important a sanction as legal punishment.  Thus to insist that these verses envisage private charity rather than state welfare–or vice versa–is to introduce anachronistic distinctions.  Morevoer, as this example illustrates, the distinction between moral and civl law scarcely helps us with the problem of modern relevance.  Whether we consider it a moral or civil law, Leviticus 19:9-10 is a culturally specific* law.  It was an effective means of provision for the poor in the economic circumstances of ancient Israel, but would not be in modern Britain, where, on the one hand, most people are not farmers, and, on the other hand, the majority of the poor, who live in the inner cities, will not be much helped by the food they could gather on country rambles.  The relevance of this law for us can be discovered only by discerning the principles at work in it.  How far these principles can or should be embodied in social legislation in our society, rather than being matters of purely voluntary social morality, is something we have to decide in the concrete circumstances of our own society.  No attempt to distinguish between moral law and civil law in ancient Israel will help us there.

 

*all italics, except this phrase, are mine.


Two Kingdoms in the Old Testament

(Continuing at last with my review of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

One of the greatest weakness of the theological paradigm that VanDrunen advances as a basis for his Reformed two kingdoms theology, is that it leaves him ill-equipped to make sense of the Biblical narrative.  The dogmatic theology, as discussed in the previous post, is problematic enough, but at least there VanDrunen can tie it all together into a coherent, though perhaps not persuasive, package.  But when it comes to the Biblical theology, he is essentially forced to openly excise large portions of Scripture as having little or no meaning for us today, renouncing any aspiration to a unified Biblical narrative.  

Although the New Testament certainly provides plenty of narrative, and offers, I think, glimpses of a prospective narrative, whereby we may understand the Church age and the eschaton, the lion’s share of Biblical narrative of course falls in the Old Testament, and it is here that VanDrunen’s most obvious problems appear.  After all, 90% of the Old Testament narrative tells the story of Israel, a covenanted people who receive laws from God to regulate every area of their religious, social, economic, and civil life, who exist as a holy nation, a priestly kingdom, under their King Yahweh and those whom he appoints.  This is hardly a promising place to look for a two-kingdoms paradigm, in which divine law addresses only otherworldly matters, and affairs of this life are part of the “common kingdom,” ruled by natural law.  And so, VanDrunen sheepishly admits, this whole section of the story (90% of it) is just an interlude–a side-show–not something we should rest too much weight on.

 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look back at how VanDrunen sets up the Old Testament narrative in terms of his two-kingdoms theology.  After his somewhat idiosyncratic account of Adam’s commission (covered in the previous post), he begins with the Noahic covenant, which, he tells us, establishes the “common kingdom”:

“Several important features characterise this common kingdom established by the Noahic covenant: it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion), it embraces the human race in common (rather than a holy people that are distinguished from the rest of the human race), it ensures the preservation of the natural and social order (rather than the redemption of this order), and it is established temporarily (rather than permanently)” (79).  

With this, he contrasts the redemptive Abrahamic covenant:

“it concerns religious faith and worship (rather than ordinary cultural activities), it embraces a holy people that is distinguished from the rest of the human race (rather than the human race in common), it bestows the benefits of salvation upon this holy people (rather than preserving the natural and social order), and it is established forever and ever” (82-3) 

Now this kind of distinction is nothing terribly novel, and thus far, I’m more or less fine with it.  But two covenants do not equal two kingdoms, in VanDrunen’s sense; rather, I would suggest that the Biblical picture is one in which the Abrahamic covenant is the means to the realisation of the Noahic covenant.  The Noahic covenant is, after all, a reaffirmation of the Adamic covenant–that much is clear (it begins with “Be fruitful and multiply”).  After Adam’s failure to carry out his God-ordained task, the world was plunged into the chaos of sin and required devastating divine judgment.  After this judgment, God confronts Noah as the new Adam, reaffirming his task, and pledging that this time, the world will not have to be destroyed again.  Now, why not?  How is the fallen earth and the fallen race to be prevented from requiring judgment again?  Already within two chapters, things seem to be going to pot again.  The Abrahamic covenant is the answer.  God covenants with Israel as the representative of the human race, called upon to be the bearers of his promises and the witnesses to him in a fallen world, so that through them, the earth might be preserved and the race redeemed.  In other words, redemption and preservation are not so separate as VanDrunen suggests, but are interdependent.  

Now, as VanDrunen continues, his categories begin to look increasingly strained: “Here [in the Abrahamic covenant] God sets apart a people who, because of their faith and obedience toward him, are radically distinguished from their neighbours and given a different eternal destiny (life with Christ in the world-to-come).  Genesis teaches these things about the Abrahamic covenant” (83)  What?  Genesis teaches that Abraham is going to be given life with Christ in the world-to-come?  Hardly.  Dogmatic theology might teach that on the basis of the whole Scriptural revelation, but Genesis says no such thing.  VanDrunen’s insistence on supplanting biblical theology with systematic theology (on the next page, VanDrunen says “Unlike the Noahic covenant, this covenant is not about preserving this present world but about opening up the gates of the world-to-come” and then goes on to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness into the passage!) blinds him to the incongruities in the categories he is applying to the text.  The promise to Abraham is first and foremost for a people, and for a land–for this-worldly benefits.  Now, we might want to jump forward to the New Testament and spiritualize all this, but the very this-worldly nature of these promises means that, in the Old Testament at least, this “spiritual kingdom” seems to transgress a lot on the territory assigned to the “civil kingdom.”  

But there’s a more serious incongruity.  What does God say to Abraham about the purpose of the covenant? “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  As VanDrunen has described it, the purpose of the covenant is to separate out a people for a different eternal destiny, to bracket them off from their neighbours and save them out of the world, giving them blessings in the world to come.  But as God describes it, the purpose is to commission a people to bless the whole rest of the world.  Needless to say, this difference has huge ramifications, since, as N.T. Wright never tires of pointing out, this is Paul’s whole point in Romans–Israel has failed to be the blessing to the world, and so God has fulfilled Israel’s task himself through the faithful Israel Christ, in whom we all are called to be the new Israel, bringing God’s blessing to the world.  

VanDrunen goes on to explain how Abraham, while covenanted to dwell in the spiritual kingdom by faith, simultaneously lived in the common kingdom: “As he sojourned in the land, Abraham did not set up his own cultural ghetto but freely participated in his neighbours’ cultural activities” (86).  There is a little problem with this picture, though–this land is the very thing that Abraham is going to acquire according to the terms of the redemptive covenant–this is the inheritance of his “spiritual kingdom”!  His “sojourning” in it is a temporary matter, as he patiently waits on God for the day when he and his descendants can take it over, at which time these “neighbours” will be killed, expelled, or converted.  This is hardly the kind of two-kingdoms mentality VanDrunen wants to recommend–one in which we inhabit the common kingdom only as long as we have to, waiting until we can take it over and make it into the spiritual kingdom–indeed, it sounds more like the theonomic mindset VanDrunen is keen to oppose.  

 

So how does VanDrunen get around this?  Apparently, by deftly inverting the narrative of the Old Testament so that the inheritance of the Promised Land is, ironically, not the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, but a weird, 800-year-long hiatus in the Biblical narrative: “For present purposes it is also crucial to note that Israel’s experience under the law of Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan was not meant to exemplify life under the two kingdoms.  The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (90).  After describing the many ways in which the Mosaic law violates the two-kingdoms paradigm, he concludes, “Under the Mosaic covenant God evidently suspended the provisions of the Noahic covenant that ordained that ordinary cultural activities should be a common enterprise among believers and unbelievers alike.”  So in the Mosaic covenant–the covenant that dominates the Old Testament, we have a covenant that doesn’t really fit with either of the two previous covenants that are supposed to provide a blueprint for the life of God’s people.  In another strange inversion, it is not until things go horribly wrong, and God’s people are completely unfaithful, that they are again given the opportunity to live according to the original blueprint: “In Israel’s long history between the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of Christ, they nevertheless had one corporate experience which did exemplify the life of the two kingdoms: the Babylonian exile” (91).  But before moving on to the end of the narrative, let’s pause and look at a couple other remarks about the period in the Promised Land.

While admitting that the two-kingdoms principle seems basically suspended during this time, VanDrunen argues that it did still apply “outside the borders of the Promised Land”–here, Israelites were still supposed to live as citizens of a common kingdom, free to “make alliances and trade in common with the world.”  This claim is problematic because, in fact, Israel is condemned by God for pretty much every alliance they make with another kingdom, and the Solomonic period, to which VanDrunen appeals for his proof-texts, is the time when Israel is shown to have be violating God’s commands not to be like other kingdoms–the multiplying wives, horses, chariots, etc.  The trading alliance with Hiram is not explicitly condemned, but in context, it is hardly warmly affirmed.  In any case, again, this paradigm would underwrite a kind of two-kingdoms relationship that VanDrunen eschews–one in which Christians hang out in their “spiritual kingdom” ghetto of the Church, living isolated lives and only venturing out to mingle with unbelievers when pragmatic necessity calls for it.  

 

Now what about the Babylonian captivity?  Sure.  Here we do have a “two-kingdoms” relationship, in which faithful Jews are supposed to serve God as he requires, while also serving Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.  But without delving into the details of how VanDrunen explicates this phase, we must note, as VanDrunen himself is forced to, that this is a temporary anomaly.  The Israelites are waiting for Babylon’s destruction; they are longing to get back to the Promised Land.  And as soon as they can, they do.  

 

VanDrunen’s entire retelling of the Old Testament, then, inverts its own self-presentation.  The state of affairs it envisions as proper for God’s people, which all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are dedicated to laying the groundwork for, is one that he considers an anomaly, not to be followed, not to be used as an example.  But whenever things are not as they should be in the Old Testament, whenever they are out of whack, then, on VanDrunen’s reading, they are just as they should be–because they’re exhibiting a two-kingdoms paradigm.

Now of course, VanDrunen will retort that we are not living in a state of fulfilment, but we’re living in a time out of joint.  We have not received our Promised Land, and so the state of Abrahamic sojourn or of exile is the fitting image.  Unsurprisingly, he lays great stress on the New Testament language of “sojourners” and “exiles.”  However, obviously, this is not the only New Testament language.  The Church is the New Israel, the New Jerusalem.  We have already “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 13:22).  Redemption is already taking hold.  The New Testament church is in a state of already/not yet, of partial fulfilment, but also expectation, of being sojourners but also citizens.  This means that we must hold in balance both Old Testament paradigms as offering a valuable hermeneutic for our own situation.  We cannot simply choose the one and chuck the other.  Especially, we cannot choose the one that is minimised in the Old Testament and chuck the one that is at the centre of the Old Testament vision.  Otherwise, Marcionism is lurking at the door, as I’m afraid it is in VanDrunen’s wholesale dismissal of the Mosaic covenant.



Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.  



The Land is Mine

Some of you may recall, from around a year ago, that I posted from time to time on the relationship between law and ethics in the Pentateuchal social justice laws–were these laws moral rules of charity or genuine civil legislation of justice, and what did this tell us about the relationship between charity and justice more generally?  To answer the question took six months of labor on a paper of many thousand words, with which I was still never quite satisfied, so I was quite bowled over, with a kind of exasperated delight, when I found Eric Nelson summarily deal with (resolve?) the whole question in one elegant paragraph in chapter 2 of The Hebrew Republic:

“The vision [of property rights] in question is epitomized by a striking semantic fact about the Hebrew language, well-known to Biblical scholars, but worth repeating in this context.  Those of us whose languages use terms derived from Greek and Latin are used to marking a key lexical distinction between ‘justice’ (dike/iustitia) and ‘charity’ (charis/charitas).  What distinguishes them is the element of personal discretion.  If I give you a $5 bill to which you have a legal claim, this is an instance of justice, not charity; if, however, I give you a $5 to which you have no legal claim, this is an instance of charity, not justice.  Hebrew recognizes no such dichotomy.  The same Hebrew word (tzedek/tzedakah) refers both to the fulfillment of what we would regard as conventional legal obligations and to the performance of what we would regard as charitable acts.  The reason is straightforward.  In the Biblical worldview, God is regarded as the owner of all things and is therefore empowered to impose whatever conditions he wishes on the use of his property by human beings.  Many of these conditions involve, for example, care for the poor and indigent, but precisely because these are legal obligations imposed by a rightful owner on his tenants, they are no more discretionary than, say, the payment of debts.  The Hebrew Bible develops this into a theory of property according to which there is only one owner.  As God says to Moses in chapter 25 of Leviticus, ‘the land is mine’ (Lev. 25:23).”

Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much what I was trying to say.  Brilliant.  


Those Socialist Hebrews

In the fascinating second chapter of his provocative book, The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson argues that the advocation of redistribution of wealth in the modern political tradition arose not from Enlightenment socialist ideas, but, believe it or not, from the seventeenth-century appeal to the authority of Old Testament Israel and the attempt to make it politically normative for modern societies.   This is an argument that is sure to turn the narrative of Bible-thumping Red State America on its head–according to that narrative, Scripture is adamant about the sanctity of private property, and in proportion as societies have sought to found their government upon Scripture, in the same proportion, they have protected private property rights.  Only when they have rebelled against God and embraced atheistic ideas, we are told, do they toy with evil utopian schemes like redistribution of wealth.  Right in line with this narrative, most modern Reformed advocates of some form of “theonomy”–the attempt to repristinate Biblical law in modern politics–have produced a “Biblical economics” that is curiously right-wing and libertarian.  

But, on Nelson’s account (though of course this is not the point Nelson is out to make) this paradigm is precisely backward–it was in pursuit of seventeenth-century “theonomy” that theologians and political thinkers embraced the idea of “levelling” or redistribution of property.  It was obvious to them that the purpose of the Jubilee and sabbath laws, among many other Pentateuchal land laws, was to maintain a relative long-term equality in property ownership by regular redistribution.  Similar measures, it seemed, would need to be instituted in any Christian society that followed God’s law.  Indeed, so dramatic was the force of this appeal that it worked to overturn the long-standing consensus against redistributive (or “agrarian”) laws in Christian Europe, a consensus that was grounded not, as we might expect, on appeals to Scriptural authority, but rather, on the authority of classical Roman writers who argued for the sanctity of private property rights in order to protect the original expropriations of the patrician classes from any recovery by the plebeians. 

Cicero, in particular, had rendered the authoritative verdict on this point: “Property becomes private through long occupancy, and each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society….The man in administrative office must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property rights by act of the state.”  The “ruinous policy” of the proposed agrarian laws, says Cicero, constitutes such an invasion.  “In short,” says Nelson, “Cicero characterizes the agrarian movement as seditious, dangerous, and violently unjust.  For what is an agrarian law, he asks in De officiis, but an initiative “to rob one man of what belongs to him and to give to another man what does not belong to him?” 

Modern Christian conservatives thus find themselves in the awkward position of parroting Cicero, over against a tradition that sought instead to follow Moses.  

Of course, as I have always hastened to point out in the past, this kind of “agrarian” or “redistributive” drive does not issue from a contempt for private property, but rather, from a much higher valuation of private property–private property is seen as so important that it is imperative to make sure everyone has enough, which means making sure nobody has too much.