Category: Bible and Theology

So, why don’t Protestants like Natural Law?

The short answer is: there isn’t a short answer.

So starting now, and continuing for who knows how long, I plan to tell the story of the Protestant struggle over natural law, from complete rejection by Karl Barth in the 1930s to the recent hint of renewed interest among Protestant intellectuals. My view is that natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation — one that contemporary Protestants desperately need to rediscover. Along the way, I’ll respond to standard Protestant objections and discuss what limitations the Reformers perceived in natural law.

For much of Christian history, some type of natural-law theory has been used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world. But in recent times, Protestant churches and theologians have rejected natural law as a way of showing their differences with the tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology.

The scope and unity of Roman Catholic social teaching is impressive, but without the recurrent appeal to natural law, it would lack a skeletal structure upon which to build its body of social teaching. Modern Protestant social ethics, by contrast, has no skeletal infrastructure of comparable strength. Unlike Roman Catholic moral theology, which is done in the context of the magisterial (or teaching) authority of the church, Protestant ethics has never had a “supreme court of appeals” to decide what’s licit and illicit. While the Bible is the principal authority in Protestant ethics, the matter of determining “authoritative” moral teaching is complex and subject to personal interpretation. To a fault, I might add.

In his opening address at the first Christian Social Congress in 1891, the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper emphasized the catholicity of natural law in relation to Pope Leo XIII’s new encyclical Rerum Novarum. “We must admit, to our shame,” said Kuyper, “that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism. The encyclical Rerum novarum of Leo XIII states the principles which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots.”

At the heart of Rerum novarum and the recent encyclical Deus caritas est, by Pope Benedict XVI, is an appeal to reason and human nature, but not in a way that denigrates faith or revealed truth. “From God’s standpoint,” insists the pope, “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” The Christian Church fulfills its responsibility to form consciences and to promote justice, when, as Benedict insists, social teaching is argued “on the basis of reason and natural law.”

We’ve barely begun, so check back soon for part 2.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Yesterday I looked at the worth of human life, especially as relative to that of animal life.

Today I want to refine the discussion about the value of human life, by making a fine terminological distinction. It’s become commonplace for theologians to speak of the “infinite value” of human life. Here are some examples from representatives of major traditions within Christianity. Rod Benson, director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at the Baptist-affiliated Morling College in Australia, contends that “every person is of infinite intrinsic value.”

Pope John Paul II often spoke in this way. In a letter about biomedical experimentation, the pope wrote of “the absolute respect due to human life and to the infinite value of the human person, that is not tied to one’s external features or on the ability to relate to other members of society.”

“The human person, created in the image of God and called to progress toward the divine likeness, is unique and of infinite value,” says Fr. John Breck, professor of biblical interpretation and ethics at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. I, too, have spoken in this way in the past, referring to “the infinite value of the human person created in God’s image.”

My criticism of all these uses, including mine, does not rise to the level of a substantive critique. Within the context of these statements, the meaning and intention of the use of the term infinite is clear and uncontroversial. My purpose here is to simply note the ambiguity in the term infinite and to suggest clarification and possible substitution of other terms that have overlapping meanings without the possible misconstrual.

There are at least two basic definitions for the word infinite: “Having no boundaries or limits” and “Immeasurably great or large.” There is some connection between the two meanings, clearly, but they are not identical. The former refers to the ontological status of the thing that is infinite, while the latter primarily refers to the ability to measure or gauge the thing said to be infinite. A thing can be practically immeasurable or unquantifiable without being limitless or boundless. I understand all of the above theological uses of the term infinite to be used in this latter sense.

But there is a theological use of the term with respect to human worth that does use the former sense, and this is with respect to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Anselm asks regarding Christ’s death the Cur Deus Homo of his dialogue partner Boso:

Anselm: And do you not think that so great a good in itself so lovely, can avail to pay what is due for the sins of the whole world?

Boso: Yes! it has even infinite value.

Later Boso says to Anselm, “Moreover, you have clearly shown the life of this man to have been so excellent and so glorious as to make ample satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, and even infinitely more.”

Only Christ’s life and death, as the God-man, is infinite in the sense of being boundless and limitless. All created being is by definition finite, and therefore not infinite in the first sense. Human life is infinite in the sense of not being able to be quantified in the latter sense.

For this reason, I think it is more proper to speak of human life as of immeasurable, inestimable, or inscrutable worth and value, rather than simply as of infinite value. Where the term infinite is used in a synonymous sense with these other terms, it may be acceptable. But it is more desirable to avoid possible confusion with the infinite value of Christ and use other, less ambiguous terms, instead of or as clarifiers for the word infinite.

“Animals are less valuable than human beings,” says John Martin, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at University College London (UCL). This seemingly uncontroversial statement is under fire, as Helene Guldberg at sp!ked writes, “There seems to be an emerging consensus within the scientific community that we should reject the philosophical outlook that says humans are ‘categorically superior’ to animals.”

Keith Burgess-Jackson, who blogs at The Conservative Philosopher, says he is “an egalitarian about interspecific value,” and passes along the following quote:

For many philosophers, the consideration that may loom largest here is the stubborn conviction that the lives of normal humans must be of greater value than the lives of many, if not all, nonhuman animals. Perhaps that conviction is unjustified; it has not yet been very satisfyingly defended. (David DeGrazia, Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 248)

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is famous for equating the moral value of animals with newborn human beings, although he claims that “the aim of my argument is to elevate the status of animals rather than to lower the status of any humans” (Practical Ethics, p. 77).

In defending the position that humans are to be valued more than animals, Martin asks the right question: “What is a human being?” He argues that the answer “requires both a biological and a philosophical analysis – in tandem,” and that “what sets us apart from all other animals… is our ability to generate creative, abstract thought – ‘and with that, poetry, music and the social networks that bind us together’.” In this, Martin is partly right. But the answer to his question needs a theological as well as biological and philosophical analysis. (more…)

In some of my reading lately, a connection occurred to me of the sort that is so obvious once consciously realized that you feel almost idiotic for not making the linkage before. G. K. Chesterton considered logic to be a tool, an instrument of reason to be used only in service of the truth. He writes,

The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic.

In this Chesterton is emphasizing the importance of first principles, or principia. He summarizes it this way: “You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it” (G. K. Chesterton, Daily News, Feb. 25, 1905). Taken by itself, logic alone is ambivalent, in the sense that it can be pressed into the service either of truth or of falsehood.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes a similar observation with regard to the natural law, understood as distinct from and not dependent on special revelation. He writes, for example in the case of the state,

But both the concept of the contents of natural law are equivocal (depending on whether this natural law is derived from certain particular data or from certain particular standards); and it therefore fails to provide an adequate basis for the state. Natural law can furnish equally cogent arguments in favour of the state which is founded on force and the state which is founded on justice, for the nation-state and for imperialism, for democracy and for dictatorship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “State and Church,” in Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge, trans. Neville Horton Smith [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995], 334).

In this way, Chesterton and Bonhoeffer make similar cases regarding the characteristics of logic and natural law, if both are abstracted from a dependence on biblical revelation.

This connection should not really be all that surprising, as Bonhoeffer himself identifies a created or natural law with reason: “Reason—law of what is created—of what exists” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “On the Possibility of the Church’s Message to the World,” in Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles West, and Douglass Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005], 362).

All this follows a long tradition of relating natural law and reason in the Christian tradition, and is itself continuous with the contention of the Eminent Pagan, Cicero, who equates the two: “There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil” (Cicero, De Re Publica, Book III). Aquinas reiterates this connection, defining natural law as “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law” (Summa Theologica, II.91.2).

Aquinas’ definition is cited approvingly by the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus, who says, “the lawe of nature is that light and iudgement of reason, whereby we doe discerne betwixt good and evill” (Wolfgang Musculus, Common places of Christian religion, trans. John Man [London: Henry Bynneman, 1578], 69). In this way, elements of both Protestant and Catholic natural law traditions have identified the natural law with “right reason,” picking up on the Ciceronian theme.

As Chesterton notes, the “rightness” of the reason depends on the proper foundation, that is, the truth of Biblical or special revelation. It is a fundamentally Augustinian point that reason alone, without illumination, cannot reach true first principles about the existence, attributes, and character of God. This is where the discontinuity between the pagan and Christian concepts of natural law come in. There is fundamental agreement about the methodology, so to speak, of natural law as “right reason,” but disagreement about the particular content of that rightness and the abilities of natural man to pursue it. For reason to be “right,” it needs the benefit of special revelation.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Entry #2 in Joe Carter’s Know Your Evangelicals Series is Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and founder of Call to Renewal.

The one-sentence summary? “While Wallis appears to be a genuine and passionate Christian he would do well to base his political views a bit more on the Bible and a bit less on leftist ideology.”

Acton’s Jay Richards reviewed Wallis’ recent book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone magazine.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, writes at NRO this week about the use of biblical texts in support of immigration liberalization by liberals, “Borders & the Bible: It’s not the gospel according to Hillary.”

I find this essay problematic on a number of levels. Klinghoffer first reprimands Hillary Clinton, among others, for quoting the Bible: “While the Left typically resists applying Biblical insights to modern political problems, liberals have seemed to make an exception for the immigrant issue.” But then, it isn’t really so much a problem that liberals have quoted the Bible, but they have done so in a way that Klinghoffer doesn’t like.

He says, “There is a problem, of course, with selective cherry-picking of Biblical verses to support the political cause of your choice. This, in fact, has become a favored tactic among advocates of ‘spiritual activism’ (as they’re called on the Left).” Now while I agree that “selective cherry-picking” is a problem, Klinghoffer can’t have it both ways. Either liberals don’t typically refer to Scripture and thus the use of the Bible in the immigration debate is an oddity, or they do typically quote Scripture as “a favored tactic” and do it in a selective and problematic way.

Klinghoffer continues, “If we want to take the Bible as a guide to crafting wise policies, that means trying our best to see Scripture as an organic whole with a unitary message.” Again, it appears that the problem with Hillary and others isn’t so much that they are using Scripture, but they are doing so in a bad way. We seem to have that cleared up.

Klinghoffer proceeds to show us how Scripture might actually be used as a guide to “crafting wise policies” with respect to immigration. He goes on to emphasize the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) as “a highly political text, very much concerned with worldly questions of law and policy, including the treatment of citizens and non-citizens by a sovereign government comprising an executive branch (the king and his officers) and a judicial one (a council of elders).”

From this foundation, Klinghoffer draws two important conclusions. First, citing Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s understanding of kosher laws, “we must always bear in mind that God created peoples and animals separate, with their differences, for reasons of His own.” Thus, “The colors of the rainbow create a beautiful visual array. When the same colors are mixed together haphazardly, on the other hand, their beauty is marred and muddied.” I’m not sure exactly what this means, but it has disturbing overtones. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In his fragmentary and incomplete Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer examines the reality of the will of God, which he contends come to us from Scripture in the form of four mandates: work, marriage, government, and church. Here’s a great summary of Bonhoeffer’s view of the mandate of the government or state, from his essay, “Christ, Reality, and Good,” pages 72-73:

The divine mandate of government already presupposes the mandates of work and marriage. In the world that it rules, government finds already existing these two mandates through which God the Creator exercises creative power and upon which government must rely. Government itself cannot produce life or values. It is not creative. Government maintains what is created in the order that was given to the creation by God’s commission. Government protects what is created by establishing justice in acknowledgment of the divine mandates and by enforcing this justice with the power of the sword. Thus, marriage is not made by the government, but is affirmed by the government. The great spheres of work are not themselves undertaken by the government, but they are subject to its supervision within certain limits—later to be described—to governmental direction. Government should never seek to become the agent of these areas of work, for this would seriously endanger their divine mandate along with its own. By establishing justice, and by the power of the sword, government preserves the world for the reality of Jesus Christ. Everyone owes obedience to this government—according to the will of Christ.

ABC columnist and Temple professor John Allen Paulos has an interesting piece this week on a new paper outlining an economic theory of prostitution. Basically, the authors outline the incentives and patterns involved in the “world’s oldest profession” (a moniker I think is misleading, for the title truly belongs to gardening). I will let you read both the paper and the article yourself, because it is only Mr. Paulos’s conclusion I would like to discuss here:

Like any statistical model, this one ignores the diversity of real people and the complexities of love and pleasure, changing social mores, et cetera. Still, once all its equations have been solved, a simple fact remains: Most women enter prostitution for the money.

This being so, legalizing it, regulating it (strictly enforcing laws against pimping, child prostitution, public nuisance and so forth) and improving the economic prospects for women seem to me a greatly preferable approach to it than moralistic denunciation.

But like any purely economic assessment, Mr. Paulos’s statements above ignore the essence of man, ignores the question “what is a human person truly?” Without an understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person–in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!–it is easy to reduce all human interaction to economics, to simple exchange.

All such reduction goes out the window if you posit the following: “the human person is designed to be a gift.” If the core of human essense is to love, that is, to make a gift of one’s self, all reduction of a human person to her market commodity is not only ultimately counterproductive to a healthy market, but destructive of the human person herself.

If the human person, at her core, is designed for love, for self-giving, to reduce her to a economic commodity is to deny her true nature. Why should this matter? To try to tease use out of something not designed for that use not only destroys the use, but the used as well.

Some closing thoughts from Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility:

“The principle of ‘utility’ itself, of treating a person as a means to an end, and an end moreover which in this case is pleasure, the maximization of pleasure, will always stand in the way of love…”

“The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love…”

“…love for a person must consist in affirmation that the person has a value higher than that of an object for consumption or use.”

This is precisely what Mr. Paulos neglects to understand. His concern about ‘moralistic denunciation’ betrays an inexcusable ignorance about the end of economics, which is man, and the end of man, which is Love.

Before Mr. Paulos advocates regulation as opposed to moralism, perhaps he ought to spend some time asking himself morality’s question: “What is man?”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, April 21, 2006
“Extreme Humility”

Over at OrthodoxyToday.org, Fr. Theodore Stylianpoulos demolishes the media driven speculation that the so-called Gospel of Judas might somehow turn traditional Christianity on its head.

The Gospel of Judas is but another small window to Gnosticism, a hodgepodge of religious speculations that exploded on the scene during the second century. At that time, individual intellectuals or small and elitist groups around them, bothered by the basic story of the Bible, especially the violent God of the Old Testament and the scandalous death and resurrection of Jesus, generated their own religious philosophy. They combined Jewish, Christian and pagan elements to construct literally fantastic systems of speculation including astrology and magic. The core theme, found in the Gospel of Judas, is secret knowledge (gnosis) that leads to salvation.

This is Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Daily observances mark Christ’s passion and culminate in Great and Holy Friday and Saturday and, the Feast of Feasts, Pascha (Easter Sunday). In these services, one is struck by the unequivocal condemnation — both in the Gospel readings and in the hymns — of Judas’ deceit and betrayal and greed. Not a lot of nuance or reinterpretation of the Gnostic view here. This would only surprise someone completely unfamiliar with Church history and, in particular, the Ecumenical Councils. Fr. Stylianopoulos, the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology and Professor of New Testament at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, exposes the logical flaw behind a Gnostic interpretation of Judas’ suicide:

The vilification of Judas in Christian history is lamentable. For Christians, the right response to all sinners, including ourselves, is sorrow and prayer in the spirit of Christ’s love who forgave his crucifiers. What a magnificent testimony to God’s forgiveness, if Judas, like Peter, had repented of his misdeed and run up to Jesus as he stumbled up the hill to Golgotha and asked for mercy! Forgiveness would have been certain. But it was not to be. Falling into despair on account of his betrayal, Judas killed himself, an act that would otherwise have no reasonable explanation, unless one is prepared to adopt the Gnostic system and see Judas as committing suicide to release his own soul to astral regions.

Of course, it’s hard to take these media-driven Gnostic “revelations” seriously when they are accompanied by sophisticated video and book merchandising campaigns. The National Geographic Society, which made the new translation of the Coptic-language “Gospel of Judas” public, also released two books and a DVD in conjunction with what it modestly refers to as “one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century.” All, of course, in time for Easter.

Gnosticism, the heresy, is everywhere with us today and is visible in things like New Age practices. Book publishers will continue to “rediscover” Gnostic writings, as we saw last year with Elaine Pagel’s book, “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.” The main attraction of Gnostic beliefs is that it gives us a free pass. We can become our own gods, make our own personal religion, and avoid the labor and struggle and repentance that Christ demands of us. “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:14).

And Gnosticism can be profitable, as National Geographic is showing us. When coupled with the allure of secret spiritual knowledge, buying a $24.95 DVD doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, April 17, 2006

Having completed his discussion of the covenant of redemption, Herman Witsius writes the following at the conclusion of Book II of his De oeconomia foderum Dei cum hominibus:

What penetration of men or angels was capable of devising things so mysterious, so sublime, and so far surpassing the capacity of all created beings? How adorable do the wisdom and justice, the holiness, the truth, the goodness, and the philanthropy of God, display themselves in contriving, giving, and perfecting this means of our salvation? How calmly does conscience, overwhelmed with the burden of its sins, acquiesce in such a Surety, and in such a suretiship; when here at length, apprised of a method of reconciliation, both worthy of God, and safe for man? Who on contemplating these things in the light of the Spirit, would not break out into the praises of the most holy, the most righteous, the most true, the most gracious, and the most high God? O! the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God! O the height of mysteries, which angels desire to look into! Glory to the Father, who raised up, accepted, and gave us such a Surety! Glory to the Son, who clothing himself in human flesh, so willingly, so patiently, and so constantly performed such an engagement for us. Glory to the Holy Ghost, the revealer, the witness, and the earnest of so great happiness for us. All hail! O Christ Jesus, true and eternal God, and true and holy man, all in one, who retains the properties of both natures in the unity of thy person. Thee we acknowledge, thee we worship, to thee we betake ourselves, at thy feet we fall down, from thy hand alone we look for salvation. Thou art the only Saviour; we desire to be they peculiar property, we are so by thy grace, and shall remain such for ever. Let the whole world of thine elect, with us, know, acknowledge, and adore thee, and thus at length be saved by thee. This is the sum of our faith, and hope, and this is the top of all our wishes. Amen.

Amen, indeed. Something like this in the middle of a scholarly treatise might be surprising to some, but it does show how piety and learning were closely integrated in the work of this Dutch Reformed theologian.