Archived Posts July 2006 - Page 5 of 7 | Acton PowerBlog

BRYN MAWR, July 13, 2006 – Over the course of the week I have offered my reflections that have arisen within the context of the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar offered by the Institute for Humane Studies (previous editons: Weekend, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). The presentations by the faculty have been in great part engaging, intellectually rigorous, and valuable.

I’ll conclude with an observation about the necessity for any intellectual endeavor to pursue scholarship in a rigorous and serious way. This is applicable to any scholar who is or is not part of the liberal education establishment, but it is even more relevant, I think, for those of us who do not share many of the same fundamental convictions as the intellectual elite.

The point is this: the only way that scholars who come from positions outside the mainstream can expect to garner any measure of respect and/or success in the education establishment is by deeply committing themselves to the standards of scholarship. So, for example, in my own case, I face what might be called a heavy ideological burden: I am socially, theologically, and morally conservative with significant affinities to classical liberal political and economic theory. These values are simply out of step with the broader academic world, and even to some extent within the circles of my own field of interest, historical theology.

I propose that the only way to overcome these obsacles is to do scholarly work that even those who have radically different ideological commitments but who nevertheless believe in the seriousness of scholarship will have no other choice than to respect. This includes a commitment to the commonly accepted standards of scholarly work, such as a consistent application of research methodology, responsible engagement and treatment of primary and secondary sources, a striving for objectivity, and treatment of the subject matter according to the scholastic method. It excludes ideological diatribes and polemic passed off in the form of scholarship.

There is no guarantee of course that in any particular instance my work will be respected on its own merits rather than being passed over due to intellectual bias. But these elements are really the only ones that I can control, and I must leave it to God’s providence to determine where and how my calling is to be effected in the future.

Beyond being a strategic means of attaining acceptence in the academic world, the duties of the scholar are such that they are necessary for the broader and ultimately more important matter of fidelity to my calling and the responsible exercise of my scholarly vocation.

Blog author: sgrabill
posted by on Thursday, July 13, 2006

In Part 3, we examined why many contemporary Protestants have something of a bad conscience when it comes to natural law. But, of course, the blame for this cannot be laid fully upon Karl Barth. Even a hint of a fuller explanation has to address intellectual currents that begin to gather momentum in the so-called Enlightenment. One popular explanation within the academic mainstream for the demise of the natural-law tradition in modern Protestant theology attributes it to a form of implosion. And this is what I want to take up here.

Why did the natural-law tradition fall on hard times in modern Protestant theology? Many have speculated that the reason somehow lies deeply embedded in the Reformation theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. However, John T. McNeill, the Reformation historian and editor of Calvin’s Institutes, reached a far different conclusion:

There is no real discontinuity between the teaching of the Reformers and that of their predecessors with respect to natural law. Not one of the leaders of the Reformation assails the principle. Instead, with the possible exception of Zwingli, they all on occasion express a quite ungrudging respect for the moral law naturally implanted in the human heart and seek to inculcate this attitude in their readers. Natural law is not one of the issues on which they bring the Scholastics under criticism. With safeguards of their primary doctrines but without conscious resistance on their part, natural law enters into the framework of their thought and is an assumption of their political and social teaching. . . . The assumption of some contemporary theologians that natural law has no place in the company of Reformation theology cannot be allowed to govern historical inquiry or to lead us to ignore, minimize, or evacuate of reality, the positive utterances on natural law scattered through the works of the Reformers. . . . For the Reformers, as for the Fathers, canonists, and Scholastics, natural law stood affirmed on the pages of Scripture.

The pressure to abandon the teaching of natural law did not stem from the Reformation so much as from post-Enlightenment philosophy, especially Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism.

The post-Enlightenment era can be characterized in terms of a loss of belief, not only in special divine revelation through Scripture and church teaching, but also in the ability of reason to discern a natural moral order in human affairs. These losses become visible in Europe and North America after 1850 and prepare the way for law to become an instrument of power. With the eclipse of natural law, positive law lost its transcendent moorings and soon came to be an instrument of the totalitarian state. Appeals to “higher law” were dismissed as relics of the past, and moral questions were reduced to legal decisions. With the collapse of the religious and metaphysical foundations of justice, the totalitarian state could now manipulate law as a mere function of absolute power. This is the meaning of the famous statement by Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.” Thus there was no other criterion of validity for the law than the will of those who had the monopoly of force.

The twentieth century has paid a high price in legalized atrocities and crimes against humanity. After World War II, for a brief moment in the wake of the Nuremberg trials, Protestant theologians and ethicists seemed to entertain the idea of a “baseline morality” that all people could be said to know and thus be responsible for. But they were in a quandary about natural law, and found it difficult to move beyond Barth’s objections. Carl Braaten captures well the ambivalence of Protestant theologians during this period: “Natural law came to be seen as a kind of necessary evil, or as an illegitimate child that could not be completely abandoned but whose rights must be severely restricted.”

In Part 5, we will shift our focus slightly and address the two most common Protestant criticisms of natural law.

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

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ever since the popularization of the Internet, a debate has raged—within and without Christian circles—about the effect of the medium on human development and relationships. A serious and plausible charge against the Web came from those who thought its mode of disembodied communication would alter the form of human interaction for the worse. (See, for example, Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart, reviewed in the Journal of Markets & Morality by Megan Maloney.)

As is usually the case with new technologies, an accurate assessment of the effect of the Internet seems to be a weighing of tradeoffs. That’s the gist of an interesting interview on Zenit today (daily dispatch 7/12/06). Psychologist G. Alexander Ross summarizes the findings of various studies that gauge the impact of cyber communication on human relationships. Here’s one passage:

This limitation in the richness of communication has obvious disadvantages, yet research suggests some interesting compensations.

Social psychological research shows that physical attractiveness often has a more powerful influence on relationship formation than the deeper, more significant personal factors that we would prefer to influence friendship formation.

Although members of some of the cyber communities will share personal photos and other media as well as messages of text, the physical characteristics of the individual are not normally visible to the communicators. This can allow the deeper personal characteristics of the individual to be more salient in the interaction that occurs.

One interesting laboratory experiment found that subjects who met for the first time on the Internet liked each other more than those who first met each other face-to-face.

Today, too, Reuters has this story on telecommuting, which indicates that many potential in-home workers choose to go to the office because they “miss the social interaction.”

The verdict is still out on the long-term impact of the Internet, but early evidence suggests that it is not unlike other technological advances in its potential for both benefit and detriment. On social interaction in particular, there are surely limitations to distant and disembodied communication, but people are negotiating those limitations in diverse ways (by choosing not to telecommute, for example, or by using e-mail to initiate or sustain relationships that will end or began as face-to-face). The social nature of the person cannot be suppressed.

BRYN MAWR, July 12, 2006 – Yesterday I outlined in brief a biblical case for the legitimate and even divine institution of civil government. Having established that the State is a valid social institution, the next step in what is broadly called social ethics is to outline the scope of the State’s authority and its relations to other social institutions.

A valuable place to start might be in defining what the role of the State ought to be, rather than simply cataloguing the specific tasks of the State one by one, starting with the punishment of the wrongdoer, and so on (in this sort of endeavor, I think Aquinas’ maxim regarding when to make law is invaluable). Gaudium et spes gives a valuable starting point for a discussion of the common good: “The sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Leo XIII says that “Civil society exists for the common good.”

In some sense, too, the State exists for the common good, although its role is clearly defined and sharply delimited: to ensure some of the necessary preconditions for the realization of the common good.

Recall what Lord Acton writes of liberty, the highest political end, that it is necessary “for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.” These highest objects of civil society could be summed up in the concept of the common good. Thus Acton writes that beyond the core and proper center of the scope of governmental authority, the State “can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.”

In discussing the relationship between the Church and State, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the State’s responsibility with regard to the first table of the Decalogue in a similar way. He argues that the State effectively meets its responsibility in promoting and protecting the Church by carving out space for the existence of the Church, ensuring its ability to exist and vigorously thrive in freedom.

In our American context, I think we can understand the establishment clause of the First Amendment to effectively accomplish this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Bill of Rights therefore protects and even promotes the right of the Church to exist

Simply put: the government exists to promote and protect liberty, a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of human virtue and flourishing, also called the common good.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Philanthropy, for all its good intentions, does not necessarily imply a personal connection with the needy person. It can and often does, but it doesn’t have to. Philanthropy is the more institutional, “big-picture” cousin of charity, which is the personal and direct connection to those in need. Andrew Carnegie building hundreds of libraries with the wealth he made in the steel industry, and being celebrated for it to this day, is philanthropy. Your Aunt Evelyn volunteering at the local church-operated hospice and sending the facility an annual donation of $150, in perfect anonymity, is charity.

Karen Woods examines Warren Buffett’s gift to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and discusses the importance of his philanthropy while at the same time emphasizing the need for support of smaller, local charities that interact directly with those they help, creating accountable and personal relationships that effect change in people.

Read the complete commentary here.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It is one thing to create wealth by using our gifts. This is a matter of knowledge. It is quite a different thing to know what to do with the wealth that has been created. That is where wisdom comes into the picture. Rev. Zandstra, a Senior Fellow with the Acton Institute, examines Warren Buffett’s recent gift of $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and offers words of hope that the Gates Foundation can use this wealth with wisdom, making a difference in the lives of those they seek to help.

Read the full commentary here.

BRYN MAWR, July 11, 2006 – One school of libertarian political thought is that of the so-called anarcho-capitalists. Here’s a good summary: “Anarcho-capitalists reject the state as an unjustified monopolist and systematic aggressor against sovereign individuals, and would replace it with cooperatives, neighborhood associations, private businesses and similar non-monopolistic organizations.”

I think this view is incompatible with biblical Christianity. Perhaps you think that this conclusion is rather uncontroversial and obvious. Even so, Christians who are broadly in favor of limited government and classical liberalism need to be careful to recognize the various types of positions and views that this larger umbrella category often covers. It’s worth looking at some of the reasons that anarchism and Christianity cannot be reconciled.

The most basic perhaps is that the government is a divinely mandated institution. The exact nature and scope of its mandate is a point of some important debate, but the divine institution of government cannot be denied on the basis of the Bible. One important feature of this mandate is the responsibility to adminster temporal justice.

As Paul writes in Romans 12, Christians are forbidden from taking personal vengeance for wrongs committed against us. He says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’” (Romans 12:17-19 NIV)

Paul goes on to describe the means that God has instituted for the administration of retributive justice. Thus he writes in the next chapter that the civil ruler “is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV)

Again, this gets at the role of the State, but it also assumes the validity and necessity of the existence of civil government. In this latter regard, Paul also writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2 NIV) This section is a good summary of what the Bible says on these topics, and is consistent with the traditional interpretation of many other parts of the Scriptures, including the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12 NIV) This commandment is understood to refer not only to our actual parents but to all temporal authorities that God has instituted.

One specific feature of anarcho-capitalist theory is that all taxation by government is necessarily invalid and by definition theft. This is because any state action, but particularly one like taxation, violates the basic principle of non-agression because it is inherently coercive. As we have seen, Paul clearly legitimizes a role for the State’s use of coercive force, i.e. “the sword”. But he also specifically addresses the question of taxation (as Jesus had also done previously with regard to the Roman tax). Thus Paul writes, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:6-7 NIV) Here we can see that Paul implicitly regards governing as a valid and sacred calling or vocation, as it is participation in a divinely instituted ordinance and is a “full time” job.

With this basic framework in mind, we can understand how anarchism has always been viewed by the Christian tradition as a fundamentally problematic and heretical doctrine. One might say that it dishonors God because it denies the validity of a divinely mandated institution. In this context, the magisterial Protestant reformers were consistently suspicious of what they perceived in some Anabaptist and other so-called “radical” groups. In this way, the Belgic Confession, penned by Guido De Bres and a confessional symbol of Reformed Christianity, included in its original form in the context of the discussion of civil authorities the following denouncement: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Having established the basic validity of the existence of the State for Christianity and the incompatibility of anarchism with the biblical faith, we will examine in more detail tomorrow the scope and nature of government authority. We already see an initial element in our discussion above, that is, the administration of civil justice.

BRYN MAWR, July 10, 2006 – Things are progressing smoothly for me here at the Advanced Studies in Freedom seminar. Our daily schedule includes four major lectures from seminar faculty, each with built in small group discussion time as well as Q&As with the presenting faculty.

One of our first activities was to try and self-identify in terms of our view of the role of government (if any). I identified with the endorsement of a limited government, whose main role is to provide for the defense of the nation and the administration of domestic justice. In addition, however, I do not dismiss out of hand any role for the State beyond these two activities. Indeed, in agreement with the political conclusions of the Chicago School and Hayek, I do find there to be a legitimate role for the State with regard to certain kinds of public good.

I would articulate this as being in broad accord with a sort of sphere sovereignty envisioned by Abraham Kuyper and those who followed him, specifically with respect to the divine authority invested in various social institutions. This perspective is not unique to Kuyper, however, and I think finds expression and support from a wider and more diverse range of sources. These include writers like Lord Acton (see yesterday’s post for a representative quote), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the reformer Wolfgang Musculus.

The government is a social institution with its own specific and unique mandate, and therefore has an important albeit limited role. My current sense is that the government is responsible for having some concern for the public welfare in cases of extreme and urgent need. The proper relation between the government and the other spheres of life, however, is characterized best I think in terms of the government as the institution of last and temporary resort. The principle of subsidiarity is helpful in articulating just how these relations might work.

A final reflection: it is important to understand the role of a Christian political philosophy and how it relates more broadly to a Christian world-and-life view. Take Lord Acton, as an example. He writes,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

Broadly speaking, we might say then that for Acton the purpose of government is to promote and protect liberty, as man’s highest political end. But this end is itself penultimate, and is to be used in service of other, presumably even higher, human ends (e.g. those of civil society and private life). This points to the necessary relationsip between liberty as a political end and what we might call virtue as a higher human end. That is, freedom is not simply an ultimate end in itself, but must be used in the pursuit of virtue, which finds its authoritative and greatest manifestation in the Christian religion.

This quote from Acton also sets the stage for a topic for tomorrow, Christian theology and anarchy. But my thought for today is that classical liberalism is not itself a complete and adequate world-and-life view (for Christians especially, but really for anyone else either), but rather can in certain forms be consistent as an applied political philosophy with Christianity, and which does not even begin to make claims about the highest human ends.

Blog author: sgrabill
posted by on Monday, July 10, 2006

In Part 2, we saw that modern Protestant skepticism toward reason is one of the most significant factors in the rejection of natural law. Divine command ethics, particularly of the variety espoused by Karl Barth, quickly came to dominate the field of Protestant theological ethics in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Karl Barth rejected every form of natural theology and, simultaneously, pulled the rug out from under natural law. But among neoorthodox theologians of the 1930s, only Barth and his close friend Edward Thurneysen remained consistent in their repudiation of natural law. Others, such as Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, and Rudolf Bultmann, opened the door to some new version of natural theology by incorporating philosophical insights into their dogmatic and exegetical work. Brunner took the lead in calling for a return to natural theology and natural law, but was angrily attacked and shot down in an exchange with Barth, his former friend and cohort.

However, the controversy between Barth and Brunner did not settle anything. Some followed Barth in holding that Christian ethics has no use for natural law, since it is concerned with reason and universal principles inscribed in human nature. Barth’s prefered idea based ethics directly on the command of the living God, which as he said “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.” Herein lies the root of Protestant situation ethics, popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher, and criticized by Paul Ramsey as a “wasteland of utility.”

Although Barth never gave a systematic treatment of natural law, throughout his long career he fought against every appeal to it. A theological ethic that bases itself on the Word of God alone, he said, “will not, then, make the disastrous, traitorous use of ‘natural’ theology, which is the only use that can be made of it.” Barth viewed natural law as the self-assertion of autonomous humanity. For this reason, he felt he had to speak an irreconcilable “no” to every attempt to derive ethical norms from the orders of creation, as Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, or from nature, as Roman Catholicism and Protestant Orthodoxy did. “If you really reject natural theology,” he said in response to Brunner, “you don’t stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotizes you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!”

Of course, Barth recognized that there is such a thing as natural law in the same sense as he recognized that there is human religion. At best, in his view, natural law is the quest for order on the part of the state and of non-Christians, who have no other source of moral knowledge, inasmuch as they do not derive such knowledge from divine revelation in Christ and the Bible. Barth’s refusal to find a point of contact on which Christians and non-Christians could meet would ultimately relegate theology to the backwaters and encourage faith to become the province of the private, individual soul. How, then, can Christians go public with their ethic in a pluralistic world where the majority does not accept the Christian source of revelation? Some contemporary Protestant theologians did actually cross paths with natural law, but as Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten describes, they did so “. . . with something of a bad conscience on account of Barth’s strictures.”

In Part 4, we’ll take up the question of why the natural-law tradition fell on hard times in modern Protestant theology.

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

BRYN MAWR, July 9, 2006 – I arrived safely at Bryn Mawr College yesterday for the beginning of the Institute for Humane Studies Advanced Studies in Freedom Conference. Someone will have to explain to me the economic efficiency of flying from Detroit to Philadelphia by way of Atlanta. The accomodations are excellent, and the campus is quite beautiful.

The program began last night, and continued today with two morning lectures. The schedule is well suited to a good amount of discussion and dialogue, both with the faculty and the seminar participants. In the hopes of creating a truly open environment for dialogue and learning, the entire seminar proceedings are off the record. Therefore, these updates will represent my own reflections and questions on the issues raised in the course of the seminar.

In the spirit of advancing the study and appreciation of liberty, let me pass along this quote from Lord Acton (who has had rather good representation here so far, if I may say):

By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation–religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

More in the coming days about my perspective on the role of the State, as well as difficulties in finding fundamental agreement between certain forms of classical liberal thought and Christianity.