Archived Posts July 2006 - Page 6 of 10 | Acton PowerBlog

Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett wrote an outstanding piece for USA Today. He argues convincingly that the large-scale and widespread withdrawal of Catholic institutions from many of the nation’s cities has ramifications that extend beyond the interests of Catholics alone.

He notes, too, that government has a role to play in facilitating the flourishing of religious institutions such as Catholic churches and hospitals—mainly by honoring a properly understood separation of church and state:

Is there anything the government and the public can do to protect and invest in our “social capital?” Perhaps. Our Constitution, of course, does not permit the government to run, sponsor or fund churches. That said, legislators and citizens should take care not to add needlessly to their regulatory and other burdens by requiring Catholic hospitals to provide “emergency contraception,” or authorizing lawsuits against religious schools relating to the hiring and firing of teachers and ministers, or by misusing zoning and land-use laws. And urban Catholic schools’ many contributions to the public good provide yet another, entirely secular, reason to embrace school-choice programs.

HT: Domenico Bettinelli at

Every morning I make a point checking out for unintentionally hilarious news about the workings of the EU bureaucracy.

Yesterday there was this article about an internship program with a twist. Instead of students coming to Brussels, this one is designed for 350 EU senior officials to spend time with small- and medium-sized businesses in member states.

“We don’t need an ivory tower policy,” commented Mr Verheugen, suggesting that by acquiring such a “hands-on experience” in SMEs, the commission’s administrators will understand their problems better and become their “ambassadors.” [….]

Its secretary-general Hans-Werner Muller has welcomed the new initiative, arguing that visiting officials will be able to see for themselves “how the small size of micro-businesses makes them more vulnerable to excessive, unnecessary or over-complex legislation.”

“We hope they take this message back to Brussels,” added Mr Muller.

It may very well be a good idea but I’d suggest something more radical to help the business climate in Europe – cutting the number of senior officials in Brussels permanently. Less officials could mean less regulations and more economic growth for those trying to make an honest living on the Old Continent. Surely these apparatchiks must have some marketable skills….

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).

In Part 4, we saw that post-Enlightenment philosophical currents such as Humean empiricism, utilitarianism, and legal positivism are the real culprits in the demise of natural law and not theological criticism from within Reformation theology, as many today take for granted. If this is so, why is contemporary Protestant theology so critical of natural law?

The most common reason why contemporary Protestants reject natural law is because they think it does not take sin seriously enough. And the second, which we will address in Part 6, is that natural law is thought to elevate “autonomous” human reason above divine revelation and therefore to rival God and Scripture.

To many Protestants, natural law seems to suggest that the order of being in the original creation has not been sufficiently disrupted by the fall. Moreover, they think reason is viewed too optimistically because it is still able to discern a rough outline of God’s will in creation. They think natural law is guilty of elevating reason above revelation as the standard of what is right and wrong, true and false. In other words, they think natural law leads to rationalism where reason is the standard by which everything is judged. Following Barth and his mediators, many think the divine image was fully destroyed with the result that nonbelievers now only experience God’s wrath and judgment and never God’s general providence (or common grace as it is called in some traditions).

Helmut Thielicke, a Lutheran theologian and sympathetic critic of Barth, says, since the fall, we confront at best “orders of preservation.” Yet, despite his affinity with Barth, Thielicke could not fully jettison natural law. He saw that it had abiding significance as a sign of the human quest for justice and right. For him, natural law is a goad to the pursuit of justice in an imperfect world. But it is difficult to respect the common search for justice without more solid theological and anthropological reasons.

But the modern Protestant view of natural law as simply an order of preservation does not do justice to the status it had in the older systems of theology. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, John Calvin, and Wolfgang Musculus, contrary to popular opinion, incorporated large segments of the medieval as well as the patristic past into their systems of theology.

To be sure, they opposed certain high profile doctrines of late medieval and early sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism. But, as historian Richard Muller points out, “It is worth recognizing from the outset that the Reformation altered comparatively few of the major loci [or topics] of theology: the doctrines of justification, the sacraments, and the church received the greatest emphasis, while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over by the magisterial Reformation virtually without alteration.” Importantly, the Reformers did not discard the custom, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, of treating ethics as a subdomain of the more fundamental doctrines of God and providence, which, as Muller contends, were carried into the Reformation without any significant alteration.

In Part 6, we will address the second most common Protestant criticism of natural law, namely, that it elevates autonomous human reason and therefore rivals God and Scripture.

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

Nipsey Russell (1918-2005)

I was flipping stations tonight and passed the Game Show Network, which was showing reruns of Match Game ’74. Nipsey Russell, the so-called “Poet Laureate of Television,” began the show with this poem for prosperity:

To slow down this recession,

and make this economy thrive,

give us our social security now,

we’ll go to work when we’re sixty-five.

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.

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.