Archived Posts October 2006 | Acton PowerBlog

This post examines Peter Martyr Vermigli’s understanding of natural law, while Part 6 will take up the natural-law thinking of Jerome Zanchi, Martyr’s former student and colleague.

Martyr was born in Florence in 1499, entered the Augustinian Canons, and took a doctorate in theology at the leading center of Renaissance Aristotelianism, the University of Padua. His favorite authors were Aristotle and Thomas. In Italy he enjoyed a distinguished career as teacher, preacher, and abbot. By 1540 he was already Protestant by conviction; after persuading many citizens and canons, including Zanchi, to convert, Martyr fled to Zurich in 1542 to escape the Inquisition. During the last twenty years of his life he taught at Strasbourg, Oxford, and Zurich. He died in 1562 two years before Calvin. Over half a dozen of his students became important theologians. And all together there were about 110 printings of his various writings, which consist of about twenty-five massive volumes. Within Reformed circles he was universally admired for his piety, prudence, and scholarship. (This paragraph is adapted from John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 442).

While Martyr disagrees with Thomas nearly as often as he adopts his teaching, they both view theology as a science whose principles are borrowed from revelation. In fact, Martyr’s discussion of the nature of theology borrows the content, language, and examples of the opening question of Thomas’s Summa, but without acknowledging their source. Like Thomas, Martyr tries to incorporate as much from Aristotle in his system as is consistent with Scripture; thus in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics Martyr usually concludes each chapter by showing the agreement of Aristotle’s teaching with the Bible. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).

In his theological works Martyr cites Aristotle ninety-eight times — more than ten times as often as Calvin does in the Institutes. Martyr’s works cite thirteen other Aristotelian philosophers a total of eighty-five times. Martyr also refers to twenty medieval scholastic authors, particularly Peter Lombard and Thomas. And he never cites a nominalist work with approval. He agrees with Thomas far more often than he lets on. This is so because their theologies are a synthesis of Scripture and Aristotelian philosophy. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).

For Martyr, like Thomas, all knowledge is either revealed or acquired. Theology is revealed knowledge and philosophy is acquired knowledge. (Some might even say philosophy is an acquired taste.) Knowledge of God breaks down along parallel lines as revealed and acquired knowledge. Revealed knowledge of God is restricted and refers to things that can only be known by special revelation, such as the doctrines of justification, forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body. Acquired or natural knowledge of God, however, is unrestricted and refers to things that can be known through nature, reason, or conscience.

Martyr uses two explanations to account for the natural knowledge of God. First, knowledge of God can arise simply from reflection on the Creator’s workmanship. And, second, it can arise from certain information the Creator hardwired into the mind. Martyr thought the hardwired information led people “to conceive noble and exalted opinions about the divine nature” and, as a result, to pattern their behavior consistent with those opinions. Martyr calls the first type contemplation, and sees it illustrated in Romans 1, and the second he calls practical, and sees it illustrated in the natural moral law of Romans 2. Like Luther and Calvin, he held to the existence of a universally imprinted knowledge of God that justly holds people accountable for their innate moral consciousness and awareness of God.

According to Romans 2:14, the classic natural-law passage, even though the Gentiles did not have the Decalogue, they did “by nature” the things contained in it. “The light of nature,” declares Martyr, allowed them “to discern between honesty and dishonesty, between right and wrong. So if we look upon the life and manners of Cato, Atticus, Socrates, and Aristides, we shall see that in justice and civil comeliness they far excelled a great many Christians and Jews. Therefore they cannot excuse themselves for not having had a law.”

Martyr disagrees with Augustine and Ambrose who both thought the apostle Paul was referring to believing Gentiles — and not unredeemed humanity — in Romans 2:14. To justify his position, he gave two reasons why knowledge of the moral law is implanted in the human mind. The first is to take away all excuses by providing objective and universal knowledge of the moral law and the fact of future judgment. The second is to motivate us to do what we know to be just and honest. This is what prods us to pursue righteousness and serves to renew God’s image in us. According to Martyr, “The image of God, in which man was created, is not utterly blotted out but obfuscated in the fall, and for that reason is in need of renewal by God. So natural knowledge is not fully quenched in our minds, but much of it still remains….” While natural law takes away excuses, Martyr thinks it can only effectively motivate believers to pursue righteousness because apart from Christ, as they already know, it is impossible to please God.

So much for Martyr, in the next post we will take up Zanchi.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
By

One thing that they do over at GetReligion is track “ghosts” in news stories. I think I found one this morning on the CBS Morning Show, and it’s fitting to talk about it given that today is Halloween.

The piece was on the charitable work of a Houston policeman, Bob Decker, who founded the charity Paper Houses Across the Border (video here).

As part of their “Heroes Among Us” series, based on profiles published in People magazine, CBS described Decker’s work in helping the poorest of the poor in Mexico. During a trip to Mexico, Decker accidentally traveled down some back roads and saw people living in flimsy and ramshackle homes.

Moved by what he saw, “Decker began working overtime on weekends, taking that extra income to an orphanage just across the border from Del Rio, Texas, in Acuna, Mexico. It’s a 350-mile commute.”

“The fact that one guy just working part-time jobs could feed and pay for the shelter and clothing of 24 children just stunned me,” Decker said. “And I thought about the money I had thrown away in a lifetime. And I thought, ‘Man, if can do this much with just that, think what I could do if I got a couple more families involved.'”

That started Paper Homes Across the Border, Decker’s charity that provides all manner of charitable services to the residents of the so-called “colonias”.

There’s nothing on the moral or religious foundations for Decker’s loving work in the CBS piece (Update: I just checked the issue of People, nothing in there either), but here’s the ghost in the story: “I was lost when I came to the colonias but boy, I got found here,” he said. (more…)

About a month ago I posted some responses to the editorial position taken at the Economist. One of their claims was with regard to the Kyoto Protocol and that “European Union countries and Japan will probably hit their targets, even if Canada does not.”

At the time I registered skepticism with respect to these estimates. Turns out my skepticism was well-founded.

From Wired News:

Between 1990 and 2004, emissions of all industrialized countries decreased by 3.3 percent, mostly because of a 36.8 percent decrease in the former Soviet bloc, the U.N. reported. Since 2000, however, those “economies in transition” have increased emissions by 4.1 percent.

Well, I’ve examined the decreased emissions in Russia before, which has been due in large part not to any government action but by the extensive contraction of the Russian manufacturing sector. The decrease in carbon emissions came at a huge economic cost, all of which was incidental and unrelated to the ratification of Kyoto.

More from Wired,

Of the 41 industrialized nations, 34 increased emissions between 2000 and 2004, the U.N. reported…. Among countries bound by Kyoto, Germany’s emissions dropped 17 percent between 1990 and 2004, Britain’s by 14 percent and France’s by almost 1 percent, the U.N. reported. But Kyoto signatories such as Japan, Italy and Spain have registered emissions increases since 1990.

Looks like Russia might have some buyers for those carbon credits after all.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
By

Hugh Hewitt interviewed Andrew Sullivan on the radio last week about Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.

Discussing the value of various figures throughout history as moral heroes, Sullivan speaks of “the great question that Pilate asked, what is truth? The truth is not quite as easy and as simple as we sometimes think it is. And the truth about everything, the meaning of the whole universe, is something that is, by definition, very hard for humans to grasp. I mean, God, if God exists, must, by definition, be unknowable to us.”

Mark Judge, who passes along the transcript (HT: Instapundit), says that Sullivan’s favorable quotation of Pilate made him “once and for all feel sorry for Sullivan.”

Chuck Colson, who delivered an address at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week (mp3) has a somewhat different take on the scene between Jesus and Pilate:

Truth is the great issue, always has been. When Jesus was hauled before Pilate, turned over to him by the Jews, and Pilate couldn’t figure out who he was. And Jesus said, “I am the truth, and those who are of the truth hear my words.” At that moment, to me it was the great clash that has continued all through the ages. When Pilate said to him, “What is the truth?”

Except that’s not what Pilate said. Every one of the translations of the Bible I think get it wrong. They all have question marks after Pilate saying, “What is the truth.” Mel Gibson, great theologian, got it right in The Passion of the Christ, when he has takes the Aramaic, the voice Aramaic, and translates into the subtitles and has, “What is truth,” exclamation point. Pilate was saying exactly as our culture is saying to us today, “What is truth!” Scoffing disregard for the very concept of truth.

What is truth? What is truth is ultimate reality, what Jesus meant by that answer. And of course there’s truth, unless you believe everything you are seeing in this room is an illusion. And so we are the people of the truth, we believe there is ultimate reality and we believe it is knowable. And that puts us right up against our culture.

Now of course the translators of the Bible aren’t wrong (Pilate’s phrase in the Greek begins with an interrogative pronoun and ends with the punctuation equivalent of a question mark), but Colson’s point is well taken. Sullivan’s emphasis on the ineffability or unknowableness of God undermines the truth that God has definitively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

But instead of anchoring himself to this firm foundation, as you might expect a Roman Catholic to do, Sullivan flounders for a moral compass in a sea of relativism:

And what I find very troubling about today’s…some of today’s, not everybody, but some of today’s fundamentalists is their absolute certainty not only about what God is, but their right to tell other people how to live their lives, according to their view of what God is.

For more one the term “fundamentalist” as a term of opprobrium, check out Al Plantinga’s examination of the term’s usage in discussing his epistemological model in Warranted Christian Belief,

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged to first define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relative conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’ (pp. 244-45).

It seems to me that Sullivan exemplifies this usage of the term pretty darn well.

The role of evangelicals in the public square has been a major development in American life over the past twenty-five or thirty years. A recent spate of popular books has looked at this phenomenon very critically. The number of books from the political and religious left, arguing against the rise of the newer evangelical right, makes for a full shelf of books by now. Most of these popular and poorly written books sound like dire warnings about a coming religious takeover of the country. (Do not fear, blue state America is still pretty strong and this feared religious change is about as likely as a snow storm in Chicago on July 4th!)

The actual history behind all of this is really much more interesting than the fears. Historically, fundamentalism led conservative churches in America, since the 1920s, to pull away from public life in general, especially from politics. While mainline liberalism embraced a “social gospel,” evangelicals gave up on social and public involvement almost entirely. (The late evangelical scholar Carl F. H. Henry called upon evangelicals to re-enter the public sphere, writing several important books to that effect, more than fifty years ago, but few listened seriously to his intelligent plea until the popular revolts of 1980s gained traction.) In addition to this tendency to react to liberalism social gospel emphasis, evangelicals also developed escapist and over-realized millennial theories that fed a basic social passivity about the culture. This emphasis said, in effect, “Christ is coming soon so our only role in culture is to rescue as many souls as possible before he comes.” Many liberal Christians continued to engage the political process, even embracing a politics of personal destruction by the 1960s. But evangelicals, at least in my early years, saw politics as “dirty business” and not worth their time as serious Christ-centered Christians.

(Continue reading the rest of the article at the ACT 3 website…)

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

We’ve just posted the audio from Chuck Colson’s remarks at the Acton annual dinner in Grand Rapids on October 26. This link will take you there.

“We are the people of the truth,” Colson told the more than 500 people assembled at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. “We believe there is ultimate reality and we believe it is knowable. And that puts us up against our culture.”

One of the nation’s most prominent evangelical Christians, Colson is founder of Prison Fellowship, the Virginia-based organization he established in 1976 to assist prisoners, ex-prisoners, victims, and affected families. Prison Fellowship is today the world’s largest outreach to prisoners.

At the Acton dinner, Colson discussed the “great clash of civilizations” that the West is currently experiencing both with radical Islam and the growing forces of secularization. Christianity, Colson says, is the religion which has spawned the greatest civilization in human history but it is embattled on two fronts. This clash, he says, is a life and death struggle — a war between the worlds.

Colson recently stepped down as chairman of the board of Prison Fellowship USA and announced the board’s selection of Michael Timmis as chairman. Colson remains a member of the board and will continue to pursue his extensive writing, speaking, and teaching work with Prison Fellowship.

“Truth is the great issue,” Colson said at the Acton dinner. “Always has been.”

Read the Grand Rapids Press coverage of the annual dinner.

In a report commissioned by the UK government, Sir Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist of the World Bank, argues that the cost of waiting to take action to curb CO2 emissions will outpace other economic arguments against action on climate change.

The BBC reports (HT: Slashdot) that Stern found “that global warming could shrink the global economy by 20%,” but that this opportunity cost for not taking action immediately could be offset by moving now: “Taking action now would cost just 1% of global gross domestic product, the 700-page study says.” This is essentially the same economic argument I’ve previously used against action on climate change, but reversed to endorse action.

UK prime minister Tony Blair echoed the report’s conclusions, “For every ਱ invested now we can save ਵ, or possibly more, by acting now.”

“We can’t wait the five years it took to negotiate Kyoto – we simply don’t have the time. We accept we have to go further (than Kyoto),” Blair said.

The BBC claims that Stern’s report “is the first major contribution to the global warming debate by an economist, rather than a scientist.” This may be true in a sense, but the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004 embodies the conclusions of a number of economists, although it does not, in point of fact, examine the issue at a length in excess of 700 pages.

The conclusions of the consensus differ from Stern’s. Robert W. Fogel writes, “The environment is considered to be important, but it is not yet time to do anything massive about climate change. But with continued research and development (R&D) it will be possible to address future catastrophes and climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

Vernon L. Smith concludes, “It is clear from both the science and the economics of intervention that those of us who care about the environment are not well advised to favour initiating a costly attempt to reduce greenhouse gases (ghgs) build-up in the atmosphere in the near future based on available information. Although the ultimate dangers may turn out to prompt action, the current evidence indicates that it is much too soon to act relative to the many other important and pressing opportunities that demand immediate attention.”

The group’s consensus is, however, that our knowledge of the problem and potential solutions will increase over time, so that they leave open the possibility of recommending action in the future. Nancy L. Stokey sums it up well: “Future decision makers will be better equipped to decide whether more aggressive action is needed.”

Is two more years long enough? Have we learned enough in the intervening period to give greater weight to Stern’s conclusions?

One other item that Stern notes is that he’s hopeful about the possibility of curbing climate change. “I’m optimistic – having done this review – that we have the time and knowledge to act. But only if we act internationally, strongly and urgently,” he says.

Stern puts the emphasis on acting internationally. “Unless it’s international, we will not make the reductions on the scale which will be required,” says Stern. Just what international organization is envisioned as the arbiter of global climate change policy? The UN? The WTO? Or some as-yet uncreated entity, a la the Kyoto Protocol?

In the review summary (PDF), Stern writes, “The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Kyoto Protocol and a range of other informal partnerships and dialogues provide a framework that supports co-operation, and a foundation from which to build further collective action.”

Update: Arnold Kling adds some commentary on the report over at EconLog.

Futher Update: Not too surprisingly, an OPEC spokesman contends that the Stern report propounds “scenarios that have no foundations in either science or economics.”

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy will be holding a theological conference on the subject of “Economy: Love of God, Production, and the Free Market.” Taking place tomorrow (Tuesday), you can either follow it live or read the proceedings later at the dicastery’s web site.

Data from a new CNN poll: “Queried about their views on the role of government, 54 percent of the 1,013 adults polled said they thought it was trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Only 37 percent said they thought the government should do more to solve the country’s problems.”

These results follow a period in which the GOP has dominated both the executive and legislative branches at the federal level. During this time, “Discretionary spending grew from $649 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $968 billion in fiscal year 2005, an increase of $319 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.” That’s nearly a 50% increase.

“Conservatives came to office to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. “But lately, we have increased government in order to stay in office.”

Power tends to corrupt…

Blog author: jballor
Friday, October 27, 2006
By

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48 NIV).

When Bank of America Philanthropic Management noticed that “the wealthiest 3% of American households responsible for nearly two-thirds of charitable giving,” it decided to study philanthropic giving. (The top 5% paid 54.4% of taxes in 2003.)

Passed on by Don’t Tell the Donor, “Bank of America today released the initial results of the most comprehensive survey to-date of the philanthropic behavior of wealthy Americans. The Bank of America High Net-Worth Philanthropy Study was conducted by The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University for Bank of America.”

Among the key findings:

  • “Giving back” is more important than “leaving a legacy”

  • There is a surprising correlation between donations of time and dollars
  • Wealthy donors report that even major tax policy changes would not impact their giving
  • Entrepreneurs are especially generous donors
  • Charitable giving increased over the last five years
  • Wealthy donors support a broader array of causes