Posts tagged with: thomas aquinas

A popular citation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s justly-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is his reference to natural law and Thomas Aquinas:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

The Witherspoon Institute has announced today its project, “Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism,” which “will serve as an online resource center for students, teachers, and educated citizens to learn about the intellectual traditions of natural law and natural rights, particularly within American political and constitutional history.”

The current list of essays by contributors is expansive and impressive, and includes an essay by Acton’s own director of research Sam Gregg, “Natural Law and the Law of Nations.” Be sure to check out this resource from the Witherspoon Institute. I’m eager to see how the site develops and grows. I’m also interested in seeing who will write the currently missing essay (or set of essays) on the Reformation and natural law (including modern Protestantism and natural law). Sigmund’s essay currently covers the period, but much more needs to be said.

Currently the “Early Modern Liberal Roots of Natural Law” primary source section includes Locke, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. This is of course an important stream of natural-law thinking in the early modern era, but hardly the only one and certainly not the only one with later influence.

Additionally, to be of more scholarly use, I think the primary source collection should point toward digitally-accessible forms. I talk about this in the context of theology and economics in an editorial in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Printed Source and Digital Resource in Economics and Theology” (PDF), and point especially towards the example of the Post-Reformation Digital Library (see, for instance, the pages on Locke and Hobbes).

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Europe, Immigration, and Merkel’s Christian Values

By Samuel Gregg

It’s not often senior European political leaders make politically-incorrect statements, but Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently made a habit of it. The subject has been the touchy question of Muslim immigration and the challenges it poses for European identity. Not only has Merkel upset the European political class (especially the Left and the Greens) by saying what everyone knows—that multiculturalism has “utterly failed”—but she also argued that the issue was not “too much Islam” but “too little Christianity.”

“We have too few discussions about the Christian view of mankind,” Merkel claimed in a recent speech. She then stressed that Germany needs to reflect more upon “the values that guide us, about our Judeo-Christian tradition.” It was one way, Merkel maintained, of bringing “about cohesion in our society.”

Merkel: Multikulti not working for Germans

On one level, Merkel is surely stating the blindingly obvious. How can Europeans ask Muslim immigrants to integrate into European society and respect European values without Europeans themselves being clear in their own minds about what values are at the core of European identity and where these values come from?

And as much as significant portions of European society would like to deny it, it’s simply a historical fact that the idea of Europe and European values such as liberty, equality before the law, and solidarity did not suddenly appear ex nihilo in the late seventeenth-century with the various Enlightenments. Central to the formation of European identity and such values was the synthesis of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem achieved by Christianity following the Roman Empire’s collapse in the West in 476 A.D.

Indeed there’s plenty of evidence that the antecedents of most of the various freedoms and genuine achievements of the various Enlightenments are to be found in Christianity. There is increasing recognition, for example, that the idea of human rights was first given concrete expression by medieval canon lawyers.

Yet it is hardly a secret that the Judeo-Christian heritage sits very loosely on many European societies. We find this in a type of secular-fundamentalism—exemplified by Spain’s current Socialist government—that has become fashionable among sections of the European Left. But the ambiguity also manifests itself in the persistence of historical legends that diminish, distort, and denigrate Christianity’s contributions to European civilization.

A good example is the mythology of the so-called “Dark Ages” that permeates popular and elite discussion of European history. Most of the moral, political, and legal foundations of modern market economies, for instance, were established in Europe well before the sixteenth century. Likewise the scientific method was born in the Middle Ages. Medieval thinkers such as Albertus Magnus made crucial contributions to the development of the natural sciences. Yet despite these facts, many persist in claiming that market economies are essentially a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, or that Christianity is essentially “anti-science.”

But the problem is not only with secular opinion. Since the 1950s, many European Christians have gradually reduced their Christian faith to a vacuous humanitarianism worthy of the best EU-funded NGO. One difficulty with “liberal Christianity” (or whatever’s left of it) is that it isn’t especially interested in affirming any Christian values that go beyond sentimental platitudes about tolerance and equality which are routinely emptied of any specific Christian content. It’s goodbye Thomas Aquinas, hello John Rawls.

This makes it even more ironic that increasing numbers of secular European thinkers believe Europe can only reinvigorate its distinct identity and values through reengaging its Judeo-Christian heritage. This is certainly the conclusion of one of Germany’s most prominent intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas.

A self-described “methodological atheist,” Habermas has been insisting for some time that Europe no longer has the luxury of wallowing in historical denial. As Habermas wrote in his 2006 book, A Time of Transitions: “Christianity, and nothing else [is] the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”

It follows that any serious discussion of Europe’s Christian values in the context of contemporary immigration and identity debates will require many Europeans to go beyond their often-truncated understandings of European history and Christianity. There’s something paradoxical about this being facilitated by the increasing numbers of Muslims living in Europe. But such an engagement is arguably being made even more urgent by the economic reality that Europe will need even more immigrants if its present demographic winter persists for any significant period of time.

What Chancellor Merkel herself understands by “the Christian view of mankind” was not clear from her remarks. Nor is it evident that particular Christian ideas are always compatible with some Muslim positions. Despite the interfaith babble to the contrary, there are some fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam, many of which have implications for subjects ranging from religious liberty to the nature of the state. Merkel, however, is undoubtedly correct to insist that any discussion of immigration in Europe should involve Europeans worrying a little less about Islam and paying far more attention to knowing the truth about their own heritage and Christianity’s place in it.

The truth doesn’t just set us free. There’s no future without it.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

If ever G.K. Chesterton’s old quip about heresy being “truth gone mad” was in full view, here comes a report from England whereby Fr. Tim Jones, an Anglican minister, had actually encouraged the poor to shoplift from large chains this holiday season.

… the minister’s controversial sermon at St. Lawrence Church in York has been slammed by police, the British Retail Consortium and a local MP, who all say that no matter what the circumstances, shoplifting is an offence.

Delivering his festive lesson, Father Jones told the congregation: ‘My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing, or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither.

‘I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses, but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices.

It is true, according to St. Thomas Aquinas and a long tradition of Christian social teaching that private property, while sacred, is not absolute, so that in certain, rare and exceptional circumstances those whose lives are endangered may avail themselves of the property of another. (See this section of the Summa Theologica, for example.)

What is it about Fr. Jones’ language that raises the suspicion that he is less motivated by the well being of his poor parishioners than he is by a disdain for private property, especially when it is employed successfully (i.e., becomes “big chains”)? Follow the consequences of such a disregard for the 8th Commandment: levels of shoplifting rise in chain stores, which disproportionately attract lower income shoppers; the chain stores respond by either passing on their losses to their customers (thereby making life even more difficult for them) or the retailers reduce their overhead and fire their marginal employees (made up of lower income workers).

Need I continue? Anyone who wants to support a scholarship for Rev. Jones or other clergy like him to come to Acton University in June, please contact Kara Eagle here.

Linked on the left-hand side today under the PowerBlog Food For Thought is an item from the Wall Street Journal, “College Presidents Debate Drinking Age.”

At issue is concern over the drinking age in the United States (currently 21) and the binge-drinking phenomenon among under-age college students. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) oppose the movement among many college and university presidents to lower the drinking age to 18.

Here’s a popular version of how the school presidents’ argument goes:

Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.

“There isn’t that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18,” she said. “If the age is younger, you’re getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don’t freak out when you get to campus.”

What is true about these sorts of observations is that culture has a lot to do with how people respond to newfound freedoms or possibilities. When children are raised in a household where responsible gun ownership is taught, for instance, it makes sense that gun accidents due to irresponsible gun handling are less likely to occur (compared with homes with guns that don’t teach responsible gun handling). Where the use of alcohol is not a taboo that can become part and parcel of a young-adult “rebellion” experience, it seems less likely that binge drinking will function as a gateway to adulthood.

To address the concerns of MADD, perhaps if the drinking age is lowered, the driving age should be raised. But one thing we should not be afraid of is substantive debate on the prudence of a particular policy like the national drinking age. As the administrators’ and presidents’ movement states, “The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age.” This is a law that is a perfect example of the government administration of a positive law put in place in a particular time and context.

Thomas Aquinas’ words about the principle of prudence have special bearing on this question, given the biblical allusion he chooses to employ:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.

Thomas’ warnings about imprudent laws are echoed in the arguments of the presidents’ association. John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the Amethyst Initiative, has said that “college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it’s illegal.”

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.

As promised in Part 3, this post will begin a discussion of natural law in the thought of the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), but first I want to touch on the broader issue of natural law in the context of Reformation theology.

More than any other Reformer, John Calvin is appealed to for his insight on natural law. This is probably due to the stubborn persistence among scholars to single him out as the chief early codifier of Protestant doctrine. While this approach is understandable given the force of habit, the discussion should be widened beyond Calvin to include those Reformers who either preceded him or were contemporaries of his and the later representatives of Protestant orthodoxy. Though Calvin talks a fair bit about natural law, his treatment of it is unsystematic and imprecise compared to the medievals and some of his contemporaries. Susan Schreiner, a Calvin expert and University of Chicago Divinity School professor, thinks Calvin’s discussion of natural law should be seen as an extension of his doctrine of providence. In her view, Calvin uses natural law for the practical purpose of explaining how order is preserved after the fall in society, law, and morality.

As time passes in the sixteenth century, however, Protestant theologians develop increasingly sophisticated doctrines of natural law that they situate in the wider context of the grand moral tradition with Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, and many others. What is striking here is the degree to which Martyr and his fellow Reformer and former student Jerome Zanchi, for example, show continuity with Thomas and Scotus. The Jesuit historical theologian John Patrick Donnelly expresses a similar viewpoint. “Does Martyr’s scholasticism have affinities to any particular medieval school? Yes. Martyr cannot fairly be called a Thomist, yet his scholasticism stands far closer to Thomism than to any other major school of the Middle Ages. His training was mainly Thomistic and he cites Aquinas far more than any other scholastic except Lombard.”

The astonishing thing about the rise of Reformed scholasticism in the 1540s and 50s is that its medieval roots run heavily to Thomism and Scotism, hardly at all to nominalism. This challenges the opinion of several prominent contemporary Roman Catholic and Protestant intellectuals, who credit the emphasis on the will in Protestant ethics to the influence of William of Occam rather than to medieval Augustinian antecedents.

Use of traditional natural-law terms in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy show significant points of continuity with the thought of Thomas and Scotus. The discontinuities stem from disputes over the interpretation of key biblical passages, an expanded sense of how sin affects reason and human nature, and a criticism of works righteousness, to mention a few key areas. Calvin, Martyr, and the Reformed scholastics all share the conviction that Scripture is the cognitive foundation of theology and that moral arguments can be based on precepts drawn from that foundation.

Part 5 will begin to sketch out Martyr’s view of natural law.

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

A paper recently published at the National Bureau of Economic Research calls into question some conventional economic wisdom about the effects of certain kinds of legislation. In “The Church vs the Mall: What Happens When Religion Faces Increased Secular Competition?”, Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman find that when so-called “blue laws” are repealed in any given state, “religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well.”

But in addition, “repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.” For more information on the study, check out this article from the CS Monitor, “Maybe ‘blue laws’ weren’t so bad” (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

Richard Morin wrote an op-ed in the WaPo last week (HT: Religion Clause) about this paper, and wonders “why would the elimination of blue laws suddenly provoke such an outburst of sinning among the religious? After all, there are six other days of the week to shop (or drink) until you drop. And it’s not legal to buy cocaine or marijuana on any day of the week.”

Before I paint the broad outlines of an answer, let me point out the potential significance of Gruber and Hungerman’s conclusions. It has long been assumed that laws prohibiting or restricting the sale of certain controversial items (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, drugs) has a net negative effect. Mark Thornton over at Mises.org published a piece that claims, for example, that “prohibitions have no socially desirable effect.”

Acton’s own Rev. Robert A. Sirico, in an essay on the “sin tax,” wrote that sin taxes, prohibition, and presumably blue laws are each “a different point on the same continuum.” Sirico goes on to cite Paulist priest James Gillis, who said that prohibition of alcohol “was the greatest blow ever given to the temperance movement.”

Gillis writes,

Before prohibition, the people at large were becoming more and more sober. Total abstinence had become the practice, not of a few, but of millions… Under the Volstead Law, drinking became a popular sport. The passage of the law was a psychological blunder, and a moral calamity… The only way to make the country sober is to persuade individual citizens, one by one, to be sober.

It seems, however, according to the NBER paper, that blue laws do have the opposite effect, and in this way can perhaps be distinguished from prohibition. Is there a theological explanation for this? (more…)