Saturday, 7 August 2010

Is there a Christian law?

A spirited discussion about gender over on Simone's blog has led me to think for the thousandth time about Paul's attitude to law, so I thought I'd share some thoughts.  This post comes with a warning - you may find its contents heretical.  It's also a little long, but then it's a big subject.

The usual and orthodox view of how to read the New Testament is that Paul's instructions (and those of the other apostles) to the various churches in his letters are commands, and that these are generally binding on Christians everywhere and for all times, with a little allowance (but not much) for cultural change.  Paul is referred to as the chief lawgiver of the Christian church and his writings more than any others are the foundation of the long tradition of canon law.

I have a problem with this view, and its this.  Paul himself made some very strong negative statements about law in general.  Would he have liked his words to become a new law?

Let's start with the book of Galatians.  This book is set against the background of Paul's ongoing dispute with the Judaisers - those who believed that Gentiles who converted to Christ needed to obey the Jewish law, the torah, in full.  In Acts 15 you can read the story of how some Jewish Christians were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation, and got into "sharp dispute" with Paul and Barnabas.  At the subsequent meeting with the apostles in Jerusalem to resolve the issue, the group accepted a resolution suggested by James - that the only requirements placed on Gentile converts should be that they "abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality."  It is interesting that of these four rules, only the first and last are generally observed among Christians now.

Paul tells the story rather differently in Galatians.  He describes how, fourteen years into his ministry, he went down to Jerusalem for a private meeting with "those who seemed to be leaders" to check that his version of the gospel was the same as theirs.  Here is how he describes their response.

As for those who seemed to be important - whatever they were makes no difference to me, God does not judge by external appearance - those men added nothing to my message....All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing we were eager to do. (Gal 2:6-10)

He then goes on to describe how Peter, under the influence of James, later changed his tack and gave ground to those advocating circumcision, and how Paul rebuked him sharply.  In the process, we get an intimate look into the tensions present in the early church.  Two things stand out for me.
  1. Paul had scant respect for the apostles and did not recognise their authority - "whatever they were makes no difference to me!"  He did not learn the gospel from them.  He is completely unafraid to rebuke Peter, the leader of the apostles, when he falls away from what Paul considers the true gospel.
  2. He has no truck with the idea of prescribing a shortened list of rules for Gentile converts.  The apostles "added nothing to his message".
All this is background to Paul's purpose in writing to the Galatians.  They have fallen into the same error as Peter did, and he wants to steer them back towards the message of salvation by faith.  He says:

Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith could be revealed.  So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.  Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.  (Gal 3:23-25)

...when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son...to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.  (Gal 4:3-5)

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)

The picture is a very clear one.  The torah, the law, is equivalent to slavery.  His hearers needed it because they were immature, like children, and so needed to be restrained.  Now that Christ has come and delivered them they don't need it any more.  Christ didn't come to call people back to the law, or to bring a new law.  Instead, he replaced the law, a childish thing, with the possibility of a direct, loving relationship with God.  This is how he emphasises the point.

You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.  For in Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  (Gal 5:4-6)

If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. (Gal 5:18)

Now I know you're going to say that he's talking about the Old Testament law, and that his own commands supercede it, but that's not what Paul is saying.  His message is not to replace one law with another, it is to replace law with grace.  It is to bring us into a relationship with Christ which transcends the law, as freedom transcends slavery.  He constantly observes the tendency to drift back towards law, even in the apostles, or to set up a new law, as he describes in Colossians, and he fights it at every turn.

It is ironic, but hardly surprising, that the man who fought this battle should find his own writings used to establish a new law.  The big fear that church leaders constantly face - and you can see this already in Paul's writings - is that this teaching would be interpreted to mean "anything goes".  Paul warns the Galatians, "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love." (Gal 5:13)  In Romans he quotes inaccurate reports of his teaching; "let us do evil that good may result" (Rom 3:8), and returns to the same theme later: "shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means!" (Rom 6:1).

So, if he is not preaching a new law, and he is not preaching "anything goes", what is he saying?  To continue the image from Gal 3 and 4, he is asking us to live as God's adult children, children who have come into our inheritance.  We no longer live by a set of rules which govern our behaviour, because now we are grown up we are expected to be responsible for ourselves.  But we still have obligations - to our Father as head of the family, and to our siblings.  The honour of our family is at stake, so we need to behave in a way that increases that honour.  This is why Jesus says, "all men will know you are my disciples if you love one another".  Paul echoes this time and again in his writings.  In Galatians he says

The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself".  (Gal 5:14)

He expands on this in Romans.

The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, is summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself."  Love does no harm to its neighbour.  Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.  (Rom 13:9,10)

We need to learn to love, not to obey a new law.  He knows that this is not easy, indeed that it is much more challenging than simply following a set of rules, and in his letters he provides all sorts of guidance to the various churches about how to live this out.  As is his way, he is often very emphatic about this guidance.  Much of it is still good for us today.  But for it to be turned into law goes against the very heart of the gospel Paul himself was preaching, and represents a loss in his lifelong fight against those who wanted to bind Christians to laws old and new.

15 comments:

Davina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I don't know what happened to my first comment. My technical inadequacy, no doubt.

I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks you.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 'thanks you' is sort of the gist. I meant thank you. I'll go now...

Mark Baddeley said...

Hi Jon,

That's a very helpful explanation of where you are coming from. It won't surprise you that I'm fundamentally in disagreement.

I think you're taking aim at a kind of Medieval Catholic view on the relationship of law and grace where they saw the gospel as a new law. I'd tend to agree with a lot of your criticisms about that.

But I don't think that's really 'the' classic Reformational or Evangelical approach to the law and the gospel. Paul's never been seen as the chief lawgiver, and it's pretty rare for someone to say, "Paul's only talking about the OT law - his commands supersede theirs" in quite the way you've put forward.

You seem to be saying 'love replaces the law'. I'd say, Paul teaches that 'grace replaces the law' or 'Christ replaces the law' as the mediator between us and God. And many of the passages you quote have to do with that.

But when it comes to the law and love, Paul talks about love fulfilling and summing up the law, not replacing it. The law draws a picture of what love looks like in action - which is why Jesus can summarise the law as two commands both to do with love.

The cash value of this, as you indicate, is that on your view all of Paul's other instructions apart from loving one another, are not necessarily to be followed in all times and places. We need to embrace our freedom as God's children to stand over Paul's counsels and agree or disagree based on our wisdom in seeing our context today.

Only the obligation to love abides, all else is provisional. Murder, adultery, lying, theft, all have to be on the table as possible expressions of love. Love has done away with absolute prohibitions on them. They might be very, very, very rare and exceptional cases - but they can't be absolutely ruled out of court. We have to decide what love demands in rare and exceptional cases.

Whereas I see Paul extending very little freedom for people to act differently than what he is saying. He regularly gives commands, not just counsel, and invokes his authority as an apostle. I think Paul is saying true freedom is to live the way he says - not just loving each other, but also the concrete forms that love takes that he spells out.

The irony is, by saying that Paul is contrasting law and love, rather than law and grace/Christ, your view sounds 'Catholic' but in a different sort of way - verses about the gospel become more about what we do.

Jon said...

Thanks for this Mark - I was hoping I'd draw a response. I've deleted the repeat of your post - hope I didn't delete the version you wanted kept.

You're right re the Protestant view of grace and faith replacing the law as mediator. The post is a little fuzzy around that, for which I apologise. But here I'm talking about ethics - what replaces the Law as a guide to behaviour? So to clarify a couple of things on that score.

1. Re Paul's commands (or rather those of the NT) superceding the OT law - you obviously weren't taught this in your protestant grounding but I was, if not in so many words then by implication. It also seems to be the practice in your circles if the discussion on Simone's blog is anything to go by (circle of course being a loose description since I was "there" too in a virtual sense).

2. Re murder, adultery, etc being possible expressions of love, this is what Paul is talking about when he says "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature". He understands that this is a danger of his teaching and warns the Galatians (and the Romans) against it. The point is that the opposite is actually the greater danger - Christians will tie themselves up in knots trying to be absolutely correct in their behaviour and in the process will act unlovingly towards one another. Tell me you haven't seen this in a Protestant church!

In the discussion on Simone's blog about this, most participants were discussing the issue of women teaching in a legalistic way - not meaning that term as an insult - saying that because Paul said various things about women's role in the churches of his day, therefore this is how it must be, even in our society where women are as well educated as men and occupy leadership roles in every other area of life (like having a woman Prime Minister!). My point is that in the process we fail to act lovingly towards women in our congregations and cause many of them deep and insoluble frustration.

Love doesn't so much supercede the law as transcend it. It's also a much harder road to take because there is no detailed instruction book, and this is why it requires maturity and discernment. It also asks a lot more of us, because we have to go way beyond just following a set of instructions - even to the point of dying for one another (one huge death or a lot of small ones). I'm planning a follow-up post on the Sermon on the Mount which I hope will make this clearer.

Mark Baddeley said...

Thanks for this Mark - I was hoping I'd draw a response. I've deleted the repeat of your post - hope I didn't delete the version you wanted kept.

Hi Jon, thanks for eliminating the redundant comment. I figured you were hoping for a conversation, am glad to oblige :).

1. Re Paul's commands (or rather those of the NT) superceding the OT law - you obviously weren't taught this in your protestant grounding but I was, if not in so many words then by implication.

Some kind of dispensationalism I assume? Yars, that was one heretical-leaning bad teaching I managed to dodge almost completely.

It also seems to be the practice in your circles if the discussion on Simone's blog is anything to go by (circle of course being a loose description since I was "there" too in a virtual sense).

Well, I think in practice most of our ‘circle’ tends to work with some variation of moral/civil/ceremonial law (even those that reject that classification quite loudly) and will see the moral law as remaining unchanged. In a discussion like women in the Church people will tend to focus on the NT as the OT doesn’t tend to say much about the issue directly (unless you’re a certain kind of Presbyterian :) ).

2. Re murder, adultery, etc being possible expressions of love, this is what Paul is talking about when he says "do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature". He understands that this is a danger of his teaching and warns the Galatians (and the Romans) against it.

If I’ve understood your post correctly, that’s not quite what Paul was talking about according to you. Let’s recap what you’ve said. You reject the common view that what Paul says is:
generally binding on Christians everywhere and for all times, with a little allowance (but not much) for cultural change

Now, if that is wrong as you claim, then the alternative is right. What Paul says is:
not generally binding on Christians everywhere and for all times, with a lot of allowance for cultural change.

This seems also to be your point when you say:
in his letters he provides all sorts of guidance to the various churches about how to live this out. As is his way, he is often very emphatic about this guidance. Much of it is still good for us today.

What Paul offers is guidance, it’s not generally binding. Paul is very emphatic about that guidance, yes, so we should pay attention to it. But it’s not binding.

Much of it is still good for us today. But that means that some isn’t. And we need to decide which bits are still good for us, and which have passed their use by date.

So when we go back to Paul’s statement about not indulging the sinful nature – sure Paul thinks that murder, adultery, theft and the like are automatically indulging the sinful nature.

That’s his guidance, and, as you observe, he certainly is very emphatic about that guidance. But it’s no law, it’s not binding on all Christians in all times and places. It might not be still good for us today. Things may have changed so much that now it can be an expression of love in the right situation.

Mark Baddeley said...

That guy is suffering so much that the loving thing would be to bring his life to an end. That woman is pregnant and having a baby would so debilitate her life as to make her life and that of the child not really worth living. The loving thing is to abort the child. As a Christian from Eastern Europe explained to me – the cost of software is so out of the reach of the average person in his country that it is not wrong for them to just steal the software through pirating: it’s such a necessity to function in a modern economy. And yes, having sex with that woman might be adultery, but we can do it and remain faithful to our spouses because adult relationships have progressed and genuine love is able to love enough to share.

You might reject every argument there. But none are attempts to indulge the sinful nature (the people offering them might be, but the arguments aren’t). They are all claims to ‘what love requires in this situation’. And there’s nothing to show that they’re wrong.

It’s just your judgement against theirs. Paul might even disagree – but that’s only guidance that isn’t always good for us these days. “Don’t indulge the sinful nature” means “don’t act in an unloving way” and nothing more on your argument – all else is just Paul’s guidance that has to be tested first.

The point is that the opposite is actually the greater danger - Christians will tie themselves up in knots trying to be absolutely correct in their behaviour and in the process will act unlovingly towards one another. Tell me you haven't seen this in a Protestant church!
Sure I’ve seen it. I’ve also had friends tell me of how their Church (in Oz it’s usually a Uniting or non-Sydney Anglican church) has rejected ‘legalism’ along the lines you’re describing, and the moral behaviour in the church is worse than that of the pagans in their street. If we move our gaze out and bring in the Corinthian and pastoral letters, let alone the non-Pauline letters, I think we see that there’s two dangers, and they’re both pretty lethal.

Mark Baddeley said...

In the discussion on Simone's blog about this, most participants were discussing the issue of women teaching in a legalistic way - not meaning that term as an insult - saying that because Paul said various things about women's role in the churches of his day, therefore this is how it must be, even in our society where women are as well educated as men and occupy leadership roles in every other area of life (like having a woman Prime Minister!). My point is that in the process we fail to act lovingly towards women in our congregations and cause many of them deep and insoluble frustration.

This issue is obviously pretty important for you, so you may want to start a different thread on it (it’s fairly important for me too as you may have guessed from my interaction with Michael). It’ll possibly swamp this one.

If I took the word ‘woman’ out of your comment here and replaced it with ‘gay’ along the lines of:

most participants were discussing the issue of homosexuality in a legalistic way - not meaning that term as an insult - saying that because Paul said various things about homosexuality in his day, therefore this is how it must be, even in our society where our understanding of homosexuality has advanced so much due to progress in science and psychology and the experience of being homosexual is so different. My point is that in the process we fail to act lovingly towards homosexuals in our congregations and cause many of them deep and insoluble frustration

Is there really anything in your approach that means that this is automatically ruled out of court? How are you going to reject this argument without going back to the Bible and looking at what it says on the issue and deciding that that is fairly normative despite the huge change in our stance on homosexuality that has occurred? There is, as you say, ‘no detailed instruction book’.

For the record, however mature and wise we are, I think we need authorative instruction, binding instruction, to guide our moral thinking. Sin is still a reality in our hearts. So when I act ‘legalistically’ by going and looking what the Bible says on the topic and then going, “the Bible says it, that settles it”, that is love in action. Love for women, love for men, love for girls and boys and little puppy dogs too.

Sure women are educated and participants in power and the workforce. But Paul never says, “women today are uneducated morons so they better be quiet.” Egalitarians conjured up the issue of female ignorance as the reason for Paul’s instructions so they could be seen to be culturally limited. Paul himself doesn’t present the reason that way – he grounds the issues in creation, fall, and Christ’s relationship with the Church. Those issues transcend culture, education, changing practices of government and workforce structures. So it’s not a failure of love to say that Paul’s commands on the issue still hold.

Are some women frustrated? Are some men angry on their behalf? Definitely. But that’s hardly the whole story. I’ve been in many churches with this kind of teaching that have been full of unfrustrated, content, fulfilled women. I’ve been in churches who have rejected the teaching and their congregations have been characterised by the fact they’re aging, numerically stagnant, and the relatively few men present are not really engaged or leading. I think I could run a reasonable love based argument from that data (which really has been close to universal in my experience, much to my surprise).

Jon said...

Hi Mark, I think you have understood my arguments pretty well. Just to confirm

1. Yes, you are right that in theory things like murder and theft may turn out to be OK. Jesus speaks approvingly of David taking the holy bread as he flees Absalom. Other situations certainly arise where we face moral dilemmas and these are classics of ethical discourse - the lifeboat exercise and so on. These are matters of judgement which no rule book will solve for us. This is the limitation of law. The easy part is to have a law that says you can't murder, the hard part is defining what murder is.

2. Women in the church is actually not supremely important to me, it's just where the discussion started. You and Michael were way more into it that I was :) I'm also quite happy to wear the substitution of homosexuality for women preaching in the statement. In our churches we are quite ready to exclude gay people, but almost never exclude greedy or divisive people even though these cause lots more damage. Now there's a subject I can get seriously passionate about! James says "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it", but in practice we are all highly selective in what laws we enforce and what we let go.

"I’ve been in churches who have rejected the teaching and their congregations have been characterised by the fact they’re aging, numerically stagnant."

We've all seen churches like that. As far as I can see it has little to do with whether or not they have women ministers. My church (Anglican) has a woman minister who preaches regularly and it is a very vibrant, mission oriented church. The fastest growing churches in Australia are pentecostal and they have a very relaxed attitude towards women in ministry.

"I think we need authorative instruction, binding instruction, to guide our moral thinking. Sin is still a reality in our hearts. So when I act ‘legalistically’ by going and looking what the Bible says on the topic and then going, “the Bible says it, that settles it”, that is love in action."

Couldn't agree less. Yes I have sin in my heart too. Having a law doesn't deactivate the sin - Paul says it just reveals it. At the end of Pride and Prejudice Darcy says "I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit." The fate of all who try to follow law without understanding the wider claims of love. Whether you have law or not, nothing can substitute for maturity and wisdom.

Mark Baddeley said...

Hi Jon,

I’m glad we seem to be understanding where each other is coming from. The disagreement looks fairly big, but understanding means we can at least tease out the issues a bit together.

Picking up your points:

1. The difference here I think is how you’ve almost caricatured classic ethical discourse, means that you’ve set up the difference in a way that is a bit unrecognisable.

So when you raise the lifeboat exercise, there’s a reason why that’s a classic ethical exercise – it forces you to think very carefully about what is and is not murder. Classical ethics has never said, ‘well the Bible says “don’t murder” so we don’t need to think. That’s a relief!’

It’s usually clear what ‘murder’ is, but there’s always hard cases and those cases can often shed light onto the shape of ‘murder’ and its opposite. That’s why Christianity has traditionally worked hard to discuss ethics, and encourage moral formation, using the teaching of the Scripture as the structure for that formation.

But all that is unnecessary for your approach. The question for you is not, ‘Is this murder?’ That’s not really important.

Murder could be right if love demands it. So trying to work out if something is ‘murder’ or not distracts from the more fundamental and only really important question – is this what love looks like here? That’s the ‘hard’ part for you. Whether it’s ‘murder’ or not is really only of interest to antiquarians.

Further, Jesus isn’t saying ‘David committed theft and it was okay’. He’s saying, ‘Given David was the Christ and so it was okay for him to eat the bread of the presence, and even give it to his followers, then as the greater Christ is here it’s okay to for me and my followers to eat on the Sabbath.’

The argument had nothing to do with love directly at all – it was an argument about how certain acts are not transgressions of the Law when done under the authority of certain individuals.

Now, other times Jesus indicates that letter of the Sabbath is subordinate to its purpose, and you could have run this argument off that. But this instance? It’s a Christological argument – it’s about how Jesus is unique, not about a universal love obligation.

2. Okay, Michael and I care more about that, I can believe that :).

But I can take ‘women’ and ‘homosexuality’ out and replace it with ‘greed’ and ‘divisiveness’. Economic theory and evolutionary biology (and sociology) have both been appealed to indicate the fundamental goodness of those behaviours as well.

You may think activities those are ‘more destructive’ than practicing homosexuals as members of the household of God. But they too can be argued as an expression of love. At least when there is an authoritative moral teaching you can raise the problem of selectivity in complying. There is something that stands over human wisdom that can call it to account for itself and that can be appealed to for a basis for reformation. But love alone becomes hostage to the moral intuition of the tribe and the pronouncements of experts.

Mark Baddeley said...

3. I wasn’t saying there’s no exceptions, just that at the moment there seems to be a correlation. It’s hard to find churches with women senior ministers that are healthy by normal indicators, not impossible. It’s not hard to find churches that restrict women’s public ministry in a mixed gender setting and are full of mature capable women who are not frustrated and angry.

If all we have is the love command, I think that actually makes the case for continuing restrictions easier to mount. Because the love command on its own has to be focused primarily on predicted consequences under normal conditions as its only criteria. ‘Love’ is what is most likely to benefit the most people.

4. And I agree entirely with your last paragraph. I think if you reflect upon it more you might move a bit back my direction. If you have sin in your heart, and Law reveals that, and that’s all it does, then we really do need the Law. I’m hardly saying that the Law is some great engine room that enables me to do good. I am saying – sinners need something beyond their love for others and their maturity and wisdom because they have sin in their hearts. It’s not sufficient, but it’s a necessary component.

I think the Spirit, love, wisdom and maturity are all necessary as well. I’m not fighting for the existence of authoritative moral teaching and the irrelevance of what you want. I just want that teaching in the mix as a genuine authority and not simply provisional advice. Your case isn’t that we need love and wisdom and maturity – because I think that too. Your case is that those things can only exist if there’s no such as authoritative moral teaching – and I think that’s a hard ask.

5. Picking up Mark Thompson’s review of Peter Hitchens’ new book, The Rage Against God, http://markdthompson.blogspot.com/2010/07/some-deep-reflection-needed.html puts this into a bigger social context I think.

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Why is it more advanced in Britain than in the USA? I have had good reason to seek the answer to this question, and I have found it where I might have expected to have done if only I had grasped from the start how large are the issues at stake. Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable force forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. Only one reliable force restrains the hand of the man of power. And, in an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power. (pp. 82–3)

But what is it that they have against the Christian God? He is their chief rival. Christian belief, by subjecting all men to divine authority and by asserting in the words 'My Kingdom is not of this world' that the ideal society does not exist in this life, is the most coherent and potent obstacle to secular utopianism. (p. 98)


Freedom with no restraint on me other than my judgement leads to one of two kinds of societies. A society where everyone is strong, and wise, and mature and so there is no authority within the society, an ideal anarchy where everyone is their neighbour’s neighbour and nothing more.

Or a society where some people, at least for the moment, are strong and wise and mature, and others are not quite there yet. In such a society, with no moral other than love, the strong and wise and mature are then truly free to do what love demands in looking after those weak, immature, and foolish people. It’s where our secular social utopians are trying to go, and there’s been a number of important novels written in the 20thC warning us of it.

I don’t think that’s what you want at all, nor do I think it’s what you would do. But I think you need to look out to what’s going on around us. The strong and wise in our societies and churches don’t need any more restraints taken off the exercise of their ‘love’.

Jon said...

Hi Mark, lots here to think about. Some of its covered in my "part 2" post on this issue. The core is that a lot of your comments seem to assume that a "non-legal" view will be more lax than a legal view of ethics. I don't agree that this is the case, and the Sermon on the Mount challenges legalism on the grounds that it is too lax (to put it very loosely), not that it is too strict.

I'll leave the rest go but must respond to one thing - your quote about the church the last bastion of freedom and resistence to power. This is a very odd reading of political history. The era in which the church had the most power was an era where it was easy for kings oppress their subjects, with only other powerful lords to oppose them, and the church as readily co-opted into that power structure. Democracy as we know it was a product of (non-religious) liberalism. Certainly now there are many in the church who stand up against tyranny and abuses of power, but this includes church leaders who would share either of our views on law - or other views completely - and there are plenty of atheist and agnostic defenders of liberty.

Mark Baddeley said...

The core is that a lot of your comments seem to assume that a "non-legal" view will be more lax than a legal view of ethics.

Heh, thing is I have three categories where you have two. So I agree ‘legalism’ is too lax. I see love and law as partners – the letter and the spirit of the law go together - that's not legalism (might be wrong, but it's not legalism).

I don’t think though that I’d see your view as ‘lax’ but as unstable and ultimately captive to the wisdom of the age. Within such a structure there will be genuinely good people who will exemplify the very best of Christian ethics.

your quote about the church the last bastion of freedom and resistence to power. This is a very odd reading of political history.
No, it really isn’t an odd reading of political history. I did a double major of European history for my undergraduate Arts degree, have been known to read it in my spare time and have taught Reformation history with a good dose of Medieval and an eye to the social history dimension.

I think you will find that most historians of those periods (not all of course, you don’t get uniformity in humanities) will see that the foundations for our modern democracies were laid down by the Church’s slow disciplining of the barbarian cultures of Western Europe (which yes, involved collaboration with those in power) and then particularly the Reformation’s breaking up of the synthesis of Church and state and replacing it with a new partnership where neither Church nor State was the ultimate authority, but both were accountable to a law of God that couldn’t be identified with the rulings of either.

The English speaking tradition of seeing ‘freedom’ as produced, not by the State (as it is seen in many European countries like France), but by the rule of law restraining the State from what it is allowed to manage in its efforts to love its citizens, comes out of the Reformation. You can read well respected historians like Steve Ozment (who is not a Protestant himself) who will clearly articulate these kind of observations. It cuts against a lot of modern myths that are important for modern secular democratic thinking, but it’s a sensible way to see things when you spend time with the primary sources. The American Constitution that focuses primarily on saying what Congress can’t do is a similar expression of the same kind of conviction – political authorities are to be given limited spheres of power only, and their rulings are accountable to moral standards that stand over them.

That is so dinky-die Protestant, and English speaking Protestant, it’s a shame that the fact it was secularised and adopted by the Enlightenment and its heirs (inconsistently, it must be said, because the Enlightenment also reintroduced the ongoing attempts to create secular paradises on earth) has obscured its true roots.

I know previous periods seem unbelievably authoritarian by modern standards. I think we need to factor in just what a civilizing effect wealth has. London was still experiencing riots – genuine ‘whole city shut down for days at a time’ riots – into the nineteenth century. Our modern democracies are nice places to be in, not because we’re all great people, but because everyone is unbelievably wealthy, even the poor people. Rich people don’t riot, and so there is space for politics to be conducted without heavy reliance on the sword. Previous eras didn’t have that advantage. And if we lose it, then I think we’ll find that force becomes a factor once again.

Mark Baddeley said...

Just had a further thought about the political history issue.

If you're getting at the fact that before the Enlightenment, societies in the West had a vision of the common good and so authorities passed laws that were intended to capture a moral vision of the kind of life that was good for people as a whole, then you're right. 'Freedom' only came with modern secularising democracies and liberalism.

That kind of freedom is predicated on the idea that there's no common good, and that laws don't enshrine any particular moral vision - laws should be part of the world of facts, morals are part of the world of intuition. So the laws should just create rules to create a fair level playing field for everyone to find their own 'good'.

That's pretty central to our modern view of freedom, we have an immediate emotional reaction to hearing that adultery used to be a legal offense, or even homosexual sex. In that sense, yes, 'freedom' only came as you described.

But that's the freedom of the North American libertarian, and my impression is that most Christians outside of North America don't find it compelling as a description of a Christian view of individual freedom and state law. We want to say (those of us on the side of what's right anyway :) ) 'it's morally wrong to lock up asylum seekers' - it's not in the common good. It's not just a denial of fair rules and the like, it encodes a wrong moral vision for this country.

That is a more Christian view of freedom and law, and I think Hitchens is right, it is a huge threat to secular social utopians, even when they agree with us about a specific issue.

Jon said...

Trust me to take on a history graduate - I bow to your much superior knowledge.