Public Justice for the Poor: A Response to Timothy Terrell

At Economics for Everybody, R.C. Sproul Jr.’s website for “Applying Biblical Principles to Work, Wealth, and the World,” Timothy Terrell has written a three part response (here, here, and here to my discussion of the relation between property rights and the rights of the poor (here, here, and here). Terrell agrees with my criticism of the sort of libertarianism that views government taxation as theft, but he rejects my argument that the Christian political theological tradition recognizes that the poor have rights to basic necessities enforceable by civil government. He sums up my argument as follows:

[I]f the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.

In fact, I believe the (deserving) poor have the right to sustenance as a matter of justice, not simply of charity. Further, I would view redistributive welfare policies as merely one possible means of the government’s enforcing this element of justice, and not by any stretch the best means. My argument (despite Terrell’s suggestion on this point) is not that government should usurp the role of civil society, but that it should ensure that at a most basic level, civil society is operating justly.

Terrell repeatedly declares that my arguments are those of the “political left” or “Christian left,” seemingly assuming that this will render my argument illegitimate for his typical readers. But his readiness to wave flags and call us to our partisan allegiances, in contrast to my attempt to think through the perspective of the pre-Enlightenment Christian tradition, leads him to ignore the actual substance of that argument.

For instance, Terrell rightly insists that simply because someone has a duty to do something does not mean that government has the authority to enforce that duty. This is a distinction I have made repeatedly on this blog. The difference between the moral law and the civil law is foundational to political liberty, religious liberty, and Christian liberty alike. Yet Terrell seems to assume that this distinction in and of itself proves that government has no obligation to protect the rights of the poor to have their basic necessities met. He writes,

If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? …

Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?

While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.

Of course, I agree. But this is not an argument, it is simply a statement of principles. Terrell goes on,

So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.

Here Terrell is stating his position but he is not really making an argument. He is refusing to admit that the poor have rights to basic sustenance or that the obligation of others to assist the poor is a matter of justice, insisting on describing it as charity. His basis for this refusal seems to be Sproul’s point that true compassion is voluntary, not coerced. But of course we are not talking about true compassion, but about public justice. A comment on the nature of true compassion tells us nothing more about the form that the civil law should take than does the teaching of Jesus that truly refraining from murder requires loving our neighbor from the heart. Morality and civil law, as Terrell has pointed out, are not the same thing. Pointing to what Scripture says about poor relief and compassion in the church and in the sanctified lives of believers is insufficient when we are discussing the obligations of the state.

Terrell falls into the same confusion when he discusses Calvin’s position. Appealing to Calvin’s commentary on the Law he writes, “Calvin indicates that giving to the poor is to remain a voluntary act, not coerced by anyone.” Terrell rightly comments that Calvin rejected the position he associated with the Anabaptists, which called for the abolition of property, because Calvin believed Christians are to hold all things in common as a matter of voluntary fellowship, not as a matter of civil law. Yet he oddly assumes that this means Calvin thought the government had no obligation to use public property to assist the poor. Here he quotes François Dermange, who argues that Calvin

explicitly distinguishes this religious interpretation of justice from legal and political justice. God summons consciences to appear before his judgment seat, not before an earthly judge, and hence one must say that this law is ‘spiritual.’

So now Terrell does appeal to the distinction between true justice and political justice in order to say that the government should not ensure that the needs of the poor are met. Care for the poor is a matter of conscience, not of public order. Yet here he misses Calvin’s distinction between the virtue of Christian poor relief and the outward political order of poor relief. This despite his own admission that in Calvin’s Geneva the civil government funded and regulated not only the work of the church, but the tasks of education and poor relief as well. Calvin clearly supported Geneva’s policy: In his commentary on Isaiah 49:23 and in a sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he explicitly called government to use public funds to establish poor-houses, hospitals, and schools.

The relevant distinction is not between charity (love) and justice, which in ordinary Scriptural usage have the same basic content (to love someone is to treat them justly; to treat someone justly is to treat them in accord with love; the justice/righteousness of the law is summarized in the command to love one’s neighbor). The relevant distinction is between the true or inward justice that arises from the heart and the minimal or outward public order of justice that the state is obligated to uphold. The right of the poor to have their minimal outward necessities met clearly falls under the latter. It is a distortion of Calvin’s (two kingdoms) distinction between spiritual and political righteousness to insist that it falls exclusively under the former.

The real question is on what basis Terrell and others claim that the government must force citizens to honor contracts and abstain from murdering one another, while insisting that it may not force those with surplus resources to meet the most basic needs of the poor. I understand how this argument arises from certain classical liberal (or libertarian) premises about the state. I do not believe it is consistent with Christian political theology.

But what of the slippery slope argument? If government has the obligation of making sure the most basic needs of the (deserving) poor are met, will this not lead to intrusive regulation of every part of our lives? One may as well push the slippery slope argument further. If government has the responsibility to enforce justice at all, how do we stop it from seeking to enforce all justice?

The solution, however, is not government abandoning its most basic responsibilities, out of fear that it will abuse its legitimate power. The solution is in the never-ending work of getting government power right, finding the appropriate balance between liberty and justice, the individual and the society, rights and responsibilities. We don’t have to go from one extreme to the other.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on February 22, 2013, in Calvin, Christian liberty, Poverty, Property, Rights, Two Kingdoms, Welfare State and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Public Justice for the Poor: A Response to Timothy Terrell.

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