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The greatest theologian in church history between Augustine and Martin Luther was the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, author of the great 13th Century Summa Theologiae that so brilliantly articulated some of the best of 13th Century Christian theology (and philosophy). One of the topics Aquinas addressed in the Summa was the matter of property (Note: this post builds on my earlier post on the Christian tradition and property found here).
For Thomas Aquinas, of course, all material things are to be used by Christians as a means to the higher end of glorifying and enjoying God. Property therefore is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Only God has absolute lordship over material things, but he gives human beings the natural right to use these things for their benefit. In her Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought Janet Coleman summarizes,
Man therefore, was created with the dominium naturale in this wider sense which did not specify the mode of possession, be it private or in common. Possessions were originally required to be for the use of all mankind. Private property is not wrong but it is a mode of possession that has only conventional justification (ius gentium), and the primary recognition of the purpose of property is its use for men in pursuance of higher ends… Human affairs are more efficiently organized when each has his own responsibility over his own things for there would be chaos if everyone cared for everything….
But natural law does not specify how private property should be arrived at and therefore historical institutions determine distribution; private possessions are not contrary to natural law but are inventions of reason. They are human additions to natural principles. (622-623)
Property is therefore justified, but the rights of property are always trumped by the basic rights of human beings according to natural law. Aquinas writes in 2.2, Q 66, A 7:
Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”
In fact, Aquinas even argued that in cases of extreme necessity it is not theft for a person to take what he or she needs from someone who has excess. He certainly believed, as Coleman writes, that “when the common welfare is at stake, the civil law is obliged to activate the natural law principle of the primacy of use over ownership” (623). As Aquinas puts it,
It is no robbery if princes exact from their subjects that which is due to them for the safe-guarding of the common good, even if they use violence in so doing (2.2, Q 66, A 8, Reply 3).
To be sure, Aquinas did not hold the suspicion towards business, investment, or profit for which medieval Christian theology is often known. He appreciated the value of such economic activity for supporting families, the poor, and the public good (though his views of usury are more complicated). But he believed that individual rights regarding property were always subject to the greater rights of the broader society, to whom according to natural law God has given all possessions in common.
On virtually every point of substance John Calvin’s attitude toward property is directly in line with the Christian tradition running from Ambrose and Augustine through Huguccio, Johannes Teutonicus, and Thomas Aquinas. Calvin argues over and over throughout his commentaries and other writings that God has given human beings their material possessions in order they might meet their basic needs and even their desires (in moderation), and then share their excess possessions with those who are in need. Calvin believed the bond between all human beings created in the image of God is such that when people do not display generosity and liberality by sharing with the poor they are guilty of theft (a view later affirmed in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s exposition of the 8th Commandment, and less explicitly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the same).
Let me offer one very poignant example, although I could provide many more. In his commentary on Isaiah 58:7 Calvin writes,
Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts: first, that we should injury nobody, and second, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together, for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy, nor will it be of much avail to render your aid to the needy, if at the same time you rob some of that which you bestow on others….
By commanding them to ‘break bread to the hungry’ he intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. ‘This is mine, and therefore I may keep it for myself. Why should I make common property of that which God has given me?’ He replies, ‘It is indeed yours, but on this condition, that you share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that you eat it yourself alone. And indeed this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right if their hunger is not relieved. That sad spectacle extorts compassion even from the cruel and barbarous.
To be sure, neither Aquinas nor Calvin nor the rest of the Christian tradition before them advocated anything like the modern welfare state any more than they opposed it. That is not my point. My point is that the Christian tradition has unanimously affirmed that all property rights are always qualified by the claims of the needy upon them. In addition, the tradition has explicitly or implicitly affirmed that God gives material possessions to human beings in common, and that although property regulations are necessary to keep peace between sinful human beings, in cases of necessity the natural law affirming this common right trumps human laws and conventions concerning property.
I’ll conclude this series with one final post (hopefully tomorrow) clarifying what I believe are the implications of this Christian political theology for government and and for contemporary politics.
Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.
Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?
The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.
Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.
If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”
The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”
In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.
Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.
The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.
Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.
Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.
This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.
It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.
I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.
Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.
That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.
I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.
I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.
That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.
If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.
Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.
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.
In political debates I occasionally hear Christians who are influenced by libertarian political philosophy make an argument that runs something like this:
My money is my own property that I earned. The government did not give it to me. Therefore, the government has no right to confiscate my property in order to give it to someone else, except for purposes of protection, national defense, or associated government functions. For the government to confiscate my property for purposes of poor relief is not legitimate taxation. It is theft.
To be sure, I have never heard a political theologian or theological ethicist make this argument. But I have witnessed thoughtful and well-read Christians give expression to it, and I have even heard it propounded from various pulpits. And amid the recent rise of the Tea Party, the growing influence of libertarianism within the Republican Party, and the debates over Obamacare and the federal debt, it appears as if this general sort of argument is gaining currency.
The point I want to make here is that this argument is profoundly out of step with the Christian political theological tradition, running from Ambrose and Augustine through the medieval canon lawyers and Thomas Aquinas and all the way to the great reformer John Calvin.
What is wrong with it is not that it supports capitalism and the free market, or that it suggests that the American government provides too much support for the poor. There are good reasons why Christians can oppose socialism and the welfare state while remaining solidly in step with the Christian political theological tradition. I am not defending Obamacare, Medicare, Social Security, or any other particular political policy.
But I do take issue with arguments that suggest people have absolute property rights that the government cannot infringe upon, not even for the sake of justice for the poor.
The problem with these arguments is that they presuppose a notion of property that makes it absolute, without qualification by the needs of others or of civil law. It assumes the argument of John Locke that human beings possess property before they enter into any significant social or legal connections, and that therefore no social or legal body has the right to take that property from them. It assumes that even if a person fails to use his or her property in service to the needy, no one, not even the government, has the right to force that person to use his or her property justly.
In contrast, the early church fathers Ambrose and Augustine believed that property was the result of the fall and would not have existed in a perfect world. They argued that human law created the institution of property in order to maintain peace between sinful and competing human beings.
Later in feudal society holdings of land were considered to be inextricably connected with social relationships and with the obligations and responsibilities associated with those relationships. Neither lord nor serf enjoyed the absolute right to do whatever he wanted with his possessions; rather, those possessions were to be used in fulfillment of concrete social obligations.
As feudalism evolved and the roots of a market economy began to develop, canon lawyers struggled to reconcile the arguments of the church fathers with developing understandings of property. Janet Coleman writes in the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought concerning the greatest of these jurists, Gratian:
Gratian notes that the human race is ruled by two norms, natural law and custom. The first is that which is contained in the Old Testament and the Gospels … This natural law is common go all nations, held everywhere instinctually rather than by positive legal enactment, and it sanctions the coming together of men and women, procreation, the common possession of all things, the liberty of all, the acquisition of whatever may be taken by air, land or sea, the restitution of goods or money loaned, the use of force to repel force. It is by natural law that all things are common to all men. But the laws of custom and legal enactment enable men to say ‘this is mine’. [Gratian cited] Augustine, who argued that private property was a creation of imperial law and was not a characteristic of natural man before the Fall. (617)
However, Gratian left the tension between natural law and human law unresolved, and many other canon lawyers and theologians were forced to work it out. Two decretists, Huguccio and Johannes Teutonicus, provided perhaps the most influential solution:
Natural law, equated with rational judgment, tells us that all things are common, to be shared in times of necessity with those in need. Natural reason teaches us that we should retain for ourselves only necessities and therefore distribute what is left to neighbors in need…. Johannes Teutonicus avoided the implication that communal ownership was a norm, and explained Ambrose’s text by saying that private property is not denied; rather what is denied is the right of anyone to appropriate to himself more than suffices for his own needs. Thus, in times of necessity any surplus wealth is to be regarded as common property to be shared by all those in need. (618-619)
To be sure, the canonists “never developed arguments concerning private property with egalitarian implications. And they took into account that superfluity of wealth was to be measured according to what was considered decent and fitting to one’s status in society” (619). Nevertheless, they were clear that the rights of the poor trumped the rights of possession.
The greatest medieval debates over property, of course, pertained to the church’s vast material wealth. Many canonists agreed that the church merely holds stewardship over its wealth and that that wealth ultimately belongs to God, or even to the poor.
The poor and needy were to be supported from the goods of the Church for they had a right to this support from the common property of the Church. On this view the use of church property on behalf of the poor was not charity but an established legal use of public property whose purpose was the maintenance of the common welfare and especially the sustenance of the needy poor. (620)
Of course, the reason why the canonists viewed the church this way was because they believed that as an institution it was to express God’s purposes for human beings according to natural law. The standards for the church, in essence, were the standards to which all human beings were to seek to attain.
Tomorrow I’ll take a look at Thomas Aquinas’s account of property and I’ll also make some comments on John Calvin’s view, both of which are in direct continuity with the views described above. But it should already be evident even from this brief post that Christian political theology has always denied the existence of absolute property rights, and indeed, has questioned whether property rights are grounded in natural law at all. The tradition is marked by a virtually unanimous consensus that individuals and social organizations are to use their excess possessions subject to the primary claim of the needy as a matter of justice.
Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.
It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.
But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,
“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”
All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.
OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:
- the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
- the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
- the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
- the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
- the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
- the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
- the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)
In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.
All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.
Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.
In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.
What is Belz looking for in particular?
When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?
Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.
I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.
But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?
I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.
Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge. Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.
In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,
although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.
I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.
I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.
For all sorts of legitimate reasons, many conservative Christians are suspicious of mainstream institutions of higher education, particularly those institutions that have departments devoted to the study of theology or religion. So often it seems that pastors, churches, and denominations are corrupted by the learning or the liberal agenda that flows out of these places. Frequently men and women who seem to be solidly orthodox Christian believers enter a seminary or university and leave several years later with little left of their faith. Numerous leading liberal theologians grew up in evangelical or pietist homes, all following the same sad story.
Given such history, thoughtful Christians reason, why attend these schools at all? There is virtually nothing to gain from them, and yet there is everything to lose. Better to ignore what the liberals are doing and only read books or associate with people who make an unofficial list of approved sources.
There is a significant degree of plausibility to this reaction, but ultimately it is fraught with danger. It is not that the story told here is false. On the contrary, in the case of far too many pastors and theologians it is tragically true. However, the conclusion drawn from it is false and ultimately damaging to the truth. Let me provide several reasons why.
First, it is the very withdrawal from the academy, and the refusal to engage it constructively (and critically) that makes conservatives so vulnerable to it. If I sit in church for 18 years, attend a Christian college, and perhaps even a Christian seminary, and am never forced to take liberalism’s arguments seriously, by the time I get to a liberal university or seminary I am extremely vulnerable. My version of Christianity will be built on an untested foundation and my account of liberalism will be a caricature rather than the reality. I might enter the classroom determined to stand up for my faith, but I have no idea what is coming. My cardboard faith will easily be cut to shreds.
On the other hand, and second, it is engagement with the academy that makes orthodox Christian theologians so effective. Think of John Calvin or, more relevant to our time, J. Gresham Machen. These men were powerful and persuasive (and their theology was deep) for the very reason that they took their opponents seriously, and wrestled with the foundations of their own commitments. They acknowledged the most troublesome challenges to the Christian faith, and respected them enough actually to try and understand them and demonstrate why they were wrong. Just think of Machen’s defense of the virgin birth. Would the church have been stronger had Machen never gone to Germany to study in the world of Protestant liberalism?
Third, and perhaps most controversially, we actually do have something to learn from liberal theology. Yes, I can read Schleiermacher, or James Cone, or Paul Tillich, and learn something about the gospel that I would be far less likely to learn if I only ever read conservative theologians. Let me illustrate from my own experience.
One of the efforts I determined to make a few years ago was to take liberation theology seriously enough to engage it. I read much of the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone, wrestled with their claims regarding Scripture and history, and considered thoughtfully their criticisms of traditional expressions of Christian thought. I noted where they disagreed with mainstream conservative theologians, and why, much of the time, they were wrong to do so.
Then something surprising happened. I looked up what older theologians like John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine had to say about many of the same matters, and found that not infrequently they agreed more with the liberal theologians than with contemporary conservatives. Repeatedly I found that Gutierrez and Cone offer criticisms of conservative thought that were right on the money, and that would have been shared by some of the greatest (and most orthodox) theologians in church history. That was an eye-opener.
For instance, seeing how seriously Gutierrez takes Scripture’s teaching regarding the poor and the oppressed woke me up to how casually conservative Christians usually use (or ignore) these texts. Where a conservative might spiritualize the beatitude regarding the poor in Luke 6, Gutierrez refuses to do so. Whereas a conservative might describe those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” or who are persecuted for “righteousness’ sake” as those who yearn for justification or are believers, Gutierrez demonstrates that these verses actually refer to a basic yearning for justice, and to the suffering experienced by those who fight for the cause of the oppressed. And in every one of these cases, when I turned to Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, I found him closer to the interpretation of Gutierrez than to the assumptions of many conservative Christians. Without Gutierrez I would not have noticed that.
Or take another example. James Cone’s most poignant criticism of “white theology” is that white American theologians have interpreted the Bible in such a way as to maintain the economic and political status quo. For instance, Presbyterian theologians defending the spirituality of the church in the 19th Century ensured that biblical teaching would not challenge racial slavery, and deferred to the interests of slaveowners rather than leading their congregations to discipline those who abused their slaves. Cone sees this, and he demonstrates how theologians can allow their own social interests to dictate their reading, interpretation, and proclamation of Scripture.
While Cone’s rejection of traditional Christian theology goes too far, far too much of his criticism of conservative American theology is legitimate. I discovered this when I turned to James Henley Thornwell’s defense of slavery. Although Thornwell claimed that his arguments rested on Scripture alone, he argued that loving your neighbor as yourself does not require asking yourself whether or not you would want to be a slave, and he insisted that racial slavery was defensible based on the conclusions of science regarding the slower development of the African American race. Read in the context of theologians like Thornwell (or R. L. Dabney, who viciously opposed allowing blacks to serve as Presbyterian pastors or elders in white churches) James Cone is humbling in the best sort of way.
These are just a few examples. I could provide many more. The reality is that it is easy for conservative Christians to fall into a ghetto mentality, a form of fundamentalism that makes it difficult for us to perceive our own errors. Reading those we regard as our opponents, and loving them enough to take their criticisms of our positions seriously, can help us to escape this mentality. It can force us to re-examine our own assumptions and commitments in the light of Scripture. It can remind us that to be conservative is not to be Christian. Sometimes the liberal position is actually the Christian one.
We should not imagine that our preaching is somehow improved when it simply reflects the assumptions of conservative fundamentalism. It is not good for the cause of Christ when the poor come into our churches and notice how slightly we pay attention to what Scripture says about their plight. It is utterly disastrous when an African American visits a Presbyterian church in Atlanta and hears the white pastor declare that Ephesians 2 has nothing to do with racial reconciliation. Far too often I have heard the full gospel of Scripture reduced by a conservative pastor to a few cliches of piety rendered unthreatening to American middle class apathy. Yet when we only read or engage our own people, this is often what happens.
We may think that the dangers still far outweigh the gains of engaging the academy, and there is no doubt that for many individuals this is in fact the case. I would never encourage a Christian with no theological training at an orthodox school to enter a liberal school with an open mind. But Christians can never abandon the academy. We need our sharpest critics. We have much to learn even from those who abandon the Christian faith (and who are well aware of the areas in which we are most hypocritical). We must continually allow ourselves to be challenged: are we really following Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Are we really proclaiming the whole gospel?