Category Archives: Thomas Aquinas
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.
During the late medieval period there was a significant shift in the nature of Christian moral teaching. Since the time of the apostles moral instruction had centered on the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of the apostles, but in the later part of the middle ages the emphasis shifted to the law, especially the Ten Commandments. I’ve written on the causes of that shift here and here.
The result was that both Catholic and Protestant ethics came to characterize the Christian life as being fundamentally about duty and obligation. Classic Christian teaching on happiness and virtue was left undeveloped, if not ignored entirely. Even the concept of charity, or love, in principle understood to be the essence of Christian morality, was in practice often reduced to a theoretical abstraction whose true content simply consisted in the commandments of the law. And Immanuel Kant’s hugely influential ethics raised the significance of commandment – of the categorical imperative – to a whole new level, while secularizing it at the same time.
Eventually, and inevitably, this led to a reaction. Utilitarianism – with its emphasis on consequences, happiness, and the ends justifying the means – came to dominate western ethics. And Christian ethicists – including both Catholics and liberal Protestants – called for a return to the ethics of love.
In his book The Sources of Christian Ethics Servais Pinckaers describes the way this worked out in Catholic moral theology.
On the one hand, traditional ethicists find it hard to set aside their instinctive mistrust of love and passion … Today an opposite reaction can be observed among ethicists and Christians. There is a strong attraction for love and spontaneity, without due regard for the demands of integrity and truth. For some, love has become the ‘Open, Sesame,’ the cure for all problems. They misapply St. Augustine’s magnificent expression, ‘Love, and do what you will,’ as if warmth of emotion liberates a person from all commandments and restraints. For St. Augustine, however, the greater the love the greater the adherence to commandments, for they are the expression of God’s love. Without the rectitude ensured by the commandments, love will not be true, will not survive.
We are faced, therefore, with a kind of sickness induced by the morality of obligation. The symptom is allergy to all obligation or authority in the name of the primacy of a naive and confused love.
So we have gone from one extreme to the other:
A moral theory of obligation depicts God as an all-powerful legislator issuing his law in the midst of thunder and lightning… The contemporary reaction to such a picture has the advantage of highlighting the goodness of God. Yet there is a risk of devaluation. In removing from God all power of judgment and punishment, and in focusing exclusively on his universal pardon, we are left with a soft and spineless God. Here we encounter one of the major problems of Christian ethics today: how to reconcile God’s love and justice.
The answer, of course, is in the gospel of Christ, and it is only being Christ-centered that Christian ethics can really be truly Christian. This is what far too many traditionalists who imagine that the need of the hour is a return to the law of God fail to understand.
On the other hand, what characterizes modernity’s (and much of contemporary Christianity’s) “naive and confused love” is a failure to grasp “one of the conditions for authentic love”: renunciation and sacrifice. In the gospel, Pinckaers reminds us, “radical self-renunciation is a necessary condition for love of Christ.” And it is that sort of love, a love shaped by cross-bearing discipleship in conformity to the image of Christ, that is so desperately needed today.
If you would be my disciple, Jesus tells us, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23; Mark 8:34). It’s a hard truth, but that is what Christian ethics must be all about.
In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.
This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)
To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.
Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,
In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)
Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.
It is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.
But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)
In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.
What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.
The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.
That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.
The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.
Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.
None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.
In past posts on this blog I’ve presented Calvin’s argument that the government cannot simply punish all forms of immorality. The civil law cannot directly correspond to the moral law. The government’s toleration of a particular action does not imply its approval of that action. The classic example for this argument, which Calvin discusses in multiple places, is Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish Torah’s law of divorce. The Torah permits divorce but as Jesus points out, “In the beginning it was not so.” Although divorce is unjust, the Law permitted it due to the hardness of men’s hearts, and regulated it to ensure that men treated their wives with at least a modicum of justice.
In her recent book Law’s Virtues, Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, tries to work out the implications of this principle as it is articulated by Thomas Aquinas. She argues that it is not sufficient to say that a good law must promote virtue in the persons whom it is seeking to regulate. We must also recognize that law itself must conform to certain virtues, or principles. She presents this point through a statement of Isidore of Seville, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas:
Law shall be virtuous, just, possible to nature, according to the custom of the country, suitable to place and time, necessary, useful; clearly expressed, lest by its obscurity it lead to misunderstanding; framed for no private benefit, but for the common good.
Kaveny emphasizes in particular the principles, which she thinks cultural warriors on both ends of the political spectrum often ignore, “possible to nature” and “according to the custom of the country.” Of course, she doesn’t think custom is the sole standard for civil law. As Thomas Aquinas argued quite clearly, civil law must be at least consistent with natural law or it becomes simply a perversion of law, even no law at all. Nevertheless, Kaveny thinks we need to take the customs and potentialities of a society much more seriously than we do.
She explains the limits of law in terms of four principles. First, enacting and enforcing laws costs money. Governments must always take into account whether the financial cost of a particular law outweighs its benefits to society.
Second, a law is unjust if its enforcement requires unjust action on the part of the government. As Aquinas says, government cannot prohibit and punish all evil, because to do so would require it to trample upon much that is good. In Kaveny’s words, “In some instances, the concrete steps a state would need to take to enforce a particular law are themselves morally repugnant.”
Third, we must remember that civil law has to be designed for ordinary persons (sinners), not for saints. It needs to be realistic or the impossibility of obeying it will lead to the collapse of the credibility of law itself.
Finally, Kaveny points out, we need to remember that criminal law is only “a small sliver of the legal framework necessary to promote the common good.” There are many more ways in which a state can express approval or disapproval of a particular action, in which it can encourage or discourage a certain practice, than through criminal law. And again, to stress the fundamental principle, permission does not imply sanction.
It’s a helpful argument, and overall, I really like Kaveny’s approach. But of course, the question arises, what about fundamental human rights, like the right to life? Can a government ever permit the unjust taking of innocent life based on the principles of law Kaveny articulates? Kaveny does an excellent job demonstrating that there are indeed circumstances in which a government has to tolerate certain immoral practices, including unjust killing, simply because it is impossible for the government to enforce a prohibition of those practices. Her main example here comes from the Wild West, in which no civil authority had a sufficient monopoly over the use of force to prevent settlers from having the right to protect themselves and their property, despite the violent abuses to which that right led.
I think Kaveny is correct on the basis of the above cited principles that sometimes it is wise and even virtuous for government to leave certain actions, including sometimes killing, unpunished, and that this does not implicate the government in sanctioning such murder. At the same time, I worry that Kaveny places too much emphasis on the authority of custom.
In the end, however, custom has the last word. ‘Custom has the force of a law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of the law.’ Aquinas recognizes that even if the purpose of a law is sound, it cannot prevail if it ‘is not possible according to the custom of the country…. For it is not easy to set aside the custom of a whole people.’
It appears that Kaveny is talking about more here than simply the physical impossibility of a government enforcing the right to life, or even than the fact that in some cases a government would have to be unjustly invasive into people’s lives to enforce its prohibition of murder. She is talking about what is deemed acceptable according to the relative customs of a people. Does this include racially oppressive custom, the custom of economic exploitation, or permissive custom relative to sexuality and privacy? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Kaveny here (I haven’t yet read the whole book). I hope so. But I’m not satisfied with her argument that criminal law should not always seek to secure fundamental rights.
Perhaps I’ve simply been too immersed in the lecture I gave yesterday on the German Protestant Church’s response to the Holocaust. But I’m inclined to think that when we are talking about rights as fundamental as the right to life, only the principles of possibility and justice should constrain a government in its responsibility to protect the weak. A government that tolerates the custom of a society when it permits the murder of those human beings it refuses to recognize as persons (whether on the basis of race, health, age, slave status, or birth) has forgotten that its fundamental obligation is not to the people but to God, from whom the right to life is derived.
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.