Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Leithart on the law

Relevant to Dan’s point here, Peter Leithart, my favourite supporter of Christendom, had these interesting observations about what the Law cannot do

In addition to my argument about the change in relation to the powers, perhaps this is another reason for the shift in ethics between OT and NT: truly, “if a law had been given which was able to give life, then justice would indeed have been based on the law…” (Gal 3:21)

Love your enemies part IV

Hopefully this will be the last installment in this series I started without thinking about it…

One of the things I learned most deeply from NT Wright (who does not see Jesus as a pacifist) was about the actual historical environment of Jesus and Paul.  I’ll quote him extensively here to try to convey the historical picture that I’ve learned to interpret Jesus in. The following is from The New Testament and the People of God (more…)

Love your enemies part III

Well, what about the first alternative? Is there a canonical reason to assume Jesus’ command to love our enemies would have the implicit qualification that magistrates didn’t always have to obey this command?

I think there are several considerations which give the answer in the negative.

Firstly, in the OT, the Law was considered an entire system, and organizing principle, a unified whole. The later divisions of moral, civil and ceremonial laws were just that, medieval Christian divisions. They might have some use, but we certainly can’t assume OT Jews (or Second Temple Jews) would have read the law in that way. They wouldn’t.

Secondly, Jesus undeniably alters the significance of the law for those in the age of the church. For example: he (arguably) makes the Sabbath law different than it was in the OT, makes festivals no longer obligatory, changes the relations of Jews and Gentiles, makes circumcision no longer obligatory, makes the temple obsolete, makes the Levitical priesthood obsolete, and reshapes our image of God (the only one we are allowed to give glory to) into the Trinity. There are probably more examples, but those are off the top of my head. In addition, we have strong Pauline language to the effect that we are no longer under the law, and that we are part of a new covenant. On the other hand, Jesus reasserts the authority of the creation order, though also not without modification (marriage is no longer an obligation). Together, I think these things make clear that that the specific significance of the laws of the Torah may not be same in NT era as they were in the OT era. We ultimately need to see what the NT teaches us about the OT before we can know for certain how it applies in the NT era.

This means there is no prima facie reason to assume that God’s support of violence in the OT carries over into the NT, and thus there is no prima facie reason to read that into the context of Jesus’ words.

Love your enemies part II

Another way that the pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount has been countered is to say that Christ was not referring to enemies of the public, but rather private enemies.

But: just because you become the enemy of a criminal because you are a magistrate, does not make them any less your enemy. That is, the private/public distinction does not really work in this case, as magistrates are doing harm to people (by the nature of the case, or at least by convention), and that makes those people de facto their enemies. The reason they are their enemies, that they are representatives of the public and thus take upon themselves the behaviour of avenging the public (as opposed to, say, being enemies because someone directly attacked the individual who is the magistrate), does not change the fact that they are their enemies.

Thus, one can’t say that magistrates avoid breaking Christ commands because they are not doing harm to their enemies, but someone else’s, because they have made someone else’s enemy their enemy.

This means that, basically, one can only avoid the pacifist reading by saying that Christ implicitly meant that magistrates were allowed to hate some of their enemies, while everyone else could not hate any of their enemies. As this significant qualification is not on the face of the text of Matthew, it must come from the context, i.e., in necessary truths, in the canon (for those for whom the Canon is authoritative), or in the historical context of Christ’s words. I doubt that the first context can provide that qualification, so that leaves the latter two: either this qualification must be justified on the basis of the canon, or because of the historical context of Christ’s words.

So here’s the challenge for non-pacifists: either show that the canon says that magistrates will, for all time (prior to the parousia, presumably), have to hate some of their enemies (so that Christ’s command could not possibly rule that out without contradicting this), or else show that some part of Jesus’ historical-linguistic context would have implied that when Jesus said “love your enemies”, he meant “love your enemies, unless you are a magistrate, then love your enemies in some situations and hate them in others.”

Love your enemies

Sorry, I promise this is the last one… for tonight…

One response to the pacifist reading of the Sermon on the Mount in the history of Christian ethics, especially the command to love our enemies, has been to argue that doing violence to our enemy can actually be a form of love.

But I have to be honest; I don’t think anyone would honestly believe this if it were not for the need to shore up a justification for war. Consider: what is the Christian argument against wife-beating? There’s no verse that explicitly says: “And thus saith the Lord: ‘Thou shalt not beat thy wife’.” Rather, the best and strongest argument against spousal abuse is that it is not loving to beat one’s wife. In fact it is exactly the opposite of love to beat one’s wife.

But the instinct that opposes love to wife-beating a fortiriori opposes love to killing.

A bad argument against pacifism

Sorry for the theme here, but I’ve got it on the brain…

One common argument against pacifism is: “If we actually took that position, much more evil would be perpetrated against innocents than if we didn’t.”

An example often is WWII: what would have happened to the Jews if the Allies hadn’t fought the Nazis?

The problem with this is that classical Christian theology, expressed perhaps most strongly in Calvin, teaches that all human actions are concurrently caused by God, as well as being caused by human agents. This means that while we can look at history as (containing) a series of human actions, we can also look at it as the outworking of divine providence.

This means that the Allied defeat of the Nazis is not just a human act, but a divine act. And this means that, at least in some sense, God did step in to stop the Nazis.

The basic point of this reply to the argument is to point out that a) the consequences of being a pacifist are not necessarily worse than not being a pacifist, and that b) one can condemn human actions (violence) while simultaneously seeing them as being used by God to prevent worse evils (as, e.g., a pacifist would perhaps see the Allied defeat of the Nazis in WWII).

This means, I think, that one cannot mount a consequentialist argument against a biblical pacifism; one will have to show that there is no good reason to believe God wants us to be pacifists, and to do that one would at minimum have to refute biblical arguments that God does want us to be pacifists.

A tentative biblico-theological thesis about pacifism

I think I’m the only one who would agree with the following, but, really, I’m just writing this to keep a record of it and see what kind of reaction it gets. So here goes nothing.

For a while I’ve been what I call a “tentative pacifist”, in that I think it’s the best of the options about social ethics as a model of what Scripture says, though I still have my questions in some areas. One of those areas is about the way in which this ethic would relate to the OT. For many Christian pacifists the answer has essentially been to write off the Old Testament as not authoritative, but with a high view of inspiration I don’t see that as an option.

A few different strands of biblical theology have presented themselves to me as a possible option for reconciling pacifism with the OT. They are essentially this:

  • The Bible presents the age of the OT as an age ruled by angels, or as the NT calls it, powers/elements/principalities; notably, in Galatians, Paul says that Israel under the Old Covenant was under these powers in being under the law (which should make clear that the powers are not inherently evil)
  • The Bible also presents violence as acceptable for the people of God in the OT (and even commands it on some occasions)
  • In the NT, the church is said to no longer be under the elementary principles/powers, but rather fighting/working against them to get them to submit to Christ the King

Perhaps the answer for the move from non-pacifism to pacifism is found in this change: in the OT, the people of God were under the powers, and thus rightly used the methods of the powers, which included violence. They were not at war with the powers, but totally under them; at most, they made war with human instruments of other powers. But now that the church is itself in conflict with the powers, it no longer makes sense to use their methods; rather, cosmic and carnal powers must be overcome with divine power.

Again, I’m sure this won’t convince anyone here, but I wanted to write it down before I forgot it! :-)

Saving the world by subduing it

Right now I’m prepping for teaching two blocks of grade 10 business at a Christian school in September by reading an ethics book called Beyond Integrity by Biola philosopher Scott Rae. I was surprised to find Rae favorably quoting Peter Leithart in the chapter on environmental stewardship. Leithart sounds much like Stephen Weinberg did in an article entitled, “Five and a half utopias” from the Atlantic.

Leithart:

“More precisely, in God’s wisdom, man best guards the world precisely by subduing it … Wild animals become safe and serviceable only after they are made submissive to human rule. Land becomes more productive under human care. Art and architecture are possible only becuase of human effort to transform the material of creation. Subduing the earth brings safety, prosperity and beauty. As the earth is subdued, it becomes something worth guarding; it becomes a sanctuary. By contrast, should man fail to exercise this royal mandate, the world will be less productive, safe and beautiful. This pattern implies a very different perspective from that of contemporary environmentalism. Instead of guarding the pristine creation, humanity is called to guard the world once it has been subdued to human rule, once it has been transformed into something like a sancturary. Man guards the garden and the city, not the wilderness.” Peter Leithart, “Snakes in the Garden: Sanctuaries, Sanctuary Pollution and the Global Environment,” Stewardship Journal (Fall 1993): 24 – 32.

Profound as always.

Modern attitudes in systematic theology

Michel Barnes is one of a few patristic scholars who is working to rehabilitate Augustine from of the nasty things that theologians have been saying about Augustine’s trinitarian theology. In the context of an article discussing where these nasty things have come from, he made an interesting comment about modern systematic theology in general which I thought was worth posting:

Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms. This confidence springs, I think, from two attitudes. First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Secondly, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology. One can imagine that either or both of these attitudes would make historical judgments or characterizations more tentative and rare, but I think it is fair to conclude that this has not been the case. [Michel René Barnes, "Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology," Theological Studies 56 (1995): 241.]

Freedom?

Apropos about Dan’s qualification on allowing gay-marriage (that it would not impinge on the rights of all religious groups), a Catholic adoption agency has now closed down in the UK because they refused to give children to gay couples, and the government both required that adoption agencies give children to gay couples, and refused to allow them an exemption for religious reasons.

HT: Craig Carter