Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Another Comment on the Politics of the Gospel

Orienting the thematic rivalry of the NT around Rome rather than Satan seems to me akin to orienting an understanding of WWII around Italy rather than Germany. I mean, sure, it's there, and important enough in its own right, but you'd pretty much be missing the bigger picture by doing so.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Thinking about Government - Part V. Resolving Confessional Tensions?

In the last post I outlined what I thought were some tensions in the Confessions dealing with God and government. To summarize: The Augsburg itself seems to identify the authority of the civil government as a power only to protect the body from manifest injury (or perhaps it is injury from others). This suggests not only that the state should not enforce the first table of the law, but also that there are elements of the second table that the state should not enforce (depending on how “manifest” the harm, or perhaps whether it is self-injury).

On the other hand, confessional teaching on the first use of the law suggests that the civil government can enforce aspects of both tables of the law, and other parts of the Confessions seem to instruct civil magistrates to look out for the church, remove errors in the church, “heal consciences,” “propagate . . . the Gospel of Christ,” and etc.

Do these diverse affirmations cohere? I don’t know for sure. But here are some suggestions. (Additional suggestions are welcomed.)

Suggestion #1. The Augsburg’s affirmation in article xxviii should be taken as a fundamental lens through which to understand other confessional statements on the authority of government. The other statements are mainly directed to specific individuals at specific times. If those stand for anything, they stand for the proposition that there while the Augsburg’s affirmation states the general rule, there are exceptions to that rule in times of great emergency. For example, when a heterodox church enlists a government to try to suppress the orthodox church, it is entirely proper for the orthodox church to ask for protection from another government.

Problem with suggestion #1: This does not seem to me to do adequate justice to the confessional teaching on the first use of the law.

Suggestion #2. The Augsburg’s affirmation in article xxviii should not be taken as the fundamental lens to understand other confessional statements on the authority of government. Article xxviii, after all, is dedicated to discussing the power of bishops, not the power of the civil government. Its discussion of civil power is only by way of stating that bishops are abusing their authority to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments when the extend their authority into civil matters.

This article’s discussion of “bodies” and “manifest injury” is a discussion of power that bishops should not exercise because they do not have any proper authority over these matters. The teaching on civil power are controlled by this purpose, so we should not attempt to draw a whole doctrine of civil authority from this article, since instruction on that point is not the article’s purpose. (In this case what Augsburg is doing is taking the clearest case of civil power -- protecting bodies from injury by others -- and pointing out how absurd it is for preachers of the gospel to be concerned with temporal matters like that, when the eternal souls of their people depend on their spiritual care. In doing so the Augsburg would not be attempting to provide a comprehensive definition of civil power in this article.)

Instead, the Confession’s several statements on the “first use of the law” should be taken as the fundamental starting point for discussions of civil authority.

Problem with Suggestion #2. While the main purpose of article xxviii may be to instruct us on ecclesiastical power, in so doing, the Augsburg provides an affirmative definition of civil authority. That the definition is incidental to defining ecclesiastical power does not make it any less authoritative. Further, confessional teaching on “the first use of the law,” while controlling as well, are typically brief statements and do not seem intended to set out a full-fledged teaching on civil authority.

Suggestion #3. When the Confessions talk about civil rulers having “regard for the interests of the church,” they are speaking to appropriate civil interests only, not authorizing civil authority to intrude on spiritual matters for spiritual purposes.

The distinction might be a subtle one, so let me illuminate by way of an example. In the debate over Jefferson’s bill to disestablish religion in Virginia (i.e., to end tax support for state-supported churches in Virginia), Patrick Henry was the bill’s most notable opponent. Henry did not, however, argue that churches should receive tax support in order to promote the salvation of souls. Rather, he basically argued that churches promoted behavior that lead to the better functioning of society, and therefore left everyone better off. For example, higher church attendance is associated with lower crime rates, more stable families, higher levels of trust, etc.

All of these things are good things, but they all concern temporal matters and, hence, are within the proper domain of the civil government -- Henry argued for religious establishment on purely civil grounds, and not on spiritual grounds. (Indeed, Henry implicitly invoked the modern economic notion of “public goods” – goods that generate non-excludable benefits that, consequently, and underprovided when up to voluntary provision. This is a classic justification for government intervention.)

This type of involvement with religion seems to me consistent with what the Augsburg says in article xxviii. Spiritual welfare is left to the church; temporal welfare is left to the state. But the state can involve itself in ecclesiastical matters to the extent that it does so to advance civil interests. Thus, for example, a civil ruler could involve himself in a doctrinal dispute, not for the purpose of promoting true doctrine, but to maintain the peace of civil society in the event of doctrinal disputes.

Problem with Suggestion #3. It seems dangerous to invite the civil government to use the church for its own purposes. It seems easily to glide into cynical manipulation of religion for its own purposes, even when those purposes might be ungodly. Nonetheless, we do see this today in different contexts. Governments allow prison ministries into prison not because they are concerned about the eternal welfare of the imprisoned, but because allowing these ministries into the prison assists them to keep the peace in prison, and potentially to assist them in lowering rates of recidivism. (I don’t know that there are good data on the latter point. I’d be interested in seeing any.)

Those are the more obvious alternatives that I’ve thought of. Additional thoughts are welcomed. I’ll probably have an additional post on some things that Melanchthon and Chemnitz wrote related to this topic.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Thinking about Government - Part IV Confessional Tensions?

I now want to delve a bit into several passages in the Confessions about civil government that seem to be in some tension with each other. In this and the next post, we’ll look at these passages, then consider several ways that they may all be understood to cohere together.

On the one hand, the top text in the Tappert translation of article xxviii in the Augsburg Confession provides a statement with which I think even most libertarians would be satisfied:

“Temporal authority is concerned with matters altogether different from the Gospel. Temporal power does not protect the soul, but with the sword and physical penalties it protects body and goods from the power of others.” (art. xxviii.10-11).

Not only does the translation of the article seem to endorse a first table/second table division regarding the jurisdiction of civil government, it also seems entirely consistent with the notion that state authority does not encompass “victimless” crimes. After all, here the civil authority “protects body and goods from the power of others,” in distinction from protecting it from oneself. (Exactly what defines a “victimless” crime is quite another matter. But this translation seems to suggest that the state protects individuals only from others, not from themselves.)

Other translations of this passage do not go quite as far. The bottom translation in the Tappert edition renders the passage this way:

“For civil government is concerned with other things than the Gospel. The state protects not souls but bodies and goods from manifest harm, and constrains men with the sword and physical penalties, while the Gospel protects souls from heresies the devil, and eternal death.”

And the Triglotta translates it this way:

“For civil government deals with other things than does the Gospel. The civil rulers defend not minds, but bodies and bodily things against manifest injuries, and restrain men with the sword and bodily punishments in order to preserve civil justice and peace.”

While lacking the phrase “from the power of others,” both of these other translations nonetheless speak about the state protecting “bodies” from “manifest harm” or injury. So here the civil government would again seem not to have authority to protect the “soul” or “mind” from harm. This would include not only matters of the first table of the law, but also some matters of the second table. Or perhaps think of pornography here.

Further, these translations would allow the government to regulate only those actions that threaten “manifest” harm or injury. So injuries that are not plain and obvious would seemingly not be within the jurisdiction of the government.


So what are some other passages that seem to me in tension with this passage, however translated? There are several.

First, the many confessional passages regarding the “first use of the law” (quoted in earlier posts) do not seem to limit civil authority to things of the body (as opposed to those of the soul) or to the first table. It seems to me that the only limitations in those passages is the practical limitation of whether the sin involves an observable action or not (since the civil government can only act on what it can see). So matters of the first table of the law would come within the scope of the civil government, as well as sins against oneself, or that involve only consensual behavior.

More pointedly, though, is that other parts of the Confessions seem to suggest that the civil government does have authority over some spiritual matters. Here are three passages:

“Especially does it behoove the chief members of the church, the kings and the princes, to have regard for the interests of the church and to see to it that errors are removed and consciences are healed. God expressly exhorts kings, ‘Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth’ (Ps. 2:10). For the first care of kings should be to advance the Glory of God. Wherefore it would be most shameful for them to use their authority and power for the support of idolatry and countless other crimes and for the murder of the saints” (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 54, emphasis added).

“Emperor Charles . . . It is your special responsibility before God to maintain and propagate sound doctrine and to defend those who teach it. God demands this when he honors kings with his own name and calls them gods (Ps. 82:6), ‘I say, “you are gods.”’ They should take care to maintain and propagate divine things on earth, that is, the Gospel of Christ, and as vicars of God they should defend the life and safety of the innocent” (Apology XXI.44).

“If any refuse your [i.e., pastors and preachers] instructions [from the catechism], tell them that they deny Christ and are no Christians. . . . In addition, parents and employers . . . should notify them that the prince is disposed to banish such rude people from his land.
“Although we cannot and should not compel anyone to believe, we should nevertheless insist that the people learn to know how to distinguish between right and wrong according to the standards of those among whom they live and make their living. For anyone who desires to reside in a city is bound to know and observe the laws under whose protection he lives, no matter whether he is a believer or, at heart, a scoundrel or knave” (Small Catechism, Preface 11-13).

This post is long enough. I’ll continue the discussion, along with ways all the passages may possibly cohere together, in another post.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thinking about Government -- Part III

In Part II I mentioned the distinction between spiritual and civil righteousness in the Confessions. This is a fundamental structuring concept in Lutheran thought that, to be the best of my understanding, is not equally emphasized in Reformed thought, or at least is not unanimously received in Reformed thought. (But I could be mistaken about the characterization. I recall thinking that Calvin might draw on a similar idea in discussing civil government in the Institutes. But it’s been some time since I read that chapter.)

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states this:

“[The scholastics] taught that men are justified before God by philosophical or civic righteousness, which we agree is subject to reason and somewhat in our power. But thereby they failed to see the inner uncleanness of human nature. This cannot be adjudged except from the Word of God, which the scholastics do not often employ in their discussions” (art II.12-13).

Similarly, in article XVIII, discussing free will, the Apology states:

“Therefore we may profitably distinguish between civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness, attributing the former to the free will and the latter to the operation of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate. This safeguards outward discipline, because all men ought to know that God requires this civil righteousness and that, to some extent, we can achieve it. At the same time it shows the difference between human righteousness and spiritual righteousness, between philosophical teaching and the teaching of the Holy Spirit; and it points out the need for the Holy Spirit. This distinction is not our invention but the clear teaching of the Scriptures, Augustine discusses it too . . .”

The Apology does not provide a scriptural citation, but I assume that it is referring to passages such as Mt 7.11 (Lk 11.13) in which Jesus tells his listeners: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask him.”

In this passage we see Jesus invoke the two types of righteousness. On the one hand, we are spiritually “evil” before God. On the other hand, we nonetheless do works of civil righteousness that Jesus calls “good.” Doing this good work does not make us righteous before God.

In the Confessions, the civil government can speak to this external domain of civil righteousness, but cannot speak to the domain of righteousness before God.

This distinction is not identical to a distinction between scriptural revelation and what is accessible through unaided reason. The Confessions draw on the lengthy tradition of “reason” understood through the natural law tradition. This is not without its difficulties, because the natural law tradition is a tradition with a long history, and with a number of large tributaries of thought. I am unsure exactly how tied the Confessions are to the particular tradition of the Scholastics (which, as I understand it, is a generally Thomistic tradition, in itself with a huge number of diverse positions about reason, natural law, and the relationship of those things to scriptural revelation).

At one point in its translation of the Confessions, the Triglot includes what I take to be gloss on the text in which it affirms that the Law of Moses, specifically, the Ten Commandments, are natural law. I believe that that is a fairly standard view among Christian natural-law theorists. That conclusion, however, carries with it a number of important implications, not only for natural-law theory, but also for the scope of governmental authority.

I plan to post more on this topic.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Thinking about Civil Government, Part II - Transformationism

Lutherans aren't big on transformation. The motivation for this isn't always that it's convenient if we're forgiven yet no one expects anything to change for the better. Rather, the idea is that we need to keep the message of the Gospel as clean from obstruction as possible, otherwise people get confused about how they are forgiven, and this leads them to be enslaved all over again.

This is especially true about Christianity and government. Lutheran Confessions do not promote a "transformationist" view of government. But it is critically important to understand what Lutherans mean by that, and what they don't mean by that.

The transformation brought by the Gospel is ministered through preaching and the sacraments, and only the church has those. The civil government is only the agent of law, and can never be the agent of the Gospel. (If it were to try, because of its nature, then it would turn Gospel into law, and the message of the Gospel would be lost.) So Christians should not try to use the government to spiritually transform culture through the Gospel. The attempt only obscures the Gospel.

Spiritual transformation occurs only through the Gospel, and the Gospel is solely committed to the church.

This does not mean, however, that Lutherans do not believe that the civil government cannot transform behavior, or that culture will not be transformed as a result of what the civil government properly does. Indeed, Lutheran theology commends the civil government precisely because of its transformationist effects. And the Confessions commend the importance of this transformative effect that the civil government can bring. It's just that the transformation that the state accomplishes is not redemptive. This point is critical, so let me repeat it: In the Lutheran Confessions, the civil government properly transforms society for the better, it's just that this transformation is not redemptive, and "for the better" means "better" in regard to civic righteousness, not God's righteousness.

Let's look at some passages from the Confessions.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, art IV.22-23:

"For God wishes those who are carnal [gross sinners] to be restrained by civil discipline, and to maintain this, He has given laws, letters, doctrine, magistrates, penalties. . . . [W]e cheerfully assign this righteousness of reason the praises that are due it . . . yet it ought not to be praised with reproach to Christ."

So the whole point of civil discipline is to "restrain" gross sinners. As I show below, this is repeated throughout the Confessions in their statements about the "first use of the law." This restraint does not, and cannot, save sinners. All it does is limit the damage they can do. Nonetheless, it is within the sphere of civil government to "restrain the unspiritual" (as another translation puts it). And, as a result, the expectation of the Confessions regarding the civil government is that it can transform the tone of the public or civic life of a society by legally suppressing gross sin. While this transformation is not redemptive, the Confessions are clear in calling this limitation on sin a good thing.

So the Lutheran rejection of a politics of spiritual transformationism -- understood in the sense of the government extending the Gospel -- cannot be understood to commend a modern-like secular/sacred division aligned between the state (secular) and the church (sacred). The Lutheran Confessions naturally comprehend the government to be involved with questions of sin and morality. They simply reject -- completely reject -- that this involvement ministers forgiveness to sinners.

The "first use of the law" in the Confessions reiterates the governments proper domain in this area of law:

"[T]he law was given by God first of all to restrain sins by threats and fear of punishment" (Smalcald Articles, II.1).

"The law has been given to men for three reasons: (1) to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men . . ." (Epitome, art. VI.1).

"The law of God serves (1) . . . to maintain external discipline and decency against dissolute and disobedient people . . ." (Solid Declaration, VI.1).

"To restrain open lawlessness is the responsibility of princes and magistrates" (Large Catechism, 1st Part.249).

Of course, that government has a power does not mean that the government must or should use that power. Use of power must be informed by a host of practical, prudential judgments about the costs and benefits of a policy. Nonetheless, the Lutheran Confessions openly and repeatedly identify civil government as an institution with the charge to restrict public sin. And it does so while completely rejecting the notion that the government can do anything spiritually to transform society by advancing the forgiveness of sins offered in the Gospel. The state restricts sin while the church offers forgiveness. (It is in this sense that, in Lutheran theology, just as law is the alien work of Christ, I would think that the preaching of the law is the alien work of the church.)