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.


Post a Comment

<< Home