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.


Blogger solarblogger said...

Good discussion. I'm entering into it a bit late. But I have a suggestion that might require some deeper retooling.

Lutheran theology taught me a deep hermeneutical principle. There are seats of doctrine (sedes doctrinae) where we take our primary understanding of a given matter. We get our understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar from the Words of Institution. We do not put St. Paul's inspired commentary on an equal level with those words. St. Paul is no less inspired. But he is not a starting point. Despite being inspired, St. Paul had to learn his doctrine from the Words of Institution as we do. Then the Holy Spirit guided his meditations, and kept him from error. But if we don't begin with the Words of Institution, we can be led astray.

Likewise elsewhere. We want to determine what civil authority was from where it was instituted. When we find this in Scripture, we must cling to it. Other Scriptures can enlighten us. But until we understand the seats of doctrine for civil authority, we will not know the real terms of the debate.

I tend to see Genesis 9:6 as the seat of doctrine for civil authority. And when I follow it through elsewhere (e.g. Matthew 26:52), I see how Luther got to referring to it as the sword.

If Luther is right about Moses binding Jews and not Gentiles, and Genesis is our seat of doctrine, then Genesis is more fundamental than any discussion of the tables of the Law. Anyway, ponder it for a while. There is a hierarchy of teaching here that you want to master before you resolve the tensions. Not that you cannot get somewhere going forward as you're going. But the deeper principles must be understood clearly in order to know how we handle an exceptional situation. To understand an exception, we need to know the rule.

December 29, 2006 10:42 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Good points to think about. I keep meaning to post some passages from
Melanchthon's Loci Communes Theologici in which he (and his student's gloss on what Melanchthon wrote) talk about the ten commandments as part of natural law.

In it, there is an extended discussion of the "ten commandments" being revealed in the Scriptures prior to Moses. (I was a bit skeptical at first, but the argument ultimately seemed pretty compelling to me.) The conclusionb was that, in the ten commandments, Moses merely recapitulates what was already revealed.

I don't know what, if any, difference that claim would make regarding your argument.

And, to be sure, it's standard to identify Gn 9.6 as a revelation delegating civil authority to humanity. I don't disagree. I'm unsure where that gets us with respect to additional texts relating to civil authority.

I also don't at all disagree with the idea of sedes doctrinae. But 25 cent question, though, is validating the text you select as the correct sedes doctrinae.

December 29, 2006 11:49 AM  
Blogger solarblogger said...

I can imagine how the natural law arguments would be made. But there would still be a fundamental polity question to ask. Granted it is wrong to do x, y, and z, do you use the sword to punish x, y, and z?

But 25 cent question, though, is validating the text you select as the correct sedes doctrinae.

Very true. I think as a general principle, I would use the passage where something is first instituted. Jesus won't allow Leviticus to count more than Genesis when it comes to marriage, I think implicitly for sedes doctrinae reasons. And his use of Scripture there is exemplary. What is the particular institution given to do?

And, to be sure, it's standard to identify Gn 9.6 as a revelation delegating civil authority to humanity. I don't disagree. I'm unsure where that gets us with respect to additional texts relating to civil authority.

It offers a paradigm case as to what civil authority is about. It isn't about accomplishing any and every sort of good we might think of doing. It is at base about life and death. It will probably give us a very dim view of a government that spends lots of tax money and doesn't punish the murderer.

I'm not always sure what a shift in perspective like this will accomplish. But I think it is a proper way to read.

December 30, 2006 10:41 AM  

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