Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

08/27/2009 (9:11 pm)

A Protestant Argument for Limited Government

smugbobI have only progressed a few inches into my review of the Theological Foundations of a Just Rebellion. However, as part of that review, I encountered a truly excellent defense of the basic notion of individual rights in a public brochure written by Elisha Williams, member of the Connecticut General Assembly and former rector at Yale University. The brochure was entitled “The Essential Rights and Liberties of Protestants,” with the subtitle “A reasonable Plea for The Liberty of Conscience, and The Right of private Judgment, in Matters of Religion, Without Controul from human Authority. Being a LETTER, From a Gentleman in the Massachusetts-Bay to his Friend in Connectivut, Wherein Some Thoughts on the Origin, End, and Extent of the Civil Power, with brief Considerations on several late Laws in Connectivut, are humbly offered.” Boston, 1744. ( You can read it for yourselves in its entirety at the link under the title.)

Williams’ essay is a long one, and will take some time to condense; I will report on it soon. In the meantime, however, a friend passed along to me a challenge from one of his friends for some Protestant to articulate the appropriate limits of government, with reference to the current administration’s attempts to nationalize health insurance. “If the public option is not a valid function of government,” this person asked, “What IS a valid function, and why?”

So, I’m setting forth my thinking at the moment regarding the proper limits of government from a Protestant’s point of view. The essential ideas are Lockean (based loosely on the ideas of John Locke), but Lockean as expressed by the Rev. Williams. This is a first cut at something I hope to refine and correct as I move forward. Enjoy.

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Man in his natural state has himself, has God’s oversight, and has whatever he has taken from nature to sustain himself. Thus each person, by natural occurance and therefore by God’s initial design, has both the responsibility to answer to God out of his conscience, and the right to care for himself using his personal property.

The confirmation of this occurs in the structure of the Old Covenant. The Ten Commandments basically defend these same two principles, “honor God” and “honor private property.” The first five commandments say “Separate the holy from the profane,” in order that man may know God’s will. Have no other gods but the true God, make no gods out of created things, let no man claim authority from God that is not his to claim, treat God’s holy days as holy, and honor the teaching of your parents. The second five commandments say “Do not take what belongs to another person.” Steal nobody’s property, cohabit with nobody’s spouse, take nobody’s life, ruin nobody’s reputation, and covet nobody’s goods. Thus the central rules of God over man are “Honor and obey me, and respect each person’s property.” All belongs to God; He has apportioned to each person according to His will, and nobody has a right to reapportion it by force.

Regarding property, which at its root is the right of every person to provide for himself and his family, people fall into conflict from time to time and need an arbiter to settle disputes regarding the conflict of their needs. Government serves this role, and pursuing this, articulates the basic agreements individuals make in order to settle their disputes. Men also need to gather together to protect themselves from other men who would hinder their efforts to provide for themselves. In pursuit of this protection, men form governments, which keep the peace and provide for defense.

Regarding conscience, which is the other imperative, it is the unfortunate tendency of human beings to desire to force other people to do as they see fit, out of desire for personal profit, desire for power, or arrogant assertion of the right to decide others’ consciences. In the same vein, governments tend to force men to violate their consciences, to do as the governors see fit. Consequently, humans in community need the ability to limit the power of government, and to keep it from forcing them to violate their consciences. Inasmuch as any agent or any government attempts to force individuals to obey the conscience of that agent or government, rather than permitting the individual to obey his own conscience, that agent or government steps into the role of God and usurps God’s authority.

Thus the only valid function of a government is to protect the life and property of free citizens, so that they are at liberty to do as their conscience requires them before God. Any attempt by government to serve any other function constitutes a violation of the other core principle, an attempt to remove from people their responsibility to answer personally to God. Assigning any function to government aside from the protection of life and property constitutes blasphemy. Governments protect life, liberty, and property. This is it’s only valid purpose.

The confirmation of this occurs, again, within the structure of the Old Covenant. In the one instance in human history where we know that God established a civil polity, which was the nation of Israel after the invasion of Canaan, the polity He established was a clan — a loose affiliation of family structures, each with their own clearly demarcated property, but with each person answerable to God Himself. Both their property and their liberty were inviolable; even those who came into slavery by way of debt, were released eventually in the Jubilee, and returned to their ancestral property. He also sent periodic prophetic agents, who acted, not as governors nor as rulers, but as reminders to the consciences of individuals that they each, individually and collectively, should keep the laws of God; they also acted as leaders to free the people from invading tyrants, but their leadership ended when the tyrants were overthrown. When the people of Israel decided that they wanted a monarch instead of this loose confederacy, God announced “They have rejected ME from being king over them,” (I Sam 8:7) confirming that to raise up human government to perform any function other than mere protection of liberty and property constitutes blasphemy.

The desire of humankind to replace God’s rulership with human wisdom displayed itself in Genesis 10:8-12, and in the building of Babel in Genesis 11. This is the origin point for men declaring themselves great, establishing kingships, and attempting to perfect themselves; this is also the origin of the notion that one man might rule over another by right. Both the early deific monarchs, and the much more recent Utopian political philosophies, are expressions of the spirit of Nimrod, and recreate Babel. These efforts assert human perfectibility, represent human tyranny, and earn the opposition of God.

The subtlety of satan in deceiving mankind and drawing him into blasphemy displays itself in a very common equivocation on the notion to “protect life.” One might imagine that anything a government does to make life better for its citizens constitutes a proper function under the rubric of protecting life. With this in mind, the unwary might justify the government controlling the tiniest details of human choices in any area, dictating to citizens which washing machines to buy, which fuels to use, or which health insurance to purchase. This is demonic in origin, and constitutes nothing but a Nimrodian attempt by humans to produce Utopia apart from God, by inserting government in the place of God in ruling men’s consciences. Government exerting control over choices does not protect the common good, it attempts to produce it. Government’s job is to protect, not to produce. Government produces nothing.

By the same token, the temptation to use government to meet the needs of the poor must also be avoided. Christian imperatives to do good to others are sound responses of the conscience toward God, but since each person’s conscience is owed to God alone, never to another human being or to the state, the exercise of that conscience must remain a personal choice and not a collective one. For the government to usurp the role of private charity is for the government subtly to usurp the role of God in ruling peoples’ consciences. Conscience must remain free, and the exercise of conscience, the responsibility of the individual citizen.

It remains but to dispose of a common misconception regarding a single passage in the Apostle Paul’s writings, Romans 13:1-7, in which Paul argues that Christians should keep a good conscience toward civil authority, because the power that exists was established by God. This is commonly thought to support the claim that any government in virtually any application of power has God’s imprimatur, and that it constitutes rebellion against God to resist the authority of the state in any way.

The passage does not support this absolute position, however. The matters that Paul addresses concern merely keeping the peace, and argue for the right of governments to enforce such laws as are common to all humankind — don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and so forth. When he says “There is no authority except from God,” he is not declaring that every power the state has usurped is theirs by the approval of God, but rather, that the legitimate power of the state is limited to those things that God ordains. If the state attempts to exert power — “bear the sword” — for purposes other than those God ordains, then it acts illegitimately, without His power. However, within those central matters of common human rules that reflect the true laws of God, whatever state enforces them is enforcing the laws of God.

To assert that any government, no matter how wicked, is established by God simply by virtue of the fact that it exists, is to say something absurd, and something far beyond the context. If a parent taught his child, “Listen to your teachers, even the ones who are not Christian, because all truth is God’s truth,” is that parent asserting that anything any teacher says is therefore a truth from God? Of course not; what he’s saying, instead, is that whatever is true, is true regardless of out of whose mouth it comes. Paul, likewise, is not saying that every government represents God in all its exercises of authority, but rather that when even a secular government enforces laws that God ordained, it is defending God’s authority thereby.

The only government that rules in its entirety within the will of God, is that government that performs the simple role of protecting the ability of free citizens to provide for themselves, by arbitrating between neighbors and protecting life, liberty, and property from destroyers both within and without the community. All that any government performs within these bounds, it performs with God’s blessing. All that any government performs beyond these bounds, it performs as an act of blasphemy, taking for men that which belongs properly to God.

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46 Comments »

August 28, 2009 @ 12:45 pm #

Phil,

I don’t see a whole lot of polishing you need to do. This is about as clear of a statement of the Protestant support of limited government as I’ve seen.

My only objection is with the treatment of the Romans verse. Within a year or two, Paul would be executed by the government he was speaking about, and within a couple of decades they would come down on Paul’s home country like a sledge hammer. If there was ever a time to clarify himself…it was this one.

You are not doing classic hermeneutics there, it looks like…it looks like you are interpreting Paul a little bit through Protestant lenses.

But that is not fatal to the essay to me, not at all. If someone was to address the “limited governement” perspective, they should definitely address this particular essay.

August 28, 2009 @ 1:19 pm #

“Thus the only valid function of a government is to protect the life and property of free citizens, so that they are at liberty to do as their conscience requires them before God.”

“We the people, in order to form a more prefect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty, to ourseleves and our posterity . . .”

The concepts that will cause your political philosophy the most grief are “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare.” Liberals think of justice as “reciprocity.” Libertarians think of justice as the “non violation of natural rights.” There’s the rub.

Joe

August 28, 2009 @ 1:27 pm #

Also,

it makes a very big difference how liberty and freedom are defined. Libertarians define freedom as the absense of outside coercion. Liberals define freedom as the absence of coercion coupled with the material wherewithall to pursue one’s vision of a meaningful life.

A person who must work 14 hours a day, every day, just to survive, is not “free.” They’re not free, even if the government completely leaves them alone.

Joe

August 28, 2009 @ 1:47 pm #

First of all, bringing in the US Constitution at this point gets more particular than I intended to get. I’m just establishing general principles. But, ok, you went there.

Please explain further what you mean by “reciprocity.” What is reciprocal to what, and how does that make something just?

I actually wrote a paragraph about the “general welfare” clause in my original essay, then removed it for the reason cited in my first sentence in this comment. My response to that clause is essentially the same as my response to the notion that “protecting life” justifies government fiddling with particular conscientious decisions; by equivocating on a vague term, you end up creating a loophole through which you invalidate the entire exercise, and grant government the power to do anything at all, simply by saying “It’s for your own good.” The government’s job is to protect, not to produce; the government cannot legitimately produce general welfare, it can only protect citizens while they produce it, which is what “promote the general welfare” originally meant.

In actual point of fact, I think history has also demonstrated that governments literally cannot produce welfare at all, and that they ruin pretty much whatever they touch in the attempt; but that’s a different discussion.

August 28, 2009 @ 2:00 pm #

As you point out, Joe, this plays with the definition of “freedom.” A person who has to work 14 hours a day to survive may not be able to enjoy their freedom much, but in every manner meant by 18th century Protestants (for whom, by the way, working 16 hours/day, 6 days a week was the norm,) that person is free: free politically, and free religiously.

By changing the definition of “freedom” the modern liberal begins the exercise of becoming God, which is part of the “Nimrod” exercise I touched on briefly. It criticizes God’s creation, noting that the state of affluence achieved by hard work and ingenuity over the past century is actually a human right, to which everybody is entitled by birth. Only, that’s ridiculous; nobody experienced what you’re calling freedom before free markets produced the technological innovations and wealth of the 20th century. Work is the norm for humanity, and if the ideal of “freedom” requires that humans be elevated above the need to work quite so hard, you may as well add that “freedom” means that men should have the power to fly by flapping their arms, or to walk on water, or to travel around the world simply by thinking about where they want to go, and that if they can’t do those things, they’re not “free.” I argue based on man’s natural state before God, basically Locke’s notion of Natural Law. When we start criticizing man’s place in the universe as unfair to man (which is what you do when you posit the need to work hard for a living as a freedom-stopper,) what we criticize is God’s natural order, and we posit ourselves as those who aim to repair what God broke, and therefore becoming gods ourselves. I can see you doing this as part of a humanistic philosophy, but within a Protestant view of the universe it has no place.

August 28, 2009 @ 3:40 pm #

Phil,

I mentioned the Constitution’s preamble because its stated purposes are accepted by most people as legitimate functions of government.

“Promoting” the general welfare is certainly something the government does all the time – in mostly unnoticed ways. For example, there are numerous regulations (and regulators) that render us dramatically safer than we would be without them. Think of food safety, fire safety, building safety, etc. I could go on for quite awhile. I don’t accept your premise that the government ruins everything it gets involved with.

“Reciprocity” refers to “mutually agreeable terms of social cooperation.” On a reciprocity theory of justice, a society is just to the extent that the rules governing its basic structure are rules that we would agree to without knowing any particulars about ourselves – rules that we would agree to without knowing whether we are male or female, religious or non religious (or a practicioner of some particular religion) gay or straight, talented or not talented, rich or poor, healthy or sick, etc.

You correctly note that security and dispute resolution are reasons that men form governments. But these are not the only reasons. Another reason is so that we can cooperate with one another. In forming a government that promotes cooperation, men can choose the terms of their cooperation, including terms that infringe on their individual rights to property and conscience, if it seems good to them to do so. For example, your theory acknowledges that when men form a society, they voluntarily surrender thier natural right to ajudicate their own disputes (though any means that seems good to them, including violence). Your theory gives the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Great.

But if men can voluntarily give up their natural right to use force, men can voluntarily agree to allow any natural right to be infringed, if it seems wise to them to cooperate on such terms. Nothing ungodly about that.

The consent of the governed is a perfectly legitmate principle – and it doesn’t presume the libertarian posture you prefer.

Also, the meaning of “freedom” is not given. If a modern philosopher wants to argue that the traditional conception of freedom is inadequate, it is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. You argue, a person who has to work fourteen hours a day may not be able to use his freedom very much. But that simply assumes that your definition of freedom is correct. I disagree – I say that meaningful freedom requires more than the mere absence of coersion.

That doesn’t mean I’m right, but I might be. You can’t defeat my argument by assuming that your definition is the only legitimate use of the term.

In a nutshell, your theory of government does not account for people voluntarily agreeing to compromise their natural rights to enhance cooperation and/or promote justice – conceoved as reciprocity.

Joe

August 28, 2009 @ 7:13 pm #

Wow. After reading Joe’s 3:40 comment, this seems to bear repeating:

>>you may as well add that “freedom” means that men should have the power to fly by flapping their arms, or to walk on water, or to travel around the world simply by thinking about where they want to go, and that if they can’t do those things, they’re not “free.”>>

Or maybe “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride”.

Joe, you take a perfectly simple, direct, clear Declaration designed for the imperfect human, and derive from it a statement of utopia which is impossible as long as humans are humans. When humans achieve perfection, your concepts are a definite possibility.

Till then … get real!

August 28, 2009 @ 8:26 pm #

Nothing “utopic” about pointing out that an aspect of freedom is material freedom – e.g., wherewithal. We say things like “I’m stuck in this job because I can’t earn enough money to pay my mortgage otherwise.” The person is certainly free to leave in the negative sense – no one is forcing him to stay. But unless he is willing to endure horrific consequences, he’s not meaningfully free to leave.

Everyone is free to go to college if they qualify, but if you can’t afford it, your negative freedom -freedom from coercion or interference – is useless.

Libertarians reduce freedom to an entirely negative concept – the absense of coercive interference. Liberals are concerned about negative freedom, but also concern themselves with positive (or material) freedom.

Joe H.

August 28, 2009 @ 8:47 pm #

Phil, I’m wondering about your argument here.

>>Thus the only valid function of a government is to protect the life and property of free citizens, so that they are at liberty to do as their conscience requires them before God. Any attempt by government to serve any other function constitutes a violation of the other core principle, an attempt to remove from people their responsibility to answer personally to God. Assigning any function to government aside from the protection of life and property constitutes blasphemy. Governments protect life, liberty, and property. This is it’s only valid purpose.”<<

I don’t follow the “only valid purpose” inference, probably because I don’t understand what you mean when you say “Any attempt by government to serve any other function constitutes a violation of the other core principle, an attempt to remove from people their responsibility to answer personally to God.” That was the only premise I could detect that would yield the “only.” The premises prior the statement I quoted establish that these are legitimate governmental purposes – something about which we all agree – but not the “only valid purpose.”

So what justifies the only?

How would allowing elderly people to die in the streets, or allowing employers to hire six year olds – things that used to happen before the government intervened – “remove from people their responsibility to answer personally to God.” How does government run education – to insure that children from poorer families are not priced out do this?

Just wondering.

Joe H.

August 28, 2009 @ 9:00 pm #

Upon further review, you did have another argument for the “only valid purpose” conclusion. You said “[i]nasmuch as any agent or any government attempts to force individuals to obey the conscience of that agent or government, rather than permitting the individual to obey his own conscience, that agent or government steps into the role of God and usurps God’s authority.”

Unfortunately, I found this premise equally mysterious. In some states, the government requires parents, against their consciences, and based on threats to use force, to obtain medical treatment for their children. Does that usurp God’s authority? And if so, how?

In fact, all criminal and tort laws reflect society’s conscience on the behaviors they address. These laws impose our collective conscience on dissenters by force. Do such laws usurp God’s authority?

I think I must be misunderstanding you, but I’ll let you clarify?

You do realize that its 4:00 p.m. in Honolulu and I’m trying to get to five o’clock pau hana (finish work) without practicing any more law.

Joe H.

August 29, 2009 @ 11:09 am #

>>Liberals are concerned about negative freedom, but also concern themselves with positive (or material) freedom.>>

And how does one obtain positive (or material) freedom?

August 29, 2009 @ 3:52 pm #

Joe,

You completely ignored my rebuttal of your inclusion of economics into the definition of “freedom,” which was that when we’re deriving natural rights from the original state of man before God, to posit the 20th century standard of affluence among the natural rights of humans is simply absurd. You may as well posit air travel as a natural right. Without answering that, I can’t see any basis of your repeating your assertion that your point about “material” freedom deserves inclusion. In fact, the impropriety of including 20th century affluence as a natural right strikes me as so completely dispositive that your repetition reminds me of the continued writhing of a snake’s body after you’ve removed the head.

Let’s recall the exercise: I’m attempting a PROTESTANT (therefore Christian and biblical) definition of GOVERNMENT. I’m beginning by asserting natural rights inferred from a state of creation — that man answers to himself and to God, and has access to himself and whatever he can take from the ground to sustain himself. This leads to two fundamental characteristics of man: he answers to God, and he is entitled to care for himself by his labor. Implied herein is that God created what He intended.

When you attempt to add to this picture “Well, he can’t have much leisure time if he has to spend all his time sustaining himself,” you’re clearly stepping outside of this notion of natural rights, and therefore outside of the Protestant picture. As I said, you may feel free to add whatever requirements you like, only don’t call it a Protestant view; call it something else. I called it Nimrodian — and again, you offered no rebuttal, just a wave of the hand, saying “No, it’s not.” That’s not a rebuttal.

What you’re doing is playing games with the ambiguity of the word “freedom.” It needs an adjective, or it can mean anything at all. If I sprain my wrist and carry my arm in a sling, my arm is not “free”; when it’s healed and I discard the sling, my arm is “free.” Obviously, that’s not what we’re talking about here, though. Since we’re talking about a Protestant view of GOVERNMENT, we must necessarily be talking about POLITICAL freedom; God’s rights of man with regard to governments. Since we’re also talking about man’s personal responsibility to God, we’re talking about RELIGIOUS freedom. Adding “economic freedom” willy-nilly is about as reasonable as adding “freedom of arm motion”; what you need is a natural origin of man’s economic liberty (like I supply with his liberty of conscience and his natural right to own private property), followed by a biblical support indicating that God includes that within His notion of man’s natural rights (like I supply for man’s individual responsibility to God and his right to private property.)

Oh, and calling these natural rights “negative” freedom, and your completely arbitrary and unfounded inclusion of economic rights, “positive” freedom? Nothing but really cheap special pleading. I won’t use those terms again. They’re nonsense. I’m talking about religious and political freedom, which I posit as natural rights for a reason. You’re talking about economic freedom, which you posit as a natural right for no better reason than that you feel more comfortable with a little leisure time (big deal.)

Let’s not hear any more of economic rights until you’ve given a single, sound reason why a Protestant considering government from a biblical point of view should include economics in any fashion whatsoever. And I’m not going to accept any reason unless I also hear an explanation concerning why we should consider an economic standard normative that only existed for princes and kings prior to the 20th century — how something goes from a practical impossibility to a natural right.

August 29, 2009 @ 4:20 pm #

As I explained a moment ago, I’m looking at the natural state of man for clues to God’s intentions; the “only” is justified by the limited number of things man’s natural state requires. I suppose the syllogistic form would look something like this:

1) God created man with a purpose.
2) Man has no right to perform any act not related to meeting God’s purpose.
3) Therefore institutions formed by man may serve no function other than to meet God’s purpose.
4) God’s purpose for man is reflected in the natural state in which man was created.
5) Man’s natural state includes the ability to provide for himself through honestly acquired property, and the duty of keeping a clear conscience toward God.
6) Therefore the only legitimate function for a government is to protect man’s ability to provide for himself, and to protect his ability to keep a clear conscience toward God.

Regarding children, I think it’s proper to add them to premise 5. The natural state of children needing care and instruction from their parents is rather obvious, and has clear endorsement in the 5th commandment, as well as in the common practice of all human societies. So I would add “Man’s natural state includes the rearing of children and the protection of his family in order to procreate according to God’s commandment,” among the natural state of man.

I suppose as I go along for the next few weeks processing these topics, I’ll be adding a few more items to my 5th premise. What I want to end up with is a finite list of the clearly defined natural rights of man, according to Protestant theology. The criteria I’m looking for to establish those are 1) the appearance of the function in man’s natural state, and 2) biblical support for defending that function as a natural right God recognizes. The protection of family and the rearing of children clearly qualify, as do man’s ability to provide food and shelter for himself and his family and man’s need to serve the will of God.

Personally, I think the addition of natural rights has gone berserk in the 20th century, but I’m trying to filter out the modern prejudices and begin from scratch.

August 29, 2009 @ 5:28 pm #

Phil, you overlook two important arguments.

First, when you described why people form governments, you included only security and dispute resolution. But the natural economic condition of human existence is moderate scarcity – a condition in which material goods do not grow on trees (absolute abundance), but also not one in which it is impossible for humans, even with cooperative effort, to obtain basic necessities (absolute scarcity). Moderate scarcity is the economic condition described in genesis after the fall, when Adam was consigned to toil.

Fortunately, humans, in their natural state, are social animals -cooperative animals. In conditions of moderate scarcity, cooperation greatly enhances human productive capacity – the division of labor, specialization, economies of scale, and so on.

So, In addition to security and dispute resolution, humans are driven by their natural economic environment and their god given natures, to form governments that facilitate cooperation on a larger scale. And when humans form governments to facilitate their cooperation, they are free to choose the terms of their cooperation.

Your theory denies this. You argue that, when forming a government, individuals are not free to surrender any of their natural rights other than their right to use force to settle their disputes – you’re arguing that doing so is an affront to God.

I’m saying that you need to explain why individuals are free to surrender their natural right to use force to settle disputes, but are not free to compromise other natural rights, such as the right to property, if it seems wise to them to do so.

I understand that you think it unwise. But I’m asking why it is ungodly, not unwise, to organize a society in which we compromise our absolute right to property in order to collectively fund goods that we think are important, but which we also think a free market won’t supply?

Second, human beings, in their natural state, are thinking beings. From this we can derive the natural right to revise our conclusions about any other natural right, including liberty or freedom, if our inquiry leads us to conclude that our former understanding of the right was impoverished.

I’m saying that the traditional understanding of the natural right of liberty is impoverished when it is applied to communal societies. God made us communal beings, not individuals. We have to ask what freedom means within a productive community, if we’re going to be so bold as to put God’s seal of approval on a political philosophy.

Joe

August 29, 2009 @ 5:38 pm #

By the way, Locke is not the only philosophical foundation on which to build a theory natural rights. Locke’s model was quasi-historical. His thought experiment was to imagine man existing in a pre-communal existence to derive natural rights.

Kant provided a philosophical platform based on his analysis of human beings existing as autnomous beings, as ends in ourselves, as bearers of dignity. It is a lot easier to include material freedom in the definition of freedom when the categorical imperative requires that each person be treated as an end in themselves, and not as a means merely.

Joe

August 29, 2009 @ 5:43 pm #

That seems reasonable, Joe, and far more clear and succinct than anything I would have said, especially:

“We have to ask what freedom means within a productive community, if we’re going to be so bold as to put God’s seal of approval on a political philosophy.”

Phil asked the question: “Let’s not hear any more of economic rights until you’ve given a single, sound reason why a Protestant considering government from a biblical point of view should include economics in any fashion whatsoever.”

We’ve been over this ground before: because the only time God deliberately set up a nation, He was acutely interested in economics. He made conditions for participation and good citizenship: Saving the edge-crops for the poor to have (even though they didn’t work to raise them – only to gather); the Jubilee (evening out the main form of wealth, land, and removing any inequities that had occurred over each fifty years). Those who refused the Jubilee could be brought before the judges, right?

If these aren’t good data to at least use in building a Protestant economic theory, I wonder what criteria we would use to choose what to include?

August 29, 2009 @ 7:47 pm #

The reason that an economic aspect of freedom is relevant to a Protestant analysis is that moderate scarcity is where the allegorical “fall” left us – we lost absolute abundance and were consigned – thankfully – to moderate scarcity.

Cooperation is natural and essential under conditions of moderate scarcity, which presents the problems of coming up with just terms of cooperation.

This can’t be ommitted from any account of God’s intent.

Joe

Joe

August 30, 2009 @ 12:36 pm #

Joe,

I believe this is an error:

to form governments that facilitate cooperation on a larger scale.

Governments are not necessary to facilitate cooperation, on either a large or a small scale. As you pointed out yourself, cooperation is inherent to our species, so we’ll naturally gravitate toward cooperation. The only need for government lies in arbitrating conflicts.

Also here:

individuals are not free to surrender any of their natural rights other than their right to use force to settle their disputes

Individuals have no natural right to use force to settle their disputes, so the application of a collective solution to prevent such violence constitutes no abrogation of natural rights. The only abrogation occurs at the margins, where the exercise of my natural rights interferes with the exercise of yours. I believe Thomas Jefferson’s way of putting this was “My liberty ends at the end of your nose,” or words to that effect.

I understand that you think it unwise. But I’m asking why it is ungodly, not unwise, to organize a society in which we compromise our absolute right to property in order to collectively fund goods that we think are important, but which we also think a free market won’t supply?

I think I’ve explained this pretty clearly already. It’s ungodly because the Utopian exercise arises from criticism of God’s creation, and posits Man as the perfecter of nature.

It’s unwise because historically, there’s no indication whatsoever that any governmental action can successfully supply anything at all that will not be supplied by a free market. Markets are not perfect generators of justice, true, but nothing can be so long as sin exists in the world; and human collaborative efforts that attempt to produce better justice, invariably arise from people who are unaware of the power of sin in their own lives, and produce corrupt bureaucracies where just provision was intended.

From this we can derive the natural right to revise our conclusions about any other natural right,

So, you think it would be appropriate for humans to revise the 10 commandments if we thought we could improve on them?

“Natural rights” is an historic phrase with a nice ring to it, but I don’t think it gets my meaning across perfectly. I see them more as duties owed to God than as natural rights. They’re “rights” insofar as no HUMAN GOVERNMENT has any right to violate them, but they’re actually obligations we owe to God as our Master. We have no right not to provide for ourselves; we have an obligation to God to work for our living, even though that work has been made “labor” by virtue of the fall. It’s God’s prerogative to redeem us from the fall how and when He sees fit. Nor have we any right to cease from serving God conscientiously. What are Natural Rights with regard to the relationship between individuals and governments, are obligations with regard to the relationship between man and his God.

August 30, 2009 @ 12:50 pm #

Joe,

I do understand that Locke is not the only possible basis of thought, but I chose it because 1) so far as I can tell, it’s consistent with Protestant theology, which I believe largely to be true, and 2) it’s the basis of the system of government that seems to have produced the best combination of liberty and industry in the history of the planet.

You seem genuinely to like Kant as a basis of your thinking, so I suppose I’ll have to read Kant to understand you. It’s not in my current project, though, so I’ll have to defer it to another exercise. Don’t take it personally, ’cause it’s not personal, but I’m more interested in understanding the earlier, religious Western project of liberty than I am the later project of producing liberty and virtue in a deliberately secular manner. I do eventually want to understand that project as well, but I’m afraid in doing so, I’m beginning from the impression that I’m investigating where the Western experiment went wrong. It seems clear to me that individualism and autonomy have gone berserk, and caused a great deal of damage, and I imagine that’s because of the shift away from a godly base.

August 30, 2009 @ 1:20 pm #

Saving the edge-crops for the poor to have (even though they didn’t work to raise them – only to gather); the Jubilee (evening out the main form of wealth, land, and removing any inequities that had occurred over each fifty years). Those who refused the Jubilee could be brought before the judges, right?

darkhorse –

The Jubilee is an example of government protecting the rights of individuals to return to their ancestral property, and thus fits comfortably within the limits I’m arguing exist — the government is protecting private property. I think the same principle may apply to the law of gleaning, in that the Lord declared that the edges of the field belong to the poor. What’s being enforced here is private charity; there was no such thing as public charity there.

Economics are concerned insofar as man’s ability to produce a living is an economic ability; but the part that earns that status of a natural right is the ability to make a living from what a person can obtain out of the natural environment. I can see no basis for asserting that any particular level of wealth constitutes a natural right, and particularly not a 20th century level of wealth.

August 30, 2009 @ 10:46 pm #

Phil, the right to adjudicate one’s disputes by any means that seem right to the disputee, including violence, was the most problematic of the natural rights identified by Locke. It is the right that must be transferred to the state for a society to exist.

Second, compromising other natural rights is not necessarily utopian – although it could be part of a utopian project. Some compromise is practical. Its aimed at ameliorating some of the suffering associated with pure market outcomes, not undoing them entirely.

Reasonable compromises on the right to property advance no criticism to God’s order, because God’s order includes conditions of moderate scarcity and human equality. Your argument amounts to an argument that any human attempt to ameliorate the effects of moderate scarcity, combined with varying levels of talent, skill, accumulated advantage (or disadvantage), and sheer luck (or misfortune), upon human beings and their circumstances, insults God.

But this could only be so if we assume that wants these inequalities not to be ameliorated. You need to tell us why you think God wants these differences not to be ameliorated. Shouldn’t we alternatively infer, given every thing Jesus said, that God wants these results to be lessened – that their existence constitutes a moral challenge – rather than a moral blueprint?

You will probably respond that this is the responsibility of individuals, not government. But what if we discovered that private charity was simply not up to the task – was not well suited to the scale of the job? What if we discovered, or believed, that doing these things collectively, through government, worked better. Why is doing this individually a virtue, but doing it collectively not?

We have discovered this, by the way. Read early 20th century authors and you’ll see this quite clearly.

I expect you’ll cite the violation of individual conscience and the use of force, but then I’ll refer back to my previous arguments noting that most government policies violate the consciences of a substantial number of the citizens.

I guess the heart of my challenge is that you’ve posited an incomplete description of the natural order and then argued that humans must not agree among themselves to alter that order- by forming governments that do more than can be derived from your description of that order – even if doing so makes most of their lives better. That seems like a wildly counterintuitive political philosophy for the almighty to endorse.

Regarding the 10 Commandments, there are obvious improvements to be made. Here’s one that was suggested by Sam Harris: Never exploit children for any reason. What the hell was God doing forgetting such an obvious commandment. That commandment alone would have prevented untold misery for the most vulnerable of people.

I’ve never believed that the 10 commandment was a perfect statement of God’s moral code, so I’m not in the position of having to challenge God for his omission. I think God gave us the ability to reason and grow morally, which we have done.

Joe H

August 30, 2009 @ 10:48 pm #

Correction, it the previous post I referred to “human equality” when I meant “Human Inequality.”

Sorry.

Joe

September 1, 2009 @ 3:03 pm #

“That commandment alone would have prevented untold misery for the most vulnerable of people.”

Sure, just like the rest of His commandments really prevented murder, thievery and adultery.

September 1, 2009 @ 5:40 pm #

On that same point: Joe and Sam’s ease of criticism of the Ten Commandments (for needing additional commands) strikes me as being on the level of a little girl who says the Mona Lisa should have more trees in it.

There is something ‘perfectly’ complete about the Ten Commandments. Yes, there are more commands listed in the OT. But Jesus did summarize all the Law in “Love God . . . and love your neighbor”. Which happens to also ‘perfectly’ summarize the Decalogue.

And as Frank implies, the imperfection is not in the Law. It’s in the heart of the law breakers to whom the Law is directed.

September 2, 2009 @ 10:40 am #

You’re not so dull, hammer.

September 2, 2009 @ 3:03 pm #

Dullhammer:

My point about the ten commandments was that it was not a complete statement of our moral obligations. It was not “the Mona Lisa” of moral manifestos.

Comparing the ten commandments to the Mona Lisa, and then criticizing my argument as a juvenile criticism of the 10 commandments, does not refute my point. My point was that the ten commandments are incomplete. Your comparison of the 10 commandments to the Mona Lisa “begs the question” that I was raising – which is whether the 10 Commandments is a perfect and complete statement of morality – or as perfect and complete a statement of morality as Christians seem to think.

You can’t establish that the ten commandments are perfect and complete by analogizing them to something that is perfect and complete. You need argument and evidence to to accomplish that.

The ten commandments clearly are not perfect and complete. If someone as lowly as Sam Harris or I can think of improvements, that really says something about our tendency to worship rules.

Joe H.

September 2, 2009 @ 4:06 pm #

Joe, you are repeating yourself needlessly and you are omitting the substance of my comment. I did not merely employ an analogy. I beg you to see if you can find what else I said and get back to me.

September 2, 2009 @ 7:03 pm #

Dullhammer -

I think you could be more fair to Joe here. I agree with him that, Christian’s actions notwithstanding, the Decalogue was not intended (by God) as a complete ethical guide for life (and was part of a book of law not intended to apply outside of Israel anyway).

He is right, I think; your analogy fell short. But I think your defense was more because you felt like Joe (and Sam) were disrespecting God…and that is just not true. He’s questioning people’s interpretation of the use of the 10 Commandments.

September 3, 2009 @ 10:38 am #

Darkhorse,

I think you could be more fair with Dullhammer and should be picking on Joe, for a change, for his misreading of us. I agree with Dullhammer that, additional OT laws notwithstanding, the Decalogue can stand perfectly well on its own. Not as a complete moral guide for life, that is not the purpose of the Law, but primarily as a measure for conviction. The Law is for lawbreakers. (I think Dullhammer said that already). Even our laws today operate much in the same way.

As for my falling short as an analogy. That completely depends on whether or not the Ten Commandments has an integrity of its own, such as I illustrated with the Mona Lisa, and is the whole point in question. Needless to say (well, it should be needless) Dull and I are in agreement on the integrity of the Decalogue.

The only ‘falling short’ I see is that I don’t agree with you or Joe’s preconceived notions about the Ten Commandments (and the law in general). Which, in this case, is exactly what I was supposed to do! As I am

Sincerely,

Dullhammer’s analogy

September 3, 2009 @ 11:06 am #

Dullhammer (and the analogy in his pocket):

Great humor! There should be more of that around here.

One problem: “The only ‘falling short’ I see is that I don’t agree with you or Joe’s preconceived notions about the Ten Commandments ”

Who said they are preconceived? My preconceived notions about the Decalogue came from my Conservative Baptist Seminary training…I gave the preconceptions up in order to try and understand what God really intended by them, and react to them on their own terms. I am not without fault at all, and could be wrong.

September 3, 2009 @ 3:17 pm #

Dullhammer,

in addition to the analogy, you seem to be saying that the 10 commandments are complete after all – that Jesus summarized them in his two great commands, and that there is nothing wrong with the law – the flaws are in the human heart.

You may recall that I made my comments about the ten commandments in the context of a discussion about whether our natural state as “thinking beings” effects the so called “natural rights” analysis, particularly as it relates to the concept of freedom. Someone remarked that my thinking beings argument implied that we might change the ten commandments, to which I replied (indirectly) “Yes indeed.” Hense my contribution of the improving 11th commandment as an illustration.

I’m not so much criticizing the commandments as I am criticising the freezing of our moral understanding. Phil believes the traditional understanding of freedom, in which it is an exclusively negative right (the right to be left alone), exhausts the concept as far as a prodestant natural rights analysis is concerned. I was arguing that our natural state is one of moderate scarcity and of our bein cooperative and thinking beings, and that when these states are factored into the analysis, Phil’s protestant defense of absolute property rights is more problematic

Joe

September 5, 2009 @ 2:00 am #

Joe,

Thank you for a more complete summary of my thoughts on your criticism of the Ten Commandments. And for your further focus on what you are trying to get at regarding the Ten Commandments. I hope I have stated your own position fairly. Especially since I will speak quite critically of it.

–”Hense my contribution of the improving 11th commandment as an illustration.”–

Yes, I do recall why you made the “contribution”. You said yourself it was to be an “improvement” on God’s stonework of the original Ten. And I’m not impressed with it being anything like an “obvious” improvement as you claim. (If anything, I see it as redundant with command #5, but that’s a side issue.)

I do, however, see a certain incongruity in the picture of that which was written by the finger of God, brought down from the mountain, kept in the Arc of the Covenant and housed in the very Holy of Holies in the Temple of God in Israel . . . and . . . ultimately revised and improved by you and Mr. Sam Harris. Really Joe. You picked a very strange way to show the logical necessity of your “thinking beings” argument with Phil. And your further explanations to me are not bringing any clarity that I can see.

–”I’m not so much criticizing the commandments as I am criticising the freezing of our moral understanding.”–

Same thing. For you are criticizing the Ten Commandments in order to criticize “the freezing of our moral understanding”. You clearly said that the Ten Commandments were open to, and even in obvious need of, revision and improvement. That they never were perfect and that humans were expected to use their reason to grow morally– strongly implying to grow morally in the improvements and revisions of the Decalogue.

As you said, this focus on the Ten Commandments came about because Phil challenged you in saying your criticism of his position implied that you would revise and improve the Ten Commandments themselves. And without hesitation you agreed and gave an example. Now it seems you want to say, ~~Not exactly. I want to revise and improve Phil and others who have a frozen understanding of morality.~~

That’s not a defense of your position; it’s an attempt to shift your position without dealing with the fundamental question raised by Phil and myself.

In summary:

Phil originally employed the Ten Commandments as a foundational reference for his own argument for limited government.

You challenged his position with something called the “Thinking being” argument. (I’m not trying to do justice to the arguments themselves, just to the flow and role of the Ten Cs.) Phil pointed out that one of the implications of your own argument was that you would revise the Ten Commandments themselves. You agreed and gave an example.

I then challenged you on that agreement by aiming to highlight the inappropriateness of your suggesting and making such changes. You challenged the inappropriateness of my analogy . . . and have now sought to further explain yourself by saying your contribution of an 11th commandment was perfectly appropriate given the context of the argument. AND . . . you weren’t really criticizing the Ten Commandments after all.

And I don’t buy it. The only reason you can say you have no beef with the Ten Commandments themselves is because you imagine them to be something they are not. The Ten Commandments are not only frozen, they are written in stone. They are not some kind of moral ‘open source code’ for humanity to revise and improve. They are God’s revelation of standard by which even our present law (and present criticisms) can be measured.

And as far as this bears on your larger argument with Phil, I would say your position is far more problematic than his.

September 6, 2009 @ 12:45 am #

Dullhammer,

One time, maybe ten years ago, Phil typed something on another forum that smacked of so much wisdom, I need to paraphrase it here to you, regarding your “Etched in Stone” lecture to Joe on the Ten Commandments.

One person was railing on another in this certain forum for attempting to “ignore the clear word of God.” Phil said something very like this, and it had a HUGE impact on me:

“Whenever you are trying to pick up a passage of Scripture and use it as the “Word of God” to smack someone, does it never occur to you that you are always ALSO holding in your hand your interpretation of both the text and the purpose of that Scripture?”

Well, you know firm fundamentalists…it didn’t have the impact on THAT person that it did on me, and ever since, I have been very, very careful not to forget that I am usually inserting my understanding into any conversation where I am ostensibly wielding the “Word of God”.

You said to Joe: “You clearly said that the Ten Commandments were open to, and even in obvious need of, revision and improvement.” What goes in with this statement is the assumption of the purpose of the 10 Commandments – that they were intended to be a complete ethic unto themselves. Your understanding is probably based, as it was for me, on that “etched in stone” idea.

However, Joe’s criticism does not have to be taken of the Decalogue at all, Dullhammer. It is the USE of the Decalog as a complete ethic (which you must ASSUME it was intended to be, for all people, everywhere in order to get to “It is complete”).

The 10 Commandments were sufficient for their purpose, at the head of the Mosaic Law, as God gave them. The attempt by many theists to pick them up out of that context and present them to the USA, or even to the World as sufficient rules to live by, is a direct violation that is worthy of criticism.

Pointing out a possible 11th Commandment easily shows this…it is a criticism of your interpretation, of both their purpose and their text…that they cannot possibly have been intended by God to extract from the Mosaic Law and use as a blanket application. That is not a criticism of the Commandments, in their context and purpose. It is a criticism of the presumption of “My understanding of this Scripture is the Word of God.”

September 6, 2009 @ 12:50 am #

Dullhammer,

Not to be to hard on you : ), But as to this:

“They are God’s revelation of standard by which even our present law (and present criticisms) can be measured.”

Again, presumption about their purpose. By the Decalogue, we know something about their AUTHOR that we can use to guide present law (as the Founders undoubtedly put into the mix). But there is simply no biblical precedent for the application of the Mosaic Law to anyone outside of the direct Mosaic Covenant. Not to the nations surrounding ancient Israel, not to the members of the New Covenant (the church), and certainly not to Nations that followed.

September 8, 2009 @ 9:33 pm #

Darkhorse,

As you can tell at a glance this is long. I am not begging for a long reply from you; I simply could not make this smaller and earlier over the weekend. So, here it is.

The explanations for the revisionist position of Joe and yourself regarding the Ten Commandments are sounding more and more strange to my ear. And they started off quite strange with just the very idea of someone setting out to revise the Ten Commandments in the first place. Don’t you get just a little nervous at the idea of Joe essentially giving legal advise to the Almighty regarding His Ten Commandments? I do. My ears also perk up when at first the contention is that it’s “obvious” revising the Commandments is needed and that reasonable people should be about that business . . . only later to hear that revising the Ten Commandments is not what it appears to be; it’s not any kind of a critical reflection on the Commandments, just a critique of people who wrongly refuse to revise the Commandments at all, or something like that. The part I notice is that on the one hand critiquing the Ten Cs is obvious and on the other hand it’s not what it seems to be. I’m a little confused by it, but I’m not convinced that I’m the one who should be.

First of all you are criticizing the Ten Commandments and you should not even be tempted to shrink from that, for that IS your position. How’s that? Well, if you are NOT criticizing the Ten Commandments in the first place then there is no revision, no 11th commandment . . . and probably nobody to even direct your excess criticism toward, for who’s going to object? No issue. End of story. But in fact Joe very much framed his 11th commandment as a critique of the Ten. Just read it again if you need to.

To be more consistent I would think you would welcome being more up front about what you are really saying: that when you do criticize the Ten Commandments it’s okay because that is their purpose in life. It’s fine with God and it should be fine with your critics. Then you can also turn on your critics and criticize them for NOT criticizing the Ten Commandments. But it makes no sense, that I can see, for you to criticize me, and any others, for being ‘mistaken’ about the implications of your revisionist relationship with the Decalogue.

Now the reason I have objected to Joe’s revision of the Ten Commandments is that he essentially replaces the authority of the Word of God with that of himself . . . and what seems reasonable. But in doing this Joe has already lost the Ten Commandments for what they really are: an authority to measure us— and not the other way around. As Tom Brokaw once quipped, God did not give us “The Ten Suggestions”. It is their authority from God as much as their specific wordings which makes them what they are. This is why it sounds so ludicrous for Joe or anyone to be second guessing God on revisions. I hope you know this instinctively even though you give no indication of knowing this intellectually. But I would hope you would know this with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.

And as if this isn’t bad enough, you even further complicate this discussion by bringing into question whether we can hear and discuss God’s word at all because we must also bring in our interpretation of it all. Kind of like saying we don’t really sense the world around us, we sense our senses, which is nonsense. I think you were probably just trying to bring some self-awareness into the picture because you see me (and maybe yourself) as not being aware of one’s own presuppositions. But I think I’m quite aware of them; just as I am aware of the fact that I have eyes, ears and a tongue. The time I most need to be aware of them is when they are not working correctly. But when they work right my senses make sense. And I can concentrate of reality for it’s own sake.

Regarding language and the Word of God, I believe God gave us the capacity for language in general, so you and I can actually get our thoughts across (such as they are) here. And I believe God has given us certain revelations of words throughout history as a kind of gift, or seed if you will, of Himself for us to receive or reject— but not to revise. The Ten Commandments are one such gift. And, of course, Jesus is the Word made flesh and full of grace and truth.

As I said, this is long, but I am trying to be extra clear. (I could even double this post by including an outline of what I do believe are the purposes of the Ten Commandments.)

I believe you have a serious misunderstanding of God’s Law and Word. And so I want to give to you what I would want for myself if I were in your position. Possibly a bit more. : )

In Christ,

Dullhammer

September 8, 2009 @ 11:13 pm #

No problem, Dullhammer.

You didn’t really understand a whit of what I was saying (and I don’t think you understood Joe either).

I have to chalk it up to my lack of ability to communicate; I don’t think a whole lot of repeating will help much.

It may help if you hop back to my last post, at your leisure, and give it another read.

September 9, 2009 @ 8:48 am #

Darkhorse,

I’ve read your last post a number of times. Not sure why reading it again would help if the problem is not necessarily ‘in my set’. But it’s short and I’ve read it yet again. I am going to post my own understanding of the purposes of the Ten Commandments (my ‘presumptions’ if you will) for this does address what you raised in that later post.

September 9, 2009 @ 8:55 am #

The purpose of the Ten Commandments:

First of all the Decalogue was a vital part of the Covenant agreement between God and Israel. It represented the legal requirements for the Israeli people to abide by in order for God to maintain his blessing. Violation of the Ten Commandments (i.e. the Law) without repentance and appropriate covering by sacrifice would result not only in a withdrawal of the blessings, but in a dealing out of curses and judgment. Israel failed numerous times to keep the Law and the Ten Commandments and received various judgments accordingly. God also expressed a great patience and even greater grace in the midst of these numerous moral and legal failures.

This is well established historically and is very valuable understanding of the Ten Commandments and all of the OT history and Law. But this is where your stated understanding of the purpose of the Ten Commandments and the Law ends. However, you seem to have overlooked what Jesus, Paul and the Word of God in the NT has to say on the matter.

The Decalogue was, secondly, a revelation of God’s moral standard. And not only was this for Israel, but it was for the world in general in so far as Israel herself was not intended to be an isolated experiment while the world went its own way. God’s wider purposed for the Ten Commandments (and insights from all the Law) was that they serve as a measure against which all moral behavior could be compared and contrasted. In this the significance of the Ten Commandments’ origin comes into play. Other commandments from foreign cultures could be comparable to individual commandments from the Decalogue. But the Decalogue came from God himself and therefore could be seen as the “measure of measures”. If you have two dozen various lengths called “yardsticks” and none agree on being the official measure, then essentially you have confusion. But with one in the midst being THE measure of measures, you then can proceed to evaluate the other twenty odd sticks. Some will be close, some far off. Anyone who goes by the correct measure then can know; while those who do not remain in confusion. This is the second purpose of the Ten Commandments. And it is reflected in Jesus’ words at the Sermon on the Mount regarding the Jewish Law:

“17″Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” –Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus goes on to address a number of the commandments and intensifies their meaning. (If it appears to you that he is revising them you need to read vs 17-20 again and see someone about that short term memory problem.) Jesus is also unique in his position to speak as he does here “because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” As noted further below in my post here, the authority of God (and of Jesus here) is intrinsically a part of what makes the Ten Commandments and the Law of Israel what it is. And it is not open to revision by anyone but God himself.

Thirdly, the Ten Commandments, in their ability to measure one’s morality, serve primarily as a measure of failure. No one can actually live faithfully to the Ten Commandments (let alone to the entire Law of the OT). This certainly is not a truth God wanted only Israel to understand. I see Paul’s words in Romans 3:19-20 as directly contradicting your stated purpose for the Law.

“19Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” –Romans 3:19-20

The whole world is to be measured by this Law of God, in order for it to become conscious of sin. I alluded to this earlier in saying that the Law is for the law breakers. (1 Timothy 1:9) Scripture clearly states that no one can really be improved morally by way of the written Law. And I hope I have spoken clearly here.

And I do hope you are not measuring my understanding of you and Joe by whether I agree with you or not. : )

September 9, 2009 @ 9:26 am #

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

September 9, 2009 @ 12:26 pm #

Dullhammer:

“And I do hope you are not measuring my understanding of you and Joe by whether I agree with you or not. : )”

Oh no! Heavens no!

We’re kind of deep in a theological discussion here…maybe out of place. We have honest disagreement here as to the purpose of the 10 Commandments, and we leave this discussion as full brothers. Joe included. Agreed?

The question revolves around whether there is a good, solid example of the Law (esp. the 10) being applied by God to anyone but those under the Mosaic covenant. A clear example is absent (as far as I know) in the OT, and you give one that is a bit fuzzy in the NT.

Briefly, on your second and third points -
Jesus is addressing Israelites under the law in Matthew 17. In that context, the whole law was binding, and those to whom he was speaking were citizens of Israel, no? This is not a transfer of the 10 to apply to anyone it wasn’t originally intended.

On your third point, your application of Romans 3:19 is highly doubtful – it applies the Law (the WHOLE Law, not just the 10) to those under the Law, and then says something rather nebulous about the whole world. But it is still an Old Covenant Jew speaking (Paul) to mostly (but not all) Jewish converts.

I will look at that verse a little further, but the crux of the whole discussion is whether the 10 were ever meant to be chiseled out of their OT covenant context and applied as an ethic for life. They very clearly fall short for that purpose, and there isn’t a clear precedent for that being done for anyone outside the Mosaic covenant, to whom all the law applied.

September 9, 2009 @ 2:46 pm #

Darkhorse,

–”The question revolves around whether there is a good, solid example of the Law (esp. the 10) being applied by God to anyone but those under the Mosaic covenant.”–

No, actually the question doesn’t revolve around that. The question revolves around whether or not the Ten Commandments can be revised or not. My contention is that if they are revised they lose their authority; they are regarded as having never had any authority. Whereas if they are left in their original state as God’s word to Israel they THEN are useful outside the confines of Israel as a measure for all that is moral.

–”[Matthew 5:17] is not a transfer of the 10 to apply to anyone it wasn’t originally intended.”–

I fully realize Jesus’ words about the Law in Matthew 5:17 is in the context of Jewish ears for the Jewish OT Covenant. But the teaching there is very clearly about the Law [any of it] *not* being open to revision. And if you take the fuller context of the whole Sermon on the Mount you hardly have a picture of Jesus speaking only to Jews. To hold that exclusive view you would have to then ignore the entire sermon. And who does that? Is that the historical view of the Church? The Gentile churches down through the ages? Is that your view even? Do you not look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as an authoritative measure of morality in your life? Most people I know read this sermon and go away feeling rather intimidated, even guilty to some extent. Why would that be if it only applies to Jews? Yet the impact of that sermon comes from, not a transfer, but a continuation of the authority of the Ten Commandments. I certainly am not an advocate of there being no difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. But the arrival of the New Covenant does not come from a revision, or worse yet a repudiation, of the Old. It comes from a fulfillment.

–”On your third point, your application of Romans 3:19 is highly doubtful – it applies the Law (the WHOLE Law, not just the 10) to those under the Law, and then says something rather nebulous about the whole world. But it is still an Old Covenant Jew speaking (Paul) to mostly (but not all) Jewish converts.”–

Nebulous or not (I say ‘not), Paul clearly connects the Law (whole law includes the Ten, btw) to the measuring of sin beyond the confines of Israel. This does not have to take place with everyone becoming Jewish. It’s simply the presence of the Jewish history and revelation which serves as a plumb line if you will. But even in the absence of the plumb line 90 degrees is still 90 degrees– and so the Gentiles are still being measured by the ‘Law’ written on their hearts (see Romans 2:12ff).

” 12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” –Romans 2:12-16

It is in this sense Joe and you have no business talking about revising the Law. Joe might as well have talked about revising the carpenter’s level to make it a 91 degree right angle.

–”We’re kind of deep in a theological discussion here…maybe out of place. We have honest disagreement here as to the purpose of the 10 Commandments, and we leave this discussion as full brothers. Joe included. Agreed?”–

Yes, we are. And I had no intention of going this far. One little quip about the Mona Lisa and off we go.

And as to you and Joe being brothers in Christ. I do not see this as a disagreement on the Lordship of Christ per se, so our disagreement can be as brothers. It does bear, however, on our ability to serve that Lord in the fundamental matter of hearing what he says. So this is no mere counting of angels on the head of a pin.

I think I have presented where I am coming from more than enough for you to see. You earlier complained that you did not think I understood your position “one whit”. I think I do, but I could be wrong. Frankly you and Joe have not really tried to present your position. You have put most of your effort into trying to knock down mine (more like knocking down straw versions of my view, such as “application of the Mosaic Law”, “a complete ethic . . . intended for all people, everywhere” and Joe’s “freezing of our moral understanding”– NONE of those describe what’s behind my expressed objection).

You have more or less simply taken the position that it’s okay to revise the Ten Commandments– without any positive presentation of scripture, history, theology or even your own personal reflection on the matter. I would think, with such a serious thing as validating the revision of the Ten Commandments, the burden of proof would be on you and Joe. No?

September 9, 2009 @ 6:23 pm #

“You have more or less simply taken the position that it’s okay to revise the Ten Commandments– without any positive presentation of scripture, history, theology or even your own personal reflection on the matter. I would think, with such a serious thing as validating the revision of the Ten Commandments, the burden of proof would be on you and Joe. No?”

I am very sorry, Dullhammer, but you are STILL not understanding even a little of what I am saying.

Let me paint a little picture for you that might help. Joe is not a typical evangelical (though evangelical he is). But he sees conservative Christians taking the 10 Commandments and saying, “These are a good guide for everyone, and complete for that purpose.”

That position is ridiculous, in my opinion and Joe’s of course. They do not have that purpose, they will not tell me what to do ethically in every situation (the Holy Spirit does that under the New Covenant), and Paul himself tells how they cannot fulfill this purpose because of the flesh.

Joe casts light on the ridiculousness of the position by pointing to a quote that, IF THEY WERE INTENDED FOR THAT PURPOSE, would have answered a lot of questions through history.

But I can tell you right now, Joe (and I, for that matter) would not presume to add a thing to the 10 Commands, IN THEIR CONTEXT, AND FOR THE PURPOSE THAT THEY WERE CREATED.

It is the presumptuousness of those who would present the Decalogue as a complete guide for everyone that needs to be revised.

And, if that does not get through, we can be done, because you are not understanding these main points (so far). Continuing to address their misunderstanding is getting us no where.

September 9, 2009 @ 6:23 pm #

BTW -

I still think there is a bridge between us in the statement I made – that what we can discover about God’s character from the 10 is more universal than the 10 themselves.

September 10, 2009 @ 12:33 pm #

Darkhorse,

Your last post actually helped to some extent. But it has not exactly brought us closer together. I thought your critical references to those who see the Ten Commandments as a “complete and perfect guide for everyone” was some kind of overstatement worthy of mutual criticism from both you and myself. And I therefore was trying to direct you to my criticism of revision for its own sake and not for the sake of some ‘ghost’ conservative Christians who have bothered you in the past. But in about my fourth reading of this thread I am beginning to think it’s okay if you and Joe put me in that ‘radical’ camp– whatever that is, because you have failed to explain it beyond a slogan or two.

I think the Ten Commandments are far more complete and perfect than you give them credit for (see purpose #2) and that goes beyond the confines of Israel’s theocracy. I think Phil is well within reason to be using the Ten Cs in the way he as done in his article. And Joe’s attempt to shed light on the poverty of thinking the Ten Commandments “was a perfect statement of God’s moral code” simply failed. Leaving Phil’s position intact.

I was somewhat encouraged by your qualified and capitalized disclaimer that you would not presume to “add a thing” to the Ten Commandments given whatever you see as their context and created purpose. Sounds like you’re still hedging your bets without real clarity, though.

On a more positive note: I do agree with you that we have some kind of a bridge in seeing the Ten Commandments as a window into God’s character. I would also add, it is very much (maybe even more so) a window into what Man’s character most often fails to be.

Thanks for the discussion. I think you’ve been patient. And believe it or not, I have been too.

Dullhammer

September 10, 2009 @ 12:37 pm #

And I hope you don’t mind but I asked “angelina joli” to stop by and see what she could make of our discussion.

Obviously, it left her with her mouth open in mid-sentence.

September 10, 2009 @ 1:18 pm #

Well, I’ve been busy, and missed a great deal of conversation — some of it pretty beefy, too. And I probably could have short-circuited a great deal of it by simply observing that I did not mean to suggest that the 10 commandments constituted a perfect or complete ethical guide. I was taking a shot at Joe’s assertion that we were free to give away all our natural rights if we chose, and using the 10 as shorthand for “So, we can alter what God intends for us?”

I don’t think it’s difficult to add to the 10 commandments, although I think dullhammer hit the nail squarely when he compared that to wanting to add trees to the Mona Lisa (the Mona Lisa is not the undisputed apex of art any more than the 10 is the undisputed apex of ethical teaching, though both are clearly in the running.) But that’s not the point. The more accurate analogy would be allowing ourselves things the 10 forbids, just because we as a society agree to do it. To me, that would be a correct analogy to men giving away their natural rights to a government simply by agreement.

The reason for this is that the natural rights inhere to men on the basis of their relationship to God, not on the basis of their relationship to governments. As I believe I said before, what is a man’s right with respect to a government, is a man’s moral obligation with respect to God. Man has a right to earn a living for himself, and no government has the right to prevent him; but providing for himself and his family is a man’s duty before God. Man has a right to raise his family as he chooses, and no government has the right to interfere; but treating his children decently and teaching them sound morals is a man’s duty before God. And so forth. (“Man” here does not refer to gender, but to species.)

So for men to give up the natural right to provide for themselves by their own labor, to me, is tantamount to saying “Men and women can swap spouses so long as they and the society at large agree to allow it.” Now, you might think there are additional rules to the 10 that would make the whole thing better, but whether that’s so or not, it’s clearly not the case that God expected that we exercise our intelligence in order to come up with creative instances where we can agree to break the specific laws and get away with it. Add to the 10 if you like, wife-swapping is still a bad idea.

All that being said, I think I need to spend more time developing the question of what constitutes a natural right, and what power men have to abrogate those rights in pursuing a godly society. I do not believe that my thinking on this topic is all that clear yet. And while I do not for a millisecond believe that it’s proper to include talk of some standard of living as being a natural component of political and religious liberty, as Joe suggests, I do think that the right of men to cooperate in protecting their property logically translates into a right to cooperate in the protection of other natural rights as well, and I need to develop my thinking regarding what the extent and limits of that might be.

As an aside, Sam Harris is not literate enough to realize that God agrees with him — which is why there were some 619 separate laws in the Law of Moses according to standard Jewish jurisprudence, not just 10. Joe and darkhorse probably do not have that excuse, though.

As a further aside, the 10 commandments were offered as a social polity for an Ancient Near East culture, and as such, reflect the expectations and prejudices of that culture. I actually addressed this in a blog post about a year ago, entitled “That Mean Old Testament God.” Even the complete 600+ laws were never intended as a perfect ethical guide for all times. But, as several people here point out, they do reflect God’s preferences.

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