Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Thomas Aquinas, Natural Law, and Relativistic Positivism

The title is more ambitious than the post.

I was stirred to think about our current state of affairs by a scholarly article by R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido California. Its title is "Calvin on the Lex Naturalis" (Stulos Theological Journal, 6/1-2 (May-November 1998) 1-22).

Dr. Clark's main point is that Calvin defined natural law by identifying it with the Ten Commandments or moral law of God. This is very similar to the view held by Blackstone (he called it the "laws of Nature"— a phrase found in our Declaration of Independence).

In contrast, Thomas Aquinas viewed natural law as what the mind of man can discern by reason. His presupposition was that man, because he contains the image of God, has an "inclination to the good". Id. p. 4. Of course, Calvin, with his understanding of total depravity, did not think this was a viable basis for a moral system.

Although the Calvin-Blackstone view (that is, we look to God's revealed law in scripture for reference) was reflected in the early English Common Law, the Thomistic view seemed to take over in our country almost from the start. Certainly, by the time of the ratification of the Constitution, it was ascendant. Read a few opinions by the early Supreme Court Justices for evidence.

People who study jurisprudence speak of natural law theory being the main theory of jurisprudence in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It began to be eclipsed by the Legal Realism, which bloomed into Positivism by the early 20th century.

Positivism is considered a reaction to natural law theory. It holds to the idea that law is "manufactured" by social convention. The phrase "widely and warmly shared values" is something of a touchstone for it. The idea is that judges, and legislatures, dictate what the law should be according to community norms. Instead of the law being just because it is right, the law is right because it is the law.

But it struck me that Thomas and the Positivists are really saying the same thing. Following Thomas, law is discovered by using man's reason. What should be right is what is reasonable. But depraved men are by definition and in fact unreasonable. Using their faulty reason, they come up faulty standards. When these don't work, they seek what the majority of men think is reasonable and make that the law. The end result under either the Thomist version of natural law or legal positivism is the same: the moral standard is discovered by the latest opinion poll.

In the jurisprudence world, the natural law people are considered to be dinosaurs. The positivists are the current conservatives because they still want law based upon social tradition. Critical Studies people, FemCrits, or whatever is their postmodern term du jour, push the envelope a bit further: the law is whatever the judge says it is based upon, among other things, what she* had for breakfast and whatever convention suits the moment.

These days, law is process, not justice. There is essentially no standard, just inertia. Conservatives and liberals can fight all they want about the terminology, but they miss the primary point: their presumptions are all grounded in rebellion against God.

Thomas Aquinas owed his thinking to the philosopher Aristotle, that granddaddy of empiricists. Calvin's view of philosophers, quoted by Dr. Clark, is appropriately dismissive:

. . . they saw things in such a way that their seeing did not direct them to the truth, much less enable them to attain it! They are like a traveler passing through a field at night who in a momentary lightning flash sees far and wide, but the sight vanishes so swiftly that he is plunged again into the darkness of night before he can take even a step – let alone be directed on his way by its help.
Id., p. 8, (quoting Calvin's Institutes, 2.2.18).

Of course, Paul addressed this too:

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. Colossians 2:8.

*(Feminine Critical Legal Studies convention requires the generic personal pronoun to default to "she" or "her", etc.)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Inkhorn Man

And, behold, six men came from the way of the higher gate, which lieth toward the north, and every man a slaughter weapon in his hand; and one man among them was clothed with linen, with a writer's inkhorn by his side: and they went in, and stood beside the brasen altar.

And the glory of the God of Israel was gone up from the cherub, whereupon he was, to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed with linen, which had the writer's inkhorn by his side;

And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.

And to the others he said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity:

Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. . . .

And, behold, the man clothed with linen, which had the inkhorn by his side, reported the matter, saying, I have done as thou hast commanded me.

Ezekiel 9:2-6, 11

I learned this afternoon that a reformed man, whom I had corresponded with from time to time, had abandoned the Protestant faith and converted to Catholicism. I consider this a disaster, but it is in God's hands. Others I know are playing with the strange fire of neo-legalism. A war is going on and casualties are falling on all sides.

In our days of moral relativity, ambiguity is the rule. Degrees of grey define our ethics.

These amorphous standards are perhaps Satan's master stroke for our era. They comprise a false two-edged sword: the doctrine of the image of God is perverted by denying virtue; the doctrine of total depravity is neutered by assuming that everyone is good.

A steadfast person fulfilling his calling is a terrifying thing.

The Inkhorn Man had no such problem. He was given a terrible and clear-cut duty: identify by a mark those who weep at abomination. He knew full well the consequences because God told him and the five others what was to happen. Everyone without the mark -- man, woman, or child -- was to be executed.

Ezekiel had just been shown how the elders of Judah were worshipping idols. The women were weeping for the Babylonian fertility god Tammuz. Priests were worshipping the sun. Yet, in public, they all pretended to be faithful.

The Inkhorn Man was not distracted. He walked quietly through the city evaluating each person he met. One step after another, one mark here, no mark there -- no appeal and no second chance. When done, he reported without self-congratulation, "I have done as thou hast commanded me."

We also have been given commands from our King. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. We often tell ourselves that compliance is impossible. And so it is. But this should not keep us from emulating the single-mindedness of the Inkhorn Man. We walk one step at a time, read line by line, and pray.

Every day we are bombarded by distractions, rumors, false doctrines. Wolfish teachers beckon from the internet and from the streets. Vanity Fair is doing brisk trade and hundreds are drawn to its gates. Some of them are friends going astray. Yet our duty is to warn them and walk on. "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." We are to keep our eyes on the prize, the Word who sustains us.

It is a frightening thing to be His servant. It is also frightening to see professing Christians drift toward shipwreck. His yoke is easy yet they find a way to make it chafe. Playing games with the gospel is deadly and serious. We are to walk in sobriety and with a single eye.

God be praised that he keeps his own.

Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.

Hebrews 13:5.

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's ALIVE!?

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth. . . . Genesis 1:21.

A new publication from the IRS on charitable giving has this interesting take on the state of our law:

The IRS considers this publication a living document, one that will be revised
to take into account future developments and feedback. Comments on the
publication may be submitted to the IRS at the following address:

Internal Revenue Service
1111 Constitution Avenue,
Washington, DC 20224
Attn: T:EO:CE&O


Does the IRS's subjective opinion on the state of the document make it alive? If so, how can they justify revising it? Wouldn't that be cruel? And if it is alive, who made it so?

Maybe they should ask the document what it thinks about all this.

Let's all drop T:EO:CE&O a postcard and ask him (or it) the answers to these pressing issues.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Double Entendre and Double-Speak

The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD. Proverbs 16:33.

And he cast for it four rings of gold, to be set by the four corners of it; even two rings upon the one side of it, and two rings upon the other side of it. Exodus 37:3

I took my last LLM tax final for the quarter last night. As I left the building after the three hour exam, I thought to myself, "The die is cast."

Then I noticed the delightful double entendre. When you toss a die, as in one of a pair of dice, you are doing what Proverbs 16:33 describes. The outcome is determined and out of your control. It is in God's hands.

But as an amateur foundryman, I've cast molten metal into dies. There again, I'm reminded of God's working hand. He formed me in the womb. He casts the outcome of all things as if pouring his will into his handcrafted mold.

Perhaps overdoing it, I thought of how machinists can use a die to stamp metal into a certain shape. Again it reminded me of God's hand: he casts the handle to the die-press which forms me by force and some violence to conform to what he has determined.

So the die has been cast, my first quarter of the tax program is behind me. God has been gracious in sustaining me.

Now for something completely different:

As I mused about double entendres, I noticed another example of double-speak in the news. Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota apparently had a form of brain hemorrhage yesterday. He has undergone surgery and his doctors are optimistic. It is big news among the political types because he is a Democrat. If he has to step down, the Republican governor of South Dakota decides his replacement. If the replacement is a Republican, the Democrats lose control of the Senate.

So while a man is in critical condition recovering from surgery, the political vultures are hovering over the outcome. Shades of Jude 1:9, perhaps, but neither side is aligned with Michael.

But the double-speak was this:

"A person familiar with Johnson's condition said the 59-year-old senator's underlying condition caused the stroke-like symptoms and doctors will be watching him closely for the next 24 to 48 hours. The person spoke on condition of anonymity out of respect for the senator's family."


The person claims anonymity out of respect for the senator's family? Not likely, if the family wanted privacy. No, the gossiper (which is what he is if the family wanted privacy) spoke on the condition of anonymity out of respect for his own fear of being exposed.

I've written about this sort of thing before. It's a plague on our language and our thinking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Dignities and the dishonorable

But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.

Whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord.

But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption.

2 Peter 2:10-12.

I come from a big-time political family. My "godfather" was a U.S. senator. My Dad was his field aid. My grandfather was Attorney General and later a Supreme Court Justice in Montana. My great-grandfather was instrumental in getting Harry Truman on FDR's ticket. Our family was steeped in the old-time Democratic Party tradition of back-room politics presenting itself as populism. I grew up among the sausage makers: lobbyists, news broadcasters, greater and lesser politicians, the behind the scene wheeler-dealers with bloodshot eyes and hangovers who mastered the art of patriotic spin. I even tried running for office myself but couldn't pull it off. I was too introverted. It made me very tired.

And I committed the greatest act of family rebellion by occasionally voting for Republicans.

From that background I naturally developed a cynicism that plagues me still. I am sorely tempted to rail against "dignities". I am tempted to rationalize that because they are so undignified, I get a pass. Peter tells me otherwise.

Calvin considers the civil magistrate to be ordained by God:

The Lord has not only testified that the office of magistrate is approved by and acceptable to him, but he also sets out its dignity with the most honorable titles and marvelously commends it to us.
. . .

This amounts to the same thing as to say: it has not come about by human perversity that the authority over all things on earth is in the hands of kings and other rulers, but by divine providence and holy ordinance.

Calvin's Institutes, 4.20.4, McNeil Edition, Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.

So I am reluctant to gratuitously attack our leaders. I do believe I have warrant to point out their errors, but that is for another time.

Happily, I feel no such constraint concerning a former leader, Mr. Contract with (on) America, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He is considered (perhaps only by himself) to be a potential presidential contender. He is notorious for his wit and somewhat less well-known for his callousness.

But he is adding new foundations to his notoriety. Two months ago he advocated initiating war with practically every country in the Middle East. A couple of days ago he clearly called for the government to reconsider the First Amendment. He wants to monitor what Americans say and how we say it:

"Gingrich Says Free Speech Helps Terrorists"

Ironically, Mr. Gingrich claims to want to expand free speech in one realm: the activity of giving money to politicians. He apparently thinks that civil liberties are something to be distributed by the government to its friends.

Mr. Gingrich is a history professor; he understands the purpose and spirit behind the First Amendment. He clearly thinks the time for such things has passed. Of course, the First Amendment is not limited to speech, but addresses religion and assembly too. In a few years your website might be shut down. In a few more years, perhaps your assembly will be too. In Mr. Gingrich's world, it will all depend upon how loyal you are to the cause du jour.

My suggestion: keep an eye on Newt and his friends. They came on the scene masquerading as conservatives. Whether by the corruption of power or by original design, the so-called new conservatives are looking more and more like old fascists. The old true conservatives have been licking their wounds since Goldwater's defeat.

Calvin, in his Institutes, ended his discourse about the civil magistrate with these words:

The Lord has declared his approval of their offices. Accordingly, no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole life of mortal men.

Would that God would send men who realize this truth, and keep us from the judgment of being ruled by those who don't. God directs us to honor the dignities. May God be merciful to grant us dignities who are honorable.