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An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.
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