Skip to main content
Ecce_homo_by_Antonio_Ciseri_(1)

What Sort of _______ Is This?

 

by Tom Thomas

A mystery seized the disciples.  The mystery’s answer unlocks the door to the Book of Matthew; it unscrambles the Gospel itself; and it opens the gate to your life – to its present satisfaction – its eternal future.  The disciples wondered, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ On that occasion their boat is caught in a Galilean sea windstorm.  Waves are lapping over their fishing vessel’s sides.  They are being swamped.  They panic.  They fear they are sinking. Then Jesus speaks to the winds telling them to be silent.  The sea hushes.  There is dead calm.  The disciples gasp, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ The original language of the text does not have any noun after the ‘what sort of’.  Literally, it’s ‘what sort of____’ is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’.  One has to supply the noun.  That is, the question: what sort of ‘one’, what sort of ‘person’, being, is this to whom the wind and sea are subject?  It’s the same question I want to put to you.  ‘What sort of “one” is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’  I trust you have already responded to it.  Answering this question is a confession one continually reaffirms.  Answer it for yourself again.

Ancient people answered it similarly.  The weather – rain, wind, thunder, and lightning – said the Canaanites is controlled by Baal, the Canaanite god.  The Egyptians said the weather was controlled by Horus, the falcon-headed god.  The ancient Greeks said it was Poseidon, the god of the sea.  Poseidon controls the oceans and the seas.  The Romans answered it was Jupiter.  The Jews said in Psalm 107 the Lord God ‘made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.’

The ancients all agree controlling the weather is the domain of a god – not of a human.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins or theologians like Rudolf Bultmann say ruling the weather is not the work of a god. They do agree it is not the province of a human, either.  Upon this we’re all are agreed:  commanding the weather is not in the province of a human.  The disciples’ rhetorical question, ‘What sort of’, one, person, _?__ , is this that even the winds and the sea obey’ – anticipates the answer.

What sort of person this is again is highlighted just two chapters later in Matthew 10: 34-39.  Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’  This is jarring! The Lord’s anointed has not come to bring peace but a clash.

He declares he will turn son against father; divide daughter and mother; and daughter in law against mother in law.   He will deliberately split life’s most enduring, affectionate and necessary bonds.   Elie Wiesel and his family were Jews who just got off the Nazi train at Birkenau.  A Nazi SS officer wielding a club barked, ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’  Suddenly, Elie was separated from his mother and sister.  He watched his mother and sister disappear into the horizon.  That was the last time he ever saw his mother.

Jesus separates family members. He claims there is a deeper, more necessary bond than the familial bond.   There is a relationship more primary than family.  The relationship with Him is greater than the familial bond.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.  He inserts love for himself between that of son and father; daughter and mother.  Love for Him surpasses the primary human love.  Love for Him is more fundamental and transcendent than human love.  Who ranks above the love for your father?  Who ranks above the love for your daughter? Or your mother?  Jesus says whoever loves mother more than me is not worthy of me.

My late mother Betsy had a college friend in Lynchburg who she kept up with over the years.  They would talk.  My mother inevitably got the conversation around to church.  ‘Claire, come to worship.  You belong there.  We miss you.’  But, Claire would remind her worship was at the time her family went to brunch.  My mother said, ‘Then change the time of brunch.’  Is that what you say? What sort of one even claims preeminence over life’s primary priority?

Jesus was leaving a large crowd.  One from his larger group of disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  (Then I will follow you.)  To bury your father is one of those things you do to fulfill the commandment, ‘Honor your father’.  Some think the disciple was not speaking literally but meant he needed to care for his aged father.  After his father died and was buried, the disciple would be free then to follow Jesus.  Either way, Jesus’ response remains: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.’  The spiritual dead will take care of the physical dead.  First things first…following Me takes immediate priority.  Nothing – not even burying one’s father – comes before this One.

Jesus demands to be loved preeminently above your human loves.  In fact, if you love your father more than Jesus, you do not deserve Jesus; you are not suited to Him; and you cannot belong to Him.  ‘What sort of’ person is this that demands such exclusive love?

Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? 

Perhaps the greatest claim Jesus made was the one in Matthew Chapter Eleven.  He said, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Matthew 11: 27-28).  Here Jesus claims ‘all things’- literal word is ‘all’ – all has been handed over to him by ‘my Father’.   The ‘all’ is inclusive.  Nothing is excluded from the set of ‘all’.  ‘Handed over’ is to turn over, deliver to or entrust to.  At my mother’s death, everything of hers and my late father’s – everything – clothes, address book, furniture, photograph albums, files, bank account, bills, and their 1820 Eli Terry clock – were handed over to my sister and me.  Everything.  What is handed over to Jesus?  Some contemporary scholars say it was John claiming this for Jesus not Jesus Himself.  Really? Jesus defines the Father- who- has- turned-everything-over- to-Him:  He is ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’.  What all does the ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’ have to entrust to Jesus?  Heaven? The Milky Way?  The Sun?  The earth?  All its inhabitants?  You? What’s not included?  Jesus said plainly, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.’

Jesus tells his disciples the reason they know hidden things and the wise and intelligent do not:  ‘no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  The Father and Son share knowing exclusive to themselves.  We expect the Father to know the Son.  What is shocking is that Jesus says ‘no one knows the Father except the Son’.  In the original language, the word ‘know’ is intensified:  knows exactly, knows completely, and knows through and through.  Jesus is claiming He is the only One who knows God through and through; exactly as He is.  Who is it who knows God’s mind exactly?  Who is the only one who knows completely Tom Thomas’ mind? Who is buried in George Washington’s tomb?!

The second part of this is ‘no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’.  Jesus is the only one who mediates and reveals God.  Revealing God is at the Son’s discretion and according to His own prerogative.

Jesus’ claim was on trial in a recent Senate hearing.  Russell Vought was being interviewed for a deputy position in the White House Office of Management and Budget.  Bernie Sanders took him to task for an article Russell wrote for his college newsletter.  Russell said Muslims ‘do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ His Son, and they stand condemned.’  Sanders asked him if he was being respectful of other religions.  Vought in his words was echoing Jesus.

Jesus is not disrespectful.  He is making an exclusive but truthful claim.  ‘No one – not the Buddha, Mohammed, the guru, the Imam, or Moses – knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  No one can know the Father who does not first know the Son.  Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? Who knows completely the inner mind of God?  Who have you said Him to be?  Who do you now say Him to be?  He is the Person to whom I submit my body, my soul, my fame, my fortune, my friends, my reputation, my life, and my all!  You too?

 

8603033695_46d2bf7230_k

Freedom in Christ

 

A Twilight Musing 

By Elton Higgs 

            As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government.  The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence.  However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition.  It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.”  The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion.  However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.

The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms.  In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery.  In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (Rom 6:17-22)

This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to.  Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”   Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham.  Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold.  As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights.  But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”

 

 

 

Bénigne Gagneraux: Den blinde Oidipus anbefaller sin familj åt gudarna.
NM 828

Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy

 

Josh Herring

This past year I taught 9th grade Ancient Literature for the second time. My first year teaching this curriculum I spent too much time in Homer, and did not make it to tragedy; this year, my goal was to pace the course correctly and work through the most significant plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Along the journey, I discovered an unexpected blessing of teaching Greek tragedy: no other literature I have taught highlights quite so well the reality, the unavoidability, and the consequences of sin. I spent seven weeks with sixty 9th graders discussing questions of justice, inherited guilt, atonement, reconciliation, and grief. As a Christian educator in a secular school, I feel a burden to urge my students to consider topics I believe will prepare them for the gospel, and teaching Sophocles led to just such a discovery.

In setting the context for Oedipus Rex, I explained the play’s basic assumption that the plague in the city of Thebes resulted from a violation of the universe’s moral law; the action of the play then, is a mystery solving the crime and rooting out the perpetrator. When the story unfolded and Oedipus’ guilt became increasingly plausible, I learned one of my students was a fervent relativist. He asserted adamantly that every person has a value system and that no one value system is preferable to another. People are good or bad based on how well they achieve their chosen values. This student left me scratching my head; how could I steer him towards truth without coming right out and telling him he is wrong? How do I guide him dialogically to discover that his thinking is insufficient? Fortunately, Sophocles himself resolved my dilemma.

That night, the students read a section of Oedipus Rex which made the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and Iocaste unmistakable; my student came in the next afternoon with a new declaration: “Mr. Herring, that’s wrong!” “Whether it fits his value system or not?” I responded. “Yes – that, that right there, is wrong.” Leave it to the Greeks—their licentiousness notwithstanding—to enshrine moral rock bottom in their literature. The battle for truth is in no way won; I suspect this student and I will go back and forth on the nature of truth for the next three years. But his declaration of “wrongness” struck me: Sophocles reached for a universal category in his drama, and in so doing he communicates down through the ages to our own “secular age.”

There is a sense in which it is harder to teach virtue than it used to be; teachers of years past could frame their moral instruction capitalizing on a common biblical literacy. Today, the idea of “loving your neighbor” because “God first loved you” simply does not compute without lengthy preparation. If we have lost the common cultural framework of biblical literacy, however, we are not left to our own devices to begin re-establishing the categories of sin and guilt. These are universal human experiences, and they underpin the best literature.

Sophocles can teach us moral fundamentals; sleeping with your mother and producing children offends the universe, human sensibility, and civic law. In Antigone, Sophocles has the title character appeal to the “unwritten laws of God” to justify her actions. In this line lies the glory of human literature as a moral teacher. On the other hand, therein also lies its insufficiency. Poets can discern sin, just as Paul calls the law the teacher of sin. Incest, pride, atheism, child murder: the tragedians illustrate the wrongness of these things. And yet, they can point to nothing more certain than the “unwritten laws of God” to prove the wrongness of these actions. These tragedies pull on a common human awareness of wrong actions, but fail to answer the desire for something clear, certain, and definitive.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the divine wrote down the rules? And then clarified them for us? This of course is exactly what we have in the Bible. We have the clarity of the Ten Commandments and the extensive development of practical outworkings all grounded in the nature of a loving God who created all things and knows our best interests. Suddenly, we have a sense of why hubris is dangerous: because God made us humans for a certain place, and the man of pride reaches for more than God intended. In the overreach lies the dangerous fall. Incest, too, offends the created order, wherein God intended human beings to form new covenant communities to diversify across the earth so that new facets of his image are revealed across creation. Scripture also shows us an alternative for guilt. We run not away from the angry Greek gods of Sophocles but to the loving God who through bloodshed atones for our wrongdoing. The Bible looks to the same universal problems and longings Greek tragedy addresses, but with hope.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it.

After seven weeks in the wonderful poetry of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes, I reached three conclusions. First, tragedy operates in a pre-evangelistic manner. The stories are simple, but so well-crafted that the reader becomes imminently mindful that he may have committed some great evil unawares just like Oedipus. Second, tragedy highlights a missing certainty in 21st century post-postmodernity. Reading Oedipus Rex worked to “blow the roof off” of my student’s assumptions that morality is completely relative, beginning a further conversation about the existence of moral truth. Third, tragedy is like a cancer diagnosis without chemotherapy; it provides no hope. Without the gospel, without the real word from a real God, we are left with Oedipus in despair over what our understanding reveals. Unless God is real and the Bible is true, we stand with Nietzsche gazing into the abyss of existence with no authentic response but despair.

Pascal famously wrote of a “God-shaped void” in every human heart; Greek tragedy can illuminate this void, but does nothing to fill it. In seeking some sort of atonement, Oedipus blinds himself, Iocaste commits suicide, and (in a later play) Antigone ends the evil of her existence by hanging herself. Tragedy looks at the human experience, sees the reality of sin, and concludes that nothing but despair remains. Where the tragedians despair, the gospel proclaims hope. Christ himself enters our tragedy and in the greatest eucatastrophe in human history reverses the tragic into the salvific.

 

Image: Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods, Public Domain 

hendrick-van-cleve-tower-of-babel-16thc

Chapter 5 of God and Cosmos, “Moral Obligations.” Part 2

 Summary by Frederick Choo

Baggett and Walls next evaluate the Cornell realist account, advanced by those like David Brink, Nicholas Sturgeon, and Richard Boyd. Cornell realists view moral facts as natural facts (constituted by some complex collection of natural properties), but not reducible to non-moral natural facts. Some natural properties, for example, contribute to human flourishing. Baggett and Walls point out that even if Cornell realist accounts of the good are successful, this does not provide an effective account of moral obligations. C. Stephen Evans, for example, thinks such a theory of goodness is fully compatible with Divine Command Theory.

They then further evaluate Brink’s approach to accounting for moral obligations, which seems far from a Kantian understanding of moral obligations as categorical. Kant’s categorical imperatives fell on hard times for various reasons. One reason was due to potentially competing or conflicting moral demands which Kant provided no way of resolving. W. D. Ross extended Kant’s work by distinguishing between prima facie and ultima facie duties (ultima facie duties are one’s duties all things considered). This however loosened the perceived authority of certain moral obligations since they can be overridden. Another reason was due to the action-guiding nature of morality. Moral anti-realists took this as evidence to suggest that moral judgments can’t merely purport to state facts, otherwise they cannot fulfill their practical function. Those who resist this assessment typically affirm an internalist thesis, where there is an internal or conceptual connection between moral considerations and action or the sources of action. One can be an internalist about motives or reasons. And “reasons for action” may refer to explanatory reasons or justifying ones. Brink responds to the anti-realist challenge by identifying three distinguishable characteristics of internalism: (1) Moral considerations necessarily motivate or provide reason for action; (2) it follows that the claim about the motivational power or rationality of morality must be a priori; (3) it follows that the rationality or motivational power of moral considerations cannot depend on substantive considerations such as what the content of morality turns out to be, facts about agents, or the content of the correct theory of rationality. On motivation internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact will necessarily be motivated to act on it. This seems implausible. On reason internalism, anyone who recognizes a moral fact has a reason to act on it. Baggett and Walls think this is true, but resists Brink’s insistence that internalism entails (2) and (3). Brink himself admits that not all internalists embrace all three conditions.

9780199931194Brink rejects reason internalism because he thinks that someone can correctly identify their moral obligations and yet still wonder whether those obligations give him good reason for action. Hence not all moral facts are reason-giving. While he thinks moral obligations apply to agents independently of their desires, he thinks that moral obligations do not provide reasons for action independently of their desires. The sort of reasons he is interested in are the sorts of pro-attitudes that expressivists and prescriptivists affirm are constitutive of moral judgments. Baggett and Walls reject Brink’s account, then, because this waters down the concept of moral obligations. The sort of reasons that moral obligations give us to act are connected with the authority of morality, which is closely connected to a commitment to reason internalism. Certain moral facts themselves provide distinctive, and sometimes overriding reasons for acting, bringing deliberation to a halt and resulting in a guilty verdict if we do not perform the duties in question. Hence, Brink’s account cannot explain these kind of moral obligations and instead waters the concept down.
Baggett and Walls then look at non-natural normative realism advanced by those like Derek Parfit and Erik Wielenberg. On this view, moral facts are non-natural facts. Wielenberg claims that the secularist can posit that moral laws are normative in nature just like the laws of logic are. Both sets of laws are prescriptive. Since the law of non-contradiction can exist without a lawgiver, so can morality. Baggett and Walls however think that there are important dissimilarities. First, it may well be that all genuine norms have their locus in God, reflecting aspects of his nature. Second, only violation of the moral law properly generates guilt, a need to be forgiven, and alienation from others that forgiveness can fix. Making a logical mistake may cause us to feel silly or embarrassed, but not guilty.

Baggett and Walls also note that some secular philosophers lose the distinctive character of moral obligations when they assimilate moral obligations to having good reasons to act a certain way. What they do is provide a number of reasons to perform an action and act as though they have explained where a moral obligation comes from. Instead, Baggett and Walls claim that it often works the other way. Because we have a moral obligation gives us reasons to act. For example, we don’t look at a poor person and count up a distinct set of normative reasons to act and then infer we have an obligation as a result. We instead apprehend or feel the force or sense the authority of the obligation to help, which gives us overriding reasons to act.

6086081141_78a50fd393_b

The Love of God in the Life of St. Patrick

by Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Most religious celebrations and feast days for saints of the church garner little attention outside ecclesiastical circles. St. Patrick’s Day is a notable exception, especially throughout America. Across the country parades and festivities are held to commemorate all things Irish. It’s a delightful holiday in many ways, with ubiquitous shamrocks and obligatory green clothing or accessories and Shamrock shakes galore. Because the church traditionally lifts the Lenten restrictions on alcohol for this celebration, the revelry of St. Patrick’s Day is often marked with more than a little inebriation. Regardless of the specific form of the celebration, rarely invoked are the particulars of the man for whom the day is named. Just who is this Patrick, patron saint of Ireland? Why commemorate his life at all?

The most obvious and the official answer is that we celebrate Patrick’s life because of the key role he played in turning the Irish away from paganism and toward Christianity. This was no mean feat. In Philip Freeman’s helpful biography of Patrick, he tells of the entrenched cultural powers—kings, druids, slaveholders—that Patrick would need to engage to carry out his sixth century mission’s work. The political structures, religious customs, and social practices of Ireland at the start of Patrick’s ministry were all overtly and fiercely anti-Christian. Patrick’s navigation of those dynamics is certainly noteworthy; his overwhelming success in subverting them is nothing short of miraculous. Attempts to capture the astonishing outcomes of Patrick’s work have elevated the man himself to something of a spiritual superhero, complete with his own folklore and fantastical stories.

Sensationalistic tales such as his banishment of snakes from the island and his staff that took root and grew into a tree give the saint an air of mystery and the heroic. The rapidity and breadth of Christianity’s growth across the island is difficult to explain without appeal to the supernatural, and these fabricated stories were probably intended to capture something of the divine power that clearly animated and directed his missions work. But the legends might just as easily distract us from understanding Patrick as the model for Christian faithfulness he provides. True, Patrick was instrumental in radically transforming the landscape of a cruel and dehumanizing culture. Yes, he is rightly recognized as a luminary of the Christian faith. But his life also serves as an example and encouragement for all Christians seeking to live out their faith. What we find in Patrick’s own words testify that the source of this work is the life of Christ available to all Christians. The inspiration of Patrick’s life is not to be found in its outsized results but in its steady faithfulness.

To be sure, the circumstances of Patrick’s life were extraordinary. He was born in fifth-century Britain, the privileged son of a Roman official. During his teenage years, he was kidnapped by Irish mercenaries and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years. After an escape from captivity prompted by an angelic vision, he returned home and devoted himself to the study of scriptures and preparation for ministry of some kind. During his years as a slave, he had become deeply aware of God’s call on his life and of his need for a savior. He later attributed his spiritual growth in this time to his terrible conditions: only when all was stripped away did he realize his complete dependence on God. His physical slavery counterintuitively brought him spiritual freedom. This transformational experience affected him so deeply that when he felt led to return to Ireland, the land and people responsible for his greatest torment, he abandoned himself wholly to that calling. Not only did he return to share the life-giving gospel message with the hardened and violent people of Ireland; he came to love them, even risking his life and reputation for their sake.

This love motivated his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British tribal ruler. This letter jeopardized Patrick’s standing in the church and cost him no small amount of anxiety and energy; nevertheless, his commitment to the Irish people and to the gospel overrode those personal concerns. He wrote his note in response to a raid into Ireland by British soldiers who killed and kidnapped a group of Patrick’s newly baptized converts on their way home from the baptism. Sending this missive put Patrick in danger because it violated long-standing church protocol that leaders should not meddle in the congregations of other church leaders. And Patrick’s letter did more than meddle. It condemned not only the actions of the soldiers but the soldiers themselves, appealing to scripture to justify the judgments he rendered.

God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Patrick’s righteous indignation and rage at the soldiers’ actions permeate the letter, but undergirding that wrath is a devotion to God and commitment to his people. Britons thought very little of the Irish, seeing them as less than human and suited only for slavery. Patrick’s writing proclaims again and again that God cares for them. Patrick upends the British assumptions by describing the Irish as his brothers and sisters, and even more by extending that relationship to the soldiers themselves, who publically pronounced themselves Christian. Patrick puts that presumption to the test by challenging them to release those they had enslaved. He also called on other fellow Christians to cut off fellowship with them until they demonstrated their faith through their actions.

For Patrick, faith and works go hand in hand. This is demonstrated by his Confession, a follow-up to his earlier epistle that appears to be a response to challenges to his leadership that stemmed from his rebuke of Coroticus. In this recount of his testimony, what emerges is a picture of a man who submitted himself fully to God’s call on his life. What is most remarkable about this account is the way it depicts how receiving God’s love leads to serving others. The mercy God showed Patrick in his early years as a slave stirred in him gratitude and a desire to share that blessing with others. The love he offered the Irish, despite their responsibility for his kidnapping and enslavement, was an overflow of the love God bestowed on him.

Despite the time and space that divide us, the Patrick of these letters has much to teach us. He displayed remarkable courage in confronting wrongdoing, but not of his own strength. Forged in the fire of oppression was his abiding conviction about God’s love and its radical and often counterintuitive demands. The debasement of slavery and dehumanization he’d endured had stripped away all pretenses of his superiority, making him acutely aware of his desperate need for God for power and productiveness, for trust and tenacity. God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Near the end of his letter, Patrick wrote these poignant words we would do well to take to heart:

“My final prayer is that all of you who believe in God and respect him—whoever you may be who read this letter that Patrick the unlearned sinner wrote from Ireland—that none of you will ever say that I in my ignorance did anything for God. You must understand—because it is the truth—that it was all the gift of God.”

Image: “Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago.” by T. Zajdowicz. CC License. 

Yelin-bergpredigt-ca1912

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 5: Introduction and 5.1.

Summary by Jonathan Pruitt

In the previous chapter, Hare argued that it is not possible to deduce the human good from human nature. But if the human good cannot be determined this way, then where should we look? Hare suggests that those who believe in God may find that God’s commands provide a rationally satisfying and sufficiently specific account of the human good. Therefore, in chapter 5, Hare takes a theological turn. Hare utilizes the insight of the prodigious theologian Karl Barth to flesh out some of the implications of God’s commands.

Hare emphasizes that though Barth is a theologian, he ably interacts with key philosophical ideas (especially Kant’s ideas) and he brings an awareness of the whole Christian theological and philosophical tradition to bear in his works. Barth thus provides Hare with a synthesis of exegetical, theological, and philosophical reflections on the commands of God.

Hare focuses on three themes in Barth’s treatment of God’s command: “the particularity of God’s commands, our freedom in response to the command, and our access to the command.” Barth suggests that the simple fact that we are commanded implies several things. First, God’s commands are given to particular people at a particular time. They are given to “responders,” who are “centers of agency.” Being commanded further implies that we can be obedient and bring about change in the world. We must also persist through time, through the hearing of the command to the realization of it. God’s command of us also suggests that we are sufficiently free to obey or not. And, if God commands us, we must be competent users of language to be able to understand the command.

The first Barthian theme that Hare explores is the particularity of the command (and this is the subject of section 1). Though there is a universal command to respect life, God commands specific persons. This respect begins with respect for one’s own life. But what does it mean to respect one’s own life? Barth rejects the notion that the substance of this command can be fleshed out through autonomous human reason. To attempt to establish what one must do on our own steam is both a denial of what we are (finite and fallible creatures) and a denial of who God is (utterly sovereign). Further, Barth holds that God’s has a highly specific form of life for every person. It is this form of life to which God calls us, and not to some merely general human good. Therefore, God’s plan cannot be captured in generalized statements about what humans ought to be. Rather, God has intimate and specific desires for each individual. We relate to God not only as a species, but person to person in the mode of “Thou-I.” Barth thinks we ought to allow God to completely determine for us what we are to do in every situation because of who he is and what we are in relation to him.

hare god's commandHare argues that in this regard Barth stands more in the tradition of Scotus than of Aristotle and Plato. Rather than think that all humans have the same essence, Barth holds that each human being is a unique essence and this distinguishes them from other human beings (each person is a “haecceity”). Humanity shares a common nature, but we each have a distinct essence. Hare quotes the passage from Revelation that teaches that God has a name for each human written on a white stone. Hare suggests this name is a representation of God’s purpose for our life and our haecceities. It is something only God knows and if we are going to live according to it, we must rely on God’s commands to us. For Barth, the end of man is to love God and others in a particular way as a reflection of the love in the Trinity.

Kant thought that all our moral obligations could be captured in terms of the categorical imperative, which is universally applied to all humans in all cases. No reference to particular people (either as subject or object) could be allowed or else the imperative could not be universalized.

Hare thinks this universal morality is too restrictive because there are clear cases where moral obligations rightly are limited to particular people in specific circumstances. To help support this point, Hare distinguishes four positions in moral judgment: addressee, agent, recipient, and action. Any of these elements may take on a specific, non-universal character. God may, for example, tell Joshua (the addressee) that the priests (the agent) should march around Jericho seven times (the action). Hare also points out Jesus’ greatest commandment, which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” is not universalizable in the recipient position. Jesus is not saying, “love whoever or whatever is God with all your heart.” He is saying, “Love this specific God, who has a historical connection with Israel, with all your heart.” Thus, there seem to be cases where we have moral obligations that cannot be captured in all universalist terms. Of course, if these are genuine moral obligations, then Kant’s formulation, that “we have to treat humanity, whether in our own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end in itself, and never merely as a means,” would need to be qualified.

To further support his case for qualifying the categorical imperative, Hare produces the hypothetical case of his friend, Elizabeth, who needs a bat removed from her house. Hare argues that he does have a moral obligation to help Elizabeth, but that this obligation is not generated by an appeal to Elizabeth’s humanity. In other words, it does not obtain by appeal to the Kantian maxim as stated above. If it did, then Hare would be obligated to help anyone who needed bats removed whoever they were. What grounds the obligation is Hare’s relationship to Elizabeth in her particularity. The obligation exists just because Elizabeth is Elizabeth and Hare stands in special relation to Elizabeth that he does not share with humanity in general. Hare adds that he loves Elizabeth for her haecceity (her unique essence), and not merely because she is human. And since loving another for her own sake is characteristic of a moral relation, then it would seem he does have an obligation to Elizabeth just because of who she is and his relation to her. Of course, the particularist nature of this moral obligation does not mean that morality reduces to particularities. Usually, universal moral judgments accompany the particular. For example, “One ought to help one’s friend” accompanies “Hare ought to help Elizabeth.”

Finally, Hare wants to show how Barth’s view of God’s commands can be understood to be both particular and universal. So far, the discussion has emphasized the particularity of God’s commands to specific people, but Barth also thinks that many of God’s commands have universal validity.

To help show the consistency of Barth’s view, Hare lays out some important distinctions. First, Hare notes that Barth makes a distinction between instruction and reflection. By “instruction,” Barth has in mind something like the Ten Commandments. These commands give instruction and provide an opportunity and context for us to think through what we know about God and ourselves. After instruction comes reflection. In reflection, we take what he learned from instruction and apply to our own case; we hear God’s command to us in our place and time. Though the instruction is given to a particular people in a particular place, instruction provides the basis for our knowing what God is like and preparing ourselves to act as he wishes.

The narrative of the Bible in which the commands are embedded are to shape our moral sense. Hare clarifies Barth’s discussion of this by introducing the distinction between the good and the obligatory. All of God’s commands are good, but God does not command all that is good. So in every case of God’s commanding, he commands something good and this connection to goodness is universal. All of God’s commands are objectively and universally good. God’s commands as instruction show us what God values and they teach us the character of the good. The commands of God in the Bible, then, are not abstract laws that admit of no exceptions. Instead, they are didactic, shaping our moral sense. We can through instruction, know goodness in advance and that goodness is universally required, per Barth, but we cannot know what our obligation will be in a given case. This is because we need God to tell us “which good kind of thing we are now to realize, to which particular recipients.” Knowing what we are to do in a particular case requires reflection and dependence upon God and his Word. (One may wonder, given this dependence, what need we have for moral deliberation. Hare promises to address this later in the chapter.)

Hare sees some similarities between the morality of Barth and Kant. Both Barth and Kant agree that our obligations come to us independent of what we desire, though this does not mean desire and obligation are ultimately in conflict. But more importantly, both Barth and Kant have a “public” morality. For Kant, the formulation of the categorical imperative must be endorsable by all members of the kingdom of ends. For Barth, the act of obeying a divine command means making the claim that the “commander whose commands establish the covenant obligations for all human beings.” Further, Barth says that all divine commands are given to members of a body, humans in a community. This community provides accountability and a way to test the commands, through the communal hearing of the instruction and through reflection, whether the commands are from God or not.

 

 

12559943145_795ee28bff_k

John Hare’s God’s Command, 4.4.3, “The Good Promise-Keeper”

summary by David Baggett

For human natural goodness, Foot gives the example of an anthropologist who made a promise to a Malayan native never to photograph him. Later he could get away with doing it, and the picture would have been valuable, but he had made a promise. Foot commented about this case that in giving a promise one makes use of a special kind of tool invented by humans for the better conduct of their lives, creating an obligation that (though not absolute) the harmlessness of its violation does not annul. Breaking the promise would have been defective. She thought there was a “natural-history story” to explain why the disposition to break a promise is defective, just as much as there is a natural-history story to explain why it is a defect not to be able to walk or see. She used Anscombe’s story about the need for the institution of promising if we are going to be able to get each other to do the sorts of things that constitute the human form of life.

RMH, in contrast, argued that promising creates an obligation in this way: if a speaker says sincerely that all promises are acts of placing oneself under (undertaking) an obligation to do the thing promised, he must himself be expressing his own subscription to the rule of the institution of promising and thus stating a moral principle. There is no deduction, therefore, from a fact to an obligation. It’s characteristic of words like “promise,” which have meaning only within institutions, that they can be introduced into language only when certain synthetic propositions about how we should act are assented to.

Foot thought there was a deduction of our obligation to keep our promises from our human form of life. Keeping our promises is an instance of justice, she thought, and she said that justice is one of the virtues that is an “Aristotelian necessity.” Foot was not an absolutist about keeping promises. Apart from killing the innocent, torture is the only absolute prohibition she mentioned. Torture was also an absolute prohibition for RMH, who spoke out of his own experience as a prisoner of the Japanese in WW2.

At any rate, Hare thinks Foot’s deduction doesn’t work. She treats our nature too much as a single unified package, and she was too optimistic in her account of practical rationality as sensitivity to the reasons this package gives us. Consider things like the fact that humans lie, cheat, or steal. Are these Aristotelian categoricals? Can we rule them out as irrelevant because they are not directly or indirectly related to our survival and reproduction? The accusation here is not that Foot was trying to deduce moral goodness from biology or from the inclinations we supposedly share with the hunter-gatherers who formed most of our evolutionary history. Other philosophers have tried to do this and failed.

For example, Arnhart argued that the good is the desirable (as in Aquinas) and the desirable is what is generally desired by human beings. By “generally desired” he meant that these desires are found in most people in every society throughout human history, and he thought evolution had given us these desires because they enhanced our chances of survival and reproduction. He listed twenty such desires, and his framework principle was that if a desire is general in this sense, belonging to this list, then its fulfillment is good. He did not find disinterested benevolence among these desires, and he concluded that it is merely utopian, beyond the order of nature, and foisted on us by religion.

Hare thinks it instructive to compare Arnhart with Foot on these points. Foot said that there is the same form of inference for humans and for wolves, from the Aristotelian categoricals about a form of life to conclusions about goodness. Unlike Arnhart she pointed out that Wittgenstein said at his end that he had had a wonderful life, but she said that he was not, in any ordinary sense, happy. Happiness is the human good only if we think of happiness in the way we discussed in relation to the letter-writers earlier, for whom it was already too late for happiness. But this kind of happiness is an ideal, and there is the same kind of difficulty as we found with RMH’s treatment of ideals. Foot had a worked-out theory about moral goodness in terms of natural facts and then had trouble integrating into it the distinction between the natural traits we should admire and the natural traits we should not. She included among Aristotelian categoricals seeking justice, but not the desire for power over others. This is better than Arnhart, but there’s a price. We know with Arnhart where his conclusions come from, even if we disagree with them. He faced the nasty as well as the nice aspects of our nature, and he was consistent about how we should live. In the same way Aristotle was. For Foot, by contrast, there was a gap. The categoricals for plants and non-human animals are supposed to be reached by saying how for a certain species nourishment was obtained, how development took place, what defenses were available, and how reproduction was secured. Answers to such questions for humans come in terms of deception and coercion, just as much as the recognition of rights. Foot was right to want a different way to think about the human good. But she did not give us a method for doing so that is “naturalistic” in the way the claim about the same “form of inference” from categoricals to virtues implies.

Hare thinks one basic problem is that the four natural ends given by Hursthouse don’t cohere, which means that our nature is not harmonious in the way she needs and claims. She wants to reject the view that human nature is “just a mess,” because she thinks this leads to moral nihilism and despair. But she does not consider the possibility that we are not exactly a mess, but a mixture of the kind Kant describes. This means that we are, as she denies, a “battleground.” There’s a dilemma here for her. Either the Aristotelian categoricals need to be already screened by ethical principle, in which case we get a deduction from nature only by this screening. Or we can allow that any typical feature leading to the four natural ends is a virtue, but then we will not get the deduction of a conclusion about moral goodness or the good human life. It’s better to allow that most of what we think constitutes a good human life comes from our ideals, which are not deducible from the four ends at all, though these ends are constraints on our ideals.

Another way to put the dilemma is that Hursthouse has two theses that conflict, when conjoined, with her admission that much of the work in deciding how to live does not come from the four ends, and that there is no fifth end characteristic of human animals from which to derive these decisions. These two theses are, first, what Hare calls “virtue dominance” and, second, deductivism about virtue. If the virtues are to be deducible from our nature, then they ought to give us a great deal more content about how to live than the admission that there is no fifth end implies.

We should concede that our nature puts a constraint on what we should say about a good human life and therefore about obligation. Foot and Hursthouse are right that it makes sense to talk about a human specific good, at least in ordinary speech, and so to talk about the kinds of human goodness that contribute to it. Even so, such facts don’t obligate us. Hare thinks the one exception is that we have a self-evident obligation to love God and neighbor, but none of the more specific obligations of the second table follow.

For DCT, it is God’s command that obligates. We should have the faith, though, that God wants our good, and commands us to live in a way that will be conducive to this end. So, even though obligations are not (with one exception) deducible from facts about human nature, those facts can serve as constraints on what we should believe about how God has commanded us to live. Does DCT derive an ought from an is? Hare thinks not, but defending his view is subtle. It’s true that God’s commanding something makes it obligatory, and that this is the right criterion (according to DCT) for the judgment that we ought to live a certain way. But we have to make what is the criterion our criterion, by a decision of the will.

Practical rationality can give us contradictory maxims, both of which fit the facts of human nature, unless we’ve rigged those facts by incorporating ideals into their specification. It’s not silly to be torn on occasion, even torn apart. When we bring the interests of others into the picture, especially the interests of those not related to us by friendship or family, most of us in the richer parts of the world fail most of the time. We simply do not think about the impact our own lifestyles have on those who are suffering in the rest of the world. Foot was herself not blind in this way, but she was too optimistic about the rest of us.

Hursthouse ends with the need for hope that we can flourish together, and not at each other’s expense, and she knows that this hope used to be called belief in (God’s) Providence. If we can’t rely on our nature to produce this ethical commonwealth, though, because our nature is a mixture of good and evil, then what is the ground of this hope? It must be something beyond our nature, and God’s sovereignty is an answer to be considered, as we did in the argument from providence in the first chapter.

 

Sermon On The Mount
with the Healing of the Leper
Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 4, Section 4.1.3, “The Social Character of Obligation”:

Summary by David Baggett

Hare now asks if we, by bringing in human nature in this way, have abandoned the distinctive mark of divine command theory, and simply turned it into a species of natural law theory. The argument has not been that the moral law is natural law strictly speaking, but that the content of at least two of the Ten Commandments has been turned into presumptions against taking God to be commanding us to act in a certain way, and these presumptions are taken from what fits human nature. For Scotus, the first table is natural law strictly speaking (except for the “seventh day” prescription). The command to love the neighbor would also be natural law strictly speaking, since we are necessarily commanded to love God, and to love the love of God, and therefore to love the neighbor’s love of God. But Scotus believes in the possibility of reprobation, so there is a restriction needed: we are commanded to love the love of God in the neighbor “at least by anyone whose friendship [God] is pleased to have.” We can and should have a defeasible presumption that we and the neighbor are not among the reprobate, because the judgment is God’s and not ours. Moreover, since we are necessarily commanded to love God, and since human nature is specified in terms of this end, we can say that God necessarily commands what fits human nature. But Scotus does not think that any of the specific commands in the second table can be deduced from this. There are two different possible kinds of deduction from what fits us. There is a deduction of a presumption in two cases, but in no case is there a deduction of an absolute prohibition.

A second point is more important. The argument so far doesn’t imply the moral law or moral obligation is deducible from human nature even in the case of the prohibitions on killing the innocent or on lying. There can be a presumption against doing something and still not an obligation not to do it. Here we return to Adams and Darwall and their notion of the social character of obligation, which we can accept with one qualification. The social character is that we are obligated to someone, or by someone. [Murphy objects that, whereas tort law always has a tortfeasor and a victim, and so has a “bipolar” structure, this is not true of criminal law, which can have a “monadic” structure in which there may be no victims at all (God and Moral Law, 126). If this is right, we should not say that obligation as such is bipolar. But there is good reason, Hare thinks, explored by Darwall in The Second-Person Standpoint, ch. 5, to think that moral obligation is more like tort law in this respect.] The opposite of “obligatory” is “forbidden.” It is not at all an easy matter to delineate this social character, but the general point seems right. The qualification is that we should not derive the agent’s obligation from the goodness to the agent of the relation that would be damaged by violating the obligation. That would be another form of eudaemonism. But that aside, suppose we start with the way Adams puts the basic idea, that, where there is a violation of an obligation, one “may appropriately have an adverse reaction to it.” The question is: Who is it whose appropriate reaction is here in question? Human beings have limited information, and limited sympathies. Even if we did know the preferences of others, we would tend to prefer the preferences of some people to the preferences of others in a way not countenanced by the moral law.

hare god's commandWe might ask, why should we assume that the person to whom we are accountable in an obligation is the same as the person who generated the obligation in the first place? There is a tradition of argument, in Kant, for example, and also in Suarez, that God is legislator, executive ruler, and judge, and that moral law assumes that it is the same person who carries out all three functions. This tradition lay behind the discussion of God’s authority in Ch. 2. In Kant’s terms, the author of the law (which we repeat in our own wills) has to have a holy will, the administration of the law has to be by the “supersensible author nature,” and the judge has to be able to see into our hearts; and there is one person, and it is the same person, who does these three things. We might ask: “Why could it not be three different persons?” After all, in human societies it can be an advantage to have these functions divided. Hare is content to make this modest claim: If there is only one God, that one God is the most appropriate person for these three roles.

If this argument works, or something like it works, we can say that moral obligation requires not just a presumption against doing something but an obligator, and that deducibility from human nature and non-divine facts alone therefore has to be denied. Now we can return at last to Murphy’s dilemma. The first horn proposed that, if God is free to command what God wants, the non-moral and non-divine facts are inert. But if, as Hare has argued, God is constrained though not determined by facts about our nature, these facts will not be inert. The second horn of the dilemma proposed that it is odd to say that we are obligated not by the maximal set of non-moral, non-divine facts (where these include facts about our nature), but God is so constrained. The response is that this is not odd at all. We and God are different. Both God and we are constrained by non-moral and non-divine facts, and neither God nor we are obligated by those facts. But we are obligated by God’s commands. God does not require an obligator at all, but is the obligator. Even in those cases of moral law (if there are any) in which God’s command is constrained by the non-moral, non-divine facts, we are obligated not by those facts but by God’s command.