If I asked my five-year-old niece why she apologized to her crying brother, or if I asked my undergraduate student why he turned his assignment in on time, or if I asked you why you paid your traffic citation, I would likely get a similar answer to each question. Fear of consequences—whether the disapproval of an authority figure, or actual penalties— is a strong incentive for obedience. Many modern conceptions of law trade on these motivating ideas of fear and power. We tend to think of law as our taskmaster. It disciplines us, instills anxiety, and so keeps us from committing acts that might lead to punishment. In this sense, law is an external constraint that gives us reason not to say or do things we might otherwise say or do.
This popular modern understanding of law is in some respects a secular version of what early Protestant theologians called the civil use of the law. In our common life together, law is an instrument of divine providence, preserving civic peace in a fallen world by keeping sinful passions in check. Without law, society would devolve en masse into something resembling Augustine’s description of fourth-century Carthage, “a hissing cauldron of illicit loves.”
Both these secular and theological descriptions of law make sense of so much of what we do—not just in obedience to political powers and institutions, but even in the way we relate to authorities in our workplace, school, or home. But at the same time, this particular conception can also lead to an impoverished understanding of what law really is and what it is for. If law is only an instrument of coercion, if its sole purpose is to exert control and induce obedience to authority, then it can appear fundamentally negative or even amoral. Where are the considerations of love, justice, grace, or even the common good? Does law exist solely to bend our wills and make us obey parents, pastors, or civil authorities who have the power to coerce us?
In fact, some critics have singled out this narrow and negative view of law to make the case that Protestantism and modernity are complicit in what the theologian John Milbank calls “the death of charity” in civil society. When law is isolated from the ideas of mutual love and the common good and reduced to the “policing of sins,” it is destructive of social life. The historian Brad Gregory makes a similar claim in his recent book, The Unintended Reformation, tying Protestant reforms to the emergence of modern programs of social control. Protestant rulers and technocrats, Gregory argues, oversaw legal systems and political regimes that “were dominated not by habituation in Christian virtues but by the following of moral rules.” Protestants, he says, took traditional conceptions of political order and effectively flattened them out into a modern form of statecraft reliant on a stringent legal code. In Protestant modernity, people obey merely because they are told to do so, and ethical questions about love, justice, and the common good fall by the wayside.
These are serious charges. At times, they can seem quite credible. Consider how difficult it is for many of us to imagine law as something other than a principle of intimidation and control in our lives. If we cannot articulate reasons to obey the law that do not involve fear and power, perhaps modernity’s critics have rightly diagnosed what ails the Protestant tradition.
Or perhaps modern Protestants have simply forgotten something that has been part of their tradition from the beginning. To correct our late modern amnesia, we may need to remember and reclaim an early modern understanding of law. In doing so, we might come to understand how law shapes our loves and points us to pursue the good of our neighbour and our society.
Law And Divine Fellowship
It is true that early Protestant theologians believed that one of the important functions of law in a fallen world is to curb the social effects of sin. They did not invent this notion. It was a widely accepted belief that they endorsed. However, it is one thing to recognize that law has this effect. It is another matter to reduce law to this one thing.
But early Protestant theologians were not so reductionistic. And if we turn back to some of these theologians, some well-known and some largely forgotten, we will see that they were deeply interested in theological and philosophical questions about law’s origin, content, and ends. In answering these broader questions, they intertwined themes of command, obedience, and love into the theological framework of creation itself. In fact, it was their doctrine of creation that helped early Protestants explain why we might have reasons to obey the law, not simply out of fear, but out of love for God and neighbour. To comprehend these reasons, we first need to understand why God gave humanity the law in the first place.
John Calvin once wrote that obedience characteristically arises in response to an expression of divine love. “No one,” he says in the first book of the Institutes, “will voluntarily and willingly devote himself to the service of God unless he has previously tasted his paternal love, and been thereby allured to love and reverence him.” This pattern of love leading to obedience is woven throughout early Protestant accounts of creation. In other words, before we articulate the specific terms of lawful obedience, we have to recognize the love and the offer of fellowship that precede them. As the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger wrote, God created human beings “out of the sheer goodness” of his nature to be in a particular sort of relationship with him. This relationship provided “innumerable benefits” to humanity, foremost among them rightly ordered fellowship with God and neighbour. Notice the way the fellowship is created and preserved: God, the divine sovereign, makes something very good and offers to bring humanity into relationship with him, so that they might both enjoy him and participate in the goodness of creation.
In his formidable but sadly forgotten work On the Nature of God, the Italian Reformer Girolamo Zanchi makes a related point: our ability to comprehend and enjoy what is good and beautiful is bound up with God’s own love for his creation. God has “both willed and done good to all things that he has made.” In this way, we might even say that it is through this act of love that “God infuses goodness into things,” and directs us to appreciate and enjoy them as well. Again, divine goodness precedes and elicits our response. We come to love what our God loved first.
This recognition of love and fellowship prompts us to respond with obedience. Here we can finally ask what role law serves in this fellowship. Why is it even necessary, especially in the created world, originally free from sin’s corruption?
Bullinger notes that God’s law provided humanity with the opportunity “to declare and show thankfulness and obedience” to God as benefactor. In fact, these acts of gratitude and obedience help to constitute the perfection of the fellowship. Without them, our enjoyment of God would be incomplete.
There is a beautiful passage in a commentary on 1 John by the often-overlooked German reformer Johannes Oecolampadius. (Once you have rehearsed his name several times, it really does roll off the tongue.) In it, he describes law as something that draws humanity towards union with God. This law written by God on the human heart inclines us to reciprocate divine love. Oecolampadius calls this law a “blessed bond” or “obligation”—a felix nexus—that presses us to cling to the divine lawgiver and to be his people. Law binds us to love that which is most worthy.
In this sense, law is something that orders humanity to our proper end. It points us in the right direction, and clarifies what sorts of actions preserve our fellowship with God and neighbour, and what sorts of actions destroy those same relationships. The biblical narrative of creation, as Bullinger writes, shows us that we need to recognize law first of all as a gift. It was not offered as a “stumbling block,” but as a staff to keep humanity from falling. Even the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden plays a positive pedagogical role for Bullinger. God’s command not to eat from it was not the whim of a divine tyrant, but the instruction of a wise and good sovereign, directing his subjects how to trust in his provision for their well-being. Law was shot through with divine goodness.
In the relationship between the divine ruler and his people, law and love are mutually implicated. Love gives rise to laws that are intended to protect the fellowship or union between parties. These attendant laws do not make love any “less voluntary by the command,” as the Dutch theologian Hermann Witsius argued. Rather, they specify how love might be perfected in us, and so offered freely rather than extorted by fear and threats. On a more mundane level, we might think of this as law’s direction of the development of character. When a mother prompts her young son, time and time again, to say thank you when he is shown kindness, she does so in the hope that he will eventually offer gratitude freely and without reminder. Her command is given so that he will become the sort of person who acts happily in accordance with the law.
Law And Human Injustice
So far, this talk of divine love and law could seem rather vague and toothless, especially in a world pervaded by political corruption, economic injustice, and plain old human pettiness. The law considered solely as an instrument of coercion may seem impersonal and authoritarian, but perhaps that is just what we need in a sin-marked world. Or so the political realist might contend.
But in fact, the creational ontology of law that I have been describing has a sharp practical, normative edge to it. For law to count as law, it must satisfy certain criteria. First, it matters where law comes from; that is, whether it arises from a proper authority. Second, it matters what law commands. And third, it matters what law aims to accomplish. This is why the creational relationship between the divine lawgiver and his people matters to us, on the other side of Eden. The relationship of command and obedience is a paradigmatic standard for all social relations. God, as the perfectly wise lawgiver, shows his people what is good for them, and provides instruction about the proper means to attain it.
Human law, of course, does not arise from a perfect source. Nor do those who hold positions of power have the infinite wisdom or moral excellence to make the right judgements about the content and ends of law in every case. We know that human law can and often does miss the mark, not just at the highest levels of political power, but also in places like the city streets of Ferguson, Cleveland, and Chicago. More often than we admit, the vicious hold seats of authority—whether in the home, the pulpit, or congressional office— and the powerful often find ways to manipulate law for their private advantage.
Three considerations, drawn from our often-overlooked early modern theologians, are relevant here. First, returning to the Italian Reformer Zanchi, it is important for us to remember that the law still has the same function before and after we consider the effects of sin in the world. Law, if it is good and just, still serves to direct us to the common good. Divine law in particular, Zanchi believes, helps us to see and “more certainly understand what God will have us to do,” even when our “minds are still blinded with darkness and our memory is so slippery.” In other words, the nature and purpose of the law does not change, humanity does. Or as Witsius writes, “The same law which was to humanity in innocence a commandment to life, and is to humanity in sin, the law of sin . . . becomes again in the Redeemer the law of the spirit of life.”
Second, the effects of sin and corruption on human law give us good reason to embrace the actual traditional Protestant view over its shallow modern alternatives. It keeps considerations of justice and the bonds of love in the picture. Law is not just the imposition of a stronger will on a weaker one. Rather, properly understood, it requires us to make moral judgements about who is issuing the commands, why she is doing so, and what the commands entail. Once again, our theology of creation provides us with an example of the perfect standard of just authority and command. As the early Protestants remind us, the law of the faithful divine sovereign was given out of love for his people, so that they might enjoy the common good of fellowship with him. This concurrence of law and love is one indicator of law’s justice. The paradigm of divine love and faithfulness provides a standard by which we judge whether human commands are warped by disordered loves and passions. Here it is important to remember the maxim of Augustine, Aquinas, and Martin Luther King Jr.: an unjust law is no law at all. Or as Calvin, Bullinger, and others add, laws are like the “sinews of the commonwealth.” When earthly powers try to bend them to unjust ends, they do violence to the social body.
And third, once we grant that true law aims at the common good and that unjust law lacks the moral force to bind us, we still have to confront the deep reality of sin—in ourselves and in the world. After all, even if we acknowledge the goodness of law, we have no guarantee that we will apply it rightly, or that it will be effective in drawing us into fellowship with God and neighbour. To be even more direct: What can we do about the radical, systemic ways in which we misperceive or outright pervert the goodness of law for our own unjust ends?
The early Protestants had a fair bit to say about the virtues of resisting social injustice— whether in politics, the church, or the home. For now, it is enough to point out that there are many good and fitting ways to lament, protest, or resist injustice in the world. What is uniquely Protestant about this matter, though, is that the obligation to discern just from unjust law applies to everyone, not just popes, pastors, and political leaders. We are all mutually bound to seek the common good and to challenge those figures or institutions that break covenant and twist law towards unjust ends. Following Calvin and other Reformed theologians, the political philosopher Johannes Althusius described this as our mutual obligation to hold each other accountable. This obligation includes those in power and those who hold power to account. We are all debtors to God and bound to obey his good law. If one debtor fails to challenge the injustice of another, Althusius writes, she is held “responsible for the fault of the other, and shares his sins.”
It is important to note that this principle of mutual accountability undercuts the modern view—or what Milbank and Gregory mischaracterize as the “Protestant” view—of law as a blunt instrument of power. We are bound together, not out of fear of punishment, but ultimately for the sake of the common good. Law forms us in specific ways and directs us towards the shared good of fellowship with each other and with God. When this fellowship is threatened, when the bonds of love are broken, we have reason to set things aright. The responsibilities of life together carry with them the need for individuals to cultivate the prudence to recognize the difference between just and unjust law, and the courage to make personal sacrifices for the sake of fellowship when things have fallen apart.
These responsibilities are present in all spheres of life, not just on the macro-level of political powers and institutions. We might apply this traditional view of law to the most ordinary interactions, even the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. My five-year-old niece may not acknowledge the need to apologize for wronging her brother now. But when she is older, she may come to understand that confessing, getting right with the ones you love, is a fitting way to preserve the friendship you share. The college sophomore who dutifully completes his work may do so now to avoid failing the class. Or perhaps in some small way he recognizes that difficult course requirements are the means to the end of academic excellence—something he wants to attain. And perhaps even the traffic citations and regulations that you submit to on a regular basis can be transfigured from burdensome rules to something else. After all, you care about the safety of those who share your city streets and walkways. These are all small sacrifices and considerations, but often these are what constitute the greater part of living well together. And what else does law aim at but this?