Metaphysics and an ‘Evangelical’ Ethic

From Oliver O’Donovan (broken up to aid understanding for internet-conditioned readers….like me):

Any attempt to think about morality must make a decision early in its course, overt or covert, about these forms of order which we seem to discern in the world.  Either they are there, or they are not.

This decision, which will shape the character of the whole moral philosophical enterprise, forces itself as much upon secular as upon Christian thought.  Secular man can observe the same indications of order as anyone else.  He can see that vegetables are ordered to serve animal life as food, and he can see that human beings stand in a generic equality alongside one another.

And so secular man, if he becomes a thinker, has the same decision to make.  On the one hand he may interpret these relations of order as part of a universal world-order, a network of interrelationships forming a totality of which mankind is a part.  If he does so, he steps, despite himself, on to theological ground, and will find himself required to specify rather carefully how he conceives the relation of cosmic order to the presence of mind and reason within it.

Alternatively, renouncing the pretensions of ‘metaphysics’, he may turn altogether away from the apparent objectivity of order.  Dismissing the immediate and pre-critical supposition that order could be ‘perceived’, he will maintain that it was ‘imposed’ upon the raw material of expereince by the will-to-order within the observing mind.

For moral philosophy, this means that all our moral beliefs, such as that every human being is the equal of every other, are not ‘beliefs’ at all but mere ‘commitments’, claiming no correspondence with reality.  They are the ways in which the will projects the pattern of the mind upon the blank screen of the unordered world…

For a Christian believer it would seem that there could be little hesitation over this decision.  For only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be ‘evangelical’ ethics.  Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a gnostic, gospel at all.

The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.

The Possibility of a Calvinist Natural Law Theory

One of the ongoing debates in Reformed scholarship is what, if any, role natural law theory played in John Calvin’s thought.  

The question has lots of implications, not least of which are our understandings of apologetics and politics.  Whether natural law thinking–that is, arguments about ethics or God that are not based on sacred Scripture–has any place in our Christian lives.

Most famously, Karl Barth argued that for Calvin, natural law played only a negative role.  That is, it showed us our culpability before God, without necessarily entailing a robust action guiding ethics.  More recently, however, the consensus of scholarship has moved away from this reading of Calvin toward one that thinks the natural law plays an important part of his approach toward society and politics.

I want to believe that.  I really do.  But I don’t buy it.  Yet.

In Book II, Chapter 7 of the Institutes, Calvin outlines the three functions of the ‘moral law.’  

The first is the properly theological usage of the law, which clearly has a ‘negative’ function.  It reveals and seals “the wickedness and condemnation of us all.” That is, it reveals to us our inability to act in accordance with the heavenly kingdom.

Interestingly, the second function of the moral law is also described in negative terms, even though it is in the context not of our relationship to God, but our relationship to each other–that is, society and politics.  Calvin writes: “The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats of the law.” While there are intimations in the passage that individuals can be “partially broken in by bearing the yoke of righteousness,” they are such not by virtue of any positive vision that the law lays out for them to abide by, but because the law restrains them. “Civil righteousness” is that which is brought about by the ‘halter’ and ‘bridle’ of the law.

This isn’t the only place Calvin deploys this negative aspect of the natural law. He writes in II.8.6, “Human laws, then, are satisfied when a man merely keeps his hand from wrongdoing. On the contrary, because the heavenly law has been given for our souls, they must at the outset be constrained, that it may be justly observed.” The law functions socially not as a positive motivator of the good, but as a punishment or deterrent of wickedness.

To be fair, Calvin later suggests that the laws of nations should be in conformity to the “perpetual rule of love.” But in both that section, and the subsequent section when he contends that “equity” is the goal of the law, his descriptions are completely negative in that they are oriented not around common goods that a society ought seek, but instead preventing harm between individuals.  

The third, and most proper use of the law, is a positive one–but it also “finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”  The law acts as an “instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in their understanding of it.”  That is, it plays a positive, educational role–but only in the lives of believers who have already been regenerated.

There is much more to be said here, of course.  But tentatively, I would argue that there is more to Barth’s skepticism about Calvinist natural law theory than many commentators are ready to acknowledge.  I suspect that once we locate it in the structure of Calvin’s doctrine of creation, that would only become more clear.

The God Who we Know is the God who is For Us

According to John Calvin, the knowledge of God “is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits us and is proper to his glory, in fine, what is to our advantage to know of Him.”  

Calvin’s definition is masterful.  Allow me to tease out two sides to it:

The knowledge of God is that by which we grasp “what befits us.”   Calvin is perfectly clear that there are limits on our pursuits of knowledge.  Speculation, wherein we reach too highly, leads to idolatry, for we seek to know that which is no longer fitting for us to know.  For Calvin, the knowledge of God carries within it limitations.  We do not know God as he is in himself, but only as he manifests Himself.

The knowledge of God is that by which we grasp “what is proper to his glory, in fine, what is to our advantage to know of Him.”   Here we see the second aspect to the knowledge of God.  For humans, to know God is to know that He is good.  Calvin writes in the next paragraph, “It will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in Him.”  

Calvin does not reach the knowledge of God as summum bonum–the medieval characterization of God as “supreme good”–through a methodological abstraction.   I am tempted to say that Calvin is frontloading his theology here;  he is building in a doctrine of God that necessarily has methodological implications.   

Regardless, it is clear that Calvin thinks that the God who we know is the God who is for us.  It is tempting to mimic Barth here:  the God we know is the God for us.  He is a God whose being is good.  But the God we know is the God for us.  Not only is he good–he is good in ways that that specifically benefit us, and if we do not see him as such, we do not see him at all.

Uneasy Bedfellows?: Natural Law and Protestant Theology

If there is one idea that comes up in every lecture at Acton University, it is a particular view of the human person mentioned in shorthand as “Christian anthropology.”  This view of the human being as a person made in the image of God, made free, and having an essence or nature is integral to the second most bandied idea here at Acton—natural law.  Natural law, briefly described, is that law which is universally binding and universally accessible through the right operation of human reason.  While not necessarily a Christian idea, also being promulgated by Roman Stoic philosophers in an attempt to unify the Roman Empire across the vast geographic, cultural, and religious divides contained under the standard of the Imperial eagle, Christian theologians and thinkers found that a very similar idea was implicitly and explicitly stated in the Bible.  Drawing on this notion of universal truth, universal morals, and the unity of reason across the human race Christians were able to make sense of the universal message of Gospel in a variety of very different social contexts.

In more recent decades, however, the idea of natural law has fallen on hard times both among the world’s irreligious as well as, interestingly, many Protestant evangelicals.  In a thoughtful and clarifying Acton University lecture this morning, Dr. Stephen Grabill argued that much of the Protestant rejection of natural law can be traced to certain doctrinal emphases arising out of 19th century church teachings.  Besides tracing the historical legacy of 19th century Protestant thought, Grabill also suggested that many of difficulties plaguing evangelicals as they engage with their secular culture on social and political issues can be easily connected to an abandonment of the Christian heritage of natural law.

For many Protestants today, and more especially those in the Reformed tradition, natural law poses two problems, both of which have anthropological roots.  Continue reading

The Sword and the Shaving Brush – an Overview

I. The Sword and the Shaving Brush
II. A Brief History of Clothing
III. The Three Aesthetic Problems
IV. Relativism, Immodesty, Evanglism
V. Solving the Three Aesthetic Problems
VI. Towards an Incarnational Aesthetic

VII. Nature and the Aim of Fiction
VIII. What’s So Bad About Immodesty?
IX. Look Good and Sin Not

X. Personhood, Not Propoganda


I’d like to thank Timothy Bartel for gracing us with the preliminary essays exploring a uniquely Christian approach to art, fashion, and dress. These thoughts serve as the germ of a book we certainly hope he writes, but we are happy and immensely grateful to publish the ‘world premiere’ of his initial explorations here on Mere Orthodoxy.

This insightful and playful tour de force analyzes the present attitudes and views on fashion, carefully identifying the root of our modern misunderstandings about clothes. It puts the blame where blame is due, on aesthetic relativism, rather than any of its symptoms, such as widespread immodesty of dress and the bastardization of fashion used as propaganda.


Having so diagnosed the problem, Bartel does not wallow in self-pity or vague invective, but proposes a cure: we must turn whole-heartedly to an incarnational aesthetic.

Rooted in what might be called the “Mosaic aesthetic” of the First Temple Priest’s garb, it finds the fullest expression of God’s view of fashion in the act of the Incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity. Not only does the incarnation radically effect our view of the body and the physical world as a whole, it affirms the use of clothing as an “imaging forth” of the clothed body and person. With this view of redeemed matter, and only with this view, can fashion be understood in its true light, as a matter of objective beauty or ugliness. With this fundamental misunderstanding corrected, modest dress, and the appropriate use of dress, become a matter of course.

Timothy Bartel is a Califonia naitve and graduate of Biola Univeristy and the Torrey Honors Institute with a BA in philosophy. He currently teaches for Torrey Academy, a classical high school program, and is working on an Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry at Seattle Pacific Univeristy. His academic interests include poetry, aesthetic theory, and classical philosophy. In his spare times he acts and writes fiction and poetry.

A Brief History of Clothing

The Sword and the Shaving Brush

Towards a Biblical understanding of fashion

By Timothy Bartel

Part II – A Brief History of Clothing

The wool dress I saw at Biola began to work on my mind. The idea of such an ungroomed garment could not long remain in my imagination before I connected it with the Bible. I don’t mean merely the associations of dressing up like a “sheep gone astray” or even of the Pauline assertion that we are clothed in the white righteousness of Christ. As contemporary Christians we are often too quick to transform all physical actions and objects into figures for metaphysical or spiritual truths. Strangely, the first association I made with the wool dress was Genesis 3. As we remember, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and consequently realize a strange thing. They are naked. Verse 7 reads: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” When God later asks Adam why he is hiding from Him, Adam answers: “Because I was naked”. It is interesting that Adam’s and Eve’s attempts to fashion clothing for themselves proves insufficient in providing a sense of adequate covering. Surely there a many lessons here to learn about the nature and effects of sin. For our purposes, this lesson may be gleaned: that sin makes one aware of one’s physical nature and the shame associated with nakedness. This leads to the creative activity of garment making, yet for Adam and Eve the covering of nakedness does not provide the desired consolation. But God intervenes. In verse 21 we learn that “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” These verses constitute the first mention of clothing in the Bible, and the starting place, I believe, for any discussion of the art of fashion.

It is interesting that sufficient clothing is not found until it is created by God for Man. God is the victorious tailor of the first fashion show, if you will. And now I may return to the wool dress, for I wondered what such “garments of skin” looked like until I saw it. Perhaps the designer captured in the wool and sticks and splendor the aspect of those first garments. Yet perhaps they were unlike any clothing we have yet seen. Whatever they were, I believe that they must have served their purpose perfectly. Could they also have been beautiful, even the most beautiful clothes ever made? Continue reading

Identity and Religious Pluralism: A Reply to an Email

I recently received the following email from a friend. I thought I would post my reply here. Read it below the fold.

Do you think that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (i.e. is Allah of Qur’an the same God as God of the Bible)? Obviously there are some major differences concerning how God is described in each, but do you think that means we are worshipping different Gods? What aspects of God are essential to believe in so that you are actually worshipping Him? Continue reading

A Brief Return to Transcendence

I’ve been mostly busy working on other projects this week, so I haven’t done much blogging, but I wanted to point out this comment from Jim:

You could show that there is a rationality inherent in the universe, and yet the transcendence of that rationality is a non sequitur. Perhaps my confusion–which I will say has not been abated by anything anyone has yet written, here or elsewhere–is due to the fact that “transcendence” and “utterly other” are such slippery concepts. Are they equivalent?

Jim’s excellent question underscored for me my own lack of clarity on the issue of transcendence. I have, to this point in my life, affirmed it. I wholeheartedly expect to continue to affirm it. But as I have thought about it more with Jim, I am also not sure that I understand it. I remain unpersuaded by any argument against the rationality of God that he has yet advanced, or any proof text he has asserted without argument. Nor do I agree with his interpretation of the Pope’s speech, especially his attempt to find irony where it isn’t.

But I do find common ground in his question above: what, exactly, does it mean that God is transcendent? I have not read contemporary, analytic accounts of the term, so I am sketching in the shadows. That, though, has never stopped me before.

I would offer two thoughts on the doctrine of “transcendence.” One, God is sui generis. Even if we disagree with Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God–and I don’t–what they demonstrate is that God is in a separate category than creation. He is the Being on which the whole temporal and contingent creation rests. Aquinas, of course, thinks that Being is coextensive with Goodness. That is, if God Is, then He Is Good. While most of modern philosophy rejects this prima facie, I accept it prima facie. It is the axiom that drives medieval thought, and I think it true.

That said, predications of God that are based on human categories–reasonable, good, loving–point to something beyond the human categories, but not in such a way that they are meaningless or in such a way that the opposite qualities are in danger of breaking out. Rather, our categories–good, loving, reasonable–are accurate insofar as they approximate the Goodness that is God. Hence Ephesians 3:14-15: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Fatherhood–a predication–is most properly God’s, and only ours derivatively. So also with rationality–Jesus as Logos–and Goodness.

What this means, of course, is that for us to know which qualities God has, he must enter our framework and reveal Himself to us in our categories. He must, in fact, incarnate Himself and enter our conversation. But all the while, our conversation rests upon His Logos, not the other way around.

Rationalizing the Transcendent

The discussion on the rationality of a transcendent being continues unabated over at PseudoPolymath. Mark and Jim continue to wrangle over whether it is possible or necessary to determine whether God is rational. The discussion has sidelined into issues of theodicy and Romans 9, prompting Mark to provide this treatment of the difficult passage.

Work and sickness have kept me away from blogging, and the discussion has consequently moved beyond me, but I thought I would offer a few reflections. In his concise reply to my post, my brother asked this provocative question: “if transcendent thoughts are “utterly other,” how is it possible to judge them “not irrational?”” The question is beautifully framed, and difficult to answer. Mark and Keith’s replies are, I think, spot on. But, as Chesterton understood, there are thoughts that stop thought, and I think my brother has hit on one. If the transcendant thoughts are not rational, then it seems any rational basis for judging anything is lost. If the fundamental reality of the world is will, rather than reason, then all reason can be reduced to the irrational will that undergirds all. The end result is that the stopping point for any question will not be a rational stopping point, but rather an irrational power. Because there is no Answer that will make sense of the universe, there can be no answers that will make sense of our experience.
The ability to question well–to ask and hope for answers–depends upon a logos at the center of the universe. The fact that we do question indicates that we are looking for answers that make sense–that rationally explain the reality. The question itself, as with all questions, seems to point to the rational structure of the universe. The question is its own answer.


My brother decided to take on the Pope’s recent speech by arguing–if it can be called that–that Christianity suffers (or almost suffers?) from the irrationality of Islam. Unfortunately, the ironies my brother points out seem grounded misunderstandings of the nature of Christianity. To quote Mark Olson, Jim’s interpretations seem “silly.” I certainly don’t agree with every claim of Mark’s, but his criticisms have kindly saved me the trouble.

The irony of my brother’s post, though, is this claim: “If Keith Plummer is right, and “theological convictions have undeniable practical outworkings,” then let us be glad that, at least at present, the Greeks are winning.” It is ironic because Paleiologos was presumably steeped in the particularly Platonic Christianity (broadly speaking, of course) of Orthodoxy, a tradition that particularly emphasizes the transcendence of God. While Platonism is immensely rational, it also contains mystical and mysterious elements.

It is my hunch that our theologizing should start with the doctrine of transcendence, and never leave it behind. God is wholly other, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Transcendant thoughts, though, are not irrational thoughts.

I leave you, of course, with a fitting quote from Chesterton. He is responding to those in his day who would reject transcendence in favor of immanence:

If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this matter (so much disputed in the counsels of Mr. R. J. Campbell), the matter of insisting on the immanent or the transcendent deity. By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference — Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation — Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.