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The Christian Commonwealth and Natural Law: Littlejohn Responds to Dillon

November 21st, 2017 | 16 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

From Jake: I’ve invited Brad Littlejohn to respond to Kyle Dillon’s review of his book The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed.

I am very grateful to Kyle Dillon’s thoughtful review of my little book, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed on Mere Orthodoxy a couple months ago. The long delay in my response to it says nothing about the importance of the questions he raised there and everything about my overcommitment to other projects during that period.

In the first third of his review, Kyle offers a fine concise summary of the background debate over the “two kingdoms” in recent years, and of the argument of my book. He then spends the remainder of the view articulating what I take to be two main questions:

  1. Does the understanding of Christian liberty and adiaphora defended in my book “open the door for a tyranny of temporal authorities acting in the name of prudence and natural law”?
  2. What is the role of natural law in political discourse and rule, and how does it relate to special revelation?

These are precisely the questions to be asking when it comes to this all-important subject, and I am grateful to Kyle for foregrounding them and giving me the opportunity to expand on them here, since the tight space limits imposed by the Davenant Guides series left little room to fully address the questions raised by the argument.1

First, then, Dillon objects (and I will quote in full to make my interaction easier to follow):

For one, his treatment of adiaphora almost turns the standard view of Christian liberty on its head. The term adiaphora is ordinarily defined as matters in which believers are free to act according to their consciences, when such matters 1) do not relate to salvation and 2) are not explicitly stated in Scripture. This means that any undue restrictions imposed on the believer’s conduct would be tantamount to “binding the conscience.” And yet Littlejohn’s definition of adiaphora seems to exaggerate the divide between conscience and conduct, while considerably restricting the scope of the former. This has the counter-intuitive result of licensing rather than limiting temporal authorities (which includes ecclesial authorities, on his view) in imposing conduct on any matter not related to salvation. 

Thus, in his effort to safeguard the church from “the tyranny of Scripture conceived as an exhaustive law-book” (46), Littlejohn opens the door for a tyranny of temporal authorities acting in the name of prudence and natural law. What do we gain by adopting this more limited definition of Christian liberty? And how exactly are we to determine the line between conscience and conduct? Littlejohn speaks of a “creative tension” between the magistrate’s authority to command in adiaphora and the individual conscience’s authority to determine when the boundary of adiaphora has been transgressed (18). But why should we see this as a creative tension and not as an inherent ambiguity or even an irreconcilable contradiction? Littlejohn’s proposal would be enhanced by giving greater attention the limits (and overall purpose) of temporal authority, particularly in Christian life and worship.

Before addressing this important question, I do want to object slightly to how it is framed. In my book, the discussion of adiaphora is presented almost entirely as a historical exposition of the thought of Luther, Calvin, Hooker, and other 16th-century figures; it is not “Littlejohn’s definition” of adiaphora, but theirs. We certainly may take issue with the Reformers where we disagree with them, but let us at least take seriously where they stand.

Any readers unpersuaded by the citations in this section of The Two Kingdoms may consult the extensive treatment in Peril and Promise. Thus I object to Dillon’s phrasing “turns the standard view of Christian liberty on its head,” inasmuch as I hardly think we should grant the new modern understanding the right to be called “standard.” Still, if Dillon means that I  “turn the view of Christian liberty now standardly taught on its head,” well yes, this is precisely what I meant to do. The Reformers’ doctrine is “counter-intuitive” from a modern standpoint, in which those within the church are almost as likely as those outside to think of “liberty” simply in terms of what we can and can’t do. But they explicitly rejected such an understanding:

“Christian liberty is not a wandering and unruly licence, by which we may do or leave undone whatsoever we list at our pleasure; but it is a free gift bestowed upon us by Christ our Lord; by the which, the children of God (that is, all the faithful), being delivered from the curse of the law, or eternal death, and from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial law, and being endowed with the Holy Ghost, begin willingly of their own accord to serve God in holiness and righteousness.”2

Christian liberty is thus (1) the freedom from the curse of the law, which made the doing or not-doing of works the ground of salvation, and (2) the freedom to cheerfully obey God in those things which his Word commands. The Reformers were appalled by the suggestion that it might mean (3) the freedom to act however we chose in those things unspecified by Scripture. As Hooker exclaims, “[This] opinion . . . shaketh universally the fabric of government, tendeth to anarchy and mere confusion, dissolveth families, dissipateth colleges, corporations, armies, overthroweth kingdoms, churches, and whatsoever is now through the providence of God by authority and power upheld.”

And in fact, we take for granted that governments have the power to constrain our actions in many matters left unspecified in Scripture: traffic laws, tax rates, most points of contract law and property rights; any number of areas where the common good requires all of us to respect certain rules—even when we might personally disagree with their wisdom.

Indeed, as Hooker points out, so do authorities in any number of spheres of life. The difference between the sixteenth century and now is simply that back then, they considered that the common good was at stake, and the danger of chaos was lurking, in a much wider array of issues than we now do. Part of this is due to changes in thinking, part is due to changes in circumstances and the nature of community. They, for instance, were likely to consider sumptuary laws—regulating just how fancily you could dress in public—crucial to sustaining public order and economic stability.

But it also seemed quite clear to them that these restraints on conduct were no transgression on conscience. After all, you didn’t have to believe in the special appropriateness of woollen caps if you were an Elizabethan Englishman, you just had to wear them; just as a modern American who believes in the superiority of left-side-of-road driving is perfectly free to believe that, so long as he keeps that to himself and dutifully sticks to the right side in his actual conduct. To be sure, if you had a religious conviction about the need to drive on the left side of the road, then you might complain that your conscience was being violated, but most of us (and the courts) would shrug and say “too bad.”

Now, to all this, Dillon might say “fair enough.” But what about when we are talking about religious matters? In the sixteenth century, after all, they were likely to consider the form of public worship—far more so than sumptuary laws—a matter crucial to sustaining public order. As such, the laws could command the times and places of worship, the appropriate uses of church funds, and many other such adiaphora, and again, it seemed clear to the Reformers that this was simply a matter of the community exercising its corporate freedom over adiaphora, where unrestrained individual freedom would lead to chaos.

Again, a distinction between conscience and conduct was standard here, and none of the magisterial Reformers saw it as an irreconcilable contradiction. The civil magistrate could declare a public fast from eating meat for mundane, civil reasons, but could not tell anyone that they had a religious duty before God to abstain from eating meat. Still, there was a lot more potential for conflict here. When in Elizabethan England, priests were told they had to wear a certain kind of cap when presiding in worship, some felt conscience-bound to resist, on account of the close association of certain clerical vestments with Catholic practice, and thus a regulation of conduct became, for some, a matter of conscience.

Now, how are we to deal with this legacy? Do we just dismiss it as the benighted error of a bygone era that we have thankfully transcended? Or do we rather recognize the commonsensical force of the basic distinction and ask how we might get from this application of the two kingdoms and Christian liberty to one more amenable to the freedoms we now take for granted?

Thankfully, the basic pathway from the one to the other is not hard to find, although the devil is very much in the details. When post-Reformation polities realized that an awful lot of sticking points seemed to be cropping up where individuals felt that conscience was on the line in some regulation of adiaphora or other, they realized that the attempt to enforce these things could lead to serious conflict. And serious conflict, everyone agreed, was hardly conducive to the common good. Thus, they had to go back and consider more carefully whether their attempt to serve the common good by a given civil or ecclesiastical regulation was really worth it. Perhaps something important was to be gained by making everyone wear caps; but if a bunch of people started protesting, they might well ask, “Well, is it really that important?” By this means, an ever-larger sphere of private freedoms of behavior, especially religious behavior, were carved out, and for that we may be grateful

However, before I move on, it is still worth addressing Dillon’s question “What do we gain by adopting this more limited definition of Christian liberty [that is, one in which freedom of conduct is not ipso facto guaranteed]?”

The answer is that it is much better than the only conceivable alternatives. Alternative 1 has already been observed—anarchy. Few in the sixteenth century wanted that, and even nowadays, few do. Thus, we are apt to search for some clear means of drawing the boundary in advance, some divine law that will circumscribe in advance what human laws may and may not be made. Anything can fill this role—the Bible, the Koran, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In any of these cases, though, observe what happens. There will still be disagreement—there always is among human beings—only now disagreement will be elevated to a matter of the highest stakes possible. It will not be enough to say, “Well, I think it’s a rubbish law, but it’s just a human law after all, so I’ll grin and bear it.” No, if the rules of the game—what the state must command and may command, what the church must command and may command—are all to be determined in advance by the sacred text, then any disagreement will mark one out as the enemy of God and of the community. The pressure will be not merely to conform, but to prove one’s salvation by conformity. Again, there are theonomic Puritan ways of doing this, and social justice warrior ways of doing this. But the basic danger is the same, and the tyranny thus threatened—tyranny over conscience—is a much more fearful one than the purely secular tyranny Dillon worries about.

Now, that all took a bit longer to spell out than I would have liked. So I will try to be comparatively brief in addressing Dillon’s second question, or rather cluster of questions, although it is much longer in his review than the first. This will be the easier inasmuch as I more or less agree with everything he says here, even if he does not seem to realize it. He objects:

Littlejohn argues that since the task of civil government is merely the maintenance of the creation order and not the redemption of society, then Scripture may be useful in guiding our political thinking, but it is not strictly necessary, since natural law is in principle sufficient (81-82). But this claim stands in tension with his recognition of the continuity of creation and redemption (83-84). While it is true that civil government serves only the penultimate ends of order and justice rather than the ultimate end of salvation, is it really possible to have rightly ordered penultimate ends when one’s ultimate ends are disordered? 

To the concluding question, the book itself provides I think a clear enough answer:

“But this does not mean that political government can really be religiously neutral. After all, although we have stressed the “order” part of the phrase “creation order,” the “creation” part is just as crucial. The order of this world only makes sense in the end as an order bestowed by and pointing toward a Creator, and earthly rulers who forget this are liable to soon forget the order as well. Even the minimalist Noahic Covenant begins with a sacrifice to God in grateful acknowledgment to him of his sustenance of the world (Genesis 8:20–21). Even in the seemingly self-sufficient modern liberal West, our political structures cannot long do without such grateful acknowledgment of their Lord before they try to set themselves up as lords in His place” (82).

I expand upon this in the pages immediately following, saying,

“The world is broken, and is being healed. Political rulers ought not seek to pre-empt the shape of the new creation, but neither must they rest content with a fully broken world; inasmuch as Scripture reveals and the gospel enables a world ordered as it was originally meant to be, politics may be guided by this ideal and nourished by this Christian virtue.

Or, to put it another way, because Christ reigns over the kingdoms of this world as the one who is their redeemer, sustaining the creation order precisely so that his redemptive work can be brought to completion within it, this shapes the mission of earthly rulers. Properly speaking, the rulers of the kingdoms of this world, mediating as they do the authority of Christ, are likewise responsible for sustaining the creation order for the sake of its redemption” (83).

There is a sense in which I could affirm that Scripture is not strictly necessary and natural law is in principle sufficient (though I don’t believe I ever say quite that in the book), but only in the sense that two legs are not strictly necessary to a human body and one leg and a cane are in principle sufficient. Yes, you can get still get around that way, and indeed, a disciplined and energetic one-legged man can do better than a lazy two-legged man (just like a wise pagan ruler might govern better than a thoughtless Christian ruler), but no one is going to say it’s the ideal. Contrast this with matters of faith and salvation, where the one leg of natural reason won’t get you anywhere. As Hooker puts it neatly, “therefore in moral actions, the divine law greatly helps the law of reason in guiding man’s life, but in supernatural matters, it alone guides us.”3

Still, since we’re Christians, and have Scripture, why bother banging on about how great natural law is? Dillon objects,

“Likewise, what value do natural-law arguments have in a society that rejects any notion of nature (consider current debates over gender, for example)? Without a shared understanding of creation’s telos, natural law reasoning has little more persuasive force amongst many than does appeal to Scripture.”

There are, I think, three points to be made here.

First, Scripture itself presupposes natural law at many points. It assumes a bedrock of sound moral reason and recognition of basic creational norms, and then confirms those and takes us further in understanding the implications of these. But to the extent that we neglect natural law and expect Scripture to do all the work for us, we will be apt to miss what it is telling us and place too much weight on the wrong places. Consider recent debates about the Trinity and gender, for instance. The Bible assumes a natural law awareness of the complementarity of the sexes and builds upon it (and challenges and qualifies it in placies). When we lose sight of this ourselves, we flail about looking for a knockdown biblical argument for such complementarity, and decide to use the most special of special revelation—the doctrine of the Trinity. The result is zero rational illumination and a great deal of doctrinal obfuscation.

Second, true it may be that natural-law arguments are deeply contested in a culture in revolt against nature. But does that mean they have no persuasive value over and above straight-up biblical arguments? I find this highly doubtful. Consider transgenderism. Sure, there are many people so hell-bent on following the gospel of individual autonomy wherever it leads that they won’t hear any arguments. But for people of goodwill, there’s still a lot of room to point out that, you know, biology really is a thing, and the two sexes each fulfill quite distinct functions within the larger human telos, and that even our basic animal nature demonstrates this, or to point to the psychological evidence of how deeply unhelpful it is to normalize gender dysphoria, etc., etc. Any of these lines of argument may not be easy or immediately persuasive, but they will, I warrant you, be far more persuasive than a simple, “Well, God says so,” much less an appeal to the arcane mysteries of the Trinity.

Third, acknowledging the validity of natural-law reasoning enables us to recognize and embrace wisdom wherever we find it. We all instinctively do this, even the most hardened van Tillian. We come across something that some unbelieving philosopher or scientist or statesman has says that rings true, and we say, “Yeah, that guy knew what he was talking about!” But if we disparage natural law at every turn, we can’t consistently do this. We will have to deprive ourself of useful allies in the search for truth, denying the shared reality that we inhabit and claiming that only the regenerate can ever see the world aright.

A couple final remarks in closing. Dillon wonders whether the language of “the two kingdoms” is really the most helpful, since we should “affirm that Christ is King over all creation, and that his redemptive work extends ‘far as the curse is found.’” This the book, and the two-kingdoms tradition it surveys, heartily does affirm—these are Christ’s two kingdoms, make no bones about that, and he redeems what he creates (though this last is a point of difference with the R2K paradigm). I also explicitly note that the language of “two kingdoms” is not ideal; Luther’s own preferred term was “two governments” (p. 13) and Hooker expands on this language (p. 44). Still, it is the language that has become standard, and it’s best to work within it.

Finally, Dillon offers an “alternative proposal”: the “two cities” paradigm. “Rather than drawing the line of demarcation between two dimensions or spheres of Christ’s rule, the line is instead drawn between Christ’s cosmic rule and Satan’s cosmic rebellion—between the city of God and the city of Man.”

This is an entirely appropriate and fruitful paradigm to use, but it should not be considered an “alternative” because it is not as if the two are mutually exclusive; indeed, Luther himself worked frequently with both. The two cities paradigm distinguishes ultimate loyalties and final destinations, while the two kingdoms paradigm, overlaid on top of it, distinguishes between the way the Christian relates to this ultimate loyalty and to the subordinate earthly loyalties that confront him this side of the eschaton. Both, in my view, are necessary to a fully-fledged Christian ethic for life in this world.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.