Arthur Leff: "Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law"

I've been reading through Arthur Leff's famously stimulating paper, Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law presented originally in 1979 at Duke University School of Law. In this paper Leff deals with the mounting tension between what he calls "found law" and "made law." He opens by presenting the following universal paradox of mankind:

I want to believe - and so do you - in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe - and so do you - in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.

Leff, a non-Christian, speaks here quite insightfully about the biblical notions of law, sin, and human freedom. In fact he captures the dilemma of sinful man quite accurately. We are inherently aware of and we desire some kind of divine "findable" law. The idea that a law outside of ourselves exists is an attractive and good notion to all. Nonetheless, we simultaneously desire to be ruled only by ourselves, and this of course is the essence of sin.

Psalm 2 captures this essence of sin from the mouths of the world's rebellious kings:

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us." (Psalm 2:2-3)

In his paper Leff ultimately seeks to do exactly what the kings and rulers of Psalm 2 desire - to burst the bonds of the Lord. He says, "I shall first try to prove to your satisfaction that there cannot be any normative system ultimately based on anything except human will." The paper is quite fascinating in its own right, but his concluding paragraph is quite remarkable:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us "good," and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

While so many celebrate absolute human freedom to follow one's own conscience, to rule oneself autonomously, to answer to no authority greater than one's self, Leff sees the sheer terror in that prospect. What Leff has discovered, apparently, is that if human freedom is nothing more than the ability to make one's own law, then human freedom is nothing more than slavery to sin. Cain and Abel are the ruling model. Nothing will make us good, especially not our own freedom.

NT Scholar Richard Bauckham observes:

Emancipation from God has been to a large extent achieved in the secular West, and it is now freedom that is the problem - the problem for community, the problem for any kind of human good other than sheer self-determination. The right of very individual to absolute self-determination is becoming the idol for which all else may be sacrificed and, like all idols, a form of enslavement (God and the Crisis of Freedom, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p. 199).

True human freedom comes, not through autonomous self-reign, but through glad submission to the rightful reign of God. To use Leff's own terminology, to find "findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously" is ultimately to find true freedom.

The Psalmists response to the kingly rebellion of Psalm 2 is quite simple:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him (Psalm 2:10-12).

"Kiss the Son."There can be no more poignant sign of submission to authority than this - than to "kiss" he who holds it. I suppose that for the rebellious heart there can be no thing more distasteful than this, either. That is until, as he finally does bow his knee to kiss the Son's feet, he finds the nail marks that show exactly what kind of a king this Son actually is.

The Church, the State, and Proposition 8

One of the great questions for the Church in our day is how we are to handle questions of Christianity and politics.  Last Sunday morning we sought to apply God's wisdom to the political discussion surrounding Proposition 8 and the debate over same-sex marriage.  We saw, of course, that God's wisdom stands opposed to the world's wisdom, and we recognized that even our own wisdom on this issue can stand against God's wisdom if we are not seeking to thoroughly submit our minds to God's Word.  Thus, we must have a prophetic voice in our culture, speaking God's Word boldly and openly, but we must be humble prophets, careful to reject all hints of our own wisdom that stand in contrast to God's Word.  So, in the case of Proposition 8, we acknowledge the sinful nature of same-sex marriage (per 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10), but we also acknowledge God's hand in giving men and women over to their sin.  As Paul writes,  "Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done" (Rom. 1:28).  Perhaps here it is best for our own "prophetic" voice to stand in silent awe of God's unsearchable wisdom as he removes barriers and gives sinners over to their sin. Of course, the greater political question remains, how does Christ's Church relate to the everyday political activities of our world?  What does it look like for the Church generally to live by God's wisdom, and reject the world's wisdom, when it comes to the political sphere?  On these questions we benefit greatly from Edmund Clowney's powerful exposition on the nature and role of the church in this world.  Applying God's wisdom from biblical passages such as Mark 12:13-17; Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1-6, Clowney writes:

Since democracy gives its citizens a voice in government, Christians have the responsibility of their privilege to participate.  There is every reason for the general office of the church ('laity') to consult together on political issues.  So, too, the special officers of the church must provide biblical guidance and wisdom to assist in Christian analysis of political questions.  The church has a prophetic role to perceive and expose ethical questions that underlie political issues.  Where God has spoken in condemning sin... the church cannot be silent....
Yet Christian involvement in political life does not cancel out the spiritual form of Christ's kingdom.  Calling the state to righteousness does not mean calling it to promote the gospel with political power or to usher in the last judgment with the sword.  Christians are not free to form an exclusively Christian political party that seeks to exercise power in the name of Christ.  That would identify Christ's cause with one of the kingdoms of this world.  Political action on the part of Christians must always be undertaken in concert with others who seek the same immediate objectives.  Such objectives, promoting life, liberty and the restraint of violence, are the proper goals of civil government.  They are not the goals of faith and holiness that Christ appointed for his kingdom....

The patriotism is misguided that sees the United States or the United Kingdom as a Christian nation composed of God's elect and entitled to his favor and blessing.  Such a claim is patently false, and illegitimate even as an ideal.  Christ's kingdom is not typical and preparatory, like the kingdom of Israel; it is realized and ultimate.  All that is less than loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and one's neighbor as one's self, is totally excluded by the new law of love.  That is why the ultimate enforcement of Christ's law must be brought about, not by political power, but by his own judgment at his appearing, and by the total transformation that will make his bride spotless for the wedding feast of glory....

We not only may, but must co-operate with other citizens when we seek to use the levers of political power.  We do so, not as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, but of an earthly nation.  Christians may not band together in the name of Christ to use the political weapons of the world to fight the spiritual battle of the kingdom.  There is a love of divine benevolence that sends rain on the just and unjust, and there is a duty for Christians citizens to show that love to others.  Yet the line must be drawn between the ministry of mercy that is part of the mission of the church, and the reach for political power that would destroy the church by politicizing it (selected passages from  The Church, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995, pp. 192-197).

If there are blessings to be had through the judicial ruling on Proposition 8, it may be that the chief blessing for Christ's Church is the profound reminder that Christ's kingdom is most definitely not "of this world" (John 18:36).  Through this ruling a more clear line between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world has been drawn, and although we lament any judicial ruling or political action in support of same-sex marriage, we do not despair.  We belong ultimately to a greater kingdom, a kingdom that will one day triumph over all others.  If today we feel a little less at home in this world we should at least thank God for the reminder that this world is not our home.

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:18-21).

Waiting with you for Jesus,

Pastor Aaron

Ordinary Means Podcast: On Prayer and Idolatry

Another great discussion from our "Ordinary Means" friends.  You don't want to miss this one!

Ordinary Means: On Prayer and Idolatry

And, if you're on a podcast roll (as I am), check out this archived "Ordinary Means" talk from Ligon Duncan on what an ordinary means of based graced ministry is.

Ordinary Means: Ligon Duncan on the Ordinary Means

"Let the noise of children inhabit all our congregations."

Scott Clark offers some good thoughts on the importance of children in worship here.

And, speaking of our covenant children, I'm glad to say that a number of our children have already requested to be examined by Chris and I over their knowledge of the catechisms through our "Grounded in the Gospel" program.  More info on "Grounded in the Gospel" can be found here.

Applied Redemption

As I have mentioned at the evening service (and I as recommended you read), I have been reading John Murray's Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. Dr. Murray provides a terrific reminder of the greatness of the saving grace of repentance in the life of a believer [p. 116]:

Repentance reminds us that if the faith we profess is a faith that allows us to walk in the ways of this present evil world, in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, in the fellowship of the works of darkness, then our faith is but mockery and deception. True faith is suffused with penitence. And just as faith is not only a momentary act but an abiding attitude of trust and confidence directed to the Saviour, so repentance results in constant contrition.

Please take up and read. This brief book will greatly enhance your understanding of Christ's work of redemption in your life and bring encouragement to you.

Chris Malamisuro

Preaching As Though We Had Enemies

Here are some excerpts by an article by Stanley Hauerwas on "Preaching As Though We Had Enemies":

  • Christianity, as the illumination of the human condition, is not a Christianity at war with the world....  Psalms such as Psalm 109, which ask God to destroy our enemies and their children, can appear only as embarrassing holdovers of "primitive" religious beliefs.  Equally problematic are apocalyptic texts that suggest Christians have been made part of a cosmic struggle.... Most of us do not go to church because we are seeking a safe haven from our enemies; we go to church to be assured we have no enemies.  Accordingly, we expect our ministers to exemplify the same kind of bureaucratic mentality so characteristic of modern organizational behavior and politics....  The ministry seems captured in our time by people who are desperately afraid they might actually be caught with a conviction at some point in their ministry that might curtail future ambition.  They therefore seek to "manage" their congregations by specializing in the politics of agreement by always being agreeable.  The preaching such a ministry produces is designed to reinforce our presumed agreements, since a "good church" is one without conflict.
  • I am suggesting that our preaching should presume that we are preaching to a Church in the midst of a war.
  • Humility derives not from the presumption that no one knows the truth, but rather is a virtue dependent on our confidence that God's word is truthful and good.  Ironically, in the world in which we live if you preach with such humility you will more than likely be accused of being arrogant and authoritarian.  To be so accused is a sign that the enemy has been engaged.  After all, the enemy (who is often ourselves) does not like to be reminded that the narratives that constitute our lives are false.  Moreover, you had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties.  God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom.  That seems to me to be great good news in a world that is literally dying of boredom.
  • Theories about meaning are what you get when you forget that the Church and Christians are embattled by subtle enemies who win easily by denying that any war exists.  God knows what He is doing in this strange time between "worlds," but hopefully He is inviting us again to engage the enemy through the godly weapons of preaching and sacrament....  May we preach so truthfully that people will call us terrorists.  If you preach that way you will never again have to worry about whether a sermon is "meaningful."

Read the entire essay to absorb its weight and significance for the Church.

HT: John Piper - "one of the best essays on preaching I ever read."

Spurgeon, the Bible, and the Blood of Martyrs

175px-Charles_Haddon_Spurgeon_by_Alexander_MelvilleBy the time Charles Spurgeon was 22 years old, his preaching ministry in London was enormously successful, and with that success came controversies of various kinds throughout his life.  The first serious public controversy he dealt with was over a small hymnbook named, "The Rivulet," published in 1855 by Thomas Lynch.  Soon after its publication the hymnbook's theology was criticized for being contrary to evangelical religion, and Spurgeon himself saw the hymnbook as an affront to the biblical gospel.  The controversy soon faded, but Spurgeon's sermons, of course, live on.  During that controversy Spurgeon preached a message on 1 Timothy 3:15, "the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth," and here Spurgeon makes a compelling appeal for pastors and churches to stand firm in the truth of God's Word. He opens the sermon saying:

This is a day of strife, a day of division, a time of war and fighting between professing Christians.  God be thanked for it!  Far better that it should be so than that the false calm shall any longer exert its fatal spell over us.

What follows is a powerful appeal to the Church to remember its vital calling to defend the truth at all costs.  As I read this sermon, I couldn't help but think about how important Spurgeon's message is for today's church, where so often biblical doctrine, theology, and truth have taken a backseat to lesser ends.  So this evening I thank God for Spurgeon, but more importantly, for the eternal Word, and for the Church, which is a "pillar and buttress of truth."  May we heed Spurgeon's words well...

Remember how your fathers, in times gone by, defended God's truth, and blush, ye cowards, who are afraid to maintain it!  Remember that our Bible is a blood-stained book; the blood of martyrs is on the Bible, the blood of translators and confessors.  The pool of holy baptism, in which many of you have been baptized, is a blood-stained pool: full many have had to die for the vindication of that baptism which is "the answer of a good conscience toward God."  The doctrines which we preach to you are doctrines that have been baptized in blood, swords have been drawn to slay the confessors of them; and there is not a truth which has not been sealed by them at the stake, or the block, or far away on the lofty mountains, where they have been slain by hundreds.  It is but a little duty we have to discharge compared with theirs.  They were called to maintain the truth when they had to die for it; you only have to maintain the truth when taunt and jeer, ignominious names and contemptuous epithets are all you have to endure for it.  What!  Do you expect easy lives?  While some have led through seas of blood, and have fought to win the prize, are you wearied with a slight skirmish on dry land?  What would you do if God should suffer persecuting days to overtake you?  O craven spirits, ye would flee away, and disown your profession!  Be ye the pillar and ground of the truth.  Let the blood of martyrs, let the voices of confessors, speak to you.  Remember how they held fast the truth, how they preserved it, and handed it down to us from generation to generation; and by their noble example, I beseech you, be steadfast and faithful, tread valiantly and firmly in their steps, acquit yourselves like men, like men of God, I implore you!  Shall we not have some champions, in these times, who will deal sternly with heresies for the love of the truth, men who will stand like rocks in the center of the sea, so that, when all others shake, they stand invulnerable and invincible?  Thou who art tossed about by every wind of doctrine, farewell; I own thee not till God shall give thee grace to stand firm for his truth, and not to be ashamed o fhim nor of his words in this evil generation.

And all that, over a little hymnbook.

O, for more champions of truth, like Spurgeon, today!

From Around the Web...

Some interesting, fun, informative, challenging, and edifying links for a Tuesday:

  • Listen to Alistair Begg's powerful pleading to adopt a "two-kingdom" theology for the practical benefit of Christ's church (don't let the music fool you - this is excellent).[audio:]
  • Ask yourself if your spouse and family are idols - and consider how the church sometimes promotes a "picket fence" idolatry.
  • Listen to Derek Webb repent of just this sort of idolatry.
  • Consider with T. David Gordon why the decline of cultural Christianity in the West may be good... really good.
  • Take a seminary course from Covenant Theological Seminary's Worldwide Classroom.
  • Pray for the people of Thailand.
  • Watch, as John Lennox talks about the Christian use of the mind and the problems of anti-intellectualism.
  • Listen to recent episodes of The White Horse Inn, such as their excellent discussion on "Boredom and Entertainment."
  • Attend the Reformation Society of Pittsburgh conference, Mystery of the Kingdom.
  • Read a very thoughtful review of the new American Patriot's Bible.
  • Read John and Noel Piper talk about why they keep their children in worship and offer helpful practical suggests on how to make it work.

Precious Words for Husbands from John Chrysostom

More from Chrysostom on the implications of our marriage to Christ.  This time he comments on Ephesians 5:25:

Pay attention to love's high standard.  If you take the premise that your wife should submit to you, as the church submits to Christ, then you should also take the same kind of careful, sacrificial thought for her that Christ takes for the church.  Even if you must offer your own life for her, you must not refuse.  Even if you must undergo countless struggles on her behalf and have all kinds of things to endure and suffer, you must not refuse.  Even if you suffer all this, you have still done not as much as Christ has for the church.  For you are already married when you act this way, whereas Christ is acting for one who has rejected and hated him.  So, just as he, when she was rejecting, hating, spurning and nagging him, brought her to trust him by his great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything like that, so must you also act toward your wife.

Mark J. Edwards, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 195.

John Chrysostom on the Physical Implications of Being the Bride of Christ

On my study leave this week I am working on an exegetical study of Revelation 19:7-8:

"Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure" - for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. (ESV)

The focus of my studies revolves around the significance of the Bride, that is Christ's church, making herself ready for "the marriage of the Lamb."  From a pastoral perspective I am asking, "How does the church prepare for its wedding day?"  And, as John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) points out so well, to be betrothed to Christ carries not only spiritual implications, but physical implications as well.  Here is what he says in his homily on 1 Cor. 6:15:

For supposing you had a daughter, and in extreme madness had let her out to a procurer for hire, and made her live a harlot’s life, and then a king’s son were to pass by, and free her from that slavery, and join her in marriage to himself; you could have no power thenceforth to bring her into the brothel. For you gave her up once for all, and sold her. Such as this is our case also. We let out our own flesh for hire unto the Devil, that grievous procurer: Christ saw and set it free, and withdrew it from that evil tyranny; it is not then ours any more but His who delivered it. If you be willing to use it as a King’s bride, there is none to hinder; but if you bring it where it was before, you will suffer just what they ought who are guilty of such outrages. Wherefore you should rather adorn instead of disgracing it.

Chrysostom's point: Not even our bodies are our own since we are now wed to Christ.  Indeed, this is what Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 6:15, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?"

In a world in which promoscuity and sexual exploits are the norm, may we remember our true Bridegroom, and with the help of God's grace may we physically prepare for the glorious wedding day that awaits.