Friday 11 May 2012

Protestantism and natural law

I've had a brief exchange on E Church blog  with Peter Kirk on his blogpost suggesting that Christians shouldn't seek to impose their standards on others, particularly with respect to same sex 'marriage'.

He claims Christians we should not be seeking to impose our own moral standards on the world. If we try to do so, we are not showing Christian love to our unbelieving neighbours.

I agree. In fact I would take this a little further than Daniel does explicitly. If we seek to impose our moral standards on outsiders, we give them the impression that the Christian faith is a matter of obeying rules. That is a complete denial of the gospel proclamation to unbelievers, which should be that God loves them and gives them his grace even while they are still living sinful lives. As Craig Groeschel writes today for the Huffington Post, Rules Create Toxic Religion. And the sin of a homosexual relationship is no worse in God’s eyes than the sin of showing self-righteousness and of misrepresenting the gospel.

Now clearly, even from a Protestant perspective such as Peter's, such is not the only possible view and, indeed, it is at odds with the Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin who were very happy to impose 'their' (or rather 'God's') standards on society. But putting that aside, his argument does indicate a fundamental chasm between some modern versions of Protestantism and Catholicism. Moreover, since in Scotland at least, most atheists tend to understand Christianity through a Protestant prism, this understanding of Christianity leads to problems in comprehending the Catholic Church's position on same sex 'marriage'. 

In his reply to one of my comments on Stuart's blog, Peter says:

I would agree with part of what I think you are saying, in that I would see true Christian ethical living as a lifestyle based on showing Christian love for others. But I still don’t accept that Christians should expect unbelievers to live this kind of lifestyle without having the relationship with God on which it is based.

I think there are two points at stake here: a) morality as a voluntary agreement versus morality as living in accordance with our nature; b) our dependency on grace to be able to live well versus man made measures such as social pressure or political arrangements. In short, the Catholic response is that morality is based on living well in accordance with our nature rather than an agreement, and that God's grace is given (among other things) through the medium of political arrangements.

a) Let's call the proper form of Christian living -the 'lifestyle' to which we are called by God- 'Godly living'.   Godly living is, for a Protestant of Peter's kidney, a voluntary agreement: we voluntarily submit to God's will for us. As a result, Godly living is not applicable to those who have not consented to it.

For a Catholic, the key 'relationship' here is that of our creation: we are created with a certain nature with certain things that will harm and benefit us. These harms and benefits objectively exist, whether or not individuals happen to recognize them. So encouraging people to live in accordance with their nature (and thus avoid same sex 'marriage') is as much part of care for them as encouraging them not to drink too much.

b) For Protestants of this type, even if Godly living is (in principle) applicable to all human beings, it is not (in fact) available to them without grace. This boils down to two claims: first, that without grace we cannot act as we should (and even as we really want); second, that without grace we cannot know what we should do. Here, what I think is the key element of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism enters in: Catholicism typically sees grace as given to people by mediators. Grace is given by the sacraments, by the Church itself and by the very material circumstances of the world. Every moment of every existing being trembles on the edge of non-existence without the active support of God. So grace, in principle for Catholics, is not just a special momentary act of God: it is the sustaining activity of God throughout all time and in all places, mediated through the natural world and the Church.

Some types of Protestantism see grace as the result of a personal commitment: I commit to God by a personal decision; he personally commits to me in response to that decision. For Catholics, my very existence is graced. My education by school and parents is part of God's grace. My encouragement to live a Godly life by friends is the working of God's grace. As a result, whilst Catholics and Protestants agree that, without grace, we cannot fulfil the natural law, Catholics would expect not just a 'in or out' version of grace where those who are 'in' (because they are personally committed to God) will be able to fulfil the natural law whilst those who are 'out' can't; but rather a spectrum: some societies and some individuals will have more difficulty than others because theirs is a spectrum of transformation by God's grace rather than simply being 'in or out'.

As such, encouragement by the State through its institutional arrangements is as much part of the operation of God's grace as the evangelical altar call.

In sum:

a) To Protestants such as Peter, I would say that same sex 'marriage' should be opposed because it encourages people to live badly. Good laws and good institutional arrangements are just as much part of God's grace as, say, a pastor's advice and encouragement.

b) To atheists, I would also say that same sex 'marriage' should be opposed because it encourages people to live badly. In particular, the need to provide for the proper raising of the next generation is undermined by its introduction.

In substance, the same answer. But different wording for different audiences.


  1. "And the sin of a homosexual relationship is no worse in God’s eyes than the sin of showing self-righteousness and of misrepresenting the gospel."

    Is it? I thought one sin was detestable and the other was a sin, are they equal?

    Plenty of people try to "think like God" but fail miserably, they think selfishly, unattainably, and want others to perceive the world in their eyes, not in God's eyes. So who's right? God or some selfish wishy washy believer?

    Misrepresenting the gospel isn't sinful, isn't that just a human trait?
    It is up to all of us to take responsibility for our own understanding and interpretation of the Bible but only by God, and not each other (isn't that judging?). But misquoting it is! Copying the bible in parts and misquoting it, now we are starting to get somewhere.

    I wish we'd stop talking about institutions, and idols, we are leading each other on dangerous grounds.

    I support traditional marriage for one reason, because it clearly states in the Bible that it is between man and woman only, but continuing that, if we redefine it now, what stops another lot of people uprising and redefining it again?

    Name calling, isn't that a form of bulling? I'm a bigot, get over it.