Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Getting Clear on the Nature of Law

Lutherans have always argued about the law.  Is there only a first and second use, or is there also a third use?  Does the law go away when grace arrives?  Is the law eternal?   Is there sin prior to law, or  is law only possible on the basis of sin?  Is living out "the form of the Gospel" a living according to the law or not?   Moreover, are good works necessary for salvation, and, if so, how can there doing not be legalistic?

Lutherans have tried mightily to say precisely what separates law and gospel, and what makes Christian living free, that is, what makes it not living underneath the law.  While I will not answer all the questions above, I want to offer a fairly commonsense way of looking at things that might help us address these questions.

I like sometimes to step away from the particularity of Christian language and describe situations using another vocabulary.  The reason for this is that we can sometimes can get more clear on what we are asserting when we employ a vocabulary that is not that to which we are accustomed.   I will proceed in this way in the remainder of this reflection.

Broadly conceived, the Christian story is one supposing that the way that things are simply is not the way things are supposed to be.   God created the universe good, but it is no longer so.   How this came to be is, of course, a matter that is not altogether clear.   How precisely is a wholly good creation nevertheless one in which elements of it become disoriented from the good?   But the mystery of the Fall is not my concern here.    I am interested merely in the distinction between the "is" and "ought."   The world is a particular way, but it ought to be a different way.

Theories of atonement specify how it is that the way things are, but are not supposed to be, nonetheless becomes again the way things are supposed to be.   In traditional language, God who is displeased with the world, nonetheless comes to accept the world.   That which is displeasing becomes pleasing to Him.

Law in Christian theology is tied to ought.   God intends the world to proceed X-ly, but the world does not proceed in this way.   The "is" of the world does not correspond to its "ought."  In a late medieval sense, law is that which is reasonable, promulgated by a competent authority, and capable of being enforced.   The contour of the world which is, is not that which is reasonable, promulgated by God, and capable of being enforced by Him.

When talking about law in the first and second senses, Lutheran theology clearly wants to address the "supposed to be-ness" of things.   We might use a semantics of possible worlds in discussing this.   Because we are speaking of conformity with God's will, we should probably avoid "deontologically possible worlds" (or some such jargon) in favor of speaking about worlds varying in conformity with divine intent.   A world fully in accordance with divine intent would thus be very distant from us, while one wholly not in accordance with this intent would be proximal to the actual world.

What I am thinking of is conceiving a World set S with the actual world and a set of worlds w1, w2, w3, etc., where the higher number indicates greater conformity with God's will and greater distance from w0, the actual world.   The first and second uses of the law can thus be analyzed as follows:  God demands x, is to say that there is some world w such that w is not the actual world and that w is, in fact, suitably distant from the actual world, and that x is in w, though x is not in the actual world.   To say that God wills x is simply to say that x is in every world w in S.  In other worlds, the w containing x is now actual.

What about the third use of the law?   Is it also to be analyzed in this way?

I think that we must make a distinction here between two senses of 'law'.  The sense which I have alluded to above clearly carries the weight of the "ought."   Traditional Christian natural law theory evinced this sense.   There was a "way that things are supposed to go" to things, even if things did not go that way.   The way that things were supposed to go was a simple as 'bodies ought to fall'.

But at the birth of modern science the old "way that things are supposed to go" of things, the teleological sense of things was lost and replaced by "the way things inexorably do go" of things.  Laws that once spoke of the divine ought were replaced by universal regularities that were, in some sense, necessary.  That two objects attract each other directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them is not the way things ought to be, but merely the way that things are.   Laws of motion express how things simply are.  With respect to physical actualizations, there are no worlds other than the actual world that could be different than the actual world.

If we understand the third use of the law descriptively in this fashion, then we are simply saying that the actual world with its particular contour could not have been other than it was given certain conditions.   What I am saying is that the particular contour of the Christian life is free because it simply could not be other than it is; its freedom is found in its necessity.   We are freed by Christ and as free men and women in Christ we are what we are given the conditions that God has wrought in Christ.

When listening to Christian preaching, one must ask if the preacher is advocating that a world that is not the actual world should be the actual world.   If she or he is advocating this, the law is being preached.   On the other hand, if the preacher is describing what is the case and cannot be other than the case for the one graced by the Living Christ, then the "form of the gospel" is being described, and there is occasion for the law's "third use" - - which is not the law at all.   Law avers that a world that is not the actual one should replace the actual one.  The Gospel discomfits this way of proceeding, claiming that the actual world needs no replacement.

More needs to be said to justify the claim that the actual world is necessary when the Gospel is preached and lived.   Surely there are physically different actualizations of the preached and lived Gospel!

But what I am claiming is that the Gospel is necessary in the sense that there is no longer any set of worlds, w1, w2, w3, etc., such that there is nomological distance between these worlds and the actual one.   All of this can and should be made more clear, but the general point should be apparent.