Evangelicals Should Read More Luther

This is my Left2Right wanna-be post.  Many evangelical Christians recently advocated various state measures that would have prolonged the life of Terri Schiavo.  I doubt that they should have.

One thing about killing someone that makes it a very serious wrong is that it harms the victim.  It harms the victim roughly because it denies her the rest of the life she would have enjoyed as that person.  This harm-based account provides a pretty plausible reason to think killing someone is wrong when it is, though any good Christian would complain that it doesn’t account for everything about killing someone that makes it wrong.  For example, the account doesn’t say anything about our unique status as bearers of God’s image.  But they should agree that it’s the right account of what it is about killing someone that entitles us as a society to prohibit it.

Paul writes in Romans that the civil magistrate is to be "an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil."  But what sort of evil?  According to Martin Luther in his essay "On Temporal Authority" the best way of interpreting this mandate is to say that Paul is speaking "of external things, that they should be ordered and governed on earth" for without the civil authority "the world would be reduced to chaos."  He continues:

For this reason God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that — no thanks to them — they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.  Thus does St. Paul interpret the temporal sword in Romans 13, when he says it is not a terror to good conduct but to bad.  And Peter says it is for the punishment of the wicked.

Luther concludes, "The temporal government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth."

Luther thinks that legal interferences are justified in light of the divine mandate to the civil authorities when they’re made with an eye towards protecting from harm our life, property, and external affairs — our most central concerns and projects.  On the assumption that hastening a patient’s death is what the patient wants and does not harm her, a state that prevents this would be going beyond its divinely ordained functions.

4 Replies to “Evangelicals Should Read More Luther

  1. By and large, there are two sorts of arguments one can make in actual-life, practical moral disagreements against the conflicting view – internal and external criticism. In internal criticism, one begins from the assumptions of the opponent, and attempts to show that they lead to contradictions or absurdities even by the lights of the opponent. In external criticism, one attempts to show that the basic premises of the opponent are false and unwarranted as such.
    The problem with the argument above is that it really doesn’t seem to be succesful in either, and for that reason unfortunately it seems to lack oompf in the dialogical situation. It is hard to see how the evangelical christians would take Luther’s reading of Paul as something to which they are commited. On the contrary, they would probably take it as heresy. Thus, as internal criticism it would fail.
    On the other hand, pointing out to these people that “a state that prevents this would be going beyond its divinely ordained functions” doesn’t seem to be a strong external argument against them either. Rather than going for showing that they have got the ‘state’s divinely ordered functions’ wrong, it would be much easier to go for the premise that state and religion can mix in the first place.

  2. Jussi,
    I’m not sure how anyone could conclude from what I said that I was attempting an external critique. In any case I wasn’t. The claim that most evangelicals have got it wrong about the state’s divinely ordained functions is a critique obviously internal to a worldview that takes the authority of scripture seriously. Then, the question isn’t whether or not evangelical Christians *take themselves* to be committed to Luther’s reading of Paul (and the fact the most don’t take themselves to be so committed doesn’t show that my critique has failed); it’s whether they should be, given that view concerning the authority of scripture. So, is there another plausible reading of the passage concerning the state’s role in punishing evil-doers? Someone might say that “evil” refers to any violation of a specifically Christian morality. But this is manifestly implausible (though I wouldn’t say heretical — let many flowers bloom, I say).

  3. Kyle,
    that clears up things. Now, my worry is that how succesful this is in the debate with the evangelists as an internal critique. It now seems that we begin from their commitment to the authority of scripture or ‘Christian morality’, and then try to show that Lurther’s intepretation of Paul is the *correct* one. If they are committed to the authority of scripture, surely they must be committed to the correct reading of it. If this interpretation then says that the devine mandate of the government does not extend to infering with any peaceful, non-harming practices, then *they* would seem to be committed to not attempting to get the government involved in this case.
    First problem here is that we would need to get to the deep theological waters of interpreting the scripture and defend Luther’s view on what Paul means by evil. This may turn out to be very difficult. Second, given that this is supposed to be an internal critique, we would also have to argue that letting die is not harming on the Christian views of what constitutes harm. If ‘life is sacred’ is a part of the christian morality, then this also may turn out to be very difficult.
    But, you are right that there is an argument to be made in the way you do it. I guess I just wanted to question whether this is one of the strongest arguments in the situation – even from the internal ones. I guess I might make an attempt to begin from something like the Golden Rule if it’s one of the teachings the evengelists are committed to.

  4. Jussi,
    True that very often theological disputes are complicated by difficult interpretive issues, but this seems to be an easy one. This passage from Paul’s letter is incoherent if “evil” means any violation of a divine moral ordinance.
    About your second worry, I’m not sure I know what you mean by a Christian view of harm in this context. I don’t remember evanglicals claiming Terri Schiavo was harmed by her death. More that her husband was doing something wrong by ok-ing it — he failed to obey a divine moral ordinance or respect the sanctity of human life, the image of God in her. But it makes sense, even for a Christian, to say that he did all that without harming her. Anyway, if “evil” in the passage refers to behavior that disrupts the outward peace or the temporal order, and these are the sorts of harms within the purview of the state, then the Christian should agree with those who think that the state could not have legitimately interfered.

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