Ethics and the Moral Law, Part II: Saint Paul

This is the second post on law and its place within ethics. Here I examine St. Paul’s thoughts on these matters. I should add that I am not too familiar with many of the details of Paul, so please look kindly on any errors or omissions.

The context of Paul’s writing

Although Paul has been subject to political and philosophical appropriation, we ought to keep in mind the religious context of his extant writings. His letters are written to fledgling Christian communities, variously intended to counsel, cajole and console their immediate readers on religious affairs and matters of communal conduct that are entwined with these. They are not primarily theoretical treatises but rather practical interventions undergirded by an implicit framework threaded through Paul’s thought that must often be inferred by piecing together the apparent presuppositions of disparate sections of text. This means that in trying to discern a relatively consistent Pauline position we are often confronted with ambiguities to resolve as to the scope of what Paul says—whether and how far it is intended to carry beyond the particularities of the specific context that surrounds it, and if his thought remains viable when so extended. I shall mention two of these ambiguities that we should take into account.

Firstly, we are concerned with Paul’s thought on law, but given the religious context there are two sets of possibilities to consider as to what ‘law’ amounts to and whether its meaning remains consistent throughout. One way of taking Paul is as questioning the Abrahamic law of the Jews, one tied to them in their particularised status as the people of the covenant, and thus a law that is not truly universal. Alternatively, it may be the very form of law in general that Paul is questioning, whether truly universal or not. So too, we might take whatever law it is in question as being a narrowly religious matter, important insofar as it affects our relationship with the divine. Or instead, we might conceive the law as pertinent in its relationship to a richer ethical conception of the good of which the divine may be an integral component but not of exclusive importance, being supplemented by the value deriving from a properly ordered relationship towards ourselves and others. This also leads us to the second question as to the scope of Paul’s thought. That is, how far it is dependent upon his soteriological concerns, which for us becomes the following question: do viable philosophical positions remain when we subtract Paul’s conviction that Jesus is the Son of God? Both these issues—over the meaning of ‘law’ and the centrality of soteriology—I merely wish to flag here as something that we should recall throughout. Given the particular approaches to Paul considered here, the assumption will be that (unless otherwise stated) the law in question is universal and of relevance to wider ethical matters. The soteriological elements of Paul’s thought will be touched upon in the following section.

Pauline biblical scholarship and the Law

Modern biblical scholarship on the question of Paul’s attitude towards law can be divided into two main camps. Each finds Paul to have a different problem with the law (either Judaic or universal). We can briefly characterise them as follows. Until the late nineteen-seventies, a Lutheran perspective on Paul’s treatment of law was orthodox. It takes Paul’s problem with law to be its tendency to encourage an attitude that overemphasises works to the detriment of faith: the notion that salvation is primarily a matter of external practice rather than our subjective comportment towards the divine and the mercy of God. The so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’ has challenged this diagnosis of Paul’s criticism of law, claiming instead that the problem with law is, as it is often put, simply that it is not Christ. This Christological interpretation of Paul is variously finessed by commentators, but a common core is constituted by the idea that the law has been fulfilled, in the sense of supplanted, by the resurrection—this event making the law redundant, or at least marginal. Here, I shall concentrate on the first approach outlined.

What I have called broadly ‘Lutheran’ interpretations give a central place to the idea that a fixation on law will give rise to a misplaced works-righteousness. There are several ways of taking this criticism of law.

Firstly, we may think that it proclaims a simple doctrinal error that is liable to lead the Christian astray. The problem with conceiving law as integral to salvation would be that it attributes duties as a condition of being saved, whereas a Lutheran protestant will affirm that the Christian is ‘justified by faith alone’. This is not a problem with law per se, only its relation to salvation. For it is quite consistent to suppose that we are subject to the authority of law (whether particularised or universal) and even that this is a good thing, only that our soteriological standing swings freely of matters of law—even religiously sourced laws—being secured by our faith alone. Thus, it seems that not much light is thrown on the role of law from these considerations. A second way of taking the criticism that law encourages a misplaced works-righteousness is to suppose that there is a contrast being drawn between the righteousness secured by our doing the work mandated by law and the righteousness to be found in God. The problem with law identified here would be that it nurtures a prideful attitude that focuses upon one’s personal achievement in carrying out the demands of the law. For if salvation is conceived primarily as a matter of our relation to the dictates of law, of meeting a fixed criterion, then we could be thought to be insufficiently humble inasmuch as we are led to conceptualise it as product of human labour rather than bestowed by God—something that disregards the gift of God’s grace. Again, as a freestanding critique of the role of law then this is not hugely enlightening.

However, if we probe a little deeper into the assumptions behind these positions we can make some progress. For we can ask why it is that the Lutheran thinks that we can only be justified by faith alone and that confidence in law would be misplaced and sinful in its pride. What lies behind both these positions is a fundamental pessimism about humanity’s capacity to do good and thus somehow earn their salvation instead of being dependent on divine dispensation. Our only hope is justification by faith since we cannot achieve it on our own, and from this it also follows that trusting in human dutifulness to the law as a means of salvation is a vain overestimation of our own powers. Of particular philosophical interest here is the belief that it is not so much man’s appetitive weakness that is to blame—that we will inevitably transgress the law through our susceptibility to the temptations of sin—but rather that it is our reason that is deficient. What we are incapable of doing is determining what the law requires, our post-lapsarian state leaving us with an insufficient capacity to work out the ends proper to man, the law that we are subject to in connection with these ends and the correct application of this law in concretio, without the intervention of God’s grace at every step.

One way of extracting a philosophical lesson from this purportedly Pauline insistence upon fide sola is to notice its implications for the relation between the right and the good. We can frame this matter through the claim that the view of Paul presented is an anti-constructivist one. Constructivist accounts of a discourse (say, ethics or science, etc.) take the truth-value of the propositions that compose it to be a function of correctly following a certain procedure in reasoning to these propositions; there is no anterior fact of the matter divorced from the procedure. For example, a scientific constructivist might explicate the truth of a physical theory by saying that all it means to say that the theory is true is that the scientific method was correctly followed in formulating it, where this method would be constituted by a set of rules pertaining to standards for the collection of data, allowable inferences from this data, coherence with other well-established theories, and so on. Note the relation this establishes between the ends of a constructive procedure and the principles that make up this procedure. Ordinarily, we take norms for action to be answerable to our goals—what recommends following a certain procedure is that allows us to achieve some end that is of prior value; indeed, we appraise such norms based on their success in this respect. Those who are constructivist with respect to a certain domain reverse this relationship in that they take potentially correct ends to be delimited by a set of authoritative principles governing action. In other words, they privilege the right (that mandated by some set of rules governing obligations and permissions) over the good (the proper ends of ourselves or our practices); in conjunction with ‘materials of construction’ (what the constructive procedure is applied to), the former will determine the latter. 

Paul might be taken to be criticising views that give such a primacy to the right on two counts. In warning us about giving too much weight to law, alongside a pessimistic view of human reason (which it must be said is hard to discern in Paul’s text without independent Lutheran assumptions), Paul’s criticism of works-righteousness could be construed along the following lines. If it is following the law that secures salvation (where we might substitute the achievement of ethical good for salvation), then we must be able to grasp this law and apply it correctly in concretio for it is only by correctly following the procedure set out by the norms encoded in the law that we are able to secure salvation. However, since human reason is deficient in its ability to correctly understand and apply the law on its own, we must rely on the grace of God if we are to carry out the work of the law. So, even if at an explanatory level we suppose that the right (in the form of the law) determines the good (in the form of the meritorious works that secure our salvation) it would be wrong to take up an attitude of righteousness with respect to works of law-following. This is because at the level of practical action we cannot achieve the right—we cannot first follow the procedure correctly–-if we do not have the faith that makes us receptive to grace which allows us to enact the law. Thus, it will always be an error to fixate on the law, for without humbly turning away from the question of our own righteousness, of our place as measured against the criterion of the law, in order to stand in God’s righteousness (a move away from being concerned with our own value and toward a faithful conviction in God’s) we are unable to grasp the law at all. An initial disregard for the law thus becomes a condition of following it at all.

If we try to translate this into a more secular critique though, we face some problems. For example, why should we accept scepticism about the power of reason if we can no longer in good faith indulge in the jouissance provided by self-abasing Protestant stories about the post-lapsarian feebleness of humanity? Perhaps if, in a Humean fashion, we thought that the legitimate role of reason was merely instrumental, not itself setting ends but merely devising means. Given such a model, we might share the suspicion over our ability to successfully reason about the law, for we might think that reason had no substantive role to play in discovering or directing our proper ends. Thus, taken simply by itself, reasoning about the principles embodied in the law would have no claim to be able to determine what we ought to do. As independently unattractive as such a conception of reason is anyway, the Lutheran-Pauline position is even more sceptical about the powers of reason than this though. For the proponent of a merely instrumental reason would accept that we could adopt the principles of the law for some further reason (a desire to please God, say, not simply reasoning to them for their own sake). Yet, the Lutheran- Pauline position would maintain that we could not even follow the law in this instance, since their scepticism extends to our ability to ascertain the correct application of the law, utilising it even when we have decided that it is fitting for us to adopt it. It is hard to motivate such a pessimistic conception of reason when divorced from a religious setting.

Perhaps we can make something of the warning about an excessive fixation on law though. For although we can read the Lutheran-Pauline position as being one that announces our utter dependence upon the mercy of God, that human effort is insufficient to achieve salvation, we can also see it as containing a lesson about the subjective attitude that we should take towards law. So instead of seeing our ability to correctly follow the norms embodied in law as dependent on the de facto dispensation of grace from God, we might see the structure of our attitude towards God as the real achievement that allows us to correctly follow the law. The idea here would be that in privileging faith over law we can discern a schema that can be applied outside a narrowly religious context. For we can understand Paul’s talk of faith (pistis) as the hopeful waiting upon grace (kharis), but take this to be a placeholder for the wider need for a certain openness—receptivity—to something beyond the law. We are still dealing here with a supplemental approach to the law, one that denies that we can just follow the law by straightforwardly understanding its dictates, but the locus for this necessary supplement to law would no longer have to be a divine one.

A secularised way of taking Paul along these lines could develop the thought that salvation cannot simply be earned by the mechanical adoption of some procedure derived from law. We might think that a narrow concern with meeting the letter of the law will miss its true purpose, ignoring what it is that animates it and makes it valuable at all (whether this be God or the achievement of human good). Thus, we risk tacitly treating law as itself constitutive of the good, as an end in itself, rather than an instrument to achieve our true ends. This is not an epistemic matter of, as it were, simply recalling in the abstract that the law serves a purpose beyond itself. Rather, if the law is to function as an instrument, we should attend to both its final purpose and what it is instrumentally applied to. Conceived as an instrument for achieving ethical good rather than salvation, in the schema previously outlined we can substitute an openness to grace (to direction by God) for an openness to secular factors which can guide our application of the law in concretio. As in the religious case, this will supplement the necessarily relatively ‘thin’ directives of the law with a ‘thicker’ method that can help guide us in what to do in actual practice.

One suggestion as for a secular factor able to play this role, substituting for pistis in Paul, would be enculturation—the habituation into a social tradition that allows us to recognise certain reasons as compelling. This would be a more intelligible variety of influence on our ability to apply the law, rather than being a mysterious openness to grace so as to receive a measure of God’s ‘maker’s knowledge’ of the law, it would reflect an attunement to the social ground that provides the context in which the function of the law, in enabling us to achieve certain goods, becomes intelligible. In this way, by supplementing a tight focus on the letter of the law alone—one that sees only a list of demands divorced from their rationale—with the resources required to reach a richer understanding of the tasks animating it, it should be possible to apply the law more adeptly.

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