Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther began a treatise on Holy Communion with these remarkable words:
Experience, all chronicles, and the Holy Scriptures as well, teach us this truth: the less law, the more justice; the fewer commandments, the more good works. No well-regulated community ever existed long, if at all, where there were many laws.
An odd way, you might think, to begin discussing church services. But Luther’s understanding of religion went far beyond what is done inside the four walls of a church. At the heart of his message was a radical divide between what we are and what we ought to be.
What we are is disobedient creatures in rebellion against God and in conflict with our neighbours. Therefore we must have laws, magistrates, police and prisons (and finally, hell itself). What we ought to be is sons and daughters of God, whose pattern is Jesus and whose home is the Kingdom of Heaven where the only law is the law of love. And between these two states of being there is a constant tension.
Thus we must have laws, because without them there would be no control over criminal behaviour, injustice and oppression. But the law can never make us good, and therefore it can never bring about justice. It can punish and limit wrongdoing, but it is always inefficient and ultimately ineffective. And therefore too much law is a bad thing.
The difference between Luther’s society and our own, however, is that in Luther’s day, and down to the mid-twentieth century, there was a general assumption that behind our laws lay a higher demand based on a greater authority. For Luther, this was God. And even when faith in God became diminished or distorted, the sense that laws should embody ‘justice’ remained.
In the Western world in the latter part of the twentieth century, however, the notion of ‘moral absolutes’ underwent a widespread collapse. And along with this, of course, went a collapse in moral standards and moral behaviour.
In its place, has come a deliberate remodelling of society, based on a redefinition of humanity. In Luther’s world, human beings were the pinnacle of a created order made in the image of their creator to serve him and rule their world in relationships based on no other law than self-sacrificing love. Law, in this view, was something that belonged to the unredeemed world of sin, not the sanctified future of salvation.
In our society today, all that is, of course, regarded as twaddle. There is no God, there are no moral absolutes, there is no ‘higher authority’. Hence we are ‘free’ to do as we want.
Ironically, however, the result is not an increase, but a decrease of freedom. And this is for two reasons. First, when there is no shared agreement as to how we should act, there have to be rules. If all believe they can act as they want, then all must be told how to act with regard to other people if we are to avoid chaos and conflict. Laws must increase, and become increasingly detailed, since no-one can be simply relied on to do the ‘right thing’.
Secondly, power lies in the hands of people who are themselves without any ‘higher authority’ but who want to shape society. We are now, therefore, subject to the will of a very small number of individuals whose controlling principle is the same as everyone else’s — to do what they want — but who differ from everyone else in having the power, backed up if necessary by force, to bend others to their will. Yet their own will is shaped only by their ‘appetite’ — by what pleases or displeases them from moment to moment or from time to time.
In this situation, law substitutes for justice because there is no justice above the law to which the law is itself subject. A woman whom the Guardian newspaper described as ‘public spirited’ is therefore threatened with legal action by the local council whose proper role is to engender ‘public spirit’.
For the Christian this creates a real dilemma. We are encouraged to obey the governing authorities, as being instituted by God (Romans 13). But when those authorities are godless they threaten not only our well-being but the well-being of society itself. At very least, we must ensure that when we preach the gospel we do not collude with the godless state. The law, as the Apostle Paul once wrote, is for lawbreakers and the godless (1 Timothy 1:8-11). Or as Charles Dickens put it, “The law is [at least on occasion] a ass.” Or as one of his other characters might have put it, “Please, sir, I want less law.”
Let us not put our hopes in the law, and let us never co-mingle the law with the gospel.
Revd John P Richardson
24 May 2008