Aquinas on Tyrannical Government

St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II, Question 42:

Tyrannical governance is unjust, since it is ordered to the private good of the ruler, not to the common good, as the Philosopher makes clear in the Politics and the Ethics. And so disturbances of such governance does not have the character or rebellion, except, perhaps, in cases where the tyrant’s governance is so inordinately disturbed that the subject people suffer greater harm from the resulting disturbance than from the tyrant’s governance. Rather, tyrants, who by seeking greater domination incite discontent and rebellion in the people subject to them, are the rebels. For governance is tyrannical when ordered to the ruler’s own good to the detriment of the people.

Do Not Know Thyself

Writing on the Wrightsaid email list some time ago, James Jordan said:

And it is spiritually dangerous to speak in such a way as to encourage people to inspect their own hearts. “Know thyself” is Socratic and demonic. We CANNOT know ourselves, and must trust in God to know us. We must accept what He says about us. We can judge ourselves in particular matters, but the heart is hidden from us. Our “heart experiences” are untrustworthy. We must trust God and His Word.

How contrary is this to most of what passes for even “Christian” thinking today? We have accepted the “know thyself” formula as if it is the key to enlightenment, when in fact the Bible tells us:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?


Foundational Thinkers

In the theological circles that I identify with there are many streams of thought which converge in the current conversation. I would like to briefly identify some of the great thinkers, past and present, who define that conversation.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosentstock Huessy (ERH) was a German Christian thinker. Peter Leithart discusses him in this article, which I will quote here.

The scope of his life’s work is impressively unclassifiable. He disdained the disciplinary confinements of the modern university, and the disdain shows. He wrote on language, religion and the Bible, calendars, time, and grammar. He published a massive history of the Western revolution and a three-volume Soziologie, as well as a monograph on his academic specialty, medieval German legal history. When he came to America, he took a chair in German language and culture at Harvard, but he could have taught sociology, law, philosophy, comparative religion, or any of a half dozen other disciplines. Harvard didn’t know what to do with him. Since he talked a lot about God, they sent him to the divinity school.

Openly orthodox, Rosenstock-Huessy was also a remarkably progressive thinker, embodying what Chesterton, one of Rosenstock-Huessy’s favorite authors, described as the adventure of orthodoxy. This is evident particularly in his meditations on time, and the fundamental temporal orientation of his work. He observed that institutions, ideas, and systems have their day—and then something new is needed: “Philosophies have their time. It is a misunderstanding to attribute a perennial character to any particular philosophy. Philosophy is the expression of a zeitgeist. Philosophies must be buried at the right time. The Jesuits know that Thomism is dead.” He spoke of the world entering a “Johannine” age of history, an age of the Spirit that would move quite differently from the earlier ages of the Church: “each generation has to act differently precisely in order to represent the same thing. Only so can each become a full partner in the process of Making Man.”

I have not read ERH myself, but need to and hope to find the time to in the future.

René Girard

Rene Girard is a French philosopher famed for his theory of “mimetic rivalry” and his discussion of the scapegoat mechanism in society. Perhaps a portion of this interview will serve to summarize his views:

NPQ: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

I have his book “Violence and the Sacred” but have not read it yet.

Cornelius Van Til

Finally, there is the great Cornelius Van Til. Van Til is well-known for being a pioneer of presuppositional apologetics and the transcendental argument for the existence of God. He stressed the antithesis between the believer and the non-believer. Van Til said this of his own method:

My understanding of the relationship between Christian and non-Christian, philosophically speaking.
1. Both have presuppositions about the nature of reality:
a. The Christian presupposes the triune God and his redemptive plan for the universe as set forth once for all in Scripture.
b. The non-Christian presupposes a dialectic between “chance” and “regularity,” the former accounting for the origin of matter and life, the latter accounting for the current success of the scientific enterprise.
2. Neither can, as finite beings, by means of logic as such, say what reality must be or cannot be.
a. The Christian, therefore, attempts to understand his world through the observation and logical ordering of facts in self-conscious subjection to the plan of the self attesting Christ of Scripture.
b. The non-Christian, while attempting an enterprise similar to the Christian’s, attempts nevertheless to use “logic” to destroy the Christian position. On the one hand, appealing to the non- rationality of “matter,” he says that the chance- character of “facts” is conclusive evidence against the Christian position. Then, on the other hand, he maintains like Parmenides that the Christian story cannot possibly be true. Man must be autonomous, “logic” must be legislative as to the field of “possibility” and possibility must be above God.



Defending Constantine

Coming in November, Peter Leithart’s new book:


1 Sanguinary Edicts
2 Jupiter on the Throne
Instinctu Divinitatus
4 By This Sign
Liberator Ecclesiae
6 End of Sacrifice
7 Common Bishop
8 Nicaea and After
9 Seeds of Evangelical Law
10 Justice for All
11 One God, One Emperor
12 Pacifist Church?
13 Christian Empire, Christian Mission
14 Rome Baptized


Stanley Fish on Liberalism

Fish discusses the liberal Western order (not political liberalism) and observes:

If you persuade liberalism that its dismissive marginalizing of religious discourse is a violation of its own chief principle, all you will gain is the right to sit down at liberalism’s table where before you were denied an invitation; but it will still be liberalism’s table that you are sitting at, and the etiquette of the conversation will still be hers. That is, someone will now turn and ask, “Well, what does religion have to say about this question?” And when, as often will be the case, religion’s answer is doctrinaire (what else could it be?), the moderator (a title deeply revealing) will nod politely and turn to someone who is presumed to be more reasonable. To put the matter baldly, a person of religious conviction should not want to enter the marketplace of ideas but to shut it down, at least insofar as it presumes to determine matters that he believes have been determined by God and faith. The religious person should not seek an accommodation with liberalism; he should seek to rout it from the field, to extirpate it, root and branch.

How is it that he sees things so clearly and yet Christians are so blind?! He writes later:

That is what Marsden should want: not the inclusion of religious discourse in a debate no one is allowed to win, but the triumph of religious discourse and the silencing of its atheistic opponents. To invoke the criterion of intellectual validity and seek shelter under its umbrella is to surrender in advance to the enemy, to that liberal rationality whose inability even to recognize the claims of faith has been responsible for religion’s marginalization in the first place. Marsden wants to argue against that marginalization, but his suggestion for removing it is in fact a way of reinforcing it. He calls it “procedural rationality.” The procedure is to scrutinize religious viewpoints and distinguish between those that “honor some basic rules of evidence and argument” and those that “are presented so dogmatically and aggressively as not to be accommodated within the procedural rules of pluralistic academia.”
One could hardly imagine a better formula for subordinating the religious impulse to the demands of civil and secular order. Presumably it will not be religion that specifies what the rules of evidence and argument to be honored are; and it surely will not be religion that stigmatizes as dogma any assertion that does not conform to the requirements of those rules. Dogma, of course, is a word that once had a positive meaning: it meant the unqualified assertion of a priori truths and was indistinguishable from a truly strong religiosity. It is only under the liberal dispensation that dogma acquires the taint of obdurateness, of a culpable refusal to submit to the test of reasonableness as defined by the standards and norms of the civil establishment.

Fish sees the Van Tillian antithesis. The very notion that “religion” should “contribute” to a “public square” marginalizes the truth which is that all of reality is encompassed in the rule of the resurrected Messiah from Nazareth. I think such public square attempts are fine if they are recognized for what they are: tactics in the long war which will tide us over until the nation is baptized and under the reign of King Jesus.

Augustinian Platonism

My lovely wife picked up a cheap book for me yesterday at the library sale : The Age of Reform 1250-1550. [50 cents!]

The author, Steven Ozment, outlines Augustine’s modification of Platonism in a chart which I have reproduced here.


Ozment writes:

Augustine replaced the Platonic doctrine of reconciliation with his own distinctive doctrine of “divine illumination,” one of his most influential teachings. This doctrine placed the eternal forms of the Platonists within the mind of the triune Christian God, thereby making them truly divine ideas. Hence, when one plumbed the depths of one’s own mind in search of truth, one found there, not an innate ability to recollect eternity, as the Platonists had taught, but Christ, the eternal wisdom of God, the second person of the Trinity, whose very name was Truth. Through the illumination of Christ, indwelling truth, the mind received divine light by which it could know truly. Whether pagan or Christian, people understood and functioned within the world around them, thanks to this special grace of God. Without such divine illumination, all they would know was a chaos of phantasms. According to Augustine, just as God frees the will so that people can truly do good things, so he enlightens their minds so that they can surely know.

The Essence of Theonomy

Theonomy boils down to this statement, made by an old friend:

If Christ is God, and if Christ is Lord, then His Lordship extends to all areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. And so, the assumption, if one affirms ethical absolutes, is necessarily one of “theonomy” broadly construed in opposition to autonomy, as Cornelius Van Til indicated. Therefore, the question is whether one is a “consistent” theonomist or an “inconsistent” theonomist.

…one better presuppose a theonomic ethic (in a broad sense not necessarily ala Bahnsen), or otherwise, one is left without ethics, and therefore, without Lordship. The details of a theonomic ethic need to be determined through careful exegesis. But, what we cannot do is say that God has no claim on how we are to live – whether privately or publicly; he does have a claim, and that claim is a theonomic (God’s law) claim.

And, given Romans 13 and other passages, the notion of justice is never abstracted from God and His character, even if public justice is in view. Consequently, public justice exhibits a theonomic dimension.

Critical Realism

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright describes a critical-realist approach to reading and understanding texts. He outlines his theory as follows:

We (humans in general; the communities of which you and I, as readers, are part) tell ourselves certain stories about the world, and about who we are within it. Within this story-telling it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we describe ourselves as reading texts…Within this text-reading activity it makes sense, it ‘fits’, that we find ourselves, at least sometimes and at least in principle, in contact with the mind and intention of the author. Discussing the author’s mind may or may not be an easy task; it is in principle both possible and, I suggest, desirable.

Wright continues:

What we need, then, is a theory of reading which, at the reader/text stage, will do justice both to the fact that the reader is a particular human being and to the fact that the text is an entity on its own, not a plastic substance to be moulded to the reader’s whim. It must also do justice, at the text/author stage, both to the fact that the author intended certain things, and that the text may well contain in addition other things-echoes, evocations, structures, and the like-which were not present to the author’s mind, and of course may well not be present to the reader’s mind. We need a both-and theory of reading, not an either-or one. Similarly, we need a theory which will do justice, still at the text/author stage, both to the fact that texts, including biblical texts, do not normally represent the whole of the author’s mind, even that bit to which they come closest, and to the fact that they nevertheless do normally tell us, and in principle tell us truly, quite a bit about him or her. Finally, we need to recognize, at the author/event stage, both that authors do not write without a point of view (they are humans, and look at things in particular way and from particular angles) and that they really can speak and write about events and objects…which are not reducible to terms of their own state of mind.

Seven stages to wisdom

In his book On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine outlines seven steps to wisdom, based on Isaiah 11.2-3. They are:

1. Fear of God.

2. Holiness; not contradicting Holy Scripture.

3. Knowledge.

4. Fortitude.

5. The resolve of compassion.

6. Purify the eye by which God may be seen.

7. Ascent to wisdom.

“These are the stages by which we progress from the one to the other.”