Christian Justice and Public Policy, by Duncan B. Forrester. Cambridge University Press, 1997. (“Cambridge Studies in Ideology and Religion,” ed. Duncan Forrester and Alistair Kee.) xiv + 274pp. Hardback $40, paperback $14.95. ISBN 0-521-55611-2
REVIEWED BY DR. JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERY, PH.D., D.THEO.
Editor, Global Journal of Classical Theology
This volume, which raises vitally important questions concerning the relationship of Christianity to contemporary political theory, law, and social policy, is the tenth in an academic series which has included such titles as A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-Building and Human Rights (Charles Villa-Vicencio), Protestantism in Contemporary China (Alan Hunter), Religion and the Making of Society: Essays in Social Theology (Charles Davis), Pastoral Care and Liberation Theology (Stephen Pattison), Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Grace Jantzen), and God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation (Timothy Gorringe). The book has a distinguished pedigree: its author is Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh, and did much of the writing at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. Some of the included material was previously given in the F.D. Maurice Lectures in King’s College, London (1995) and as a Bishop Butler Lecture in the University of Bristol (1996).
In line with the general purpose of the series to go beyond “studies by social-scientists who often adopt a functionalist and reductionist view of the faith and beliefs which motivate those directly involved” in Christian social action, the author contends that even though “religion no longer occupies the place it did in western societies as an institution, . . . that does not mean it must be restricted to the private, domestic or leisure spheres of life” (pp. xi-xii). Forrester wants the Christian believer to impact today’s secular, global, and pluralistic society in an intelligent, principled, and effective way. His object is to answer the question: “What kind of Christian voice is appropriate in the public realm in relation to debates about public policy, and how might it be most appropriately articulated today?” (p. 9). He focuses on “the central issue of justice” (p. 36), going from the theoretical to the practical by way of such moral issues as poverty and punishment/imprisonment. A significant part of the book (pp. 111-92) is devoted to a theological examination and critique of influential contemporary secular theories of justice (Rawls, Hayek, Habermas). Finally, the author offers his personal suggestions and insights under the general rubic “Theological Fragments” (pp. 193 ff.).
In evaluating the degree of success to be attributed to Forrester’s laudable endeavour, we shall first look at his treatment of those secular political philosophers with whom he disagrees, and then go on to examine the theological approach which he himself espouses. To be sure: effective or ineffective criticism of other viewpoints in no way proves or disproves one’s own worldview, but the quality of one’s handling of opponents is important to the credibility of one’s general position.
Forrester, who favours “a far more equitable distribution of material things” (p. 110), is deeply troubled by Hayek’s notion of the spontaneous order of the market, and unhappy with Margaret Thatcher’s confidence in it. The moral indifference of the open market o its status “simply as the aptest device for the orderly and efficient running of a morally fragmented society” points up “the tension between the Hayekian moral universe and the Judeo-Christian tradition” (pp.150-54). He analogises Hayek’s spontaneous order of the market to the Protestant Reformers’ doctrine of the “Orders of Creation,” uncritically accepting Karl Barth’s view that to believe in divinely-created structures of society is tantamount to accepting the status quo no matter how morally inadequate it is, and thus to divinise the market.
Here Forrester shows little understanding of the classic doctrine of the Schpfungsordnungen and no apparent acquaintance with Emil Brunner’s modern exposition of it in his The Divine Imperative, Bk. III. Over against Barth, Brunner rightly sees that the creative “orders” (marriage and the family, the state, the cultural orders, religious institutions, economics) are in themselves purely formal: they are the sine quibus non of human existence in society, without any necessary built-in content. It is through the natural law written on the human heart, and more particularly the pronouncements of special revelation in Holy Scripture, that we learn the proper content of the orders. Thus, every society will have a marital/family order, but conscience and Scripture set forth the monogamous ideal. (Cf. Montgomery, The Shape of the Past, pp. 358-74.)
In the economic realm, therefore, the issue is not a spurious parallel between Hayek’s market philosophy and the Schpfungsordnungen, but a determination of proper biblical standards for economics o i.e., should the free market be regulated, and, if so, on what principles? By way of Brian Griffiths, Forrester rightly notes that Christianity will put “certain limits on the market place” and will insist that government display a genuine “concern for the poor” (p.156), but he does not work out the biblical principles which would draw a proper line between individual freedom on the one hand and state regulation and the public redistribution of wealth on the other.
Thus the author never faces the question of the negative consequences of economic leveling. Without concentrations of wealth, would great eleemosynary endeavours be possible? (It is passing strange that Forrester, teaching in Scotland, never thinks of Andrew Carnegie.) Is this possibly one reason why our Lord did not o in contrast with much of today’s Liberation Theology o condemn the rich per se? And where government regulation of the economy is seen as a moral solution to social problems, one must always ask: who now makes the moral decisions? The answer is, often and sadly, unprincipled bureaucrats who are seeking career advantages rather than the public good. Since, as the Apostle says, “all have sinned and come short of God’s glory,” it is a fatal mistake in effect to exempt centralised officialdom from the operations of original sin whilst emphasising its presence among capitalists.
The author’s inevitable illustration of the theological inadequacy of a free-market philosophy lies in the realm of health care: he points up the shortcomings in America versus the caring national-health systems in Britain and Continental Europe. Now, there is little doubt that America needs a comprehensive national health-care plan, but, as one who has lived both there and here, I can only marvel that the backwardness, incompetence, and waste of much of the bureaucratic British system did not more impress the author. The Bible not only instructs us to care for the weak, poor, and downtrodden; it also supports freedom of decision and opposes totalitarian control. The Israelite monarchy was God’s grudging concession to a sinful people: not an endorsement of government regulation.
John Rawls’ theory of justice is seen in a much more positive light. The author holds that in at least four respects it is compatible with the Christian position: it “gives priority to justice”; it “affirms and assumes human equality”; Rawls’ concern for the least-advantaged is “at least a partial expression of a Preferential Option for the Poor”; and, though justice is not synonymous with fairness, as Rawls apparently holds, his philosophy properly illustrates that fairness must be “a central component of any adequate account of justice” (pp.133-34).
The analysis of Rawls’ system which underlines these judgments is, however, exceedingly superficial. Rawls’ Original Position with its Veil of Ignorance is adequately described and its difference from the Garden of Eden noted. (“Behind their very different Veil of Ignorance, Eve and Adam make a false choice . . . and in a broken world the justice of the Original Position is present primarily as a memory and as a hope o p. 122.) But then the author jumps to Rawls’ post-Theory of Justice concept of “overlapping consensus” and claims that his “notion of justice” is based on that consensus (p. 127). In point of fact, Rawls’ Principles of Justice derive, not from the overlapping consensus but from what Rawls has called “reflective equilibrium” (involving the conditions of the Original Position, fitting as they do our considered moral judgments, and our intuitions as to the meaning of justice) combined with Kantian “philosophical reflection” (i.e., the rational perception that these Principles of Justice must apply to everyone, not just to the agent).
Moreover, Forrester neglects the keystone of Rawls’ entire system, his “thin theory of the good” on which Rawls’ notion of the Primary Social Goods is based. This theory, in turn, is grounded in “a basic principle of motivation which I [Rawls] shall refer to as the Aristotelian Principle,” defined as “a preference for ascending the chain or chains which offer the better prospects of exercising the higher abilities with the least strain.” In consequence, for Rawls, the most important of the Primary Social Goods is self-respect or self-esteem o a person’s sense of his own value and confidence in his own ability. Finally, Forrester does not touch Rawls’ critically important 1993 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, in which he applied his general theory internationally, in an effort to justify the creation and maintenance of regional and worldwide mechanisms for the protection of human rights.
Why is all this important? Because the fallacies in Rawls’ theory are not simply the product of a navt in thinking that fairness will automatically come about by consensus in a pluralistic society. Rawls’ fundamental problem is his underlying rationalistic, Enlightenment belief that man is essentially good and will, through self-respect, ascend to higher moral goals, choose proper societal principles, and be able to put them into practice nationally and internationally. Had Forrester also looked at the parallel neo-Kantian theories of Alan Gewirth, he would have seen the common thread: the belief that man will act rationally once the truth is presented and that he will allow that truth to be universalised so as to be applied even to his own disadvantage (Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Gewirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency). Of course, this has little to do with actual human life, which, as Hobbes well described it, is “nasty, poor, brutish and short.” Theories of man that do not adequately take original sin into account have always failed, and will always fail.
Forrester’s critique of Habermas is stronger than his treatments of Rawls and Hayek. He recognises that Habermas has more affinity with Hegel and Marx than with 18th-century Enlightenment thought. He realises that Habermas’ “discourse ethic” is utopian: it “holds up the utopian hope of a broad community in which people attend to one another’s feelings and listen to what they are saying and what they are afraid to say” (p. 186). And, almost as a throwaway line, he makes the crucial point: “A theologian might echo Anselm in suggesting that he [Habermas] has not yet considered the gravity of sin and its pervasive distortion of human judgments” (p. 173). Remarkably, however, though Forrester employs Kierkegaard later in another connection (pp. 202-203), he does not apply the Danish lay theologian’s devastating critique of Hegelian secular-rationalistic, synoptic worldviews to point up the key failing in Habermas. Apart from a transcendent, divine revelation, no-one of us is capable of grandiose solutions to the problems of justice. Habermas (like Rawls, though on a different theoretical basis) is vainly trying to pull himself up by his own ideological bootstraps.
Granted the limited value of Forrester’s critiques of secular theorists of justice: what positive Christian answers does he give us? Early in his book he quotes social scientist Barbara Wooton’s assertion that “nobody knows what justice is” (p. 38). Does Forrester know? Though his book contains many insightful anecdotes and pregnant thoughts, no distinctively Christian theory of justice emerges. The tone is set in the author’s Introduction: “The Christian position from which I write assumes that both knowing what justice is and doing justice are inherently and deeply problematic.” Problematic, yes, but since Christian faith is founded on revelation o not obscurity o one would expect the Christian to be capable of shedding far more light than the secularist offers.
The source of the difficulty seems to lie in the author’s lack of theological rigour. Thus, in his section on “Justification” (the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, or so the Reformers thought!), there is a hopeless confusion of justification with justice. From the ambiguous assertion that “in the experience of being justified is revealed the true justice of God, which is justice itself” one passes to Gustavo Gutierrez’s statement that “justice and right cannot be emptied of the content bestowed on them by the Bible” (p. 207). But (1) justification is not an “experience”: it is God’s forensic declaration that in spite of our sin we are declared righteous because of what Christ did for us on the Cross, and (2) the issue is not whether the Bible can bestow content (of course it can!) but what that content in fact is relative to the problems of human justice in a fallen world.
A further illustration. The author uncritically repeats the old saw (deriving essentially from Ernst Troeltsch) that Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms produced a quietism and acceptance of the political status quo, such that proper social reform was neglected, unjust rulers allowed to remain on the throne, and the world in essence permitted to go to hell. Particularly obnoxious is Forrester’s utterly unhistorical claim that “under Hitler such an interpretation of the Two-Kingdoms theory was used to justify a church policy of non-interference in the political realm which in fact became collusion with Nazism” (p. 212).
This defamatory allegation, first set out by Peter Wiener in 1945 (Martin Luther: Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor), thoroughly refuted by Gordon Rupp (Martin Luther — Hitler’s Cause — or Cure?), and revived and popularised in William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, cannot be seriously maintained today (see, e.g., Montgomery, “Shirer’s Re-Hitlerizing of Luther,” Christian Century, 12 December 1962). Moreover, the ideological collaborationists of Nazism were not the theologians and pastors faithful to the Lutheran theology of the Reformation (e.g., Martin Niemller) but secular philosophers (Martin Heidegger) and neo-orthodox to liberal theologians (Gerhard Kittel).
As for the Two Kingdoms doctrine, it does not at all deny God’s action or the believer’s responsibility in the secular realm. Luther’s view of social ethics centres on the individual Christian as the point of contact o the connecting link o between the two kingdoms; it is he or she who has the responsibility (and privilege) of remedying social injustice by becoming a “little Christ” to the neighbour. This is anything but quietism; it is faith active in love, based upon a “theology of the Cross.” What Lutheran theology does not tolerate is a “theology of glory” o a utopian, millennial triumphalism in which God’s participation in secular life offers believers the possibility of creating a perfect society. A sinless society must wait for Christ’s personal return, when “the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Cf. Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity, pp. 198-202.)
Finally, Forrester’s sources o those he relies on and those he ignores o assist us in understanding why his book offers so little systematic guidance. He is acquainted with and cites the mainline, critical theologians (Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Carl Braaten, George Lindbeck, Jurgen Moltmann, the Niebuhrs, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, et al.) but never refers to the vast and far more helpful literature of Christian social ethics produced by classical Reformation and evangelical scholars, particularly, but not limited to, those on the other side of the Atlantic: Carl F.H. Henry, Robert Mounce, David O. Moberg, Timothy L. Smith, Richard V. Pierard, Ronald Sider, Vernon C. Grounds, Tom Skinner, Werner Elert (The Christian Ethos), George W. Forell (Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics), C.E.B. Cranfield, David Kilgour, J.W. Montgomery (Christians in the Public Square). Forrester refers often to pronouncements and ecumenical declarations of the World Council of Churches and of mainline church bodies without observing that such organisations have often, in the absence of any clear revelational moorings, uncritically supported or at least aided and abetted liberal, quasi-revolutionary, and totalitarian activities which have produced immense injustice worldwide in the long term.
Like so much contemporary theological writing, this book is far better at pointing up needs than in treating them. One is reminded of the old adage: the philosophers don’t know the solutions but they certainly know the problems. One expects more of Christian theologians, however, since they presumably endeavour to apply to human problems a revealed faith, once delivered to the saints, and still eternally relevant.