A Provocative Pair of Paragraphs (and a footnote)

“To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being a bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) — that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians. But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of ‘obligation,’ it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and special feeling in these contexts.

“It is as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten. A Hume discovering this situation might conclude that there was a special sentiment, expressed by ‘criminal,’ which alone gave the word its sense. So Hume discovered the situation which the notion ‘obligation’ survived, and the notion ‘ought’ was invested with that peculiar for having which it has said to be used in a ‘moral’ sense, but in which the belief in divine law had long since been abandoned: for it was substantially given up among Protestants at the time of the Reformation.(2) The situation, if I am right, was the interesting one of the survival of a concept outside the framework of thought that made it a really intelligible one.”

2 They did not deny the existence of divine law; but their most characteristic doctrine was that it was given, not to be obeyed, but to show man’s incapacity to obey it, even by grace; and this applied merely to the ramified prescriptions of the Torah, but to the requirements of ‘natural divine law.’ Cf. in this connection the decree of Trent against the teaching that Christ was only to be trusted in as mediator, not obeyed as legislator.”

Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy, 5.

CommentHer comments confirm a long held suspicion on my part that the notion of something being “obligated” implies stipulation of punishments. I used to consider, what are the punishments for forgoing “obligation” in the New Testament? Furthermore, her observation about Protestants functionally rejecting the law is fascinating to me, not least because I am from a tradition which explicitly rejects the third use of the law. I suppose I could simply conclude that my Reformation heritage is all the more reason for me to be happy Aristotelian (non-law conception) and reject moral grounding in “divine law.” The question really presses me, is God’s law in the Old Testament really timeless and universally valid? Or was it a construal of his will directed to that time and context–a vehicle of soul-making?


Moo on the modified Lutheran view of law and grace:

The reader may think that I have just affirmed contradictory points: that God did not give the law to save his people, and that the law promises salvation if it is kept. But these two statements are not incompatible. By the latter, I mean simply that the law, in stating God’s demand of his people Israel, promises to bring them also that successfully meeting that demand would bring them salvation. But this is not to say that the law could ever in fact be obeyed so fully by sinful beings that it would save anyone; and God, knowing this, never intended the law to save anyone. It would be as if I were to give a basketball to my son for the first time in his life and tell him: ‘Here: if you make 100 free throws in a row, you will not have to practice and train to become a basketball player.’”

“[Paul’s] strict demarcation of two ‘eras’ can lead to the conclusion that all who lived before Christ were necessarily doomed, while all those who live after Christ are, by definition, saved. But this is not, of course, what Paul intends to say. His application of the salvation-historical contrast of ‘before’ and ‘after’ operates on two levels: the level of world history and the level of individual history. In Galatians 3-4, a passage central to our purposes, the former is clearly dominant, as Paul divides history into three stages: before the law (when the promise was given to Abraham), under the law, and after the law (when the promise to Abraham was fulfilled).”

“The entire Mosaic law comes to fulfillment in Christ, and this fulfillment means that this law is no longer a direct and immediate source of, or judge of, the conduct of God’s people. Christian behavior, rather, is now guided directly by ‘the law of Christ.’ This ‘law’ does not consist of legal prescriptions and ordinances, but of the teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles, the central demand of love, and the guiding influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.”

“Many argue that this is what the texts we have mentioned require: The new covenant promises the internalization of the same law given by God at Sinai. But there is reason for caution. First, if Jeremiah and Ezekiel are thinking of the Mosaic law, there is no basis to confine the reference to only part of the law (e.g., the so-called moral law). Yet it is evident that the totality of the Mosaic law has not been reinstituted as an authoritative source of life in the new covenant…Second, there are references in the prophets to a tora that will be established in the last days and that probably does not refer to the Mosaic law as such (Isa. 2:3; 42:4; 51:4, 7; Mic. 4:2).”