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Debating Moral Questions: 

In our time public debates about political, social, and moral issues are conducted at the level of jungle warfare, in which the destruction of your opponent, and the shutting down of his point of view, is the goal. In this binary world, the only alternatives are to condone or condemn; and so there is only one mode of discourse and that is outrage vented in tribalized echo-chambers. The predictable result is craven pandering to privileged activist groups, censorship, and, even worse, self-censorship. This is deeply unhealthy, because it is precisely through disagreement and dissent that our political, social, and moral judgments are refined and strengthened.

It’s ironic, therefore, that the old theologians we dismiss as, well, “medieval”, exhibit a far more sophisticated and rational mode of discourse. In the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, the great doctrinal and moral theologian of the 13th century addresses each question by presenting the objections to his own position not polemically, but in the most favorable light – often presenting them more persuasively than those who held them did. Only then does he set out his own position, and its reasons, and refute the objections one by one. Far from weakening his own position, this approach makes it far more persuasive. Nothing could be more unlike the binary, meme-driven, screech-against-scream debates of our own time. For all their zeal, those who try to shut down their opponents demonstrate that they are more in love with their own positions because they are their own, rather than because they are true.

What lies behind our dysfunction is apparent to anyone who has ever taught the Ten Commandments to Middle-schoolers. They are all legalists – looking for ways to minimize the law’s claim on themselves while maximizing it on others, because, like the Scribes and Pharisees, their response to the law is to seek to justify themselves by their works. This response should not surprise us: by nature we are all legalists. Works-righteousness is our default setting; and like the Pharisees and Scribes, we bolster our own anxious self-righteousness by denouncing sinners. The unhealthy climate of our moral, social, and political debates is this same legalism run rampant. The inevitable reaction will be from legalism into license – antinomian denial of any moral order at all, like the “anything-goes” feel-good-about-your-self relativism of the Me Generation.

We need rational debates about moral, social, and political questions; but an important resource for us is found in the Christian tradition’s  “three uses of the law”.

The first use of the law is called civil or political, because it involves the curbing of sin in societies. Through fear of punishment, the Law keeps the sinful nature of Christians and non-Christians in check. It does not stop sin, because the same sinful impulses remain, but it prevents it from being as damaging as it can possibly be. The first use motivates through fear, guilt, and shame. While there are worse things than an inability to feel guilt, fear, and shame (such persons are sociopaths), they are not adequate for the fulfillment of the law. In the middle class, the first use of the law takes effect through our early socialization to compliance with social norms. Middle-class respectability easily falls into the trap of self-righteousness, but it is the condition of rational living and moral debate.

The second use of the law is the pedagogical, in exposing our sin and our need of grace, because “the law was our schoolmaster [paidagogos] to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). In the law we see a reflection of the moral order, the design of the Creator for the human creature’s flourishing, and so we come to the knowledge of our own sins, the impossibility of justifying ourselves by our own works, and our consequent need for grace. In this second use of the law, legalism is cut off, without any lurch into relativistic antinomianism.

The third use of the law is didactic: it instructs and guides the regenerate Christian in the ways of righteousness and holiness pleasing to God. In those who are justified by faith, and whose consciences are thereby freed from self-preoccupying guilt, shame, and fear (the emotions that drive our current moral discourse), a new selfless motivation of gratitude for grace and love for the giver of grace is born of the Holy Spirit, whereby the law is fulfilled. It is this third use of the law that is promised in the New Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and together with the second use of the law is embedded in the Prayer Book’s own rehearsal of the Law. Then shall the Priest … rehearse the Ten Commandments; and the People … shall, after every Commandment, ask God mercy for their transgressions for the time past, and grace to keep the law for the time to come. “Lord have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law”; “Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee”. If we are serious about moral, social, and political issues, this is the formation needed by our hearts and minds.


This essay by Rector, Gavin Dunbar was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, April 3, 2022. Image source: c. 1260 Leaf Excised from a Psalter: The Annunciation Creative Commons