Should theology agree with the sophist critique of nomos ? It would seem so, as Thomas would say: The institutions of society are the product of human construction, and the claim that they are rooted in “nature” is a rhetorical device. It is human all the way down. If it is argued that the constructs of nomos are rooted in man’s inherent sociability, so be it; and if it is argued that natural explanations can be provided for social institutions and rituals, so be it. But the specific forms that nomos takes are historical, and historical all the way down. They could have been different because they are different elsewhere; what is arbre in France is tree here, and what Russians accomplish with a bear hug the British accomplish with (perhaps) a weak handshake. For the theologian, though, this means that nomos cannot be trusted to establish peace or justice, for “apart from nomos the righteousness of God has been manifested.” It is one of Nussbaum’s great contributions that she recognizes that Aristotle demands “trust” for the formation of good character ?Etrust in the institutions and conventions that order the social relations that form a good character, trust in, say, the educational institutions and practices that are part of the paideia of a virtuous Hellene. But it seems that, contrary to Aristotle, theology must side with the sophists here: precisely because nomos is human, it is not to be trusted ?Eit is Protean and even where nomos does not change form, it is more honored in the breach than in the observance.

There is a sed contra here, at least as regards Torah/ Nomos , for that is not human all the way down, but divine. I’m not sure where this goes, but it’s not obvious that it means the theologian ends up anti-sophist. For even Torah must be enacted by humans; the “blueprint” in the text is from God, but the construction of the ark is from Bezalel and Oholiab.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart