Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea
by rémi brague
university of chicago, 336 pages, $35

Rémi Brague’s latest book is a learned and meticulously documented exposition of the notion of divine law, from the Greeks through the founding documents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and on from medieval debates to modern ­formulations.

But more is at stake in The Law of God than a historical account of divine law in a variety of traditions and periods. Brague takes up the vexing and much controverted issue of separation of church and state. But he ends up treating this issue as a sort of pseudo-problem, at least in so far as we construe it as a peculiarly modern problem with a peculiarly modern solution. Separation presupposes an undifferentiated unity, something that has never existed. Deflating modernity’s pretentious boast to have liberated the secular from the religious, Brague insists that the victory had long before been achieved by the Christian Church, when it established a border between itself and the secular. Brague thus brings to light what is “dubious” in the modern project: modernity’s construction of a premodern straw man to feed its liberationist rhetoric.

In a previous book, Eccentric ­Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, Brague argued for the essentially Roman character of Western civilization, the implication of which is that European culture is inconceivable except as existing in a condition of “secondarity,” in conscious dependence on and active transmission of Hebrew and Hellenic cultures. Brague aims to liberate us from a false aspiration or dilemma—the conservative and romantic longing for a pure cultural form, embodied in an idealized classical period or in a currently existing society purportedly free from the taint of Western appropriation and mediation. “The result,” he observes, is often “contrary to the end desired,” as such an aspiration encourages “nostalgic dreams that at bottom are debilitating.”

Now, in The Law of God, the false dilemma has to do with the supposition of inevitable and intractable conflict between church and state or at least with modernity’s inflated and inflammatory way of framing the debate. In contrast to the view that the ethical teachings of the major religious traditions must inevitably come into conflict with secular conceptions of morality, Brague asserts that the major religions accept a “common morality.” The religions differ only in how they interpret that shared deposit of ethical insight. Brague recognizes that there is much more to being a religious adherent than simply obeying the common morality. His way of articulating that more is in terms of the distinction between command and counsel. Quoting St. Ambrose, he notes that counsels are delivered to friends, while commands are issued to subjects. Counsel, Brague argues, shows up before and after, or beneath and above, the law. It is a prelude to law, urging that our own interest will be fulfilled in obedience to the law. It also follows law as the perfective component of ethical pedagogy.

Brague’s focus on the distinction between command and counsel enables him to develop an ingenious genealogy of modernity. Once command and counsel part ways, the preparatory or subordinate use of counsel becomes an end in itself and reduces to mere egoism, the superfluous urging that we seek our own interest. Meanwhile, the higher form of counsel, isolated from its foundation in law, suffers an odd reversal, as can be seen, for example, in revolutionary rhetoric according to which the counsels become obligatory and the commands optional. One may break all sorts of moral laws in pursuit of revolutionary ideals. Law itself, meanwhile, is liberated to exercise its full force as a pure command, dramatically evident in the conflict between duty and interest, as in Kant. (There is much to be made of Brague’s suggestion that the contrast between the beautiful and the sublime emerges here.)

No longer understood as an expression of divine wisdom or of the order of created nature, law itself escapes the human. It reappears either as the scientific description of the behavior of natural things or as the moral law, which applies indifferently to all rational beings. The freeing of law from the divine allows for—even demands, on Brague’s account—the instrumentalization of the divine. Yet, in an instructive paradox, where it is not divine in origin, law has most need of the divine, as is clear from our rhetoric of rights, where an unwillingness to evoke the divine source of those very rights accompanies the hyperbolic use of sacralizing ­language.

Brague’s use of command and counsel thus helps us to see in a new light modernity’s dissolution of what was once delicately combined and carefully differentiated. As Brague himself notes, modernity in his treatment becomes nothing more than a “rapid epilogue” to the ancient and medieval epochs. But this kind of understanding of modernity, Brague is implicitly saying, is precisely what modernity needs as a corrective to its distorted historical consciousness and truncated self-understanding.

In his discussion of law in the medieval Christian period, he notes that nature is the basis for an agreement between the Christian and the philosopher. Law itself is rooted not in the divine will but in the wisdom—the very nature—of God. The contrast between intellectualist and voluntarist conceptions of law is well known. What Brague adds is the nice theological observation that in Christianity divine omnipotence is paired with divine paternity, as in the creed (patrem omnipotentem).

He draws a striking contrast here with the legislative God of Islam, whose edicts are neither paternal nor accessible to natural reason. What the Christian religion adds to the common morality is a sacramental economy, which provides assistance or help in doing what we know we ought to do. It is nourishment, most explicitly in the Eucharist, a meal intended as a viaticum.

If there is a fault in this wonderfully informative and sagacious book, it lies in Brague’s tendency to rehabilitate premodern authors, Thomas Aquinas in particular, in a way that goes too far in the direction of relaxing tensions and defusing conflicts. One wonders whether the command/counsel distinction, which Brague at one point describes in terms of “the obligatory and the optional,” is adequate to the complex ethical teaching found in St. Thomas, upon whose thought Brague places a great deal of emphasis. For Thomas, of course, the counsels have to do with vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Yet the commands and the counsels by no means exhaust the categories in Thomistic ethics. What about the virtues, particularly the infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity? Where do those fall? Are they reducible to obligatory commands or to optional precepts?

We might put this problem of the virtues in terms of the tension between pagan magnanimity and Christian humility. Thomas has a way of handling this tension, but in Brague’s account such tensions never really emerge. In the order of grace, Brague claims, “there is no question of humbling proud reason” but of “liberating reason to be itself.” Liberating reason to be itself is part of what is entailed in Thomas’ assertion that grace does not destroy nature but restores it. But reason recovers itself only as it recovers its graced unity with, and docility to, God.

It is a partial truth but also a partially misleading claim for Brague to say that “the good is appropriated to the point of becoming a competence possessed.” That may be true of human law’s goal of inculcating virtues corresponding to the natural capacities of human beings. Thomas continues to speak of virtues or habits—that is, “competence possessed”—at the level of the infused virtues and the gifts, but disparities abound. The infused virtues and gifts do not come about by human effort or repeated action, and, unlike the natural habits, these can be lost through the commission of one act of serious vice.

Indeed, divine law does much more than return reason to itself. Grace elevates reason beyond what it could achieve by its own limited powers. The ordering principle here is, if not contrary to reason, at least far beyond its capacity. It involves an apprehension of the invisible things of God, accessible only through revelation; the way the order of divine truth can alter the natural understanding of the good is evident in Thomas’ theological transformation of the virtue of courage, whose exemplar is no longer the warrior defending his country but the martyr testifying to the transcendent truth of faith. And the inevitability of martyrdom often has to do with the proud reason exercised by the secular power.

Brague frames the inquiry into divine law with Kant’s opposition to heteronomy and autonomy. Theonomy, the law of God, is one source of alleged heteronomy; another is what Brague calls “cosmonomy,” the order of the cosmos that guides and binds human action—a topic Brague treated in an earlier book, The Wisdom of the World. Brague concludes this double treatment of purported sources of heteronomy by suggesting that we shift our attention from theonomy, the God who commands, to theology, the God who speaks. Certainly a narrow moralism has too often infected language about God; neither the divine nature nor the divine communication is reducible to legalism.

But a more comprehensive theology would also have to recover something else that we have lost, namely, the notion of divine sovereignty. The notion of the divine right of kings, Brague rightly notes, is alien to many theologians, including Thomas. But the Kingship of Christ, over the entire created order, encompassing both the sacred and the secular—that is a doctrine with which we must reckon if we are not to distort our understanding of Christian orthodoxy. Might it be, after all, that on this point modern thinkers were quite accurate in their understanding of the teachings of their Christian forebears?

Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld .

Photo by Chris Light, Wikimedia Commons. Image cropped.