I opened my sophomore Medieval Humanities class this year by reading the Franciscan rule to my students and asking each student to write a personal set of rules to live by for one week. I asked them first to take stock of their souls. “You know how you are tempted. You are all different. Though every man is tempted to pride, not every man is tempted in the same ways. Consider the ways the devil tries to trip you up. Anticipate the lies he uses.”
Many students set themselves certain times for going to bed and certain times for rising. They limit their use of cell phones and laptops. They want to battle their demons. But some students write rules such as “I will be kind to my mother” or “I will not gossip at school.” From these students, I require revisions. I ask for something more like the rule our mother Eve gives herself in the Garden.
It happens in Genesis 3. God has told man that he may not eat of a certain tree, and Eve adds a further restriction:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
Over the last two thousand years, there has been no consensus among Christians concerning “neither shall you touch it.” In the previous chapter, God had said nothing about not touching the tree. St. Ambrose condemns Eve’s addition. Protestant and Anglican theologians such as John Trapp, Thomas Coke, and Matthew Poole allow the addition on the grounds that it reverences the original command of God. Contemporary American ministers, as best I can tell, generally condemn Eve’s extra rule with anathemas sufficient to make the Council of Constance blush. Apparently the mother of all was being a bit schoolmarmish, for, it is claimed, “neither shall you touch it” was the advent of legalism.
What do American Christians think of rules? Christians are suitably concerned that this nation should have the right rules governing marriage and immigration and abortion. But when a Christian leaves earthly concerns behind and begins to dwell on working out his salvation with fear and trembling, he is often tempted to turn up his nose at the rules, dismissing them as legalism.
This is a mistake, as John Milton knew. In Book II of Paradise Lost, Milton presents the lately fallen demons holding council on how to proceed from their loss in battle. The demons consider laying siege to heaven again, and briefly ruminate on whether they could learn to like Hell. In the end, Beelzebub urges seeking returning to Earth, in order
. . . to learn
What creatures there inhabit, of what mold,
Or substance, how endued, and what their Power,
And where their weakness, how attempted best,
By force or subtlety . . .
The demons determine to take revenge on God by ruining the life of God’s new friend—so they will need to study God’s new friend. They will need to see where he is strong and where he is weak, what he likes and what he hates. His habits will need to be observed, catalogued, and studied. Perhaps the tidier demons could keep Excel spreadsheets.
Who has not reflected on a certain moment of temptation and been impressed by the mastery and expertise with which the trap was laid? A very fine temptation offers not only secrecy, but justification and promises of no harassment from a nagging conscience later on. If Christians would fight temptation, they must have not only the desire to win, but a strategy for obedience that respects the prowess of their enemy.
“I will not gossip at school” is not a rule, I explained to my students, “because it is a Christian obligation.” A monastic rule does not deal in obligations, but in voluntarily laying down your rights. No Christian is allowed to gossip. No Christian is allowed to be slothful. No Christian is allowed to lust. These are not rules a man gives himself, but commands of God, which are not up for debate. But Lucifer is a crafty devil and does not tempt every human in the same way. He tailors temptations. He has learned that men fall prey to certain temptations more readily than women, and vice versa. Healthy men are more tempted by pride, unhealthy more tempted by sloth. Thus, gluttony is prohibited by God, but ice cream and potato chips are not. If a man has no problem eating a modest portion of ice cream and laying the spoon aside, then he needs no rule to aid him in fulfilling God’s command not to be a glutton. If another man cannot eat a bite of ice cream without eating the whole bucket, he needs a rule to help him fight temptation.
Divine prohibitions of gluttony and lust and sloth are general, universal. “Thou shalt not steal,” says the Lord. But the Devil does not tempt us to steal in general. He does not whisper, “You should steal,” but rather, “You should steal that bracelet.” He does not say, “You should lust,” but rather, “You should lust after her.” These tactics can be resisted, for a man can physically run from temptation, and separate himself from the things that tempt him to sin. We should view our bodies as tools in fighting temptation. Too often, we despair that our bodies are only tools Satan uses to corrupt our souls.
Eve’s “neither shall you touch it” simply anticipates the serpent’s various clever lines of attack. “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” asks the serpent. Eve knows that if she answers “Yes,” the serpent will reply, “Well, has He said not to touch it?” When our tempter cannot get us to consent fully to evil, he works in slow, patient increments. If a married man will not go from zero to adultery, the devil will start with thoughts of a kiss, or a smile that lingers just long enough.
The notion that “neither shall you touch it” was the beginning of legalism depends on a slippery-slope argument: “Where will it end? First they may not touch the fruit, then they may not look at it, then they are building a brick wall around the tree. Perhaps they will cut off their hands or knock out their teeth!” Such an understanding of law rejects the role of moderation, prudence, and common sense in man’s pursuit of virtue. Legalism is a problem inasmuch as man adds to the commands of God, which is expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy. But the drunk who takes a vow of sobriety, or the lech who takes a vow of celibacy, has not added commands but created new pathways to fulfilling old commands.
If legalism is a disease, the cure is worse. Christians in this country have heard “Doing X does not make you a Christian” for so long, they do not know what Christians do. Many are offended at the idea that Christians should do anything, for salvation is a state of being, and being transcends acting. The less we do, the greater our faith. One need only look at the staggering volume of television, pornography, senseless debt, and banal social media American Christians consume and produce to know we are flattering ourselves to pretend legalism is a temptation. If we had a little works-righteousness around here, someone might actually take the trash out every once in a while.
Christians have so thoroughly embraced nominalist philosophy that the conventional, historical habits of life commended in, say, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option strike many ears as radical and innovative. Though St. Ambrose condemned Eve’s extra rule, I imagine the great Milanese bishop eagerly flipping to the later chapters in Dreher’s book, looking for the controversial parts and, finding none, setting the book aside in confusion.
Yahweh is “a great King above all the gods,” though Yahweh made Adam a king as well, and commanded Adam and Eve to spread their dominion—their kingdom—all over the earth. Adam and Eve are not free to rule as they please, but must model their own dominion after the dominion of God. God gives commands. Man makes rules. Kings rule their people, but a king is also a man, man is made of earth, and man must subdue the earth. So must every man subdue himself. All men must rule themselves as kings rule nations and God rules the cosmos. Eve’s “neither shall you touch it” is not the beginning of legalism, but a profound revelation of God’s gift of rule. God governs man, but man is made in God’s image and so in tribute to God’s rule, man rules his own person. If we want our children to embrace the inheritance which comes from our Father, God, then we must teach them to know themselves and rule accordingly.
My students begin their week as monks with trepidation. No one accustomed to waking at 6:30 in the morning is genuinely excited to rise at 5:00. They overperform their exhaustion in class. “Keep in mind,” I tell them, “that you have written your own rules. You were free to set whatever wake-up time you wanted. You were free to help your mother with the laundry or not. In obeying your rule, you are simply doing what you have already admitted you want to do.” By the third day of obeying the rule, though, another feeling has set in: excitement. They are surprised to find they can force themselves to do good. And with this surprise, satisfaction.
Joshua Gibbs teaches great books at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia.