Protestant Social Teaching: Law and the Christian

Like all the contributors, I suspect, I was very excited to see Davenant Press’s recent volume, Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction,[1] see the light of day.

I wrote the first chapter of the book, “Law and the Christian.”[2] In a previous iteration, the essay was called “Under, With, and In: The Christian and the Law,” which may give you some idea of my approach.

That approach is drawn largely from four theologians (Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Chemnitz, and Johann Gerhard), and attempts to index “under, with, and in” to the three uses of the law and the law/gospel distinction.

The first use of the law is political or civil. We are “under” it in the sense that it keeps our vicious natures in check and coercively restrains them from bursting out into open wickedness.

The latter two uses are theological. First, the law accuses us of sin before God and demands our condemnation. In this second use, the law is found “with” the gospel. For “despair for its own sake is not God’s goal.” His goal is, rather, to point us to the remedy found in the free forgiveness of sins offered in Christ.

Finally, as those who have been justified, the law in its third use provides a pattern for the holy life. In this sense, we are “in” the law as the path we are to walk in love toward God and our neighbor.

What ramifications does this have for “social teaching”? Do this threefold division have any relevance to our moral duties in the political and social order? After all, the content of the law is the same, regardless of what use is in view. “Do x, do not do y.”

I try to address this question in the essay through Melanchthon’s discussion of what I call the various “levels” of the law. The first use is external, temporal, and frequently negative. It applies to all people simply as people. If the moral law is the restatement of the natural law (and it is), it is in the first instance binding on every human being as such.

The third use, however, is only for Christians, and we get to it via the second use, which makes us Christians. Here, the springs of human motivation are in view: gratitude and love to God that is manifested in service of one’s neighbor. Where the first use of the law is horizontal, the third is both vertical and horizontal–or, rather, horizontal because it is vertical.

It is therefore only in this last sense that one can speak of a distinctively Christian social teaching: social teaching that views human action not only from the perspective of nature, but also from the perspective of grace.

But grace perfects, and therefore builds upon, nature. For that reason, the Christian must never cede nature out of a pious or pseudo-pious focus on grace. Historically, all Protestant theologians and philosophers until very recently have recognized this.

Perhaps, then, we can differentiate a Protestant social teaching from a Christian social teaching in the following way. Protestant social teaching employs a threefold anthropology depending on whether man is viewed coram hominibus (before man), coram Deo (before God), or coram Deo hominibusque (before God and man), with each linked to one of the uses of the law: coram hominibus (before man = first use), coram Deo (before God = second use), or coram Deo hominibusque (before God and man = third use).

Man, of course, is always the same creature, but he must be viewed in his various relations.

But what–you may ask–makes this “Protestant”? Wouldn’t any Christian say this?

To be sure, there is widespread agreement in the Christian tradition on the law of nature and its civic role. But the specifically Protestant note is struck, unsurprisingly, by the doctrine of justification that is entwined with the second use of the law. All have a duty to love God and neighbor; that is the first use of the law. And, yes, it is true that the man who is forgiven by grace must obey the law of nature.

But the Protestant does so with a particular perspective and from a specific posture: freed from the demands of the law as far as damnation is concerned–before which time one must constantly look over his shoulder, wondering if God is happy enough with him yet, and thus must maintain a degree of self-interest (or, better, selfishness) in service to others that seems to be in tension with the demands of love–one can face outward in service with a clean conscience,[3] that is, with an unanxious head and a joyful heart.

And that, it seems to me, is “Protestant social teaching” on the law.


1 Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction, edited by Onsi Aaron Kamel, Jake Meador, and Joseph Minich (Davenant Press, 2022).
2 Protestant Social Teaching, 1-21.
3 I borrow the emphasis from John Kleinig.


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