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Liberalism and Divine Justice

Eric Nelson’s The Theology of Liberalism offers a complex and persuasive retelling of liberalism’s origins and evolutions. Before examining the details of Nelson’s arguments, a brief outline would be helpful. In the first two chapters, Nelson argues that the early-modern philosophers who contributed most to the birth of liberalism—writers like Milton, Locke, Leibniz, Rousseau, and Kant—were all deeply involved in what Nelson calls the “theodicy debate” on the justice of God, and were, to a person, committed to a “Pelagian” position which vindicated divine punishments and human suffering by pointing to individual freedom of choice. This was opposed to the “Augustinian” position that had long characterized Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, the political and theological positions of these writers were tightly connected and formed a coherent worldview. Indeed, they came to “liberal” conclusions precisely because they held Pelagian positions in the theodicy debate.

Nelson then turns to the pivotal figure of John Rawls in the next two chapters and argues that before Rawls was a political philosopher, he was a careful student of theology who took a remarkably strong stand in the theodicy debate: he was fiercely anti-Pelagian. Moreover, when he later abandoned his religion and turned to political philosophy, his doctrines retained a fingerprint of his anti-Pelagianism. But Rawls’s anti-Pelagianism did not cohere with his liberal theory in general, which is part of the reason that his theory has proven unsatisfying.

The book’s final two chapters bring contemporary relevance. Rawls’s liberalism has unfortunately attracted many adherents—indeed, most liberal political theorists today are in some sense Rawlsian. And while contemporary theorists evince scant interest in the old theodicy debate, they nevertheless unwittingly take sides in that debate. Because their position is tacitly anti-Pelagian, they too construct theories that are incoherent. In sum, liberal theory “took a fateful wrong turn in the 1970s” with Rawls’s anti-Pelagianism, and Nelson intends to chart a “different way forward.”

God’s Justice and God’s Will

The “theodicy debate” over the justice of God begins with the classic question of whether “justice” is just because God wills that it be so (voluntarism), or whether God wills what he wills because it is independently just (rationalism). Both positions pose problems. By establishing a standard of justice independent of God, rationalism seems to compromise God’s omnipotence. Yet voluntarism, by grounding justice in an act of will, risks presenting God as “a tyrant whose commands are simply to be obeyed because we wish to avoid punishment,” not because they are intrinsically good or just.

As Nelson notes, most early-modern philosophers embraced the rationalist answer, finding the implications of voluntarism unacceptable. But rationalism leads to its own problems. If God’s creative acts are truly just, not mere will, then how can we explain the massive amount of undeserved suffering in the world, and how can we wrap our mind around eternal damnation? How is any of this just?

There are two basic ways to answer these questions. One is Pelagian, the other Augustinian. Stressing the relevance of human freedom, the Pelagian reasons that if human beings are free to sin or not, then the justice of divine punishment might be vindicated—whereas, it is hard to see how God could justly punish individuals who are not free but to sin. At the same time, if human freedom were understood as intrinsically and metaphysically good in itself, then perhaps this helps explain the problem of random suffering in the world—suffering might simply be a by-product of a world characterized by freedom. The theological underpinnings of liberalism, says Nelson, lie in this Pelagian line of reasoning.

For the Augustinian, these reckonings prove unacceptable for a rather obvious reason: “If human beings are fully able to choose not to sin and thereby to merit God’s favor, then why did Jesus have to come to earth to be crucified? Why the Incarnation and the Atonement?” Trying to vindicate God’s justice, the Pelagian ends up not needing the mercy of the great physician, Christ. To avoid this problem, St. Augustine famously formulated his doctrine of original sin: human nature is depraved, and we are saved only by God’s unwarranted grace upon those predestined for salvation. This is admittedly hard to reconcile with justice as we know it, but the way to deal with that is not to despair of God’s justice, but simply to recognize how inscrutable and beyond human understanding are his ways.

Still, for the Pelagian this orthodox account does too little to solve the theodicy problem. It conceives of people as radically unfree and views God as punishing sins that could not be avoided. Perhaps the Augustinian will reply that people are justly punished because they are descendants of Adam who was free to sin or not; but then we end up with a God who punishes people for someone else’s sins—which also hardly seems just.

Nelson uses the term “Pelagian” broadly to describe early-modern philosophers who rejected the doctrine of, or at least the debilitating effects of, original sin. For the Pelagian, men are metaphysically free and capable of self-improvement, especially if they work to reform social and political institutions handed down by tradition. These philosophers often combined their Pelagianism with related heresies, including anti-Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism, and mortalism. But the upshot is that “those we identify in retrospect as protoliberals arrived at their political commitments because they all, to varying degrees, took the Pelagian side of the theodicy debate. Liberalism, in other words, began life as a theodicy.” To my mind, Nelson demonstrates this amply and, at the same time, successfully shows how the liberal ideas of metaphysical and political freedom were alike part of a grand strategy to vindicate the justice of God. Readers unfamiliar with the theological writings of the early-modern philosophers will find the opening of the book remarkably informative.

The second chapter focuses on the debates between Royalists and Parliamentarians in 17th and 18th-century England over the proper ground of political authority. Both sides advanced theories of representation. The Parliamentarians favored a “resemblance theory,” according to which authority was a matter of degree; the more a political authority might look like or resemble a people, the more legitimate it would be.  Obviously, a parliament could resemble a diverse people better than a king.  The Royalists, by contrast, favored an “authorization theory,” according to which the authority to rule must be granted by an actual act of authorization.  Through an act of contract or covenant, a people could grant that one person, a king, might serve as its representative.

Nelson’s noteworthy argument is that both these theories derived from theodicy debates about the Fall and the extent to which Adam could possibly have represented mankind.  The Parliamentary position was Calvinist: Adam represented us in the sense that he resembled us; his Fall, therefore, implicates all of humanity.  The Royalist position was, interestingly, anti-Calvinist and Pelagian: Adam represented us only if we authorized him to, which we did not; therefore, humanity is not guilty of original sin, yet free as ever to authorize a king to serve as a political representative. The argument is complicated here because the ideological arguments and affiliations are themselves complicated.  The most delightful twist of all is Nelson’s account of the precarious balancing act performed by John Locke, who wanted somehow to marry the Pelagian (Royalist) consent theory of government with a staunch defense of parliamentary sovereignty.  The story of how he did so occurs at the end of the chapter.

The Problem of John Rawls

Chapter Three shifts to contemporary Anglophone political theory and uncovers a remarkable link to the theodicy debate. A central concern of contemporary theory is the problem of social inequality or “social justice,” a problem formulated by Rawls in a unique way relating to human merit. The problem is that we cannot ever be said to deserve the status we hold in society—high or low. We either inherit things we don’t merit, or we make use of our basic endowments (intelligence, beauty, personality, and the like) which we possess by mere chance. Who can say he deserves to be beautiful, smart or tenacious? Our natural endowments are rather “arbitrary from a moral point of view,” according to Rawls, having been bestowed upon us without our involvement.

Analyzing Rawls’s undergraduate honors thesis, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, Nelson reveals that Rawls’s idea of “moral arbitrariness” derives directly from the stridently anti-Pelagian position he took as a young man on the theodicy question. Rawls in fact regarded Pelagianism as a “Judaizing” form of pride—the whole idea that one might work out salvation through merit. Mocking this (in language borrowed from Marx) as a “bargain basis” view of election, young Rawls adamantly denied the possibility of human merit and rested his case on the “moral arbitrariness” of our natural endowments. Of course, the problem, Nelson shows, is that the mature Rawls’s denial of human responsibility in his liberal theory sits awkwardly with liberalism’s fundamental, Pelagian commitment to metaphysical freedom.

The final three chapters of Nelson’s book trace the rippling effects of Rawls’s anti-Pelagianism in contemporary political theories of social justice. These chapters exhibit a different methodological character from the rest of the book, replacing historical exegesis with fine-grained analytic reasoning. Chapter Four is a critique of “luck egalitarianism,” the theory that any and all social inequities deriving from factors beyond our control should be redressed through redistributive schemes. Nelson’s critique of luck egalitarianism is not the typical one—that many inequalities are simply beyond our powers (epistemic and otherwise) to rectify. It is rather that in assuming all accidental inequalities to be ipso facto unjust, luck egalitarians unwittingly (and unconvincingly) take a position in the theodicy debate, “namely, that no theodicy is possible.”

Chapter Five levels a similar critique against egalitarians dubbed “institutionalists,” who believe that the goal of distributive institutions is not to remove the disadvantages of luck, per se, but simply to foster outcomes compatible with Rawls’s basic view of human society as a cooperative relationship among equals. Nelson’s objection to this position is that the institutionalists in question (e.g. Samuel Scheffler) do not fully dispense with the “moral arbitrariness” thesis; they retain it to forestall an alternative to redistribution, namely the “system of natural liberty.” Why not allow equal citizens cooperating fairly among each other to experience radically unequal outcomes? Because at bottom, the natural causes of such outcomes are viewed as unmerited and unjust. This is (again) to beg the question—to assume a position in the theodicy debate (namely that God’s natural creation is not just) without reckoning with the alternative.

It is also, as Nelson points out, an infringement of Rawls’s highly-touted ambition “to generate principles of justice that are neutral with respect to comprehensive conceptions of the good.” For Nelson, “the whole thrust of the theodicy challenge is to destabilize our conviction that the distribution of natural advantage is in fact morally arbitrary. It asks us to recognize instead that the distribution may or may not be morally arbitrary—that we simply cannot know.” In much more practical terms, the problem with all egalitarian schemes that try to redress the natural distribution of assets is that “we cannot establish by a preponderance of the evidence what portion of [a person’s] overall level of advantage has been arbitrarily assigned to him.”

In his final substantive chapter, Nelson treats Left and Right libertarians, who disagree over the justice of contemporary property holdings. Both think legitimate holdings must be grounded in an original right of appropriation. The Left, siding with Rousseau, thinks no such right exists, while the Right, siding with Locke, maintains that it does. Nelson for his part argues that the answer makes little difference, because even if the initial division of property was illicit, “it simply does not follow…that current proprietors have no moral right to their holdings.” Rights to holdings—even holdings originally usurped—can accrue in numerous demonstrable ways through transactions. This means, unfortunately, that reparations will prove difficult or impossible. In this chapter the theodicy theme recedes largely into the background.

Hints and Implications

Reflecting on the book as a whole, I suspect some readers will find the methodological shifts a bit jarring; it may be that different specialists will want to mine different parts of the book. Yet Nelson defends his eclecticism in a principled way in the book’s Preface. He aims to bridge two conventional “divides” that he believes badly impair our ability to understand liberalism for what it is—one between political history and philosophy, the other between political theology and philosophy. I am profoundly sympathetic in principle to his eclecticism and quite admire his dexterity, yet there are swaths of analytic philosophy in the final three chapters that do not always seem fully integrated into the book’s focus on theodicy.

On a much broader level, I am interested in what Nelson’s argument implies but does not explicitly say about the relationship between liberalism and the other side of the theodicy debate. Beginning with the historical claim that the birth of liberal theory emerged from the theodicy debate, Nelson shows liberalism’s great debt to Pelagianism. And his criticism of contemporary liberal theory is not that it is Pelagian, but that it is not Pelagian enough, having acquired through Rawls an anti-Pelagian obsession with doubting human merit.

But what about the Augustinian side of the theodicy debate, later to appear in Reformation thinkers like Luther and Calvin, who retained the doctrines of original sin, unmerited election, and the realities of heaven and hell? A commonplace in historical writings about liberalism is the idea that the Magisterial Reformation contributed significantly to the development of liberal ideas such as individualism, conscience, political autonomy, non-hierarchical rule, and, eventually, toleration. One question, then, might be how the various Pelagian and anti-Pelagian positions combined to create what we now call liberalism—or, if they did not combine, what might a consistently anti-Pelagian liberalism look like and do we find any examples of it in the political theories and practices of the West? This question is important, in part, because Nelson’s basic claim that liberalism originated as a Christian heresy will seem to some members of the Christian Right (especially the “integralists”) sufficient grounds for abandoning it. But if a non-heretical version of liberalism were possible, then the issue would prove more complicated.

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