The Law of God
By Benjamin Balint
Policy Review, Oct-Nov 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea
Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
University of Chicago
Press, 354 pages
Rémi Brague is a the distinguished Catholic historian of philosophy who
teaches at the Sorbonne and the University of Munich.
commonly explains itself as an inexorable shift from the sacred to the
profane as politics and morality emancipate themselves from theology and
state extricates itself from church. And the secularization of the West is
often understood in light of the history of law. Law is today thought to
bear no relation with the divine.
In challenging that narrative,
Brague aims to write an alternative spiritual biography of the West. To do
so, he elaborates a grand narrative of his own.
The story begins in
Jerusalem and Athens. In the Bible, the law's divinity derives from its
revealed character; the law is divine because commanded by God. For the
Greek philosophers, however, the law is divine because it is perfect, an
expression of natural order. The law is permanent, unwritten, and requires
If the Greek thinkers emphasized the natural
character of law, the Israelites called forth its revealed, historical
character; it is said to be written by the finger of God. This law becomes
the instrument of a covenant with God.
Judaism became Judaism only
after it lost political power. Its law crystallized outside the apparatus of
state. Rabbinic Judaism had to draw out of the Bible a complete legal
system. In exile, Jewish law became the object of intense study, the center
of identity, even the means of apprehending the divine.
Jewish view of divine law was fully articulated only in the Middle Ages,
when Maimonides argued that the law is divine both because it originates in
God and because it brings adherents closer to Him. Soon after, the mystics
who conceived the kabbalah took the Torah as the very structure and name of
In sum, the authors of the Bible, the prophets of the
biblical commonwealth, the sages of the Talmud, and the medieval
rationalists and kabbalists alike envisaged a law, revealed by God, that
commands us, defines our community, perfects us, and brings us in contact
with the divine.
The new testament, unlike the Hebrew Bible, contains
almost no legal texts. Brague takes this as a sign of a second revolution:
"With the New Testament the relationship with the divine no longer appeared
as a relationship to a law." The commandments are not rejected but made
In defining itself against rabbinic Judaism, Christianity
had to position itself. Some Christians broke with the old law; others cast
themselves as adherents of a new law. In the main, the nascent Christian
community founded itself not on law at all, but on faith.
skill, Brague follows this thread from Paul to the Church Fathers to the
Scholastic theologians. Augustine, for instance, identifies the voice of
conscience with the voice of God and distinguishes the written, external law
from the internal law written in the hearts of men. Thomas Aquinas, who
takes law as a form of providence afforded to free, rational creatures,
places divine law squarely within the realm of ethics — not as external norm
but as internal principle.
Brague understands the New Testament as a
reading of the Torah in light of the radically new event of Jesus' death and
resurrection. For Islam, by contrast, the only event is the revelation of a
new text. In the Quran, like Judaism but unlike Christianity, "the content
of revelation is not a person, but God's will, as delivered in
commandments." Revelation in Islam centers on law, and prophecy culminates
The faith the prophet founded insists on the inextricability
of the political and the religious. Even as Christian Europe saw the
divergence of the political and the religious as progress, Islam regarded it
as a form of decadence. It follows that the idea of divine law lies at the
heart not only of the West's conception of itself, but also of its ever more
dangerous encounter with Islam.
As he approaches present-day Europe,
Brague accelerates his story to a close. Moderns invented the laws of nature
and identified them with the laws of God. The normative and descriptive
collide, and law comes to belong more to nature than to the sphere of the
This development brought about a far-reaching response. "Faced
with a law that contained nothing of the human there arose, in reaction, a
law that was nothing but human." To create a human law, modernity severs
conscience from divinity; it understands law as something made, not
discovered. Law becomes a convention, a contract predicated on
The Enlightenment restores the vocabulary of the
sacred — as with the "inviolable and sacred" rights announced by the French
Revolution. "Sacralization serves here to cover up a secularization," Brague
Brague's story, fascinating in itself, amounts to a
brilliant and erudite account of how conceptual decisions, embedded in what
he calls a tradition's "inaugural acts," come into full flower centuries
later; these are shown to be deliberate acts, not historical necessities.
In explaining what all of this has to do with how we understand
ourselves today, however, Brague descends from his Olympian perch and
reveals a polemical purpose: a defense of the primacy of Christianity — or,
more precisely, of Catholicism.
One moral of the story, as he sees
it, is that we are more Christian than we had supposed: "Events that had
their epicenter in the Christian world produced upheavals in Muslim
societies and Jewish communities, and thinkers who were Christian in origin
furnished the conceptual framework within which Judaism and Islam had to
reformulate their thinking about the law."
But the West owes an even
more direct debt: "Christianity is not an element among others in European
culture, but its very form, the form that enables it to remain open to
whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences
with the human and the divine."
In his latest book, Brague contends
that in three respects, modern societies are made possible only by the
Christian experience of a divinity without law.
— Christianity gave us natural law. Starting with Augustine, Christians
developed the idea of a unity of divine and natural law, in which one can
discern not God's will, but His nature.
— Christianity conferred on us the very idea of a sovereign state. In fact,
Brague argues, the church was a state in the modern sense of the term before
there were states.
— Christianity furnished a powerful justification for democracy. According
to Brague, the model for modern democracy and its electoral procedures was
the medieval church.
Brague wishes to highlight Christianity’s contribution to modernity. He
denies that the history of the West is one of inexorable secularization. On
the other hand, he is worried by the loss of our theological moorings and
suggests that perhaps the most pervasive myth we in the West hold may be the
belief in the viability and permanence of our secular politics.
there is a deeper ambiguity here. A secularist can explain modernity as a
secularization. A Protestant like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can account for it as
a kind of completion of the Reformation. From the Catholic point of view,
however, the Reformation is in principle an apostasy. Some such ambivalence
might explain Brague's neglect of Protestantism and the American regime.
The Law of God
Christopher S. Morrissey
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.09.46
Edited by Andy Ross
Rémi Brague argues that there always has been a separation of church and
state, because no theocratic marriage of the two has ever taken place.
Brague tracks the history of the theory and practice of "divine law" from
its dark prehistory to its articulations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The book's ostensible purpose is achieved by a mode of presentation that
is calm and understated. Brague has written a book that is arguably the most
philosophically rigorous challenge yet made to Leo Strauss's philosophical
understanding of history.
In an earlier work, Brague argued that
Strauss holds a "Muslim" understanding of reason and revelation "which
opposes the Christian one": first, revelation is a mere brute fact
unamenable to reason and, second, what is revealed in religion is not a
person but a Sacred Book. For Strauss, it is Mecca that "unspokenly
synthesizes" Jerusalem and Athens. Strauss systematically neglected Rome
along with "every Christian element in Western history" as a "shallow
phenomenon", thus far agreeing with Nietzsche.
While an earlier book
by Brague offered the alternative of looking at Athens and Jerusalem from
the "Roman" rather than from the "Meccan" point of view, the present work
challenges Strauss's way of conceiving of the theologico-political problem.
Here Brague argues that Strauss's outlook is provincial. Brague shows how
the problem needs to be enlarged to the wider study of divine law.
When Brague muses that "the theo-political problem is serious in appearance
only", he subtly puts Strauss's critique of modernity into proper
perspective. Strauss's perspective is not to be replaced by any facile
narrative of secularization as the great achievement of the modern age. For
as Brague notes, secularization was won long before by the Christian church.
Even unbelieving atheists presuppose "the primacy of faith in the definition
of the religious", a presupposition historically impossible without the
uniquely "Christian experience of a divine without law".
Christian experience allows Brague to contest Strauss's narrow conception of
AR (2007) A signpost pointing
beyond Strauss is what we need to move beyond the Neocon agenda.