Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 9:49 PM
May 8, 2010
In the Middle Ages, a tradition of ethical thought had developed which distinguished between the precepts and the counsels (also known as the counsels of perfection or the evangelical counsels). The former are binding upon all Christians, while the latter, including, for example, chastity and poverty, may be freely embraced by those who wish to attain to a higher level of moral perfection--e.g., those who take monastic vows. This distinction has been canonized as a cornerstone of Catholic moral theology, but it was never undisputed (e.g., the Franciscan poverty controversy of the 13th and 14th centuries), and was rejected wholesale by Protestantism. It was common in medieval thought to apply this distinction to the more troubling commands of the Sermon on the Mount, so that those who desired to become perfect would indeed renounce self-defense and show sacrificial love for their enemies, while ordinary Christians could safely ignore these difficult counsels and apply the criteria of justice to dealing with assailants, robbers, persecutors, etc.
While I am not sufficient with Catholic moral theology to pronounce very much on the deficiencies (and perhaps strengths) of the precepts/counsels distinction, I do think that it is a rather unsatisfactory way of resolving questions about the Sermon on the Mount. This strategy is, you will notice, a variation on the third approach to dealing with the Sermon that I mentioned in my last post--that is, saying that Jesus’ commands only apply to some people, but not to others. While I can see some role for the precepts/counsels distinction in pastorally reassuring Christians that these commands are difficult, and ordinary Christians should not expect to be able to live up to them perfectly, so that perhaps not every failure is sin, the question still remains--should we strive to not resist our enemies, or not? Because, in this case, those following the precepts and those following the counsels cannot get along so easily. It is not as if the counsel-followers are simply doing what the precept-followers are doing, but to a greater extent; rather, they are doing the opposite. Those following Christ’s commands here will act on the premise that it is wrong to fight against attackers or to punish evildoers, while those not following them here will act on the premise that they have a duty to fight against attackers and punish evildoers, and those who refuse to do so are gravely harming society. The property-owners can readily coexist and make common cause with the property-renouncers; the married can readily coexist and make common cause with the chaste; but can the violent do so with the pacifists? Perhaps, but it seems doubtful--the ethical stakes are just too high, since we are talking about the taking and the protecting of human life.
In any case, it is difficult to read the Sermon on the Mount as simply describing a vocation that Christians may choose to adopt--some choose to marry, some not; some choose to be carpenters, some not; some choose to be clergy, some not; some choose to love their enemies, some not. This problem is particularly insistent because of the context: “Don’t be angry at your brother, don’t lust, don’t divorce, don’t retaliate against your enemies.” If the latter is a counsel, not a precept, then what about the others? In short, I don’t think this is a promising route for making sense of these tough bits of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps I am just too Protestant to get my head around this distinction, and if there’s any Catholics reading this, I invite you to persuade me.
I raise this medieval distinction in order to direct our attention to the interesting relationship between it, and what gets adopted in Protestantism. We shall see that, although a number of different proposals are put forward by Protestants, one that keeps cropping up, that we will see in Luther and in Calvin, is a tendency to take this horizontal Catholic distinction, and make it vertical. That is, where the Catholics drew the line between the counsels and the precepts through the midst of the Christian community, so that some members lived according to one, and some according to the other, Protestantism showed a disturbing tendency to draw the line through the midst of each Christian believer, so that with one half of my being (my heart, perhaps?), I was to follow the counsels, and with the other half (my body, perhaps?), the precepts. As we shall see, this route proves to be a rather dangerous ethical proposal.