Theology for International Law


Christ said 'render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.' Ever since, theologians have pondered the perfect formula and purpose of divine and civil law. So what can these centuries of thought offer to a modern world of many Caesars?

Theology for International Law by Esther D. Reed (Bloomsbury T&T Clark).

- Review by Philip Allott in The Tablet.

The ancient Greek philosophers and the Greek tragedians began to think non-religiously about the human problems that had been the province of mythology and religion.

The early Christian Church returned the compliment by beginning to think religiously about the problems that philosophy had uncovered.

It is an enterprise more topical and urgent than ever in a globalising world full of intense cultural and religious diversity, and full of evil of every kind and on a grand scale, crying out for universalising ideas.

International law is caught in an existential tension between an ideal of universal law and the fact of interstate law. In responding to that tension, Christianity has tried to find a way to reconcile Christ and a world full of Caesars.

Professor Reed is not the first to suggest that an idea of natural law made coherent with the rest of Christian theology could help to solve this agonising dialectical puzzle, at least for believing Christians.

Identifying herself as a Protestant Thomist, especially influenced by Aquinas and Karl Barth, she faces valiantly familiar stumbling blocks on the way to that happy state of affairs.

What is natural law? The age-old search for a morality beyond morality and a law beyond law seems to reflect a cold act of human self-judgement. Humanity's experience of its own history has given rise to an incurable human desire to rise above the glaring imperfections of conventional morality and conventional law.

The problem is that the underlying idea of ‘natural law’ as law without a legislator and morality beyond society has been explained in as many different ways as there have been philosophers to explain it: a necessary inference from a God-made universe; human concordance with the natural order of the universe; a substantive product of a special capacity of the human mind called ‘reason;’ a discernible pattern of human self-perfecting in human history; a purely philosophical reconstruction of the self-ordering capacity of the human mind (‘pure’ reason producing ‘practical’ reason); Christian self-deluding; a clever way of branding the higher self-interest of powerful governments; social poetry suitable for study by serial reductionists and linguistic philosophers and postmodern hermeneutics.

Esther Reed's book, unusually lucid in a field where obscurity is often used to stake a claim to authority, should be read by all those who want to hear a powerful, well-informed and essentially optimistic Christian voice discussing such deeply perplexing challenges and developments of human self-ordering in the twenty-first century.

See full review: Legislating in a God made universe (The Tablet)

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