Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Forming of Calvin's Analytical Mind -- The Impact of a 16th Century Law School Education

From the earliest days of antiquity to the defining moments of our present day, questions of political policy, legal principle and religious doctrine and practice have regularly been the subjects of vigorous debate. While such discussions have often informally occurred in venues as diverse as the Areopagus and the office water cooler, more formalized proceedings have been developed throughout the progress of civilization for the open engagement on issues of import.

Indeed, it could be said that each significant advancement in the arena of human ideas has been accompanied and promoted by rigorous public dialogue. This was particularly true in the case of the Reformation. Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517 was the first step in what by then had become a well-developed procedure calling for a public disputation. Such a forum, as well as the many that soon would follow thereupon, served as a chief means of persuasion spreading over the European continent convincing arguments in support of the Reformers’ ideas.

Of the numerous public disputations that furthered the Reformation’s cause throughout Europe in the 16th century, one held in the city of Lausanne in October 1536, is especially noteworthy. The Lausanne Disputation holds a unique place because is was at this “famous disputation” that John Calvin “took a minor part” (Durant 469) that would propel him into a prominent leadership role in the progress of the Reformation. My forthcoming series of postings will examine the factors contributing to Calvin’s emergence at Lausanne as a public leader of the Reformation.

In conducting this brief survey, we will first take a passing glance at the historical background for the use of public disputation as a forum for civic and ecclesial dialogue. We will then turn to what I will advance as the principal factors that substantially prepared and prompted Calvin to rise to the question at Lausanne: his legal education and the influence of Guillaume Farel. Finally, we will analyze the rhetoric of Calvin’s two disputation discourses to discover the characteristics of his argumentation that not only won the day at Lausanne but also well advanced, at least in the appraisal of some, the purpose of God in Calvin’s own generation.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Judaism and American Law


The considerations of justice in American law and its foundations in Torah demand much more investigation and analysis than we have been able to offer in these few postings. In concluding our limited engagement of these ideas, I would offer a few words from the lips of Shakespeare’s Portia:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1

To the extent that these words from Shakespeare are read to suggest that the Jewish idea of justice excludes mercy, to that extent, we may confidently say: Shakespeare got it wrong. Rather, “mercy seasoning justice” is at the heart of the very idea of justice that Torah imparts to all who have been influenced thereby – that idea has been interwoven within and is a substantial foundation for American law. Thus, all who value justice in human society owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Judaism and its cultures for this most precious of gifts.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Judaism and American Law -- Part 9

Our fifth and final passage addresses the substantive area of property law. Often the visual image of a bundle of sticks is used by legal commentators to describe the rights through which property law operates. These include the right of ownership, the right of possession, the right of use and the right of transfer, lease or sale, to name just a few. In Torah we have the foundations for two essential property rights – the right of redemption and the right of reversion. In Leviticus 25:23, God commands:

The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

This passage then goes on to detail the provisions through which a member of the community is enabled to redeem property that had to be sold due to the initial owner’s financial straits. These provisions extend, in certain cases, to provide the return of the property even if the person is not financially able to exercise his right of redemption directly or indirectly through a near relative. In verse 28, we read:

If he lacks sufficient means to recover it, what he sold shall remain with the purchaser until the jubilee; in the jubilee year it shall be released, and he shall return to his holding.

Rights of redemption of real property are expressly provided for in modern American law through provisions in Deeds of Trust where the borrower on a home loan is given the right to redeem the title to her property for a limited period of time even after default and foreclosure. Rights of reversion are frequently made a part of the transfer of title to property when the ownership interest transferred is limited to the life span of the person to whom the transfer is made or when it is conditioned upon a particular specified use. In both cases, the foundational idea for these property rights stems from the provisions of Leviticus 25.

In each of the foregoing areas of law we may trace foundational ideas back to Torah: Subject matter jurisdiction in dispute resolution; the essential nature of order in criminal law; duty in tort; promise in contract and rights in property law. These five are but a few examples of how the Jewish idea of justice is worked out in practice as both an affirmation of the dignity of every human being since all are created in the image of God, and an accommodation for the finitude and fallen state of humans and how that essential idea provides foundations for aspects of our American legal system.