New Book Introduces Interplay of Christianity and Law

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By Ginger Pyron

A new collection of essays edited by Emory Law Professors John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander sets the intellectual stage for an open-ended drama between law and Christianity that has already spanned two millennia and shows no signs of winding down.

Christianity and Law: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008), a product of the Christian Legal Studies Project of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), features perspectives from some of the top law and religion scholars in the world.

“This volume is a culmination of the last 10 years of work we’ve been doing in this field, and an exploration of ideas that we want to explore in more detail in subsequent phases of our work,” said Witte, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and CSLR director.

Beginning with Witte’s engaging introductory chapter—which traces the dialectical interaction of Christianity and law through four “watershed” phases in the Western Christian tradition (the Roman Empire, Medieval Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and the Modern Age)—the book lives up to its subtitle by literally leading readers into an exploration of Western religious and legal history, of specialized topics such as natural law and canon law, even of readers’ own response to Christian teachings like “love the poor” and “love your enemies.”

Alexander, professor of law and CSLR founding director, examines from a Christian context the perennially ambiguous role of property in his chapter “Property and Christian Theology”: Is it a gift, a reward, or a resource all too easy to abuse?  Alexander analyzes the concept of property in its relational definitions—“mine,” “yours” and “ours”—and considers historical property law in light of the biblical injunction to act as stewards of the land.

Three Emory Woodruff Professors and CSLR Senior Fellows produced chapters for the volume, each tracking the centuries-long development of some complex facet of law as it either sprang from or responded to early Christian teachings. The late Woodruff Law Professor Harold J. Berman, writing on general contract law, finds that the church’s canon law of the late 11th and 12th centuries was the first systematic form of Christian contract law, which though periodically reformed, still is at the heart of the modern understanding of contracts. The canon law of contract rested on the idea that to break a promise is a sin; and, further, that legal liability for a broken promise also took into consideration the rights of the sinned-against.

In an intriguing examination of the emerging place of law within the Christian tradition, New Testament Woodruff Professor Luke Timothy Johnson shows that Jesus’ commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself “proved too broad to provide practical guidance” for many legal issues that early Christians faced, a vacuum which the Apostle Paul later filled by writing helpful prescriptions for these young religious communities. By insisting on “the integrity of the individual conscience as the ultimate determinant of moral action,” Paul also began paving a path toward recognition of religious liberty as a basic human right.

If it is true, why is it true ... that every human being has inherent dignity and is inviolable?” asks Woodruff Law Professor Michael J. Perry in his essay “Christianity and Human Rights.” With relentless logic and a little help from the convictions of a fictitious Christian he calls “Sarah,” Perry unfolds his keen and convincing argument that the Christian worldview can ground not only human-rights morality but also human-rights law.

Other contributors to the collection include David Novak, “Law and Religion in Judaism”; R.H. Helmholz, “Western Canon Law”; Brian Tierney, “Natural Law and Natural Rights”; Kent Greenawalt, “Conscientious Objection, Civil Disobedience, and Resistance”; Mathias Schmoeckel, “Proof, Procedure, and Evidence”; Don S. Browning, “Family Law and Christian Jurisprudence”; Brian S. Pullan, “Poverty, Charity, and Social Welfare”; Jeffrie G. Murphy, “Christian Love and Criminal Punishment”; David Little, “Religious Liberty”; Norman Doe, “Modern Church Law”; William W. Bassett, “Religious Organizations and the State”; and David A. Skeel, “Christianity and the Large-Scale Corporation.”

An “introduction” by title and also by many definitions, Christianity and Law breaks ground, opens new study, brings matters to attention, sets thought in motion, and heralds even wider-ranging conversations to come.


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