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Natural Law, Sabbath and Catholicity

ISS Reports


A paper given at the seminar on the Environmental Crisis held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 11th of August, 2012.

Delivered by Bishop George Browning, former Bishop of Canberra and Goulbourn and Convenor of the Anglican Communion Environment Network.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the whole world subscribed to the values that I hold dear?! Well, perhaps it wouldn't! Upon what do I base my values and how can I be sure that these values will contribute to universal well being and enhanced quality of life for all? These are important questions, for you and I know that we live in a world which faces mammoth challenges to its future and to the future of life as we know it. Only the ill-informed, the wilfully blind, and the self-interested will contest the truth that this century places before humankind unprecedented challenges.[1] The biblical ideal of equity in which those who had much did not have too much and those that had little did not have too little (2 Cor. 8:15)[2] has long been breached. In our contemporary age, those who have too little extend beyond members of the human family. We know that species of animal and plant life are becoming extinct at a rate that matches moments of mass extinction in past eras.[3] While human beings have always been in a situation of migration, the numbers of displaced persons seeking refuge is one of the chief threats to security for many sovereign states on all continents.[4] You have heard the extended list of these woes many times, is there no hope? Is it possible for human beings to contract together upon principles or laws which will renew confidence in a sustainable, global, future? This short paper is an attempt to answer that question, tentatively, in the affirmative.

This past month, the scientific world has been electrified by the news that the Higgs-boson particle, or the God particle, has been discovered. Whether this discovery will lead to new laws of physics like Newton's laws of Motion or Einstein's laws of Relativity I do not know. However, the discovery highlights the extraordinary way in which science, trawling through the complexities of the created order, reveals for us the building blocks upon which we establish confidence in the predictability and reliability of the physical order, confidence without which we could not go about our daily lives in a technologically developed world. These principles are generally referred to as the laws of physics or what Aquinas called eternal law. In passing, I would like to remind us of the first of Newton's three laws of motion, for I will be coming back to it later.

  1. Every object continues in a state of rest, or uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by external forces acting upon it.

To a scientist, certainly to an evolutionary biologist like Dawkins, matter is primary and theories about it are there to be objectively proved or disproved. On the other hand, Dawkins argues that morality is subjective. Aquinas would beg to differ. He refers to natural law as being comprised of those precepts of the eternal law that govern the behaviour of human beings possessing reason and free will. It is only upon the basis of that which can be conceived as universally applicable, that a code of ethics or morality can be established to ground the activity or behaviour of all human beings.

My presentation today is that there is such an entity and that the principle we call 'sabbath' is one of its primary constituents.

We hardly need writers such as Francis Fukuyama[5] to argue that a primary truth about all human beings is that we are relational. This is a core truth, perhaps the core truth of Christianity. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was once confronted by a young student with these words: "if it is true that you do not really believe anything unless it makes a difference to the way you live your life, how does the belief in the Trinity make a difference to the way you live your life?" Newbigin responded: "belief in the Trinity tells me that the ultimate truth is relationship and my primary responsibility is to serve the complex relationships by which my life is defined."[6]

Jürgen Moltmann asserted: "according to modern mechanistic theory, things are primary, and their relationship to one another secondary.... but relationships are as original as things."[7]

If relationship is primary, part of the natural law, the heart of what it means to be human, by what principle(s) are we to be guided as we exercise responsibility in and through those relationships?

When Jesus began his ministry he chose to read the Sabbath passage from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16ff). As his teaching from that moment was focussed on the Kingdom of God, we can only assume that he intended his hearers to understand that the Kingdom of God was somehow to be understood as the fulfilment of Sabbath, a fulfilment we were to look for in himself.

As you all know, the Sabbath is twice presented as the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. In Exodus 20 its 'sitz em leben' is creation, while in Deuteronomy 5 its 'sitz em leben' is the Exodus. In other words, the setting for the sabbath is described as being foundational to both the creative and the redemptive activity of God. So significant is sabbath deemed to be to the priestly writers post exile, that it is said to be founded in the act of creation itself and, by imputation, impacts every aspect of life. Sadly, most in the pews would think Genesis 2:1-3 describes sabbath as the initiative of God on the seventh day, a day in a sequence of seven, and any implications that flow from it are related primarily, if not exclusively, to Sunday. In fact, sabbath should not be understood as a 'day' at all. Unlike the other days of creation, it is described as not having its own evening or morning; it is the summation of all that precedes it. As Karl Bart asserts: "It is not man but the divine rest on the sabbath day that is the crown of creation.... when God celebrates the completion of his work, this totality becomes his festive hall and man his festive partner."[8]

What is sabat, the 'rest', from which the Sabbath gains its name? Cessation from work might be a primary means, but sabat's goal is the celebration of God's presence to creation and through this presence a celebration of the blessing and hallowing which is God's gift to the whole of created order.[9] In similar manner, in the calling and freeing of the Israelites through Exodus, God is present to them, rests in them. Sabat (rest) and shekinah (presence) both come together in Jesus. It is the presence of God that is the means by which creation, and God's people alike, realise their blessing and hallowing. No wonder then that Jesus, the incarnate presence of God, is the fulfilment of sabbath. He is the Logos of God in and through whom creation and redemption become one — creation begins again.

It is interesting that Isaac Newton uses the word 'rest' in his first law of motion to describe the natural state of being for all matter. I am not inferring that he has sabat in mind! However, our theological insight into rest does have a bearing upon Newton's law. Our technology enables us to alter the state of rest of matter at an ever accelerating rate without necessarily thinking about the consequences of such alteration: for alteration at one point is alteration at every point.[10]

It is because God is present to creation that human activity, especially human exploitative activity, cannot be without limit: to act without limit is to assume no accountability. Creation is not 'terra nullius': it is, and always has been, hallowed by the Divine presence: any drawing upon the resources of Creation should always be in a spirit of awe and gratitude. Abundance is a qualitative experience, not a quantitative measurement. The abundance of God's blessing is experienced through the wisdom of knowing personal and corporate limitation. The ancient story of Ahab and Naboth's vineyard graphically illustrates this issue (1 Kings 21:1-16). Ahab was a Ba'al worshipper, a name which means 'owner'.[11] Under Canaanite law, land could be freely bought and sold as a commodity. In the Yahwist tradition, this was not possible; each family had their nachalah, which guaranteed a living and freedom. To use the language of today, Ahab was a free marketeer; to him, everything was a commodity and had a price. Naboth came from a tradition which did not recognise freehold ownership, but custodianship, an appropriate equity under God. His land was not his to sell to Ahab that Ahab might extend his garden. Naboth's land was not simply his; it was also the freedom and security of his children and his children's children. We know that through the sabbath principle of Jubilee, if the nachalah should be lost, forfeited, or somehow removed, it was to be returned in the year of Jubilee. No human being is to be reduced to a slave, to the status of the dispossessed, in the presence of the one who is the source of all life's blessing and hallowing.

Here, I believe, we come to the hub of the problem. Since the enlightenment and the technological developments that have flowed from the industrial revolution, humanity has behaved as if it is 'apart' from creation rather than as being 'a part of' creation. Ahab the Ba'alist rather than Naboth the Yahwist has become the patron of modern human economic systems. This position is not only contrary to the Judaeo/Christian belief system that spawned modern capitalism, it is contrary to much that we learn from modern evolutionary theory and the natural sciences which leads us in the opposite direction. Many modern scientific disciplines point to the interdependence of all things and to the reality that humans cannot have a destiny that is separate to the destiny of the whole created order. This position is well presented by the British scientist, James Lovelock, who speaks of all existence as a single organism 'Gaia'.[12]

Sabbath, then, is a celebration of limits — Walter Brueggemann[13] goes so far as to say that it is in the celebration of limits that we experience abundance, and that it is out of the fear of scarcity that we are driven to over-exploitation. The market and those whose self-interest is the preservation of its extravagances will fight tooth and nail, using fair means and foul, to decry any effort to curb excess. We are driven by an economic mantra that insists that we must choose between economic growth and social decay. We are told that the way out of our problem is to consume more, to extend the bloated market. As a counterpoint to this prevailing doctrine, many economists [14,15], as well as environmentalists [16], argue that economic growth is no longer deliverable; indeed, there is more than enough evidence to show that it has not been delivered for at least a decade. What has been counted as growth has really been debt, or if not debt, at best it has been the outcome of there being more people on the face of the planet, a fact that is hardly a source of comfort.

The New testament concludes with the Book of Revelation and the vision of the River of Life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1-7). It speaks of the healing of the nations, of the presence of the throne of God and the Lamb, and that the name of God will be marked on the foreheads of the people. This is a picture of Sabbath fulfilled, of the final destiny. In contrast, Revelation 13:16 speaks of those who cannot buy or sell unless they are tattooed by the mark of the beast. In the Hebrew, neshek can mean the bite of a serpent; it can also mean interest on money. In the latter sense, the mark of the beast is a devastating commentary upon greedy practice, where the accumulation of money has become the reason for the market, rather than money being a means of human exchange within the market. It is not a huge exaggeration to conclude that, under certain circumstances, the market has become the place of the absence of God.

Let me summarize where I am up to so far. Just as there are laws of physics that describe with predictability the physical reality of the universe; realities which we simply cannot ignore (if we fall out of bed, we will hit the ground!); so there are also natural laws that flow from the relationality of life, and human human life in particular. One of these foundational laws or principles, I argue, is sabbath — a celebration of hallowing and blessing through the presence of God. I assert that the environmental crisis is at root a crisis of economy, a crisis that is caused by the raising of the status of profit over and above the priority of wellbeing within creation generally, and within humanity in particular.

Now, I want for a moment to ask where the Church is in all of this, before concluding with some changes I argue must occur if, at the commencement of the 21st century, humans are to find a just, harmonious, and equitable future.

If one were to ask: how is the effectiveness or the integrity of the Church to be weighed, one of the answers must be that it can only be weighed against the claims it makes of itself. Traditionally, the Church has claimed to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, the four classic marks. I support the view of the Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas [17], that these marks have authority because they are drawn from the nature of Jesus, upon whom the Church is founded. In other words, if the Church is to be true to that which it claims for itself, it cannot be less than the characters 'one', 'holy', 'catholic', and 'apostolic' that we find in Jesus. If we were to take the first mark, we know that Jesus claims to be one with the Father, one with his disciples, and one with humanity for whom he died. Conscious of the brokenness of the Church, and our growing alienation from, or irrelevance to, the world in which we live, we know how far short we fall of this first mark. I wish to draw attention to the third mark, catholicity. The word "catholic", from the Greek katholikos, relating to the whole, often appeared in Greek Philosophy. The word does not appear in scripture; however it appears in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-107) who distinguishes between the whole Church where Christ is, and its local expression. Augustine (354-430) gives the term not only a sense of comprehensiveness and orthodoxy, but also geographic universality, numerical greatness and consensus of belief.[18]

Following the East/West schism of the Church, the idea of catholicity has lived on in both as a 'mark' of the Church. In the Orthodox Church, catholicity has a quantitative aspect 'no limitation of time or space' and a qualitative aspect, 'the wholeness of the Church as the body of Christ, the fullness of its divine human life, and the grace of the Holy Spirit and truth granted to it.'[19]

While in the Roman Catholic west 'catholicity' has been popularly tied to the dogmatic thesis that it is Roman, nevertheless its meaning is understood beyond Roman dogmatic assertion to mean:

freedom from limitation in time and space, openness in principle to all people... the fullness of truth and the blessings of salvation, as the crown of all that is beautiful and good in creation, and as totality and completeness.[20]

Universality carries with it the implication of progressive understanding.

The notion of the development of doctrine (which Newman subsequently applied to legitimate later Roman Catholic doctrinal innovations), is not excluded, because there must always be progress in understanding, in knowledge and in wisdom.[21]

I wish to assert that the Church's understanding of catholicity (i.e., both its adherence to truth and its universal embrace) is progressive and must be responsive to debates surrounding new knowledge and to the challenges and crises being experienced by each successive generation.

Jesus' catholicity went far beyond the strict bounds of simple human endeavour to include the whole created order; I do not believe the Church can do less. Indeed, refusal by some arms of the Church to seriously engage with the environmental debate is a denial of the Church's true nature. The Church's catholicity and the environmental debate is at the heart of my current PhD research.

Now, I wish to conclude by looking at some areas of modern human economic activity which, I believe, must be challenged by an application of sabbath principle for the sake of slowing the human impact upon the world's ecology.

  1. Activity within the market. Short selling and leverage, to name two activities of groups such as hedge funds, aim to make a profit whether the market is going up or down. The aim is not to invest in some concrete form of production but to make a profit simply through the movement of money. Apart from creating wealth for its share holders, it is very difficult to see how such activity benefits the wider community. The Sabbath principle should be a prohibition on any activity which produces a profit without producing a benefit to the wider community. If profit is extracted without being linked to some form of otherwise productive activity, then logically that money has been drawn from somewhere and has therefore weakened an area of life for which that economic activity does not accept responsibility. (The loss of thousands of jobs and homes across the globe in 2008 is a good example). The failure of Government to regulate such activity, and the failure of Church leaders to comment upon it, contributes significantly to an economic imbalance which is contrary to the sabbath principle.

  2. Steady State Economy. There are now many significant contributions, including contributions from leading world economists, to suggest that a steady state economy, rather than an economy predicated on exponential growth, is not only necessary, but deliverable. More than enough research has consistently shown that beyond abject poverty, there is no direct correlation between increased wealth and happiness or well-being. In fact, there are some indicators to suggest the reverse may prevail. In this context, what is the point of greater consumption, the mantra of an economy based upon exponential growth, if consumption does not issue in greater well-being? Do human beings exist to serve an economic ideology, or is economic activity no more but no less than a servant of human well-being? Given the longer working hours most endure, and yet the dissatisfaction with work that many attest, clearly there has been a disjunction between human aspiration and weekly work devoid of sabbath protection.

  3. 24/7. Hyperactivity is the hallmark of our age. It has many manifestations: endless interruptions by digital contraptions, shops and pubs that never close, mines that know no difference between day and night, weekends that for many cease to exist, longer working hours, etcetera. All of these activities seem to say that balance an equilibrium are concepts of an outdated world. Sabbath in the Old Testament is mostly, but not always, connected to phases of the moon.[22] In other words, sabbath is about cycles and seasons, rhythms and balances. There was a time in my own memory when a field would be left fallow for a year to give it rest and return its productivity.[23] Indeed, the Old Testament regulation was that a sabbatical year be granted as much to the land as to all that lived upon it (Ex. 23:10). The consequences of 24/7 are serious at many levels. I wish to highlight only one. The necessity of immediacy inherent in 24/7 reduces information and ideas to sound bites. We appear to have lost the capacity to think. Modern democracies can only work as democracies in an environment where the electorate is thinking and informed. In most of the so-called great western democracies, that sadly appears to be a reducing reality. For example, in a very short period of time the electorate has moved from a position of concern over environmental issues to one of apparent apathy, or worse, ridicule of those who continue with concern. In Australian politics we are faced with the ludicrous situation where both political parties claim to support a policy of 5% reduction of carbon emissions on 2000 figures. While the Government has a market based strategy to deal with this situation (usually a conservative position), the Opposition is promoting a policy of government intervention (a position it otherwise despises), all without the population blinking an eye as to the stupidity of it all.

  4. Wage disparity. Wage disparity in Australia has reached an obscene level. An argument that we compete for expertise on a world stage is simply not good enough. I understand that in the Australian military, the highest paid cannot receive more than 20 times the lowest paid. Even this sounds too much, but it is a considerable improvement upon the 100 or 200 times that prevails in the market place. I would be happy to settle for 20 times, but would prefer the much lower figure of 7 times. Seven times is obviously a sabbatical number. If the basic wage is a liveable wage, then seven times that figure is a lot of money. If the basic wage is not liveable, or the lowest wage within a company is not liveable, then it should be raised; and if the head of the company is going to receive seven times that figure, then there would be a reasonable incentive to do so. The origin of seven as the sacred number is not clear. A theory that appeals to me is that seven is 4+3. Four is the ancient number of the earth, of the material world, and three is the lowest multiple number for the divine. Seven is therefore the meeting of heaven and earth, or to use colloquial language, a meeting of pragmatism and idealism. Where salaries exceed the figure of seven times, society should develop a culture in which there is an expectation that the money will be given or invested in a cause which benefits the well-being and/or sustainability of life on this planet.[24] At the present time, inequity between nations and between peoples within nations is growing at an alarming rate. History shows that long term inequity is not tolerated. The only question is whether the correction will be peaceful or violent.

The Sabbath 'idea' or principle should be examined afresh, not as a form of religious identity, but as a principle which under-girds the relationships which make life on this planet possible. To live as if there is no such law or principle is to risk undermining the essential order of creation and threaten the sustainability of life. For the Church to ignore its prophetic responsibility to draw people back to their sabbath roots is to set at naught that which we claim about ourselves. We are called to express the full catholicity inherent in Jesus, the Logos of God.


  1. In October I am to join a symposium at the National Library sponsored by Manning Clark House on the topic: Does Humanity have a future?
  2. Based on the narrative of manna in the wilderness: Exodus 16:18
  3. This is being called the sixth period of mass extinction, the fifth being approximately 65 million years ago, which saw the end of the dinosaur period.
  4. At the end of 2010 it was estimated that there were 47 million displaced people on the planet.
  5. Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order (London: Profile Books, 2011)
  6. This is as I remember the Bishop's response to a question following a lecture he gave to clergy of the Diocese of Gloucester in the early 1980s.
  7. Jürgen Moltmann, Creating a Just Future (London: SCM, 1989), 59
  8. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation 111.1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 221
  9. "It [sabbath] is a gift to humankind, a gift that regulates human existence inasmuch as the command to rule the remainder of one's work is limited by what is implied in the sanctification and blessing of the seventh day." Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11: a Commentary (London: SPCK, 1984), 158
  10. When a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, the weather patterns in Europe change. The butterfly effect: a metaphor used by Professor Edward Lorenz in 1961.
  11. Timothy Gorringe, Idolatry and Redemption: Economics in Biblical Perspective, a Paper delivered by Professor Gorringe through the department of biblical studies, The University of Exeter.
  12. James Lovelock, The vanishing face of Gaia (London: Allen Lane, 2009)
  13. Walter Brueggemann, The Liturgy of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity (Christian Century 24-31 March),
  14. Jeffrey Sachs, Commonwealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (London: Penguin, 2009)
  15. Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a finite planet (London: Earthscan, 2010)
  16. Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis will transform the global economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)
  17. John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), 158
  18. Catholic, Catholicity, in Vol. 1. The Encyclopaedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids Michigan, 1999), 372
  19. ibid. 373
  20. ibid. 373
  21. Peter Staples, 'Catholicity' in the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (Geneva: WCC Publication, 1991), 135
  22. Sabbath is mentioned in 15 of the 39 books of the Old Testament. In 11 of these books, sabbath and the new moon are linked.
  23. The Fritz Haber process which extracts nitrogen from the air produces around one million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser and feeds approximately 2 billion people. It has been one of many extraordinary discoveries that have enabled production to continue without the requirement of rest. Richard Flanagan, Man made world: Choosing between progress and the Planet (Quarterly Essay, issue 44, 2011), 13
  24. Between 40-50% of Australians with an income of $1M+ give nothing to charity. (Article: Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 2012).

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