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God's Joust, God's Justice: Law and Religion in the Western Tradition.

God's Joust, God's Justice: Law and Religion in the Western Tradition. By John Witte, Jr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006. 464 pp. $30.00.

As a legal historian, John Witte, Jr.'s work has been primarily descriptive in nature. In God's Joust, Witte's historical scholarship becomes the springboard for prescriptive arguments in the field of law and religion. According to Witte, people are willing to die for three things: their faith, their freedom, and their family. This observation establishes the conceptual and literary framework for God's Joust, and each section of the book addresses and analyzes one of these topics. Although God's Joust is essentially a collection of Witte's previously published articles, reworked and edited into book form, it is a compelling survey of his scholarship in the field. The title itself is a conflation of quotes from two of Christendom's leading theologians. Martin Luther wrote, "History is God's theatre, ... God's jousting place," while St. Augustine said, "All things are ruled and governed by the one God as He pleases, but if God's motives are hid, are they therefore unjust?" (pg. 1).

In Section One, Witte analyzes the history of human rights in the West and argues that our human rights discussion should focus more on religion while our religious discussion should focus more on human rights. Historically, medieval formulations of rights were grounded in natural law, while the Protestant Reformation grounded rights in the biblical freedom of the Christian. The Enlightenment grounded rights in human nature and the social contract, while modern conceptions of human dignity are best summarized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The modern human rights movement, Witte argues, would benefit greatly from focusing more energy on securing religious rights, such as the right to worship and believe. Religion in turn would benefit from focusing more energy on securing human rights, such as the right to dignity, equality, and liberty. Christian duties should be recast as rights: the duty to worship God should be recognized as the right to worship God and the duty to love one's neighbor should be recognized as the right to be loved.

In Section Two, Witte investigates the foundations of the "American understandings of law and religion" (p. 27) and argues that society needs greater respect for the religious practices of others. In America, Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, and Enlightenment models of church-state relations competed against each other and gave rise to six "essential rights and liberties": liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious pluralism, religious equality, separation of church and state, and disestablishment of religion. A correct historical understanding of these precepts and principles is essential and will lead us to promote more public displays of diverse religious practices. Anyone who is offended by these displays ought to practice what Witte calls "voluntary self-protection from religion" (p. 262).

In Section Three, Witte explores family law in Western societies and argues that our understanding of marriage must continue to evolve, incorporating the best traditions of the past with the most valuable of modern innovations. Historically, marriage has been nearly universally recognized as a beneficial institution and marriage law is the result of a long dialogue between Catholic, Protestant, and Enlightenment values. While marriage has been reduced to a mere legal contract in modern society, Witte argues that marriage is fundamentally more than a contract, a view shared by Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

In God's Joust, Witte displays his formative knowledge of law, theology, history, and philosophy. Witte is a gifted scholar and writer who excels at analyzing and synthesizing a copious amount of original and secondary material and then re-articulating that material in an easy to understand and helpful framework. Although God's joust contains little original material, those familiar with Witte will find this volume a valuable addition to their library, while new readers will find God's Joust an essential introduction to Witte's scholarship.



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Author:Portzel, Curt A.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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