The Divine in Contemporary Legal Norms

15 May 2017

Is there a theological defense for obliging laws that protect us from unjust harm? Craig J. Iffland seeks one, delving into theological questions with interdisciplinary scope.

STI Experts

Iffland, who has worked with STI on many projects as research assistant and as co-editor, has received a Charlotte W. Newcombe Fellowship to complete his doctoral thesis at the University of Notre Dame.  The largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences, the Newcombe Fellowship addresses questions of ethical and religious values. Iffland is one of only 21 scholars to receive the award this year. Fellows receive a 12-month award of $25,000 to support their final year of dissertation work.

Congratulations on being named a 2017-2018 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellow.

--Thank you. It's a great honor to receive such an award in support of my dissertation work. It is a testament to the hard work of my dissertation committee, especially my advisor Jean Porter, who really helped me to formulate a clear and precise dissertation topic and proposal. Moreover, I should also give a word of thanks to the Social Trends Institute, in particular to its President, Carlos Cavallé, for providing a tremendous amount of support for my academic endeavors. 

How did you come to receive it? Do you apply or do professors who work with you nominate you?

--Among other things, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation aims to support original research on topics that touch upon significant religious or ethical values. The award is not restricted to those working in the disciplines of religious studies or philosophy, however. The award is open to all disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. There is no nomination process for the award. One simply submits an application, which includes letters of support from faculty and a brief synopsis of the dissertation. From what I understand, there were over five hundred applicants this year for twenty-one fellowships. 

What specifically are you going to do with the award?

--The award provides me with a generous stipend that will allow me to focus exclusively on completing my dissertation next year. 

Can you tell us a bit about your dissertation?

--The title of the dissertation is "Following and Not-Following the Divine Law." My aim is to explore the definition of sin as a breach of divine law within the Christian theological tradition. Although such a topic is intrinsically theological, my dissertation is interdisciplinary in scope. For example, in order to understand how sin is a breach of divine law, one must first understand what it could mean for God to govern us in a "legal" manner. This is not something one can read straight out of the biblical tradition.

There are, of course, many prominent Christian thinkers who have grappled with this question--most significantly, Thomas Aquinas--but part of my aim in this dissertation is to show how contemporary scholarship on the nature of law and legal systems can add much needed clarity to our understanding of the divine law, and by extension, the nature of sin.

Sounds interesting. If you don't mind me asking, what is the practical payoff of your dissertation work?

--The divine law, when understood as the fundamental legal principle governing all of creation, is not limited to what we find in the biblical witness, or even the Christian tradition writ-large. It encompasses, in a way, all the various legal orders by which we are governed here and now. Ultimately, I want to provide a theological defense of the obligatory character of contemporary legal and customary norms that protect individuals from unjust harm. If I am correct, some contemporary legal norms—like those contained in the law of armed conflict—can be credibly counted as forming part of the divine law.

In this respect, I hope the dissertation will provide a positive impetus for people of faith--whether Christian or not--to see work in public affairs and civil governance as a vital part of their service to God's governance over all of creation. The work of the divine law in directing all of creation to its due end and good is not something that belongs exclusively to clerics, but also to those who work in the public sphere. Indeed, if I am right, those working in the public sphere have the more direct charge in effecting the common good and just relations between citizens intended by the divine lawgiver.