We theology nerds talk quite a bit about the Second Use of the Law (the theological use, the “mirror,” which convicts us of sin and drives us to the Gospel), and we argue about the Third Use of the Law (the didactic use, the “guide,” which shows Christians how to live). We don’t usually say much about the First Use of the Law (the civil use, the “curb,” which enables sinners to live in societies).
The First Use of the Law concerns only external righteousness. There is no merit to it, no question of earning salvation by external compliance. Jesus teaches us that we violate the commandment against murder when we hate our brother, and we violate the commandment against adultery when we lust after someone in our hearts. That inner state is where our status as sinners is evidenet, and it is this inner condition that the Gospel addresses. But it is also important not to murder anyone externally or to actually commit adultery. This external righteousness is absolutely necessary if human beings are to live together in families, nations, and societies. Even someone boiling over with sinfulness on the inside can, on the outside, be a good citizen.
Our sinful nature has to be “curbed.” The Law achieves this by means of things like parental discipline, the state’s legal system, and social sanctions. The Law’s first use can make us feel guilt and shame. We would be ashamed to actually do some of the things we fantasize about. Many harmful enterprises are held back when the question arises, What if someone finds out? Being held back by such considerations does not make us a moral person–we shouldn’t have had those fantasies in the first place–but they make civil society possible.
Responding to criticism at the last debate that his desire to increase military spending violates conservative economics, Marco Rubio said that if we can’t protect ourselves, we won’t have an economy. Similarly, if we can’t protect ourselves from ourselves and from each other by civil restraints, we won’t have a society.
Clearly, the “curb” of the First Use of the Law has weakened today. The taboo against using bad language in front of women or children is gone. No one is embarrassed by divorce, having a baby out of wedlocks, or “living in sin” these days. And yet when private vices get drug out into the public eye, there often are still disastrous consequences. When the Ashley Madison adultery site got hacked and the names of its registered clients were released, it brought down quite a few stalwart citizens, including some prominent clergymen.
Which gets us to the new comment system! World Table strikes me as an attempt to bring the First Use of the Law to the blogosphere. It puts social sanctions into effect, giving the chance for readers to express their disapproval of anti-social comments and giving the chance for commenters to gain standing by their externally virtuous conduct. Of course, this is a long way from actual inner virtue (though, as classical ethicists point out, the practice of virtue as a habit can lead to actual virtue). But it’s a virtual external morality that can make a virtual community possible.
World Table hopes, of course, to become a widely-used comment system, dethroning Disqus and becoming nearly ubiquitous on the web. Ratings, good and bad, would carry over across platforms and apply to all sites that use World Table. That really could have an impact in the online world.
So I’m curious about how this might work and willing to give it a try. I know, of course, that the Law cannot produce true righteousness, let alone a commenting algorithm. External, civil righteousness is a worthy goal. And I know all we can do is approximate it, and, at the worst, turn the conflict between the internal and external into a kind of hypocrisy. The Law is unified, and its different uses are nothing more than different applications. The first use easily segues into the second use, and, if our guilt drives us to the grace of God and the forgiveness He provides in Christ, it will lead to the third use as well.