Agape, Justice, and Law

How Might Christian Love Shape Law?

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Robert F. Cochran, Jr., Zachary R. Calo
Law and Christianity
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , May
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While there has been a recent upsurge in interest in the field of law and religion, relatively little attention has been paid to its normative dimensions. Agape, Justice and Law responds to that neglect. It is a welcome and important contribution to the ongoing discussion of how the two domains relate and interact.

The book consists of fourteen essays grouped under three headings: biblical foundations; modern perspectives on agape, justice, and law; and modern applications of agape to specific fields of the law. All of the essays save one derive from a symposium on Love and Law held at Pepperdine University in 2014. The essays are authored by scholars of law, ethics, and philosophy, and their contributions are theologically and legally sophisticated.

Many of the essays begin by engaging with a question posed by Jeffrie Murphy: “What would law be like if  we organized it around the value of Christian love, and if we thought about and criticized law in terms of that value?” (151) How one answers this question obviously depends on how one understands agape. Unsurprisingly, the authors propose varying understandings of it; many draw upon the analyses of Nygren, Ramsey, and Outka, and this gives the collection, as a whole, a Protestant orientation. There are exceptions; Lucia Silecchia’s contribution applying the principle of subsidiarity to care of the elderly illustrates the considerable resources of Catholic moral theory for law.

Two introductory chapters on agape in the teachings of Jesus and Paul by Robert Cochran, Jr. and Daryl Tippens serve as helpful prolegomena to the contributions that follow. Four essays of a more theoretical nature are devoted to the relations of love, justice and law. These chapters interact with each other in lively fashion, particularly those of Timothy Jackson and Nicholas Wolterstorff concerning varieties of justice and their theological and philosophical warrants. The essays in the third section engage with specific areas of law and the agapic possibilities they offer. Of note in this group are Thomas Berg’s chapter on intellectual property law, Lyman Johnson’s analysis of corporate law and Michael Moreland’s contribution on tort law. Berg critiques conventional notions of intellectual property ownership from a gift-based perspective that emphasizes empowerment and a needs-oriented sharing of benefits. These authors, and many of the other authors in the book, suggest that contemporary law reflects pre-legal premises that tend toward truncated moral understandings of the relation of individuals and society. These creative readings of established legal doctrines are refreshing and insightful, especially since much legal writing on these topics downplays ethical considerations as extraneous and inimical to law’s rational character.

Most (but not all) of the authors of Agape, Justice and Law believe that agape can and should influence law. Other thinkers have been cautious about the ability of secular law to accommodate such altruistic aspirations. Karl Barth, for one, argued that human law stands in contrast to the legal order of faith communities with its Christocentric foundation, one in which agape is more at home. While Barth’s view reflects a continental frame of reference, the focus of this volume is on American law and religion. This is understandable and appropriate given the importance of domestic law in the legal universe; comparative consideration of the role of agape in other legal systems could be a topic for future study.  

While the essays in the book demonstrate that agape has much to say to law, it bears asking how agape speaks about law to adherents of other or no faith traditions. It is not clear how agapic interaction with law might be promoted under secular and pluralistic circumstances. This volume, as one of the co-editors (Cochran) states, is primarily intended for a Christian audience, though he hopes its vision of human relations may appeal to others (10). But law is a public sphere of activity, one in which diverse interests and worldviews conflict. Substantive and practical engagement with law requires some capacity for the mediation of theological affirmation and temporal circumstance. This book can be seen as an often-eloquent invitation to reframe our vision of law, something proposed by James Boyd White in the concluding chapter. To their credit, the visions of agape-inspired law presented in this volume are not exclusionary, and this creates space for engagement with other traditions.  

Taken together, the essays in Agape, Law and Justice are searching analyses of the relation of agape and justice as well as prophetic critiques of contemporary American law with its often-questionable assumptions about duties, rights, punishment, property, and the collective good. In seeking to envision a more excellent way for the law, the volume enriches discussion about what a more humane, just, and viable legal order might be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley Shingleton is an independent scholar and practicing attorney in Washington, DC.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert F. Cochran, Jr is Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Pepperdine University, California and Director of the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics. He is the author or co-author of ten books and over sixty articles.

Zachary R. Calo is Founding Professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University Law School, Qatar, the first J.D.-granting institution in the MENA region. He is also Research Scholar in Law and Religion at Valparaiso University, Indiana and Fellow at the Center for Law, Economics, and Finance at George Washington University, Washington DC.


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