Theory, Identity, Vocation: Three Models of Christian Legal Scholarship

46 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2008 Last revised: 10 Nov 2012

William S. Brewbaker

University of Alabama - School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2008


Recognizably Christian scholarship is becoming more commonplace in the American legal academy, yet little systematic attention has been given to fundamental questions of approach. This article highlights moments of continuity and discontinuity between Christian legal scholarship and its secular counterparts. Contrary to the expectations generated by contemporary political debate, the distinctive contribution of Christian legal scholarship is not primarily to provide ammunition for political programs of the right or the left, but to situate law and human legal practices within a larger story about the world.

This article develops three models of Christian legal scholarship - theory, identity and vocation. I employ these models - each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses - to argue that failure to address foundational questions about knowing and learning undermines much of the potential distinctiveness of Christian scholarship because that scholarship remains unconsciously subject to modern/postmodern assumptions.

Specifically, Christian legal scholars have sometimes acted as if they believed that human beings could attain godlike knowledge, assuming a posture of transcendence over and above the world rather than of participation within it. This tendency is exhibited primarily in the theory model. Christian legal scholarship that loses touch with the participatory nature of human knowing leaves insufficient place for disagreement on legal and political arrangements and easily degenerates into theologically unwarranted claims about what God requires of the legal system.

Identity models of Christian legal scholarship follow the lead of postmodern critics of the enlightenment in asserting that reason and objectivity are not neutral, self-defining ideas. While this move helps scholars avoid the making of unwarranted universal claims, its besetting temptation is undue skepticism and nihilism. Even so, the identity model helpfully calls attention to particulars of the Christian narrative that help explain our legal practices. The model also frames human law in a particular historical perspective that is at odds with both modernity's undue epistemological optimism and postmodern despair.

Finally, a vocation model emphasizes that legal scholarship is one of many human (and not merely Christian) callings, the point of which, as with other such callings, is the glory and enjoyment of God. In order to know what pleases God, the scholar will need to study the Scriptures and theology; he or she will need the church. But the scholar will also need to study God's creation, including not only the world God has made directly, but also those relevant human institutions that, in God's providence, inhabit it. On this view, there is no reason to prescribe a uniform methodology for Christian legal scholars, nor should we necessarily expect widespread agreement among Christians on contestible legal issues.

Keywords: legal scholarship, christianity, law and religion, theology, legal theory, christian legal thought

Suggested Citation

Brewbaker, William S., Theory, Identity, Vocation: Three Models of Christian Legal Scholarship (March 1, 2008). Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 39, Page 17, 2009; U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 1116262. Available at SSRN: or

William S. Brewbaker (Contact Author)

University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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