Tag Archives: law

Book Review: The British Constitution – A Very Short Introduction by Martin Loughlin

When reading the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series, I find them to be ideal for subjects where one has some modicum of understanding, but where any level of detail is currently unknown to me. Having grown up and lived in Britain all my life, and having observed our politics for most of my adult life, I get an idea of what it means for something to be “constitutional”. Unlike the Americans, we don’t have a fixed, codified constitution. It is very much something of a ‘sense’ that we have, but which is instilled in us through roughly 800 years of history since the signing of the Magna Carta. As we mark the octocentenary of that famous document it seemed appropriate to have a read of this.

The opening discourse is about the nature of a constitution and what could count as one. The most famous example is, of course, the American constitution, but it’s noted that that’s quite an odd example as it was designed as a founding document to a country with no history, no legal precedent of its own. So Thomas Paine (whose Rights of Man I have, but haven’t read yet) makes a rather post hoc argument defining a constitution as a single document with several features which just happen to coincide with a description of the American one.

One might well think, as I did at the outset, that there would be considerable focus on the Magna Carta and its legacy, but its role in British constitutional history is heavily downplayed here. Instead, Loughlin opts for a “common law” approach, claiming that what we understand as the British constitution is the combined history and tradition of the laws of the land. In order to colour the picture in we get a rundown of some specific pieces of legislation that have been passed over the centuries and their effect on the democratic make-up of what we now know as the United Kingdom.

Oddly enough, the author never mentions Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedure. This prompted me to then have a look at the author’s background, and here we can see that perhaps Loughlin was not the best choice to author a book on the constitution, as his expertise is in law. So it is little wonder that he views the constitution as the combination of various laws passed through the centuries. If it were labelled as “British legal history – A Very Short Introduction” then we might be less disillusioned.

In amongst a bit of a hodge podge of pieces, there is some really good stuff. For example, we get a good summary of the political history of the various unions that have taken place to give us the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we now have. Interestingly, it’s very much a book of its time, as it frequently references the current coalition government. So it will be interesting to see how later editions may be changed to reflect the government of the day.

Law as the light on sin (A Personal Catechism #3)

Link to #2

Q: Whence knowest thou thy misery?

A: Out of the law of God


As this is a short question and answer, this should bring a short response. As stated in the previous part, I was not especially happy with the term ‘misery’ appearing in the catechism. It is such a common word with a very specific meaning (as pointed out in the comments to part 2) that the risk of it being misunderstood in a modern context is too great to warrant its continued usage. See, for example, my recent take on semantics and the changing nature of words.

As such, and particularly given the answer in the catechism, I would rather answer a slightly different question, which makes the answer more coherent. This may be a methodological flaw, but so be it. I do not pretend to be perfect and I’m not presenting a systematic theology in this project. Here, the pragmatist supersedes the purist. So I would rephrase the question as “How are you aware of sin?”

Most of the answers have footnotes on them with references to passages in scripture to back them up. Some have multiple attestation, though how closely the answers fit the scriptures is quite variable. In this instance, the whole answer is built on a single scripture, Romans 3:20. I would possibly cite quite a bit of the early chapters of Romans in support of this idea, though some of this will be expanded upon in the follow up questions in the coming weeks.

The thrust of questions 3-9 in the Heidelberg Catechism are really looking at the idea of “total depravity” as famously espoused by John Calvin. In this particular question, I don’t disagree with the answer.

However, I might change the emphasis so as to focus on what functions the law fulfilled. The traditional reformed view has, to be very brief (and admittedly, crude), been one of a dichotomy between law and grace. One of the insights that I learned from looking at the new perspective on Paul was the notion that the law was one of the ways in which the Jews identified themselves. They were the ones who were partakers of the Abrahamic covenant but also those who adhered to the Torah. With the advent of christianity, the view of the law was reformulated. The idea of the law being an identifier has been replaced (but please don’t take my use of the word as indicating that I am a wholesale supersessionist – I am not) by the notion of our identity being found in the Christ, the Messiah. The law, however, is not superseded. I am trying to be careful so as not give the false impression that I am a supersessionist. It is tricky to give a nuanced view which inevitably uses some of the same vocabulary but which has a different focus. So while the law remains, its function is now rethought.

Now, the idea of “sinning” (as a verb, meaning to transgress) is an act which highlights the state of sin which we are in (see previous part in this series). Though there may be legal repercussions with local authorities, the focus here is not on a framework for government or jurisprudence. This is about the state of relationship between humans and God; a relationship that has been broken by one party and fixed by the other.

However, as the next question asks more about the law, I shall not elaborate further here. So my summarised response thus looks like this:

Alternative answer

By ‘misery’ I understand this to be better described in the modern vernacular as ‘sin’. My sin is highlighted to me by my own transgressions of the law of God, which illuminates that which is dark in me.