Life Illumined

Christian Law

This text was published in Dagen on 7 June 2024. It pertains to the millennium of the promulgation of Norway’s first Christian code of law by St Olav at Moster in 1024.

We have celebrated the millennium of our country’s Christian code of law at Moster. It was truly a popular feast. Participants were numerous and enthusiastic. The local communities worked wonder; hardly a man or woman in the county was not involved in providing generous, peaceful hospitality. This joint effort illustrated the notion of ‘society’ every bit as well as learned lectures. But we were treated to such as well, fortunately.

Jørn Øyrehagen Sunde rightly held centre-stage. More than anyone he has taught us why the jubilee is worth celebrating. His example inspires us. It shows that one man’s learning, perseverance, and communication skills can illumine a nation.

Certain characteristics of the Christian code of law were repeated over the weekend as in a Litany: the fact that Norway passed from being a society built on might to being one governed by right; the recognition of women, children, and slaves as legal subjects with inalienable rights; the establishment of ‘values’ that allegedly constitute what our Constitution calls ‘our Christian heritage’. In this heritage the pearl of great price is ‘human dignity’. The webpage of Moster 2024 explains: ‘The revolutionary notion was that all are created in the image of God and form part of a single community, bound to look after one another.’

We are thus helped to understand, hey presto, that the ‘values’ of the Christian code of law are in fact familiar. They are solidarity, tolerance, plurality, inclusivity and (why not?) sustainability. It behoves us then to raise up our voices in chorus in a threefold hurrah!

On examination one cannot help noticing a striking similarity between the standard exposition of the Christian code of law from 1024 and the self-understanding of our confessionally neutral welfare state today. This may be an expression of divine providence — for God a thousand years are a like a day, we read in a Psalm. It may also indicate anachronistic wishful thinking in our engagement with history.

To point out that Christian legislation originated outside Norway’s frontiers in order to deduce that we must likewise, now, adopt principles from other religions is a liberally attractive thought, but it is historically misleading. Christian legislation presupposed Christendom. Christendom maintained boundaries. St Olav’s great role model, Charlemagne, after whom Olav’s son Magnus was named, could be crowned a Christian emperor because rival powers were held in check. Charlemagne’s grandfather Charles Martel won an epochal victory over Arab-Berber Muslim forces near Poitiers in 732. The front was upheld, along shifting lines, on the Iberian Peninsula throughout the reign of Charlemagne and for a long time thereafter.

Had the Franks had different priorities back then, Europe would have looked different now. We might have had a system of law more similar to the one we find in Morocco. It is a thought worth pondering in connection with our festive jubilee.

The celebrations at Moster took it for granted that we remain wonderful stewards of the Christian code of law. By all means: the Norwegian legal system has a strong foundation. But it is a foundation in a state of erosion.

During the winter the government put forward a proposal for a new abortion law. This text eliminates the criterion of ‘capacity for life’ in decisions about when a foetus is reckoned to have a right to live or not. This change is explained: Progress in medical science, by which doctors can enable the survival of premature babies at an ever earlier stage, is not to limit ‘the pregnant person’s’ autonomy. Where does that leave us with regard to the Christian law code’s insistence that an infant is not the possession of his or her parents?

And where will we stand in terms of societal responsibility for the weak and vulnerable when the demand for euthanasia will vocally enter Norwegian political discourse, as it is bound to do?

Marriage has been redefined in our country’s legislation. When marriage is no longer, as in the Christian code, a covenant of one man and one woman, multiple metamorphoses are possible. In our neighbouring countries polyamorous ‘marriages’ of more than two partners are being discussed. Based on what principles will we confront such issues?

It is not strictly speaking true to say that a Christian notion of human dignity is defined by the fact that ‘all are created in the image of God, and form part of a single community’, as if it were something static. The divine image is a gift and a responsibility; it constitutes a dignity of which we must show ourselves worthy. That is why life is a serious business. The Christian code of law bids people turn East in prayer. Why? In the expectation of the coming of Christ on Judgement Day. In a Christian optic, history proceeds towards a goal. We shall be held responsible. It is not a matter of course that we shall be counted worthy of our potential. Community, whether in time or eternity, can never be taken for granted. It makes demands.

Human dignity thus appears as a dynamic term, a task. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has stressed that human dignity can become a rhetorical platitude we invoke to promote ourselves or to absolve ourselves (and others) of the claims of justice; while justice is the foundational category in human and divine society.

We may ask if the formation of community and societal justice is at all possible over time in the absence of a commonly acknowledged foundation, without a shared concept of purpose? The phantasy of the mighty’s right remains a forceful competitor. Non-Christian, absolute ideologies are spreading about us, able to change an unanchored collective system of ‘values’ with remarkable speed.

The millennium summons us to self-examination. In the areas in which we are sliding away from the principles of the Christian code of law, we should honestly admit this. And be conscious of what is at stake.


The Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove hovering over the baptismal font in the medieval church at Moster. In these times of jubilee, we could certainly do with some extra inspiration.