Let’s face it. For much of the last century, Christians in America placed their faith in humanism – her foundations and the institutions constructed upon them. This trend began prior to the last century, but we seem to have reached an apex a few decades ago. Public schools were woven into the fabric of our culture with no perceived need to discuss alternatives to the system. The welfare state promised security in a blatant, messianic posture. We looked with awe and allegiance at each president pictured on our bills of exchange without a thought given as to how and why our monetary system worked like it did (and does). Political debates were as robust as they have always been, but were carried out within the context of a state that had its integrity largely intact.
Then it happened. The humanistic institutions began to visibly crumble. The cracks in their foundations became vast fissures that would no longer bear the bureaucratic weight of fat, stodgy and ethically schizophrenic establishments. Crises arose and our baptized humanism did not have answers. People began to search. Christians in particular began to ask questions they had not asked in a long time.
Through the end of the last century, crises continued and the search for answers continued. Then came the Internet. Like the printing press was to the Catholic Church, the World Wide Web is to the statist and elitist institutions of our day. The integrity of the systems known to us for over a century is being undermined at a deafening rate. In addition, the consequences of pluralism within the institutions are being exacerbated. The last straw for these monoliths will be when they run out of money. Any bit of faith maintained by the general populous will be dashed at the announcement of “insufficient funds”.
In all of this, there has been a return to a more broad discussion about law. This is because the concept and reality of law is basic to any culture. It makes up the bricks and mortar as it were of a society’s basic institutions. When the institutions begin to fail, the construction materials are inspected so that the next edifice can be built with greater confidence in its durability.
In Christian circles we are having this discussion at a time when we are largely ignorant of the scriptures. This makes the going rough, but we must press on. From the homeschooling mom to the state representative – this conversation is crucial. The discourse has bearing on all of the political hot-topics such as abortion, foreign policy, gay marriage, healthcare, immigration, education, monetary policy, taxes, etc. It also has bearing on less public but equally as vital issues within our churches and homes.
So what are some of the buzzwords and phrases used as Christians dialogue on the subject of law in our society? In the Christian arena most blogs, conversations or social media posts will include phrases such as God’s law, man’s law, theonomy, natural law, theocracy or the constitution. Each of these carries with it the question of authority. Who is the ultimate lawgiver and what are the laws by which all societies should be governed? Should there be different standards for different cultures? Should all men have to submit to the same laws? Are theft, rape and murder universal transgressions? What should the punishments for each of these be? Should it differ according to each society or culture? The fundamental question here is one of ultimate authority.
What we need to understand from the outset is that there are really only two alternatives – God’s law or man’s law; God’s rules for governing his creation or Satan’s rebellious alternatives. It has been this way since the beginning. God says, “Don’t eat of this tree”. Satan says, “You can eat of this tree.”
So who would say that anyone other than the God of the universe should determine right or wrong? Would Christians argue over this point? Well, when pressed the answer would be “no, of course not”. So what are we to make of these debates over natural law vs. theonomy, or man’s law vs. God’s law? This is the very subject I intend to address in this series of essays.
I don’t think most people contemplate the source of law in their society. They are content to accept norms and traditions without any thought given to where such norms and traditions are derived and why they are or are not legitimate. This is not to say they do not engage in discussion over what is right and wrong in the world around them. On the contrary, most can become quite passionate when talking about ethical issues. The “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates do not lack zeal. What most of them lack is a well thought-out basis for the presuppositions they are bringing to the debate.
So, I will state it again. Most people do not contemplate the source of law in their society. In regards to this level of the debate, most people don’t care. There are more pressing matters at stake. The latest TV drama, little Johnny’s soccer season, piano lessons, career moves, a new car, church activities, Fox News and a host of other things drown out any reflection on how one defines what is normative or standard for society’s conduct. Yet, understanding the source of law is crucial.
The basis for law in any society ultimately proclaims the God of that society. Law expresses character. Law manifests identity. If you want to know who is proclaimed as God over society, you only have to look as far as that society’s laws. Legislation is a declaration of collective right and wrong. What is right and wrong defines morality. Morals express the will of a god. It is not a question of God or no god in a community or culture. There is always a god. It is a question of who is god.
This brings us to contemporary discussions of God’s law vs. man’s law. God has decreed right and wrong and such is the standard for all of life. Anyone who does not subscribe to this has only one other option – man, seeking to operate outside of God’s authority, determines what is right or what is wrong. This category of law we might call “the law of the people”. As to those who declare that God is the source of law, they would subscribe either to a natural law (common to all men), law derived from special revelation or some combination of both.
What is important to notice is that God speaks in the latter alternatives. Natural Law (loosely defined) might include the natural revelation that surrounds all men and testifies to God and his prescriptions for living (Romans 1). Special revelation would also involve God’s Word for man but in a way that is more concrete or specific.
As to the people’s law, we might just refer to this as the “group ethic” or general consensus of the people. With my intended audience, I will assume that this alternative is taken off the table as it would allow for atrocities such as genocide or the current legality of abortion due to popular vote.
The contention among the Christian community seems to center around this issue of a common law for Christians and non-Christians living together in a society. Where do we anchor ourselves as we engage in debates about public policy and the aforementioned issues? Should community life be governed by a “natural law” common to all people or from the Word of God or both? If the Word of God, then what part of God’s Word? Only the New Testament? The Ten Commandments plus the New Testament? The Old Testament Case Laws? Which of these are also included in what might be called “natural law”?
Well, before we get to all of these questions it would probably do us well to define the concept of natural law. This gets to one of the motivations for writing this series. Natural law has in some ways been caricatured and dismissed without really wrestling with its current definitions. The debate has been oversimplified by announcing that one either subscribes to “God’s law or man’s law”. In theonomic circles, God’s law equates to Greg Bahnsen’s definition and anything else is relegated to autonomous man’s law. Yet, this does not do justice to the current debate. Parties seem to be talking past one another.
Natural law has colored the ethics of the church since before the Reformation and has continued until today. This is not new. What is new is the extent to which a reformed concept of natural law has been iterated forward or modified beyond traditional definitions. I am not speaking of natural or general revelation, which is a thoroughly reformed and biblical concept. I am pinpointing the use of the term “natural law” as used by some, including the current “Two Kingdoms” reformed community. In this sense, the term is touted as biblical and covenantal. It cannot be dismissed as the same concept derived from the stoics or even equivalent to a natural law concept held during the time of the Reformation.
I have seen very little written material that adequately captures the modification to natural law put forward by Two Kingdom proponents. I have also seen many discussions become vague and squishy when they reach the point of defending a basis for specific laws or political action in general. It is important for us to be able to articulate the basis for our public convictions. Christians will get sidelined if we just engage in political discussions like everyone else. We will be relegated to the all-to-common shouting match of “our program is better than yours”.
It is for these reasons that the subject should be further addressed, and addressed in a way such that the layman will embrace the conversation. In doing so their understanding can be more consistently and self-consciously applied to everyday life.
I will state clearly from the start – I believe that the reformed foundation of natural law espoused by some is a sandy one and that ultimately “natural law advocates are trying to raise a corpse”.[i] It will do us no good to engage current cultural battles under the direction of a dead commander. So what does the corpse look like? What is the traditional understanding of natural law? Stay tuned.
[i] Gary DeMar in the foreword, John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (Lakeland, FL: Whitefield Media Productions, 2011), xxv.