| ETS 49th Annual Meeting
Santa Clara, CA.
General Revelation and Natural Law
in a Postmodern Context
Norman J. Lund, Ph.D.
The Shuv Institute
Sydney Ahlstrom, in his monumental
A Religious History of the American People (Image Books, 1975),
saw postmodernism on the rise over two decades ago. He identified "postmodernism"
with the rejection of tradition, and the exaltation of autonomy. He defined
"postmodern man" as "posthistoric" and "one-dimensional," explaining:
fearing the grip of the past, pessimistic about the
future [postmodern man] lives—or tries to live—within the narrow
confines of today… he does not take his own historicity seriously
(vol. I, p. 21).
Not only is postmodernism a rejection
of tradition. It also represents a rejection of reason. Modernism, a child
of the Enlightenment, fed upon an optimistic belief in progress and an exaltation
of reason. Postmodernism, a child of the pessimism which followed the Holocaust
and the World Wars, now exalts unreason.
Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher
of postmodernism, praised "madness" as "man's ultimate truth" in his unconventional
treatise, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age
of Reason (Vintage/Random House, 1965, 1988). Foucault argued that as
leprosy was conquered and disappeared, society needed a stigma to fill the
void and to populate the empty leprosariums. "Madness," or "unreason,"
was chosen. Foucault proposed that the Enlightenment belief in reason brought
with it an unhealthy denial of "unreason," the dark side of the human soul.
Foucault concluded that "madness" is "man's ultimate truth" (p. 82), and
that "unreason has belonged to whatever is decisive, for the modern world"
(p. 285). This means, he said, that "through madness… the world is forced
to question itself… the world is made aware of its guilt" (pp. 288-289).
Other French postmodernists have made
similar claims, questioning the very existence of truth, and denying the
objectivity of reason. Jean-Francois Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition
(U. Minnesota, 1984), argued that universal truth claims are impossible
because universal worldviews or "metanarratives" are no longer credible
or "communicable." Jacques Derrida, in Writing and Difference (U.
Chicago, 1978), asserted that language is ultimately subjective and incapable
of communicating objective truth. The same kinds of arguments have also
been made on this side of the Atlantic for almost two decades.
In the United States, no postmodern
philosopher has been more influential than Richard Rorty, from the University
of Virginia. In his celebrated Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
(Princeton U., 1979), Rorty called for a pragmatic "deconstructing" of the
correspondence theory of truth, and of any "overarching structure of rationality"
(p. 271). More recently, in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth (Cambridge
U., 1991), Rorty ridiculed "representational" truth claims—claims of objectivity
or finality—as fictional "sky hooks," and advocated an abandonment of "the
search for Truth" (pp. 13, 21).
What is the origin of this pessimism
and skepticism towards reason? Some scholars attribute postmodernism to
the Holocaust and the World Wars. Alister McGrath, writing in A Passion
for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (InterVarsity,
1996), finds the primary cause of postmodernism in: "the trauma of the Holocaust
which shattered the pretensions and delusions of modernity" (p. 180). McGrath
defines postmodernism as "a cultural sensibility without absolutes, fixed
certainties or foundations, which takes delight in pluralism and divergence"
(p. 184); "an inbuilt precommitment to relativism and pluralism.. mark[ing]
the end of the possibility of fixed, absolute meaning" (p. 185).
Other scholars emphasize the influence
of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is commonly agreed that the current movement
called 'postmodernism' represents the victory of Nietzsche's prophetic ideas.
Influenced by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche developed an atheistic philosophy
which exalted will above reason, and power above weakness. Thus Spake
Zarathustra, first published in 1883/1884 (in The Portable Nietzsche,
trans. & ed. Walter Kaufman; Penguin Books, 1982) became his most celebrated
work. It was also his greatest attempt to express his worldview, and it
included most of his chief ideas, e.g.: (1) that life is best understood
as expressing a "will to power," i.e. the desire for self-mastery and self-transcendence;
(2) that the will to power is best expressed by the "Ubermensch"
('overman'), i.e. the courageous, creative individual: "I teach you the
overman. Man is something that shall be overcome" (p. 124); (3) that
"God is dead," i.e. Christianity, with its belief in God and a future life,
is an attempt to compensate for cowardice and failure in this life; (4)
that "man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss"
(p.126), i.e. life is a battle against nihilism, to create a purpose and
a future; (5) that :"the last man" will be the self-satisfied man who no
longer seeks to transcend himself, but settles for material well-being:
"One has one's little pleasure for the day and one's little pleasure for
the night: but one has a regard for health" (p.130).
Additional ideas of continuing relevance
for postmodern thought are expressed in Nietzsche's The Genealogy
(trans. Walter Kaufman & R.J. Hollingdale; Vintage Books, 1989): (1)
"values" are relative to every time and culture; (2) values are "created"
by the "masters" in control of society; (3) Christian morality is nothing
more than the "slave morality" of the weak, who seek to gain concessions
from the strong by causing them guilt and shame, and requiring the "sublimation"
of natural passions; (4) Christianity, with its "illusion" of other-worldliness,
is based upon "resentment" of this world; (5) Greek ethics represents the
noble vision of a "master morality," a this-worldliness calling for excellence
in this life; (6) a "revaluation of all values" is required, and a movement
"beyond good and evil," that is, beyond resentment and the sublimation of
what is natural.
In addition to his influence upon
such past figures as Jean Paul Sartre and Sigmund Freud, Nietzsche has continued
to inspire such philosophers of postmodernism as Michel Foucault and Jacques
Still other thinkers attribute postmodernism
to the cultural ascendancy and logical consequence of materialism and naturalistic
evolution. Phillip E. Johnson, in Reason in the Balance: The Case Against
Naturalism in Science, Law and Education, has argued persuasively that
at the heart of postmodern pessimism is the assumption of "Darwinian evolution…
not primarily… as a scientific theory, but as a culturally dominant creation
story" (p. 12). In spite of their serious differences regarding the nature
of "creation-science," Johnson agrees with George Marsden regarding the
nature of postmodernism. Quoting from Marsden's The Soul of the American
University (Oxford U., 1994), Johnson affirms that:
The postmodernist intellectual
crisis may thus be understood as a crisis within the naturalistic community.
Given a purely naturalistic evolutionary set of premises, finding any rational
grounds for building a consensus on any significant human question becomes
problematic… Appeals to natural law have [little support]… [Thus] liberal
pragmatism has led… to postmodernist relativism (Marsden, pp. 430-441; Johnson,
Johnson explains that what is lost
with the rejection of natural law is consensus, that is, the "symbolic public
affirmation for some worldviews and values and implied public repudiation
or denial of others" (p. 141). Many scholars agree, including self-professed
Neo-Darwinians like James Rachels, Walter Truett Anderson, and Robert Wright.
Writing in Created From Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism
(Oxford U., 1990), Rachels, a professor at the University of Alabama argues
that: "the image of God thesis is no longer a reasonable option," and that
"the traditional supports for the idea of human dignity are gone" (p. 171).
He concludes that: "the old world view," with all its "moral foundations"
has collapsed (p. 222). Similarly, Anderson, writing in Reality Isn't
What It Used to Be (Harper Collins, 1990), asserts: "We are seeing in
our lifetimes the collapse of the objectivist worldview that dominated the
modern era, the worldview that gave people faith in the absolute and permanent
rightness of certain beliefs and values" (p. 267).
Wright, a senior editor with The
New Republic, is another postmodern Neo-Darwinian who embraces the radical
consequences of evolutionary thought. In The Moral Animal (Vintage
Books, 1994), Wright explained how naturalistic evolution denies the objectivity
both of truth claims and morality, and consequently, of natural law. Darwin
dealt a "one—two punch" to truth and morality, Wright asserted, by means
of: "the Origin's assault on the biblical account of creation, followed
by the Descent's doubts about the status of the moral sense" (p. 328).
Wright, who embraces postmodernism as a necessary phase in evolutionary
progress, credits Darwinianism with fueling "the postmodern attitude," and
predicts that "the future progress of Darwinism may strengthen the postmodern
mood" (p.326). Himself a strong supporter of the 'Darwinian project,' Wright
explains the radical nature of Darwin's theory:
In short: if Freud
stressed people's difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new
Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period. Indeed, Darwinianism
comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth.
For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth—moral discourse,
political discourse, even, sometimes, academic discourse—are, by Darwinian
lights, raw power struggles… in human affairs, all (or at least much) is
artifice, a self-serving manipulation of image. And already this belief
helps nourish a central strand of the postmodern condition: a powerful inability
to take things seriously" (p.325).
Some scholars attempt to escape the
radical assumptions of postmodernism. Ernest Gellner, a professor at Cambridge,
writing in Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (Routledge, 1992) agrees
that postmodernism is a "specimen of relativism [which is] hostile to the
idea of unique, exclusive, objective, external or transcendent truth" (p.
24). However, Gellner argues that postmodernism is an "option" which is
neither necessary nor compelling. Acknowledging that "religious fundamentalism"
offers one alternative to postmodernism, Gellner advocates a rather ambiguous
"rationalist fundamentalism" as a third option. This option, "rationalist
fundamentalism," shares some common ground with "religious fundamentalism."
For example, both positions share a "denial of relativism" and an affirmation
of "external, objective, culture-transcending knowledge" (p. 75). What
distinguishes the positions is the rationalist denial of what Gellner calls
"substantive truths" and "the sacred" (p. 80).
Gellner's argument, that one may affirm
the objectivity and universality of truth while denying "the sacred" has
been called into question by an overwhelming array of scholars, across a
wide ideological spectrum. Older studies, like those of Mircea Eliade,
The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1959) are being reaffirmed in newer works like Twin
Powers: Politics and the Sacred (Eerdmans, 1988), by Thomas Molnar.
Eliade, late Chairman of the Dept. of History of Religions at the University
of Chicago, argued that "the religious vision of life" is fundamental and
essential to human existence; a "sacred understanding" of the world is essential
to "organize the chaos" and "make orientation possible." The "sacred understanding"
can be repressed in the unconscious, Eliade asserted, but never fully escaped
or denied: "The sacred… founds the world [sic] in the
sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world" (p.
30). More recently, Thomas Molnar, a professor of philosophy at the University
of Budapest, has challenged the postmodern attempt to separate politics
from religion, and rationality from a sacred foundation. Contending, like
Eliade, that religion provides the sacred source which legitimizes political
power, and the ordering principle upon which society is founded, Molnar
asks what will prevent disorder and anarchy when the sacred is denied.
Until the Enlightenment, he contends: "every civilization" in the world
acknowledged "the supernatural as the repository of the realities that the
society took for granted" (p. 58).
One of the most surprising developments
in the contemporary debate regarding postmodernism is similar arguments
coming from self-professed "agnostics" like Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor
emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New
York. In a recent work entitled On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely
Thoughts on Culture and Society (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), Himmelfarb,
disturbed by the "abyss" of nihilism resulting from Nietzsche's "death of
God," called for "a revival of religion—and religion not purely as a matter
of private belief… but as, in Tocqueville's words, 'the first of our political
institutions'" (p. 101). For Himmelfarb, like Eliade and Molnar, rationality
requires a sacred basis. Consequently, she finds a connection between the
roots of modern secularism and the fruit of postmodern nihilism: "The beasts
of modernism have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism—relativism into
nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity" (p. 6).
Whereas modernism went astray in a wholesale rejection of traditional understandings,
postmodernism represents an attack on the very possibility of understanding.
She asserts that postmodernism is "a far more subversive form of relativism,
a relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history
and truth" (p. 131). Himmelfarb warned:
us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation
to intellectual and moral suicide (p. 160).
Himmelfarb is not alone in finding
a common root between the apparent extremes of modernism, with its optimistic
emphasis upon reason, and postmodernism, with its pessimistic exaltation
of unreason. For Himmelfarb, the mistake of modernism was an emphasis
upon autonomy and individualism which ultimately made "the individual the
sole repository and arbiter of all values" (p. 106). Similarly, Alister
McGrath, in A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism
(InterVarsity, 1996), concludes that postmodernism may prove to be "a movement
within modernism [since] for all their divergences, both movements are directly
or indirectly concerned with the fostering of human freedom" (p. 184).
G.K. Chesterton anticipated the postmodern
embrace of unreason. For Chesterton the connection between modernist autonomy
and nihilism was so close that he warned of "the suicide of thought" many
decades ago, as a logical consequence of modernist assumptions. In his classic
text, Orthodoxy (Image Books, 1924/59), Chesterton exposed the intellectual
impoverishment of materialism and anticipated the coming irrationality of
postmodernism when he described "reason used without root, reason in the
void," as "the chief mark and element of insanity" (p. 27). "Materialists
and madmen never have doubts" (p. 24), he asserted. Speaking somewhat prophetically,
Chesterton described the postmodern man:
A man was meant to
be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been
exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly
the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the
part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason (p. 31).
Living in the last decade of the second
millennium, Christians in the West must contend with a fiercely relativistic,
postmodern culture. Postmodernism, with its denial of binding universal
standards of morality, is a form of antinomianism. Antinomianism is the
rejection of law, a declaration of freedom from moral obligations (Gk. anti-against;
nomos-law). Today, the spirit of antinomianism pervades both
the church and the world.
Technically, antinomianism defines
a Christian heresy. The heresy appears as early as the apostle Paul's warnings
against libertinism (Rom.6:1,15; 1 Cor.6:12). The current use of the term
is usually traced to Luther, who identified John Agricola and his followers
as "Antinomer" in the Antinomian Disputations of 1537-40. Agricola
repudiated the law in attributing repentance to the work of the Gospel.
He also declared that by grace believers have been set free from moral
law and obligation.
Ethically, antinomianism designates
an extreme position in regard to moral laws. Sociologically, the term used
to define this situation is anomie [Gk. anomia-lawlessness]. Emile
Durkheim (d. 1917) applied this term to periods of relative normlessness,
and attributed to it a causal relationship with suicide. Historically,
its occurrence is infrequent, and usually associated with periods of radical
change and crisis. Many secular writers are acutely aware of this contemporary
development. For example, Dr. Edward Banfield, professor of sociology at
It is anomie [Gk. anomia-lawlessness]
which characterizes modern man, Western man. He lives only for himself,
and for gratification of his desires, without respect for parents or teachers,
not to mention clergymen or policemen, or law ("Focus on Society," PBS Lecture,
May 9, 1981).
Philosophers, psychologists, and historians
agree that modern history is witnessing a collapse of the old moral order,
the "sacred canopy" upon which the Western democracies were founded. Allan
Bloom, late professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, wrote
in The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1981):
Openness—and the relativism
that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to
truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings--is the great insight
of our times... But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public
good, is the social contract any longer possible? (pp. 26-21).
Oxford historian Paul Johnson identified
relativism as a chief characteristic of the twentieth century. In chapter
one of his Modern Times (Harper & Row, 1983), he described "A
At the beginning of
the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular
level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good
and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably,
relativity became confused with relativism (p.4).
Johnson tells of Einstein's horror
at the use which was made of his theory. Indeed, Einstein wrote to a colleague
of his belief "in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists,"
and of his attempt to produce a unified theory of reality. Johnson notes
that Einstein "lived to see moral relativism, to him a disease, become a
Alistair Cooke concluded his award-winning
BBC history of the United States by asking: "Is America in her ascendancy
or decline?" He answered by noting many parallels with what Edward Gibbon
identified as signs of the fall of Rome. Published in Alistair Cooke's
America (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), Cooke identified, for example: "A mounting
love of show and luxury"; "A widening gap between the very rich and the
very poor"; "An obsession with sex"; "Freakishness in the arts"; "And, most
disturbing of all, a developing moral numbness to vulgarity, violence, and
the assault on the simplest human decencies" (p.381). Cooke summarized
the failure of America as an abuse of freedom, a "general permissiveness,
which, whatever liberties it sets loose, loosens also the cement that alone
can bind any society into a stable compound—a code of obeyed taboos" (p.388).
Finally, Cooke warned of a "normal cycle in the life and death of great
nations" which leads from "tyranny," to "revolt," to "liberty," to "the
abuse of liberty—and back to tyranny again."
Similarly, Malcolm Muggeridge has
predicted the impending fall of Western Civilization, citing Solzhenitsyn
to the effect that "at the root of our present malaise" is "our loss of any
awareness of good and evil." Writing in Vintage Muggeridge: Religion
and Society (Eerdmans, 1985), Muggeridge asserted that:
[The darkness falling
on our civilisation is likewise due to a transposition of good and evil...
The root cause of our trouble is that we have lost our sense of a moral order
in the universe without which no order whatsoever, economic, social,
political is attainable (pp.94-95)
Sir Kenneth Clark, in the closing
episode of his BBC television series, "Civilization" (1982), confessed that
"the brightest minds today" were challenging his belief that "order is better
than chaos." Clark concluded by quoting from "The Second Coming," by W.B.
Things fall apart;
the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed
tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The
best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
How can one address the current social
context without drawing attention to the abortion holocaust? Where is the
antinomian spirit more evident than here? Where a greater "blood-dimmed
tide"? Where a greater fulfillment of Yeats' prophecy: "The ceremony
of innocence is drowned"? The mother's womb—designed to be the safest dwelling
on earth—now the most dangerous, with over one-fourth of all pregnancies
in the United States terminated by abortion. As Congressman Henry Hyde
has commented: "Today in the U.S., a blade of grass has more protection than
a fetus—because there are many laws against trespassing, but none against
Since the Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs.
Bolton decisions of 1973, which legalized abortion on demand, it is estimated
that over 30 million children have been aborted in the United States. Still
today, in 1997, in all fifty states, a woman has the legal right to abort
her unborn child throughout all nine months of pregnancy. In California
and most of the other states, an adolescent female is not allowed to participate
in extracurricular school activities or receive an aspirin from the school
nurse without parental consent. But she is allowed to receive an abortion
without her parent's even being notified.
The cheapening of human life is becoming
increasingly evident. In recent years there have been reports of teenage
mothers delivering babies in school toilets, between classes or during a
school dance—and leaving them to die. One fifteen year old honors student
apparently wore baggy clothing to hide the pregnancy from her parents.
Her school counselor had known about the pregnancy for months. The district
attorney declined to file any charges in the case. In another case, a distraught
mother told a colleague that her 15-year-old daughter had just confessed
to having had three secret abortions. Now, pregnant for the fourth time,
she was preparing for another abortion. Seeking to calm her incredulous
mother, the daughter said: "Don't worry, mother. There's nothing to it."
May we not lose our capacity to be
shocked, revolted, and incensed. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."
Some time ago Anthony Burgess captured a true, albeit despairing, reaction
to contemporary, amoral experience in his novel, Tremor of Intent,
when he described the young man who "went...into a corner," heaved his shoulders,
and "tried to throw up the modern world."
Given the social context today, it
is perhaps not surprising, yet no less discouraging, to find that the same
spirit of relativism has invaded the church. Since about 1950 the concept
of natural law, and the moral use of the law, has come under attack as unevangelical
and legalistic. This may be attributed in part to the secular climate of
moral relativism, as well as to the prevalence of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer
referred to in The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan, 1937/63) as "cheap
grace. The church's avoidance of unpleasant topics like "sin" led the eminent
American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, to publish a book entitled: Whatever
Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). George Barna reports an increasing
percentage of evangelical Christians who believe "there is no such thing
as absolute truth," and whose sexual promiscuity equals that of unbelievers.
It is sobering to recall that in his
account of the events preceding his return, our Lord says: "And because
lawlessness [anomia] is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold"
(Mt.24:12). Similarly the apostle declares: "that day will not come, unless
the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness [anomia] is
revealed" (2 Thess.2:1-2).
Faced with these sober warnings, and
the current social context of anomie, what should Christians today do?
How should we think of God's law, and its place in society? What does Scripture
teach about the nature and authority of God's law? What is the Christian
answer to moral relativism? Is one left to find some middle ground between
extremes, or is there, in Christ, an alternative, which carries the believer
beyond antinomianism and legalism?
Scripture teaches that the law of
God is the omnipotent will, and the rational, created order of God: "I delight
to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart" (Ps.40:8; Heb. 10:7).
The law of God is revealed in Scripture, and written on the heart (Rom.2:12-16).
The nature of divine law is expressed and revealed both in voluntarist
and rationalist terms. The law of God is the will of God, rooted in God's
unchanging moral character (Ma1.3:6; Jas.l:l7; 1 Jn.l:5), but springing from
God's free decrees (Gen.l:l-3ff.; Ex.20:1-20; Job 38-41; Is.45:5-7). This
law is at the same time the order of creation, the shape which God has given
to and maintains of objective reality (Gen.l:l-2ff.; Ps.127:1-5; Prov.19:21;
20:24; Acts 17:24-28; Col. 1:15-17). As Aquinas articulated it in Summa
Theologica, the eternal law of God is: "the rational order of divine
wisdom inasmuch as it directs the acts and motions of everything" (I-II.91.3).
Natural law is "the participation of the rational creature in the eternal
The law of God exposes the fallacy
of all relativism. As George Forell captured it in his Ethics of Decision
(Fortress, 1955), divine law is "part of the structure of the universe,"
"a description of the way in which things operate" (pp.82-83). There is
an analogy between the laws of nature and the law of human nature. As Oliver
O'Donovan expressed it in Resurrection and Moral Order (InterVarsity,
1986), there is "a divinely-given order of things in which human nature
itself is located" (p.16), "a universal order of meaning and value, an order
given in creation and fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (p.61). In the words
of the late Klaus Bockmuehl, the divine law is "the moral grammar of creation,"
"protection against chaos," "God's inbuilt order," "the given structuredness
of creation and of human existence" ("Keeping His Commandments," in: Crux,
Sept., 1981, pp.20-21).
The same truth was expressed by Katherine
Davis, in her joyful hymn, "Let All Things Now Living." Verse two states:
His law he enforces:
the stars in their courses,
The sun in his orbit obediently shine;
The hills and the mountains, the rivers and fountains,
The deeps of the ocean proclaim him divine.
Similarly, in what C.S. Lewis has
called "the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics
in the world," Psalm 19 equates the glory of the sky and the stars, of the
sun and its pervasive heat, with "the law of the LORD" ("and there is nothing
hid from its heat," v.6). In Reflections on the Psalms (Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1958), Lewis commented on the "delight" of the Psalmists
in the law. It expresses an objectivity or "truth," an "intrinsic validity,
rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature," Lewis observed. Consequently,
Their delight in the
Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian's delight
in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long
entangled him in muddy fields (pp.61-63).
Lewis, who wrote much against relativism,
made bold in his treatise, The Abolition of Man (Macmillan, 1941),
to offer an outline of universal ethical prescriptions which reveal and illustrate
the lex naturae, or "Tao." Lewis identified eight basic, universal
moral principles: (1) "The Law of General Beneficence;" (2) "The Law of
Special Beneficence;" (3) "Duties to Parents, Elders and Ancestors;" (4)
"Duties to Children and Posterity;" (5) "The Law of Justice: Sexual Justice,
Honesty, Justice in Court, etc.;" (6) "The Law of Good Faith and Veracity;"
(7) "The Law of Mercy;" (8) "The Law of Magnanimity" (pp.93-121).
In another work, Mere Christianity
(Macmillan, 1952), Lewis argued that the most basic fact of human existence
is a common awareness of the moral law. This universal law is demonstrated
not only by the agreement of moralities from diverse cultures, Lewis said,
but also by the common experience of conscience: "this curious idea that
[people] ought to behave in a certain way" (p. 7); the awareness of "a Something
which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging
me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do
wrong" (p.20). Lewis asserted:
If no set of moral
ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring
civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality.
In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than
others (p. 11).
Similarly, the late professor Bloom
challenged the unthinking relativism of his students at the University of
Chicago with questions such as this: "If you had been a British administrator
in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the
widow at the funeral of a man who had died?" (op. cit., p.26). Bloom, like
Lewis, argued that relativism divorces reason from ethics, and leads to
the destruction of education. Bloom asserted: "the fact that there have
been different opinions about good and bad in different times and places
in no way proves that none is true or superior to others;" on the contrary,
the differences "raise the question as to which is the true or right," and
call forth the examination of "the claims and reasons for each opinion"
Moral relativism is often traced to
Heraclitus (d. 486 B.C.), the Greek philosopher who taught that everything
is in flux; and to the Sophist, Protagoras (d. 421 B.C.), who taught that:
"Man is the measure of all things." However, as Lewis, Bloom and others
have pointed out, if everything was in flux, knowledge would be impossible.
Inquiry would be trapped in skepticism. If everything continually changed,
knowledge would have nowhere to begin. One needs something unchangeably
right and true from which to begin, and by which to measure.
As Alexandre Koyre put it in his Introduction
to Descartes: Philosophical Writings (Thomas Nelson & Sons,
1962): "[one] looks for the firm foundation which would substantiate the
norms of judgment. Alas! he finds nothing but perpetual change, instability,
void" (p.x). Koyre concluded:
If everything is possible,
nothing is true; if nothing is assured, the only certainty is error (p.ix).
If nothing was right or true, one
could not know it. As Lewis expressed it in Mere Christianity (Macmillan,
1952): "If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found
out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe
and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark"
(p.31). In the words of E.J. Carnell in A Philosophy of the Christian
Religion (Eerdmans, 1952): "If it were not for antecedent absolutes
there would be no meaning to the relative; we know the relative in the light
of the absolute" (p. 134). Consequently, Forell identified the self-contradiction
involved in this teaching is obvious. On behalf of open-mindedness we are
confronted by people with utterly closed minds who dogmatically assert the
absolute truth that there is no absolute truth (p.30).
J. Budziszewski, an associate professor
in the departments of government and philosophy at the University of Texas,
makes a persuasive contemporary argument for the classical understanding
of natural law in his current work, Written on the Heart: The Case for
Natural Law (InterVarsity Press, 1997). Dr. Budziszewski identifies
five forms of general revelation: creation; the image of God; our physical
and human design; conscience; and the order of causality. He argues that
"natural law is grounded by the second, third, fourth, and fifth of God's
ways of general revelation," and focuses his attention upon the fourth:
"the law of conscience, written on the heart, which, like the law of Moses,
tells us what sin is but does not give us power to escape it (Romans 2:14-15)"
(pp. 180-181). He presents the current study as a work of "political philosophy"
(p. 15), which is basically supportive of St. Thomas and of C.S. Lewis's
"amateur" interpretation of St. Thomas in The Abolition of Man (pp.
Of particular interest is the author's
persuasive treatment of objections to natural law. He argues that conscience
applies universally only to the most basic and fundamental principles such
as "Good should be pursued and evil avoided" and "Love your neighbor" (pp.
61-62). Moral truths derived from these basic precepts are subject both
to exceptions in unique situations requiring careful judgment (p.
62), and also to perversion, when conscience is corrupted by "passion,
evil habit, evil disposition, vicious custom, or evil persuasion" (pp. 72-73).
The relevance of natural law in the postmodern context is explained both
as a bridge for communicating with unbelievers in the area of "apologetics"
(p. 184), and as a Biblically based perspective for ethics, since unlike
"most modern ethical thinking… natural law theory assumes that the problem
is [not cognitive but] mainly volitional" (p. 185).
In this regard, Budziszewski finds
postmodern man to be in solidarity with pre-modern man, since the whole
human race lives in the "psychological condition of 'denial'" of our accountability
to God (pp. 183-185). It is the result of "original sin" that: "We do no
want God to be God; each of us wants to be his own little god" (p. 69).
Nevertheless, the author finds a unique role for natural law in the postmodern
context, for two reasons. First, he finds postmodern man to represent "the
new sort of pagan" who disbelieves in conscience: "with a head filled with
false sophistication that tells him that right and wrong are invented by
culture and are different everywhere, the new sort of pagan mistrusts his
own conscience… [Consequently] speaking with the new sort of pagan is much
harder than speaking with the old… Not only that, the false sophistication
that bewitches him has wormed its way into certain parts of the church itself"
(p. 181; cf. pp. 174-175). Second, he finds postmodern political philosophy
in serious trouble, with the breakdown of the traditional tension between
"the cult of the individual and the cult of the state." "We can no longer
rely on a balance of errors," he concludes: "From now on, nothing less than
truth will suffice" (p. 195).
With students, Budziszewski sometimes
refers to natural law as "the first principles of practical reasoning,"
or as a "factory-installed…personal baloney-meter." The baloney-meter is
that "useful little instrument that lights up and beeps when you hear plain
nonsense, prompting you to say to yourself, 'That's baloney'" (pp.
171-72). When students challenge him with the argument: "Aren't morals
just relative? Aren't good and evil up to the individual?"—Budziszewski,
much like Bloom, responds: "Tell that to the man who is trying to rape or
murder you" (pp. 174-75).
Much of the theological opposition
to natural law has been motivated by voluntarism, the reduction of faith
and ethics to subjective 'leaps' which cannot be explained or examined by
reason. In answer to this genre of moral relativism, O'Donovan has defended
the classical (biblical) doctrine of natural law against voluntarist objections.
In Resurrection and Moral Order, O'Donovan demonstrated the complementarity
of rationalist and voluntarist emphases. Affirming Aquinas, O'Donovan contended:
Nothing could be clearer
than that lex aeterna presupposes the free and omnipotent decree·
of God in creation, and so the complete contingency of creation. It is not
a law of God's own being, but a law by which he orders the created world
to its given destiny (p.133).
In spite of his reputation for emphasizing
the opposition between the law and gospel in bringing about salvation, Martin
Luther clearly and consistently accepted and affirmed natural law and moral
absolutes. His conflicts with antinomianism only strengthened his position
in this regard. For example, in a sermon which he preached on September
30, 1537, Luther declared that the law of God is "the eternal, immovable,
unchanging will of God" (WA 45, 149.15-21). The sermon was significant,
because it signaled the beginning of Luther's controversy with John Agricola
and the Antinomians. [This author recounts those events in the unpublished
doctoral dissertation: Luther's 'Third Use of the Law' and Melanchthon's
Tertius Usus Legis in the Antinomian Controversy with Agricola (1537-1540)
(Toronto: University of St. Michael's College, 1985); See: pp.132ff.;142ff.]
Preaching on the great commandment
(Mt. 22:34-40), Luther took the opportunity to confront the antinomianism
of "fanatic spirits" who denied the importance of keeping the commandments.
Citing Luke 10:27-28 and Galatians 5:21, Luther warned that Christians
must "leave the mire" or "they will be lost." Significantly, Luther articulated
a doctrine of recapitulation. The law, Luther proclaimed, is a recapitulation,
or summary: "which reveals what man is, what he was [i.e. at Creation),
and what he ought again to become" (WA 45, 146.25-27).
The chief summary of this divine law
is recorded in the Ten Commandments. Consequently, in spite of the modern
objections to any lex aeterna, Luther, following Scripture, is very
clear in affirming God's law, and specifically the Ten Commandments, as
an eternal law (See: Dissertation, pp.254-258). Against moral relativism,
Scripture asserts moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are moral obligations
which derive from God's unchanging moral character. There are divine obligations
which are relative, and not absolute, such as the ceremonial laws of the
Old Testament which were fulfilled in Christ's sacrifice, "once and for
all" (Heb.7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). But the moral will and commandments of
God are absolute, eternal, unchanging.
In answer to moral relativism, natural
law is deeply rooted in Luther's thought. In his essay of 1525, "How Christians
Should Regard Moses," he already distinguished between the conditioned and
the unconditioned elements in the law of Moses. For example, he stated that:
"We will regard Moses a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver—unless
he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law" (LW 35, 165).
In his Large Catechism, Luther
again affirmed natural law: "The Ten Commandments, moreover, are inscribed
in the hearts of all men" (BC, Tappert ed, 1959; p. 419). In his letter,
"Against the Sabbatarians," written in 1538, Luther, again, addressing the
antinomian heresy, declared that the Ten commandments are "the universal
commandments" [die gemeine gebot] of "the universal God" [ein
gemeiner Gott] (WA 50, 331.13-14/ LW 47, 90).
The Formula of Concord, the
great unifying confessional document of 1580, agreed. The Formula
affirmed Luther's understanding of the universality and immutability of God's
law in the following, compact definition:
[T]he law is a divine
doctrine which reveals the righteousness and immutable will of God, shows
how man ought to be disposed in his nature, thoughts, words, and deeds in
order to be pleasing and acceptable to God, and threatens the transgressors
of the law with God's wrath and temporal and eternal punishment (S.D., V,
In addition, the Formula stipulated
that this eternal law of God "was written into men's hearts when they were
created in the image of God" (Epitome, VI, 2; S.D., VI, 5).
Remarkably, Helmut Thielicke, while
citing such passages to affirm an ongoing "pedagogic significance of the
law for believers" (pp.126-141), concludes his Theological Ethics
(Eerdmans, 1979) in a thoroughgoing ethical relativism. Whereas cultural
relativism denies a universal moral standard which bridges historically
diverse cultures, Thielicke's is an eschatological relativism which denies
the "timeless validity" of moral law (pp.149-150). Thielicke proposes such
a rupture between the fallen aeon in which we live, and the new aeon yet
to come, that moral standards are relativized by the ambiguities and inevitability
of sin. This life is never more than "the zone of relativities," "the fallen
aeon" (p.351). The law of God is, at best, an "interim" ethic (p.150).
The gulf between this aeon and the
next one is so great that no alignment between the two is possible on this
side of the eschaton. On the contrary, this aeon is thoroughly characterized
by conflict and ambiguity. The orders of this aeon are not good, but rather
"the structural form of fallen existence" (p.440). Consequently the character
of the Decalogue is always "negative": "a protest against man as he actually
is" (pp.440-442). Furthermore, sin is unavoidable, even for the Christian:
"the Christian too acts always in the form of compromises… he never gets
in this aeon beyond the stage of compromise" (p.487); "sin takes place in...
the world whose structure wrings it out of me, as it were" (p.504); "I
constantly fall into actual sin in the borderline situation" (p.653).
Thielicke, like Barth, renounces natural
law because, he contends: (1) it suggests "a point of contact" and "likeness"
between God and sinner apart from Christ; (2) it implies a limitation of
the disturbance between Creator and creature caused by the fall; (3) it
is irrelevant in a fallen world of "borderline cases" which defy resolution
(pp.383-433). For Thielicke, the Decalog is provisional, since: "The doctrine
of the Law must always be viewed against the background of the fall" (p.147).
Even the "orders of creation" must be distinguished from the "original will
of God" (pp.434-451). They must be understood as
"orders of divine patience," as "emergency
orders" (pp.439-440). The rupture between this fallen world and what God
originally intended is so great that Thielicke describes the latter in terms
of "extraplanetary material" (p.487).
Thielicke goes astray in a fatalism
associated with his dualistic understanding of the two kingdoms. Consequently,
he divorces creation and redemption, and ultimately denies the efficacy of
Christ's death and resurrection. The practical significance of this fatalism
becomes manifest when Thielicke begins dealing with specific moral issues,
such as homosexuality. For example, In The Ethics of Sex (Baker,
1964), he rejects the notion of a "normative" or "timeless dictum" regarding
homosexuality (p.284). Then, he accepts the fatalistic assumption that the
constitutional homosexual "is not able to practice abstinence," but is subject
to an "irreversible situation" (pp.284-285). Finally, it is only logical
(though hardly evangelical) when Thielicke concludes that the homosexual
should be counseled to practice his homosexuality "in an ethically responsible
Although he tries to distance himself
from it, Thielicke embraces a tragic dualism which betrays the victory of
Christ over the world (Jn. 16:33). Thielicke grants earthly life such autonomy
for evil that Christ's authority is effectively denied until the new aeon,
which is yet to come. Thielicke refers to this as an "eschatological element"
in the Sermon on the Mount which, he contends, Luther overlooked. Thielicke's
dualism leads him to characterize the commands of the Sermon on the Mount
as "the laws… of the coming world," yet to deny them "a timeless validity"
which would allow any incipient fulfillment in this world (pp.348-349).
Their only function is negative: to reveal how far this world is removed
from that which is coming. Accordingly, Thielicke denies the Sermon any
practical application or positive guidance for life in this world. He rejects
Luther's view concerning "the simultaneity of the two modes of government"
in favor of an eschatological view in which the "two 'aeons' ...temporally
follow one upon the other" (p.372).
Regrettably, Thielicke has sundered
the spiritual dualism between God and Satan which runs through all of world
history, and succumbed to the notion of a temporal dualism which leaves this
present world too impregnably under the control of evil. According to Thielicke,
the obedience required in this aeon is always ambiguous and provisional.
The obedience of faith, and obedience to Caesar, are so unrelated as to
involve two lords and two loyalties. Thielicke is therefore vulnerable
to Bishop Berggrav's critique in Man and State (Muhlenberg Press,
1951), when Berggrav states:
It is high time to
establish that for Luther as for us there is only one [kingdom], and that
is God's kingdom. Otherwise this talk about two kingdoms, the worldly and
the spiritual, might be interpreted to mean that we belong to two different
sovereigns and that there are two kinds of obedience (p.300).
Berggrav's critique is timely, when
he warns against delivering the kingdom of this world to the dominion of
Satan. "We might end up," he said, "with the view that we even owe Satan
obedience if it is clear that he is 'actually in possession of power'" (p.301).
"There is only one obedience," Berggrav warned: "Mention of any other obedience
is a sin against the first commandment" (p.302).
Similarly, O'Donovan has expressed
concern that Thielicke relativized the commands of the Sermon on the Mount
as "extraplanetary material," and warned against Thielicke's eschatological
dualism. O'Donovan comments:
What, then, of an evangelical
ethics? Thielicke's gospel sounds disturbingly like a gospel of deliverance
from the world rather than of it... since the new aeon can assume no form
in this aeon except the formless form of protest... (p.145).
O'Donovan's ethical critique of Thielicke's
position is similar to Bockmuehl's more general critique of dialectical
theology in The Unreal God of Modern Theology (Helmers & Howard,
1988). Bultmann, Barth and others emphasized "the infinite qualitative distinction
between God and man" to the point, Bockmuehl asserted, of practical atheism.
The gospel is lost, Bockmuehl declared, without a God who is at work in
this world, a God who 'makes a difference' (pp.153-162). In the same way,
O'Donovan warned: "life in Christ must not be denied its own worldliness;"
Is not the heart of
the problem, then, a weakness in the understanding of the incarnation? Is
there not, after all, a doubt as to whether the divine authority really has
assumed a worldly form? …in Jesus we meet the moral order itself revealed
as incarnate (pp.146-147).
O'Donovan has therefore rejected Thielicke's
dualism, with its ethics of ambiguity and compromise, as unbiblical and
unevangelical. He states:
Jesus' moral authority
is evangelical in the fullest sense, since the moral order which he proclaims
is the kingdom of God, the theme of his message of salvation. It is a moral
order in which the arbitrariness of sinful man's relation to God's purposes
has been overcome and done away with (p.155).
The dependence of Thielicke and other
dialectical theologians upon an eschatological dualism is not justified.
Scripture and Luther both challenge such dualisms, although Luther admittedly
tended toward a dualistic expression of the Two Kingdoms in the early years
of his career. The development in Luther's understanding of the two kingdoms
is revealing, and offers a corrective of Thielicke's position.
Luther, an Augustinian monk, was well-versed
in all of Augustine's works. In The City of God, Augustine based
his idea of two basic, irreducible human societies ('cities') upon the biblical
distinction between believer and unbeliever:
This is the reason
why, for all the difference of the many and very great nations throughout
the world in religion and morals, language, weapons and dress, there exist
no more than two kinds of society, which according to our Scriptures, we
have rightly called the two cities (xiv.l).
Augustine explained the difference
between these two societies as the difference between those who, by faith,
live according to the Spirit, and those who, because of unbelief, live according
to the flesh. Luther, following Augustine, spoke of the "twofold reign
of God," according to which God governs the two societies in different ways.
Based upon the apostolic affirmations of secular authority in Romans 13:1-7
and 1 Peter 2:13-14, Luther taught that God works through human reason, natural
law, and the offices of secular government—with his "left hand." However,
based upon the Sermon on the Mount and passages such as Romans 8:1-8 and
Galatians 5:16-25, Luther taught that God also works in the world through
Christ and his followers in a spiritual government—with his "right hand."
In his study, The Ethics of Martin
Luther, Paul Althaus observed a development in Luther's thought regarding
the two kingdoms (Fortress, 1972, pp.51-53). Early in his career, Luther
understood the kingdom of the world entirely in negative terms, as the
kingdom of darkness under the lordship of Satan. However, as Luther recognized
that the orders of life derive from creation, and not from the fall into
sin, he withdrew from this dualism. Increasingly he spoke of God's sovereign
work for good, in the secular, as well as in the spiritual domain.
Until about 1523, and Luther's treatise,
"Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed," Satan is in
complete control of the earthly kingdom: "the world is God's enemy" (p.50).
In this early view, Satan rules the world. "The whole world is evil" (LW
45, p.91). The two kingdoms are mutually exclusive classes of people (LW
45, p.88). Christians have no participation in "the kingdom of the world,"
the evil of which is constrained only by the threats of the law and the
However, by 1529 Luther had developed
a much different, more balanced and Biblical viewpoint. Now God rules and
works for good in the secular world, as well as the spiritual. The two kingdoms
are now different dimensions of a single life in which every Christian participates.
In the Small Catechism, for example, Luther confessed his faith: "that
God has given and still sustains my body and soul... together with food
and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily
and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger,
and preserves me from all evil" (BC, p.345). By 1535, in his Lectures on
Galatians, Luther articulated this more mature viewpoint quite succinctly:
In short, we say that
all things are good creatures of God. To have a wife, children, and property,
or to have laws, political ordinances, and ceremonies —these are divine blessings
in their place; that is, they are temporal blessings pertaining to this life.
Who is denying that the Law is good, etc.? Therefore a distinction must
be made here as follows: God has a double blessing, a physical one for this
life and spiritual one for eternal life (LW 26, p.251).
Luther here recognized a vital, political
use of God's law in society. This involves God's external, social rule.
It includes all aspects of earthly life, including one's vocation, and
all temporal blessings. Positively, it entails the preservation of life
through the created orders of the church, the family, business, and secular
government. Negatively, it involves the restraint of sin through the exercise
of corporal punishment and external force.
This integrated (non-dualistic) understanding
of God's law is essential for Christians, as well as for society in general.
On the one hand, it provides Christians with a positive foundation for social
involvement. As a foundation for 'secular' employment and social ethics,
Christians can be assured of God's presence in the world, not only through
the gospel, but also through the common moral law written on every human
heart (Rom.2:12-16), through the institutions of marriage (Mt.19:4-6) and
government (Rom.l3:l-7), through vocation, etc. On the other hand, it provides
society both with a legitimation for government as good in principle,
and also a limitation for government which is evil in practice.
The legitimation of government as a divinely instituted, earthly order,
is a protection against anarchy. The limitation of government as a divinely
instituted, earthly order, is a protection against tyranny.
The relation of church and state
is an issue of crisis proportions today. A decade ago, R.J. Neuhaus published
an eloquent warning against totalitarianism in an essay entitled, "Christianity
and Democracy" (The Institute on Religion and Democracy, 1981). "As a universal
community, the Church witnesses to the limits of the national and ideological
loyalties that divide mankind," Neuhaus declared. "Because Christ is Lord,
Caesar is not Lord" (p. 1). His primary warning at that time was directed
against Marxist-Leninism. Because the Communist state recognizes no limitation
of its authority, Neuhaus stated that "Christians must be unapologetically
Significantly, just three years later,
Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square (Eerdmans, 1984/86), warning
against a growing totalitarian threat within the United States. Noting
the increasing secularization of government, Neuhaus asserted: "Religion
is the singular institution that...keeps the state under transcendent judgment"
(p. 118). Consequently, the repudiation of religious authority may lead
to a totalitarian state. Neuhaus reasoned:
The truly naked public
square is...a vacuum waiting to be filled...a perverse notion of the disestablishment
of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church... The totalitarian
alternative edges in from the wings... Most important is that the stage
be cleared of those religious actors that presume to assert absolute values
and thus pose such a troublesome check upon the pretensions of the state
Neuhaus called upon all Americans
to recognize that the "sacred canopy" of moral law is the very foundation,
source, and guarantee of pluralism: "the transcendent truth that both legitimates
and makes necessary the cultivation of democratic diversity." He called
upon Christians to resist the idolatrous, totalitarian pretensions of the
state, to boldly, but humbly (i.e. as "subject to the truth we possess")
challenge the myth of a 'secular' America. As recently as 1952, Neuhaus
reminded his fellow citizens, in Zorach vs. Clauson, the U.S. Supreme Court
declared: "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme
Neuhaus concluded that there is a
"gathering legitimation crisis in our public life," for which the churches
"are in large part responsible" (p.142). It is therefore essential for Christians
to recognize the God-given responsibility of the church "as the bearer of
transcendent truth to which the nation is accountable" (p.142). As Chesterton
said: "When you lose the supernatural, the natural passes into the unnatural
all too quickly."
Contemplating the future, in a vision
of what is at stake for the nation, Neuhaus summarized:
If law and polity are
divorced from moral judgment, then the apocalypse proclaimed by Nietzsche
and his imitators is upon us; the slide has begun and it is irreversible;
all things are permitted and, given the fertility of our imaginations and
technological powers, all things will be done. It is not apocalyptic but
simply descriptive to observe that when all things are permitted, when no
wickedness is forbidden in order that excellence be exalted, then the end
has come. When in our public life no legal prohibition can be articulated
with the force of transcendent authority, then there are no rules rooted
in ultimacies that can protect the poor, the powerless, and the marginal,
as indeed there are now no rules protecting the unborn and only fragile
inhibitions surrounding the aged and defective (p.153).
Today many scholars in this country
find the most ominous political developments to be the recent Supreme Court
decisions, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey,
Governor of Pennsylvania, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); and the 6-3 Supreme Court
decision this past summer (June 25, 1997)which struck down the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Writing for the majority in Planned
Parenthood vs. Casey, Justices O'Connor, Souter and Kennedy asserted:
"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence,
of the meaning of the universe and the mystery of life."
This radical statement can only be
understood in the context of postmodern assumptions, as a denial of natural
law and the foundations upon which the country was born. Whereas the Declaration
of Independence acknowledged: "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God;"
and recognized that: "All men are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights;" and appealed to: "the Supreme Judge of the World;"
and pleaded for "the Protection of divine Providence"—the current statement
of the Supreme Court of the United States acknowledges no 'higher law(s);'
recognizes no moral absolutes; appeals to no God; and pleads for no providence.
As James Dobson expressed it in a recent letter (Family News, October,
The bottom line of
the Casey decision is how we define reality. The new definition flows
from a 'postmodern' philosophy that acknowledges nothing right nor wrong,
nothing moral nor immoral. Truth does not exist and there are no absolutes
that transcend time. Everything is relative and subject to individual interpretation
Alarmed by these developments in an
increasingly totalitarian, "Imperial Court," Charles Colson and Father Richard
John Neuhaus have joined forces with a wide spectrum of Christian leaders
in a statement of concern about the growing moral and constitutional crisis
entitled: "We Hold These Truths: A Statement of Christian Conscience
Like Neuhaus and others, Colson anticipated
the current political crisis in a series of publications dating back at
least a decade. In his Kingdoms in Conflict (Zondervan, 1987), Colson
warned about any political power which denied its accountability to a higher,
sacred authority. "In Western civilization," Colson observed, "God had
traditionally played the role of legitimizing government. In classical
and Christian political philosophy He was the author of natural law—that
body of just and reasonable standards that guided human rulers and by which
the ruled were bound to respect and obey those given charge over them" (p.
"The American government was established,"
Colson said, "with the understanding that such transcendent values would
affect what otherwise is simply a social contract. When the state forgets
or denies those values that were original conditions of the contract, in
essence it abrogates its contract with its citizens. It is then that the
church must take the initiative and call the state to account" (p. 241).
Colson encouraged Christians with examples of Christian social involvement
in the past. Even under Hitler, he reminded his readers, the church was
"the only institution in Germany that offered any enduring or meaningful
Some writers, like Thomas Molnar,
in Twin Powers: Politics and the Sacred (Eerdmans, 1988), have argued
that this legitimation and limitation crisis is a global phenomenon. For
instance, Molnar has asserted that: "The sacrality of power was a universal
characteristic of humanity, without exception... The historical records
indicate.. that the strongest cement for community cohesion has always been..
the citizens' belief that, one way or another, their community belonged
to a reality higher than their own reality as individuals…a superior agency
which stands above the state" (p.viii). Molnar concluded: "My thesis, then,
is that there is a crisis today of the foundation of power, a power separated
from its sacred source. This is, in essence, the political problematic
of our times" (p.xi).
Faced with moral decay and social
disintegration, what then are Christians in the West to do? The answer,
certainly, is not simply a desperate attempt at moral reconstruction. As
H.R. Niebuhr's study, Christ and Culture (Harper, 1951), revealed,
those periods of church history have been most problematic when the church
either withdrew from the secular world altogether, as an autonomous, evil
entity; or when the church so identified itself with the secular world as
to lose its own identity and mission to the world. As Stott has phrased
it, the church is to be a "counterculture," which is in, but not of the
world. A proper understanding of natural law, in the biblical framework
of the two kingdoms, is a guard against quietistic fatalism on the one hand,
and naive utopianism on the other.
Moralism, alone, poses its own risks,
as does radical reform. There is an historical pattern in which periods
of anomie and libertinism are followed by tyranny. Tyrants such as Mao Tse-tung
have ridden to power under the banner of moral reform. Hitler promised sweeping
moral reforms when Germany faced anomie in the 1930s. Almost everyone,
intellectuals included, seemed ready to accept tyranny as a fair price for
moral stability and economic vitality. As Paul Johnson explained in Modern
Times, Hitler's domestic policy up to 1939 was simply: "to persuade the
masses to forgo liberty in exchange for security." Theologians were not
immune. R.P. Ericksen, in Theologians Under Hitler (Yale U. Press,
1985), has shown how the enthusiastic support for Hitler by Lutheran university
professors in Germany was motivated by a fear of anarchy and a reactionary
desire for law-and-order.
Ultimately, of course the answer is
that given by Augustine, when informed, in 410, that Rome had just fallen.
He gathered his flock together, and told them to take comfort, and to remember
that "we have here no abiding city, but seek that which is to come" (Heb.13:14).
Similarly, Malcolm Muggeridge counseled, in The End of Christendom
(University of Waterloo, 1980):
Let us then as Christians
rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions
and instruments of power... For it is precisely when every earthly hope has
been explored and found wanting... that Christ's hand reaches out sure and
Augustine's counsel was clearly correct.
An earthly empire had just fallen. He comforted his flock with words of
hope to strengthen faith. However, one might wonder whether Muggeridge's
call to "rejoice" over a civilization in the process of crumbling isn't
going too far. He was absolutely correct in pointing to Christ as our only
lasting hope and sure foundation. But his joy over the decay of earthly
order seems misplaced. Our Lord calls us to rejoice in His victory over
the world (Jn.16:33). But He warns us against misplacing our joy. "Do not,"
He commands, "rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but
rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Lk.1O:2O).
The complexity of the Christian attitude
was well expressed by Chesterton when he said, in reference to a 'sane man':
"He is a man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head."
Our temporal experience of this world is full of tragedy; our lasting hope
in the world to come is full of joy (Rom.5:2). But we are not allowed to
curse the world or to give up seeking earthly justice. On the contrary,
we are exhorted to pray for our government leaders and for "all who are in
high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful
in every way" (1 Tim.2:2). Furthermore, in the parable of the widow and
the unjust judge, our Lord associates faith with the pursuit of justice.
Indeed, He warns that despairing of justice, or giving up hope, will mean
the loss of faith (Lk.18:1-8).