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Let the Church Be the Church! Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., accused the white American church of compromising the gospel. The most painful compromise, he argued, was not some churches’ obviously heretical defense of racism and segregation. The most painful compromise came from those moderate white pastors who refused to let the church be the church:

I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

Numerous theologians have since picked up on Dr. King’s critique. From the careful Willie Jennings, who maintains that Christian theology has never truly come to grips with its own complicity in colonialism, to the radical James Cone, who famously described the mainstream church’s witness as “white theology,” critics have argued that when it comes to the kingdom and its righteousness, the Western church has lost its way.

It seems easy to dismiss these theologians out of hand. Too many of them appear too willing to jettison orthodox Christian teaching for increasingly radical forms of liberation theology that have little to do with the gospel. And yet, to do so would be to miss an opportunity. The reality is that many of these criticisms of traditional Christianity are far more on target than we’d like to admit.

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Jesus and Social Justice

I came to grips with this reality in seminary when I studied Jesus’s preaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 4. The standard evangelical interpretation of Jesus’s proclamation that he came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18)—at least in the respected commentaries I was reading—was that Jesus was using metaphors to describe salvation from spiritual poverty and oppression. And there seemed to be a general consensus that when Jesus described those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—and are persecuted for it—he was talking about those who yearn for justification and sanctification (Matt. 5:6, 10).

So I was surprised when I turned to John Calvin, only to find that, at least with respect to these passages, his interpretation was closer to that of the liberation theologians than to much of contemporary evangelical theology. For example, on Jesus blessing those who suffer for righteousness’ sake:

I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.7)

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

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Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice

When John Calvin became pastor in Geneva most Protestant churches didn’t have deacons responsible for caring for the poor. In the medieval church the diaconate had become an office with largely liturgical responsibilities. Most Reformed churches, following Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, assumed it was the state’s responsibility—not the church’s—to care for the poor.

Calvin decisively rejected all of these views. Identifying the church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom, Calvin insisted that the church must witness to the justice and righteousness of Christ’s kingdom in its own way, in accordance with Christ’s commands. This meant that, as one of the church’s essential ministries, it had to call men and women to serve in the spiritual office of deacon.

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Calvin, like other Christians before him, believed God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As those made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another. Calvin often used the language of rights to describe this principle. A person is defrauded, he argued, when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.

Caring for the poor, then, isn’t a requirement of charity but of justice, a basic demand of natural law. God is the “protector and patron of the poor,” Calvin says, the one who hears their cries and “feels himself injured in their persons.” Therefore, he won’t let their afflictions remain unavenged.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

What does Scripture say about government’s responsibility to the poor? Thoughts from John Calvin.

Given my travels today, and as a follow up to my recent post reminding Christians that government does have a responsibility to ensure that the poor receive justice, I thought I’d re-post an earlier piece I wrote on the same subject. The following originally appeared on this blog on July 11, 2012.

—————

There are some conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.

It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.

Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.

Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).

Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).

In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”

In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.

When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”

From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.

Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.

What did Calvin think the government should do for the poor?

There are many conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.

It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.

Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.

Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).

Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).

In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”

In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.

When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”

From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.

Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.

Does Two Kingdoms Theology Make Christians into Republicans or Democrats? You Can’t Have It Both Ways

We should all be deeply concerned about two kingdoms theology. Its disastrous effects on the church are evident, are they not? Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.

But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.

These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.

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I suppose a cynic would say that this is precisely the problem with two kingdoms theology. It complicates the link between the kingdom of God and the politics of this age, and so it allows Christians to support whatever positions they want, regardless of biblical teaching. Real Christians, thoughtful Christians, know which party is the Christian party. Right? Right?

So which party is it? Just how would Jesus vote if he were to become a citizen in 2018 America?

Who’s right, Brockman or Ball? Jeffress or White? Just which side is two kingdoms theology on! Christians demand to know. Partisans purport to reveal the real truth of the matter.

What if it turns out that Christians have substantial disagreements about politics precisely because neither political party faithfully serves the interests of justice, let alone of the kingdom of God? As my friend Mika Edmondson likes to say, if you have an easy time voting for either the Republicans or the Democrats because you are convinced that their policies align so perfectly with the teachings of Christianity, you have been deceived. The real tragedy, as my friend and colleague John Witvliet has put it, is that Christians feel forced to decide which part of a consistent ethic of life they will support and which part they will abandon.

I know. This is anathema for those who are so convinced that their party is the Christian party. And I know that because two kingdoms theology consistently challenges those who sanctify the politics of either the Right or the Left, articles like these will continue to be written and published. But do not be deceived. Brockman and Ball actually have much in common. They are both frustrated that two kingdoms theology refuses to sanctify their own politics.

This suggests to me that two kingdoms theology is actually getting something right, and that we need more of it, not less. It’s time for the church to stop being co-opted by either the Left or the Right. The gospel has much to say about justice and righteousness – and about politics too – but we only get it right when we seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, refusing to confuse that kingdom with America or with the policies of any political party.

It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.

Is Health Care for the Poor a Requirement of Justice?

It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.

I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.

Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.

That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.

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I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.

I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.

That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.

If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.

Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.

Does Planned Parenthood Fit Within the Bounds of Principled Pluralism?

My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,

Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.

It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).

As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.

Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.

Natural Law in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[Note, this post originally appeared on this blog on April 26, 2013.]

One of the common truisms I regularly come across in banter emanating from across the political and religious spectrum is that natural law is a theoretical concept devoid of any practical substance or significance. Natural law, its critics claim, produces no certain knowledge. It is more often merely the rhetorical projection of whatever a person firmly believes but finds herself unable to prove. Appeals to natural law never solve moral conflict. On the basis of natural law people on the right and the left come to radically contradictory conclusions about matters as fundamental as marriage, human life, and property. Better to find a clearer, more widely accepted basis for morality.

What is that alternative basis? Ask many conservative Christians and they will tell you it is the Bible. To be sure, the authority of the Bible is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it is still more widely accepted than any other “objective” standard. What’s more, these conservative Christians will tell you, it has the advantage of clarity. It may not answer every moral question that we have but it certainly settles the most important ones.

Really? Dig a little deeper into the blogosphere or media of any particular religious tradition and you will find that even among those who embrace the authority of Scripture there is a lot less agreement about the practical implications of what Scripture teaches than these broad appeals to the Bible would suggest. Look back into the history of Christianity and you will find even more disagreement. There is no uncontested conservative Christian consensus on moral issues as basic as slavery, war, women’s rights, poverty, or freedom of religion.

What’s more, when one takes into account different assumptions about the political implications of Scripture’s clear moral teaching the field gets even more complicated. Libertarians and theonomists, liberals and conservatives, democrats and authoritarians, nationalists and universalists all find a place under the broad Christian tent. Among these there is no consensus about the political implications of a myriad of moral subjects addressed with  more or less clarity in Scripture.

And to remind you, this is just to highlight disagreements among theologically conservative Christians. The political usefulness of the Bible as a public authority is seriously limited even before we take into account the fact that most members of our society do not accept it as a decisive authority in their lives at all.

But does that leave us without any basis for a shared public morality? No it does not, despite the apparent widespread cynicism about natural law. Step back from the more controversial political disputes of our time and you will discover much more of a public moral consensus than you might at first expect. Read the writings of almost any prominent ethicist or political theorists and you will discover appeals to broadly shared principles such as the golden rule, basic human rights, or principles of reciprocity and fairness. They might not like the term natural law and they might adamantly reject particular versions of natural law theory, but they still find themselves assuming its reality and even its concrete principles. Even the pagans know, as Calvin often said, that there are basic human values to be protected with laws backed up by coercive institutions.

In fact, in our own time there is even greater basis for confidence in the value of natural law than there was in the time of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Locke. We actually have a developing system of international law recognized throughout the world. We have the United Nations, which, problematic as it is, is still a political body in which all nations are represented. Perhaps most obviously, we have the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that comes as close to being a statement of shared universal morality as the world has ever known. Natural Law is at work. Consider these articles:

  • Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
  • Article 16:
    • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Article 25
    • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education …
    • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of course there are still major disagreements. Many people despise the UN Declaration of Human Rights, while even those who embrace it disagree with it at various points. Others reject common assumptions about what enforcing the rights enumerated in the Declaration requires on a political level. Just as importantly, the Declaration sets out only the broadest of frameworks for justice. It is tragically short on duties. It leaves tremendous room for conflict, abuse, or rationalized injustice. In so many ways, like any morality, it is  more a statement of unrealized ideals than of practical political reality.

Still, it remains a widely shared statement of universal morality, embraced by people of all sorts of religions and creeds. It remains precisely the sort of evidence for natural law to which theologians like Aquinas and Calvin pointed in their own times. I would argue that conservative Christians have avoided formulating their political convictions about abortion, marriage, child-rearing, education, and sexuality in terms consistent with the Declaration at their own peril.

There is a much stronger foundation for a public morality shared between Christians and nonbelievers, liberals and conservatives, than we are often willing to admit. Truth, thanks to common grace, still has tremendous power. If you are in doubt about what our society would really look like were this shared morality to evaporate you don’t know history very well. What we have is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless as well. Natural law is at work.

If Natural Law is Useless, Why Do So Many People Embrace It?

One of the common truisms I regularly come across in banter emanating from across the political and religious spectrum is that natural law is a theoretical concept devoid of any practical substance or significance. Natural law, its critics claim, produces no certain knowledge. It is more often merely the rhetorical projection of whatever a person firmly believes but finds herself unable to prove. Appeals to natural law never solve moral conflict. On the basis of natural law people on the right and the left come to radically contradictory conclusions about matters as fundamental as marriage, human life, and property. Better to find a clearer, more widely accepted basis for morality.

What is that alternative basis? Ask many conservative Christians and they will tell you it is the Bible. To be sure, the authority of the Bible is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it is still more widely accepted than any other “objective” standard. What’s more, these conservative Christians will tell you, it has the advantage of clarity. It may not answer every moral question that we have but it certainly settles the most important ones.

Really? Dig a little deeper into the blogosphere or media of any particular religious tradition and you will find that even among those who embrace the authority of Scripture there is a lot less agreement about the practical implications of what Scripture teaches than these broad appeals to the Bible would suggest. Look back into the history of Christianity and you will find even more disagreement. There is no uncontested conservative Christian consensus on moral issues as basic as slavery, war, women’s rights, poverty, or freedom of religion.

What’s more, when one takes into account different assumptions about the political implications of Scripture’s clear moral teaching the field gets even more complicated. Libertarians and theonomists, liberals and conservatives, democrats and authoritarians, nationalists and universalists all find a place under the broad Christian tent. Among these there is no consensus about the political implications of a myriad of moral subjects addressed with  more or less clarity in Scripture.

And to remind you, this is just to highlight disagreements among theologically conservative Christians. The political usefulness of the Bible as a public authority is seriously limited even before we take into account the fact that most members of our society do not accept it as a decisive authority in their lives at all.

But does that leave us without any basis for a shared public morality? No it does not, despite the apparent widespread cynicism about natural law. Step back from the more controversial political disputes of our time and you will discover much more of a public moral consensus than you might at first expect. Read the writings of almost any prominent ethicist or political theorists and you will discover appeals to broadly shared principles such as the golden rule, basic human rights, or principles of reciprocity and fairness. They might not like the term natural law and they might adamantly reject particular versions of natural law theory, but they still find themselves assuming its reality and even its concrete principles. Even the pagans know, as Calvin often said, that there are basic human values to be protected with laws backed up by coercive institutions.

In fact, in our own time there is even greater basis for confidence in the value of natural law than there was in the time of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Locke. We actually have a developing system of international law recognized throughout the world. We have the United Nations, which, problematic as it is, is still a political body in which all nations are represented. Perhaps most obviously, we have the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that comes as close to being a statement of shared universal morality as the world has ever known. Natural Law is at work. Consider these articles:

  • Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
  • Article 16:
    • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Article 25
    • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education …
    • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of course there are still major disagreements. Many people despise the UN Declaration of Human Rights, while even those who embrace it disagree with it at various points. Others reject common assumptions about what enforcing the rights enumerated in the Declaration requires on a political level. Just as importantly, the Declaration sets out only the broadest of frameworks for justice. It is tragically short on duties. It leaves tremendous room for conflict, abuse, or rationalized injustice. In so many ways, like any morality, it is  more a statement of unrealized ideals than of practical political reality.

Still, it remains a widely shared statement of universal morality, embraced by people of all sorts of religions and creeds. It remains precisely the sort of evidence for natural law to which theologians like Aquinas and Calvin pointed in their own times. I would argue that conservative Christians have avoided formulating their political convictions about abortion, marriage, child-rearing, education, and sexuality in terms consistent with the Declaration at their own peril.

There is a much stronger foundation for a public morality shared between Christians and nonbelievers, liberals and conservatives, than we are often willing to admit. Truth, thanks to common grace, still has tremendous power. If you are in doubt about what our society would really look like were this shared morality to evaporate you don’t know history very well. What we have is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless as well. Natural law is at work.

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