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Do Our Churches Preach Cheap Grace?

The gospel always leads to righteousness. Grace always leads to life. Having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ death, we are enabled to practice love, justice, mercy and peace through the indestructible power of his life.

Grace that fails to produce such righteousness is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It rests on the illusion that grace involves endless affirmation and endless forgiveness. It conflates salvation with justification, the gospel with the forgiveness of sins. It seems loving to us, but it expresses the easy kind of love that costs us nothing. It proclaims the comfort of the gospel but robs it of its power to give life.

Christians often counter the danger of cheap grace by emphasizing that, having been saved through Christ, we are now called to demonstrate our gratitude to God by obeying his law. Yet emphasizing a return to the law merely distorts our understanding of the Christian life. It tempts us to view our practice of righteousness merely as a response to the gospel, rather than as the working of the gospel itself in our lives. It turns the practice of righteousness into a burden, an endless debt of gratitude that we can never possibly repay.

Just as dangerous, emphasizing a return to the law inevitably leads us to associate Christian discipleship with judgment and fear rather than with liberty and life. Confusing the call to righteousness with the demands of the law, we once again come face to face with its pronouncement of death. We become ashamed of our inevitable failures before one another. We bristle against those who would seek to keep us accountable. We resist the rigor of discipleship because we fear that it will rob us of the peace of God’s grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In these ways we lose sight of power of grace. We forget that by walking in the power of the Spirit, as hard and difficult as it is, we are walking the path of “life to the full” (John 10:10). We forget that while the way of sin and injustice is the way of slavery and death – even now, even during this life – the way of the Spirit is the way of liberty and life – even now, even this side of Christ’s return.

In short, we lose sight of just how much we are missing when we ignore the gospel’s active power to change and heal us, and so cease spurring one another to pursue the fullness of life in Christ with every fiber of our being.

The apostle Paul felt a tremendous burden to communicate this truth about the life-giving power of the gospel. Christ has not merely justified us by saving us from the wrath of God, he insisted. Rather, he has given us the gift of righteousness in order that we might “reign in life” (Romans 5:17). God raised Jesus from the dead in order that “we too may live a new life,” even now, even this side of the resurrection (6:4).

“Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (6:15) That is the temptation of cheap grace. It is the call always to affirm a person, regardless of how miserable she might be in her way of life. It is a curtailed gospel, a gospel robbed of the power to grant life. It is well-intentioned, to be sure. It balks at calling a person to walk the hard path of discipleship because it fears that such a call will be heard as one of judgment and death.

And yet, Paul shows us, what calls us to the hard path of discipleship is not the law, but grace. It is not death, but life. After all, no benefit accrues to a person who continues to live in slavery to sin and its desires. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (6:21) Or as he puts it later, “The mind governed by the flesh is death” (8:6).

What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is not merely that God affirms them, regardless of their sin. What struggling Christians desperately need to hear is that God empowers them toward life in the Spirit. They need to know that the church will bear their burden with them as they walk this path.

There are far too many people in the church who “have a form of godliness but deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). There are far too many who through their teaching “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). We need to recover our confidence in the gospel’s truth that “if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness” (8:6, 9-10).

To be sure, we welcome all who confess their sins in a spirit of repentance, no matter what the sin. We celebrate the power of forgiveness even when it has already been granted seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18). We never give up on anyone.

But we remain the body of those who confess that “the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). At its core, our faith is in one whose life was so powerful that not even death could contain it. The good news is not only that we have been forgiven. It is that we are being changed.

And so, as sinful we remain, as much as we have to confess our sins and repent again every week, even every day, we do so in a spirit of hope. As much as the Christian life is inevitably a life of suffering and self-denial, we take up our cross and follow our Lord because his is the way of life. As Paul put it,

“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, … the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs … if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:14-17).

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Mika Edmondson’s Much Needed Perspective on Jesus and Politics

If you aren’t doing it already, you need to be paying attention to what Mika Edmondson is saying during this election season. The pastor of New City Fellowship, an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in Grand Rapids, and a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, Edmondson is bringing a fresh, desperately needed voice into Reformed public discourse. He grew up in the black church and wrote his doctoral dissertation (and forthcoming book) on Martin Luther King’s theology of suffering. He brings together Reformed theology and the theology of a suffering, striving minority church in ways that few people are able to do.

Thoughtful Reformed people, indeed, thoughtful Christians, cannot afford to ignore Mika’s voice.

Here is an excellent talk on biblical principles for Christian political engagement given at the Jesus and Politics conference Edmondson hosted at his church:

Mika also recently delivered an excellent speech on Martin Luther King’s concept of the beloved community while serving on a panel on race at Calvin College. I’m still looking for online audio or video for that, but if you can find it, it is well worth your time.

Also, here is a helpful article Mika wrote for the Gospel Coalition comparing Black Lives Matter to the civil rights movement: Is Black Lives Matter the New Civil Rights Movement?

Can Christianity and Liberalism Coexist?

In a thoughtful and honest article at Reformation500 Stephen Wolfe suggests that in my work Reformed social ethics has taken a “social egalitarian turn.” Wolfe is responding to my series of articles on Presbyterians and Race at Reformation 21. He specifically highlights this claim that I made:

The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society.

Wolfe agrees that southern racism was unjust. That is not his concern. His concern is that my article touches, if only in passing, on other forms of social hierarchy as well, and he fears that my arguments suggest that I disagree with the classic Christian position on social hierarchy. As he puts it,

The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy is natural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

Wolfe offers numerous quotes from leading theologians, including Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to prove this point. He seems comfortable endorsing what he himself calls a “‘spiritualized’ gospel.” He concludes with this claim:

Conservative Protestants have bought into the promises and premises of modern liberalism, and they proclaim it with confidence without having acknowledged and dealt with the dominant view in the Christian tradition. This must change.

I am grateful to Wolfe for his engagement of my essays, and I want to take this opportunity to clarify a few points about my views.

Read the rest of this article here, at the Calvinist International.

A Brave New World: 1 out of 20 Belgian Deaths is From Euthanasia

I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World this week, and was therefore disturbed, if not entirely surprised, to come across this Huffington Post video describing the ‘ethics’ of Euthanasia in Belgian. In Belgium close to 1 out of every 20 deaths are the result of individuals with terminal illnesses or incurable suffering choosing to be killed by a physician. Yes, children too. There are all sorts of bureaucratic safeguards to make sure the process is not abused, of course. You can rest assured about that.

It was not long ago that virtually everyone in Europe and the United States would have found this scenario morally abhorrent, even dystopian. But this is the new reality. Has the Liberal West lost its moral compass?

Many Christians would say yes, but I think this assessment is mistaken. It’s not that the West has lost its moral compass. It’s that its compass is adjusted to point in a slightly different direction than it once did. Over time, that slight difference leads you to a very different moral terrain. But there is still a coherent rationale to it.

What we are seeing is the divergence of two kinds of Liberal individualism. On the one side is the more traditional Liberalism, what I might call a Christian Liberalism. Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.

According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

A stimulating account of the origins of this kind of liberalism appears in Larry Seidentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Its preeminent advocate in contemporary political theology is the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The second kind of Liberalism is developing into something we might call Secularist Liberalism. Secularist Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single human being who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. Human life is to be protected, according to Secularist Liberalism, because each developed individual is an end in and of himself and should always be treated as an end in and of himself. Society  needs to be careful to avoid over-determining what is the good life for any particular individual. Each person’s choice of lifestyle and self-expression should be affirmed; all must be included.

According to this ethic abortion is a necessary evil because it is sometimes required to solve the clash of interests between an autonomous woman, who is an end in herself, and a fetus who has potential personhood, but is not yet sufficiently developed to possess autonomy. Euthanasia is acceptable, even to be preferred, because it partially restores death, that sensitive and yet inevitable event looming in every person’s life, to the control of human choice. Institutions and practices integral to human agency – such as sexual expression, education, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

The primary philosophers associated with what has become Secularist Liberalism are Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, but its assumptions are now pervasive in western culture.

These two strands of Liberalism have much in common, of course, because the one gave birth to the other. (Tim Jackson likes to say that political liberalism is Christianity’s stepchild.) They share a commitment to the dignity of the individual, and support many common institutions and practices. What is more, most people are not so philosophically consistent as to fall entirely into one way of thinking or the other. Consider these as two types, types that are increasingly diverging in their response to contemporary issues of justice.

Christians are sometimes tempted to abandon liberalism because of the excesses of its secularist version, and some of our most prominent public intellectuals call us to do just that. But this is a mistake. We need to get back to promoting the beauty, integrity, and truth of Christian Liberalism. Once the unchallenged reign of Secularist Liberalism begins to lose its shine, once human beings begin experiencing the moral and social isolation of a self-referential individualism, I suspect more than just orthodox Christians will begin to thirst for more.

I Will Praise You In This Storm

On Monday afternoon around 4:00 a tornado 200-300 yards wide tore down Beech Ridge Road in Beaufort County, North Carolina, a peaceful rural road where I spent the latter part of my youth and still consider home. My family and I moved into a solid, beautiful house about half a mile back from the road back in 1999. I spent several years and summers there and many more vacations and holidays, building treasured memories and enjoying the people dearest to me in this world. My sister Elyssa (now eighteen) has known no other home.

Not long after we moved to the Beech Ridge house my sister Carla married her husband Mark, and they eventually purchased a dilapidated property about two miles down the same road. Over the years, and with a lot of work, Mark and Carla cleaned up the property and the house situated on it, rebuilt the barn, planted trees and a garden, and made for themselves a life. Over the years they had six children, including one set of twins, and have a seventh child on the way.

Tornado watches and warnings are relatively frequent in eastern North Carolina. We pay attention to them, but don’t let them upset our routine too much because nothing ever comes of them, or they are always somewhere else.

That afternoon my sister was homeschooling her son Daniel (7 years old) when eleven year old Joshua, who loves watching and learning about weather, burst into the house and told her he saw the tornado from the porch. Carla thought he was probably exaggerating, but when he insisted, she followed his lead and gathered the children in the bathtub: Joshua, Josiah (9), Daniel, Hannah (4), Judah and Micah (2). Carla is due to have a baby next week.

While this was happening Mark was in the barn. He heard a noise but didn’t realize it was the tornado until he saw debris blowing. Looking outside he saw the tornado coming from behind a wood, only a few minutes away. He quickly told the neighbor (who lives in a house on their property) and then ran to tell Carla and the kids. Mark made a snap judgment that this was a tornado his house – a doublewide – was not going to withstand. He yelled to everyone in the house to get out and run to a deep ditch about forty yards from the house (on the opposite side from the barn).

Carla told me she thought this probably wasn’t a very good idea. “Isn’t it better to be in here than to be outside, or even to be caught running when the tornado hits?” But the boys, she said, didn’t hesitate, and she followed their lead. Mark grabbed one of the twins, and Daniel, seven year old Daniel, grabbed the other. As he ran out the door and across the front yard, Mark said he saw the tornado begin to chew up his barn, about a hundred yards from the house. It was about twenty seconds, he said, from when he told everyone to get out of the house, to the point the tornado swept over their heads and over the ditch.

Carla was following but she realized that Hannah, still groggy from a nap, had gone back to her room, possibly to get her shoes. Carla went back and told Hannah she had to run in bare feet. Holding Hannah, she climbed or jumped off the 3 foot high front porch – she doesn’t remember how but she somehow injured her leg in the process. Being full-term, she had to put Hannah down. She took her hand, and they began to run toward the ditch, as fast as they could move.

About half way to the ditch Carla felt the wind pick up and said she realized they wouldn’t make it. She lay down and covered Hannah as the tornado swept over. Carla tries to describe what happened during the next few seconds but says she doesn’t entirely know. What she does know is that she saw a large cedar tree crash to the ground and land only a few yards away from them. The tree then swept toward them and she felt it slam against her shoulders. The next few seconds, she says, she was thrown around like a little child caught in the ocean’s waves, branches clutching and scraping her. All she could do was repeat the prayer “Lord save me!” She held on to Hannah, but the little girl was pulled from her arms.

Then it was over. Hannah was beside her and the wind was dying down. She saw a snake lying in the grass. They got up and moved toward the ditch just as Mark and the boys were getting out. This was the first moment Mark realized that not everyone had made it into the ditch. “Is everyone OK? Where is Joshua?” Joshua was still in the ditch, extricating himself from part of a tree that had landed on top of him when the tornado swept over the ditch. Everyone was alive.

But the house was gone. Literally gone. Most of the foundation was still there, but the rest of the house consisted of a pile of rubble several dozen yards away. The tree that had been swept over Carla and Hannah was lying in an adjacent field. The top story of the barn was gone and only one wall remained of the rest. The van was upside down and the car totaled. The entire property, including most of its beautiful trees, was entirely laid waste. In this picture you can see the bathtub in which Carla and the kids had taken shelter before Mark told them to get out.

 

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This is the foundation of Mark and Carla’s house.

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The tornado didn’t stop there, of course. My younger sister Elyssa was reading in the living room of my parents’ house when she heard my Mom, who thankfully was not napping in her upstairs bedroom as she usually does in the afternoon, yell that a tornado was coming. Glancing up, she could see the tornado out the front window, sweeping towards the house. They took shelter in an interior bathroom.

Within two seconds the tornado hit the house. It tore off half the roof (above my parents’ room and my old bedroom) and sent the top of the massive chimney crashing through the back deck. Huge trees were down everywhere and a barn full of massive farm equipment a few hundred yards from the house was completely destroyed, but just about everything inside the house was fine. It was pouring rain, of course, so that would not last long. Mom and Elyssa could see the tornado moving down the field away from the house.

Parents' house

Almost immediately neighbors, friends, and folks from our church began to arrive. A pale-faced man with a quivering lip told Mom that Mark and Carla had lost everything but that they were OK. They went to see Mark and Carla and found Carla in a brace with an ambulance getting ready to take her to the hospital. No words can describe the entirety of thoughts and emotions, of course. Only “‘Thank You Lord,’ a hundred times in the ditch,” Carla said. Carla had felt the baby move inside her, so that gave her great relief. Her face covered in grime, she said to my weeping mother, “we’re OK Mom. Everyone’s OK.” Hannah had blood coming out of her ear but seems to be fine. Carla’s whole body still aches with pain, and she is covered with bruises and scrapes, but aside from that, the doctors determined, she and the baby are fine. She came home from the hospital on Tuesday.

Soon well over a hundred people were helping my parents (my Dad had come home) save their possessions from the rain, and looking through the rubble of Mark and Carla’s house to see what could be salvaged. There was little in the latter case, but there were some things to be saved. The boys found a precious piece of jewelry that both my older sisters wore at their weddings and that my younger sister wore as a bridesmaid at mine. With the help of the neighbors my parents have saved just about everything of value from their home, though it is clear that the house itself is finished.

I loved that house. But things are just things, and it is not the house that I can’t stop thinking about, or that has left me in a daze over the past couple of days. I can’t stop thinking about my precious sister, in the thirty-ninth week of her pregnancy, being thrown around on the ground by a tornado even as it utterly obliterates her home some twenty yards away. I can’t stop thinking about the few seconds between the time when they were all in that bathtub and the moment when the tornado struck. We almost lost them, it was a matter of seconds and inches. I can’t stop thanking God for his mercy.

There is no doubt my brother-in-law Mark saved his family. Thank you, Mark for your wisdom and decisiveness. The boys were so courageous, taking care of themselves and helping their younger siblings at the same time (seven year old Daniel was an absolute hero, carrying his two year old brother all the way from the house to the ditch!). And Carla no doubt saved little Hannah’s life.

But our loving God, whose ways are mysterious and beyond understanding, saved them all. Our Lord, who did not think it too much to take on human flesh and pay the ultimate price for our sin, continues to show us mercy in ways that can only look to us like the miraculous.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;

God will help her when morning dawns.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The LORD of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46:1-7.

I don’t know who wrote it, but on my parents’ living room window, where my sister Elyssa had been reading, someone has traced in the filth, “I will praise you in this storm.” Yes, our gracious God, our Savior. We praise you and we thank you.

I will praise you in this storm

Note: I have now been informed that it was Elyssa who wrote these words.

Should the United States Attack Syria?

A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.

The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.

  1. The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
  2. The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
  3. U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.

This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.

If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,

This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.

This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.

Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.

Is that the best that just war theory can do?

To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,

Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . .  the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.

Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.

I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.

A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.

What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.

Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,

For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons

Are we willing to abandon that position now?

But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.

The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.

By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.

In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?

To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,

The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”

It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.

Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”

Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.

What Can the Church Learn From Gay Christians?

Amid all the political, legal, cultural and theological controversy over same-sex marriage, it is easy for both ‘sides’ in the debate to assume that they fully understand the nefarious motivations and character of their opponents. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s dismissal of those who advocated and enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as being motivated by mere animus towards gay and lesbian couples surely represents one of the lowest moments in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. But however irrelevant it should have been to the case before the Court, conservatives, including conservative Christians, have often enough written off all gay rights advocates, not to mention gays and lesbians themselves, as little more than unmitigated evil.

These sorts of assumptions fall apart when men and women committed to homosexuality as a way of life argue vehemently against same-sex marriage on the basis that human sexual preferences and activities should not require such bourgeois or ‘Christian’ affirmation, or that marriage should, in fact, be an institution geared towards the procreation and raising of children. They are equally undone when Christians, such as the authors of What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, indicate their support for civil unions, or when libertarians, who view homosexuality as morally inappropriate, nevertheless believe that the state has no business restricting civil marriage to heterosexual couples.

Needless to say, these debates are a lot more complicated than the media, or Justice Anthony Kennedy, would have us believe.

But the issue of homosexuality is more complicated in another sense as well. Most people assume that virtually all gay and lesbian people affirm homosexuality as a way of life, but this is hardly the case. Martin Hallett, a homosexual Christian who leads a ministry to gays and lesbians in the United Kingdom, writes, “There are probably nearly as many Christians with homosexual feelings who do not believe that homosexual sex is right for Christians as there are those who are advocating its acceptance.”

One such Christian is Wesley Hill, a New Testament scholar and professor at Trinity School for Ministry. I just finished reading Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. It’s short, simple, and substantially anecdotal (though also quite theological), but it has to be one of the most helpful books I’ve read this year. Any Christian who wants to be humbled and challenged in her sanctification should read this book. Anyone who wants to know what it means to be a Christian who has never known anything other than a homosexual orientation, and yet who yearns faithfully to follow Christ and therefore abstain from homosexual practice, must read this book.

Hill notes that he wrote the book (while a graduate student) because after years of searching he came to realize that no one was writing about homosexuality in a way that actually comes to grips with the experience and pain of homosexual Christians. As he puts it,

My story is very different from other stories told by people wearing the same designation – ‘homosexual Christian’ – that I wear. Many in the church – more so in the mainline denominations than the evangelical ones, though that could soon change – tell stories of ‘homosexual holiness.’ The authors of these narratives profess a deep faith in Christ and claim a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit precisely in and through their homosexual practice. According to these Christians, their homosexuality is an expression of holiness, a symbol and conduit of God’s grace in their lives. My own story, by contrast, is a story of feeling spiritually hindered rather than helped by my homosexuality. Another way to say it would be to observe that my story testifies to the truth of the position the Christian church has held with almost total unanimity throughout the centuries – namely, that homosexuality was not God’s original creative intention for humanity, that it is, on the contrary, a tragic sign of human nature and relationships being fractured by sin, and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially those who trust in Christ.

Thus far conservative Christians will track with Hill all the way. But what he goes on to say next, and the way he goes on to flesh it out in the rest of the book, is no happy-go-lucky story of transformation. On the contrary, Hill notes, he has never experienced a decisive change of his sexual orientation. He has never felt sexually attracted to women, and he has always struggled with his desires for a sexual relationship with men. His story has been one of loneliness, pain, and suffering. His path has been that of celibacy. His hope has been that he is forgiven, and that his wait for complete transformation will one day be realized in the resurrection of the dead.

But what of his life as a gay Christian in the meantime? Hill is careful to use the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ as adjectives, not as nouns. His identity, he insists, is as a Christian, albeit one who struggles with homosexual desires. Yet Hill emotionally but carefully describes the very real agony and loneliness of his walk with Christ. Human beings were made to experience love, fellowship, and sexual union with other human beings, he reminds us. And although it is ultimately God who satisfies us in Christ Jesus, in the present age the ache remains, our bodies groaning for their redemption. Why? Hill describes how one of his professors put it, with reference to a hypothetical counseling session for a lesbian:

God is the one who created humans to want and need relationships, to crave human companionship, to want to be desired by other humans. God doesn’t want anyone to try to redirect their desire for community to himself. God is spirit. Instead, I think God wants people to experience his love through their experience of human community – specifically, the church. God created us as physical-spiritual beings with deep longings for intimacy with other physical-spiritual beings. We’re not meant to replace these longings with anything. We’re meant to sanctify them….

The problem with your lesbian desires is not that you’re desperately craving human love … The problem is that your good desire for human love is bent, broken.

For many Christians the most intense, intimate way in which they experience this sort of communion with another person is through marriage. But what of our brothers and sisters who have no such option? This is not merely the case of those who are homosexual in their desires, but for those who long to be married but for whatever reason cannot be. It is also the case for those who are married, but whose marriage has fallen apart due to conflict, apathy, or infidelity. In every one of these cases the only appropriate Christian response is that of celibacy, of taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus.

Far too often, I fear, Christians portray marriage as if it were the epitome of human existence. This is, of course, a modern phenomena, rooted in our culture’s infatuation with romantic love and sexuality. Go back a couple hundred years and you will find that marriage was more about social responsibilities and commitments, the procreation and raising of children, than about romantic love. Love was supposed to be a part of the equation, of course, and it has always been an obligation for all Christian spouses.

But as early as the 19th Century, during the Victorian era, Americans came to conceive of human sexual love as the transcendent human experience, the most satisfying thing for which one can live. Here indeed, as astute cultural observers were aware at the time, the glory of God and fellowship with Christ were already being shoved aside from the prominent place they had long held within Christendom. Romantic love and a satisfied sexuality became the great idol of modernity, and as such, it gradually changed the way most people thought about marriage. Here, not in the 1960s, are the roots of the modern conception of marriage, according to which same-sex marriage makes sense.

Has the church exacerbated this form of idolatry? Far more, I suspect, than we realize. In the New Testament, as Hill points out, the most important place for love and fellowship is not marriage, but the church. Paul wished that all would be as he were, a celibate Christian devoted to the kingdom of God, and he acknowledged that marriage would be appropriate for most people only as a concession (1 Corinthians 7). But the Christian who is married is to live as if he were not (1 Corinthians 7), and the most important identity and sense of belonging for the Christian is to be the body of Christ. Paul’s most eloquent words about love (1 Corinthians 13) therefore appear in his discussion about the church, not in the context of marriage. As Hill puts it, again quoting a friend:

[E]ven when agape love is discussed in the marital context of Ephesians 5, it is sacrificial love that is the model for marital love – not the other way around. Marriage is a venue for expressing love, which in its purest form exists, first and foremost, outside of it. The greatest joys and experiences God has for us are not found in marriage, for if they were, surely God would not do away with marriage in heaven.

Perhaps, then, gay Christians like Wesley Hill actually have something important to teach us. Indeed, I found this book to be powerfully humbling. It is so easy for most of us to get caught up in our families, our marriages, and our vocations, mistaking the American dream for the service of Christ. Yet people like Wesley Hill remind us that this is, in fact, not the most important thing. They also make it eminently clear that the way of Christ is the way of suffering and self-denial, no matter how often we try to turn it into something else.

If no part of the body has the right to say to another, “I have no need of you,” surely this means that we need to take the witness of these fellow Christian pilgrims, whose cross is so much more difficult to bear than is our own, much more seriously. Yet how often are we simply obsessed with our own lives, leaving those who depend on the body of Christ simply to keep their heads above the water, essentially to fend for themselves? If gay Christians serve to show us our own idolatry, it remains the case that our brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexuality cannot persevere unless we come alongside them and share their burdens. We need to be for them who we are – the body of Christ.

As Jesus said, “whatever you do for the least of these my brothers, you do it for me.”

Redemption, Natural Law, and Creation Care: Political Theology 101

In the debates that sometimes stir across the evangelical world natural law and Scripture, creation and redemption, are often played off against one another as if they are dueling forces in a zero-sum game. Usually these controversies obscure the point that the real question under discussion is about the appropriate relation between natural law and Scripture, or between creation and redemption, rather than about dividing and classifying the world or ethics according to some scientific principle.

The fact is, in orthodox Christian theology it is precisely the creation that God redeems in Jesus Christ (what else could he possibly be redeeming?) and it is the natural law to which Scripture commands us to adhere (otherwise God would be schizophrenic). The real questions we should be discussing – How does future redemption call us to relate to the presently fallen creation? How in the created order do we see the natural law that points all human beings to their creator? – are much more difficult to answer, and require much more humility, than are these false dilemmas.

Shortly after I arrived at Westminster Seminary California some years ago Michael Horton guided me into the field of political theology by suggesting that I read Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order. I had been a history major at Covenant College and in Washington D.C. my focus was on practical politics and government. This was my first deep foray into the theology that underlies ethics and politics.

Oliver O’Donovan is one of the preeminent ethicists of our time. He certainly knows the Christian tradition better than anyone else (he is the editor of the massive From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625), and he has a way of bringing the debates of the past into conversation with the issues of the present in a way that is appropriate, rather than strained, insightful rather than anachronistic.

In Resurrection and Moral Order O’Donovan does a masterful job articulating the decisive relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the created order, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. As he puts it,

In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached. So the resurrection of Christ directs our attention back to the creation which it vindicates.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every last individual, or every particular of creation will be renewed. As John Calvin argues in his commentary on 2 Peter 3, making use of Aristotelian logic, it is the substance of creation that will be renewed, not the accidents. “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21 and from other passages.” As Calvin warns, we should be wary of theological speculation that seeks to identify precisely the sort of continuity this entails.

Still, Calvin is quite clear that the restoration for which fallen creation is destined is the same telos, or goal, for which it was always intended. God is redeeming the creation through Christ not in the sense that he is returning it to some static, original state, but in the sense that he is restoring it to its original destiny and purpose. As Michael Northcott puts it, directly in line with Calvin, “the resurrection vindicates the original relational ordering of creation towards the Triune God.”

Some of the readers of my article, “Should Christians be Environmentalists?“, questioned whether it is really appropriate to ground Christians’ approach to care for the environment in our Christology. Wouldn’t it be better simply to look to creation, rather than to confuse creation with redemption? I understand the concern. It would be ludicrous for Christians to claim the ability to somehow bring this fallen world to its eternal purpose in God’s kingdom, let alone even to restore it to its original pristine state.

But that is not the purpose or implication of grounding our attitude towards creation in Christ’s work of redemption. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jesus’ incarnation and bodily resurrection has vindicated the created order, placing God’s stamp of approval on it and establishing its eternal existence. The sin and curse that have so tarnished it have done their worst, but they have ultimately failed. Creation is not destined for destruction, but for restoration.

Why does this matter? If the fall so tarnished creation that God has decided to abandon it, elevating human souls to some sort of transcendent destiny, then Christianity isn’t so different from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism. Natural law can hold little claim over us. Creation has mere instrumental value. The philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment then had plausible reasons to view the human relationship toward the environment as one of mastery and exploitation. Christians are simply waiting out the deluge in the lifeboat, waiting to be rescued from this dying world. All that really matters is how many souls are saved.

If, on the other hand, the resurrection amounts to the reconciliation of all things in the body of Jesus, as Paul declares in Colossians 1:15-20, then that tells us something about the fundamental goodness of creation. No matter how tarnished it may be, no matter how radical a transformation it will undergo when Christ returns at the end of the age, the creation itself is destined for salvation. The resurrection has enabled us to make a “decision about the status of the ordering of creation as we still partially encounter it, both in ourselves and in the rest of the created order.” The decision is that natural law endures.

The practical implications of this are therefore significant. Because creation is good, because it continues to hold a place in God’s redemptive purposes, the created order – natural law – maintains its authoritative place in Christian ethics. O’Donovan ties together the various threads:

only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be an ‘evangelical’ ethics. Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a Gnostic, gospel at all. The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.

In other words, only if Christian ethics reflects the created moral order does it remain faithful to the gospel. Christians must constantly be about the business of demonstrating that the moral order found in Scripture is indeed that of the creation within which we live. It is, in short, natural law.

Far too much of modernity amounts to a war waged against creation for human ends. Women must have the right to choose to destroy the life within them if we are to be free. Industry must have the right to pollute rivers and groundwater if we are to be prosperous. Men must be permitted to use their property – even human property – precisely how they desire, if we are to be autonomous. Governments must be granted the unchecked ability to wage war against weaker nations if we are to be secure. Individuals must be permitted to engage in sexual relations that bring them pleasure, even to bring children into family structures that seem rewarding to them, regardless of the alienation from the body and from the sexuality of male and female that it entails, if we are to have genuine self-regard.

Christianity permits no such mechanical domination over nature. It requires, rather, a respect for natural law, finding genuine freedom within the order that God has created and that he has redeemed in Christ’s resurrection. And while Evangelicals are good at insisting on these principles for their own pet issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), their record is less impressive when it comes to others. Claims to a principled approach to politics, or to genuine interest in natural law, would be far more credible were they applied across the board. In the same sense that the health of the fetus, or of a sexual relationship, or of children, is normative for Christians, so the health of the environment, of material and social relationships, and of international affairs deserves our careful attention. The more power human beings, whether as individuals or collectively, have to exercise power unjustly in these areas, the more government is required to intervene to maintain at least a basic measure of justice and peace.

That does not mean we are imposing our religion, seeking to bring about a utopian kingdom of God. Although our motive is forward looking (faithfulness to Christ and his work) our standard is backward looking (conformity to the created order, or to natural law). Although the measure according to which we will be judged is that of perfection (idealism), we recognize that this side of Christ’s return – and in the realm of coercive politics – we are dealing with fallen human beings and a cursed creation (realism). We are therefore motivated and informed by distinctly Christian theology, but the basic material with which we are concerned and the practical knowledge on which we rely, is shared commonly between believers and unbelievers. Christ is lord of all, but we remain caught in the eschatological tension between the two kingdoms, between the present evil age and the kingdom of the age to come.

Anyone who takes all of these principles seriously will quickly see that the Christian religion is not a political conversation stopper. There are no direct lines between biblical teaching and environmental policy. Our Christian faith calls us to take our responsibility toward the environment seriously, and yet it is by no means immediately clear what this means in practical terms. Indeed, on a practical level unbelievers or pagans might hold more wisdom and prudence in these areas than we do. Our calling is humbly to serve, testifying in this way to the hope that lies within us.

Christianity does eliminate several options. We are not pagans who worship nature, setting it above human beings in status and worth. Nor are we humanists who value prosperity and wealth no matter what the human and environmental cost. We are Christians who recognize that the destiny both of ourselves and of creation is in Christ, and that in the meantime, we are to be stewards of the created order, to the best of our ability.

The Law, Israel, and Politics: Coming to Grips with a Reformed Error

[Note: This article originally appeared on this blog on May 1, 2012.]

In a recent post on his excellent blog, Walter Russel Mead compares the political right in Israel with the political right in America:

Like social conservatives and libertarians in the US, only in a much more polarized way, the right wing of the Israeli electorate includes very religious and very secular voters. The Christian right in the US is mostly focused on a small number of high profile issues like abortion. In Israel, the religious right has a much fuller and more encompassing view on how religion should shape the political agenda. Jewish law in all its complexity, many feel, should be the guiding principle in a Jewish state.  The resulting issues go from how strictly should state entities observe the Sabbath to whether ultra-Orthodox students should be able to defer their military service indefinitely.

In part due to its high birth rate, the ultra-orthodox movement is increasingly asserting itself in Israeli politics. And consistent with their allegiance to the old Mosaic Covenant, they want Israel to be run according to the Torah, the Mosaic Law. As the International Crisis Group quotes one ultra-orthodox student:

There’s a new ultra-orthodox generation that wasn’t born in the diaspora but in the land of Israel. It’s the world of those whose roots belong here and who don’t want to abandon the land. They see the crisis afflicting Israel and want to get involved in mainstream politics for the good of the whole society, not just their interest group. They want to see judges wear skullcaps and act according to Torah law.

Classically, of course, Christians rejected the use of the Torah as a definitive authority for the government of Christian lands. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to claim in his Summa Theologiae that if someone follows the Torah’s political and judicial laws simply because those laws are found in the Torah, that person commits a mortal sin (I-II, Q. 104, Art. 3). Christians were to obey the Torah only insofar as it reflected natural law.

Martin Luther, likewise, argued that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, and that they should follow its political laws only where those laws can be demonstrated to be expressions of natural law. On this basis he initially opposed the use of the sword for the coercion of false teachers or blasphemers. Unfortunately, he later changed his position.

Even John Calvin took a similar position. As he wrote in his first edition of the Institutes, against those who “deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and [which] is ruled by the common laws of nations,” the judicial laws of the Torah are only binding insofar as they are expressions of the timeless demands of natural law, love, and equity:

For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain… For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere (4.20.14-16).

In fact, it is little known that in the first edition of theInstitutesCalvin criticized the use of the sword for religious persecution. Speaking of the love with which Christians should seek to reconcile those who are excommunicated, as well as “Turks and Saracens, and other enemies of religion,” he wrote:

Far be it from us to approve those methods by which many until now have tried to force them to our faith, when they forbid them the use of fire and water and the common elements, when they deny them all offices of humanity, when they pursue them with sword and arms (1536 Institutes, 2.28).

This is promising stuff. Unfortunately, Calvin dropped that quote from subsequent editions of the Institutes (except, fascinatingly, the final French edition). In practice, he defended government’s use of the sword to punish violators of all of the Ten Commandments, especially in his commentaries and sermons on the Torah. Both Lutheranism and Calvinism became known for their turning to the example of Old Testament Israel as a model for Christian commonwealths. Like the Israelite kings, godly magistrates were to enforce all of God’s laws, including those laws regulating preaching and worship.

It’s not that they didn’t know opposing arguments. In addition to their early positions, as described above, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers were consistently confronted with arguments from Anabaptists, Evangelical pastors, prominent civil officials, and various intellectuals, to the effect that Christians are not under Israel’s Torah, and that therefore the example of Old Testament Israel did not justify the use of the sword for religious persecution. As one civil official in the city of Nurnberg put it:

Now it is certainly true that the Old Testament no longer binds any man, and if we are bound in one matter on the ground that it is commanded in the Old Testament, how shall we avoid being bound in other such matters? If one thing were necessary, they would all be necessary, as Paul clearly concludes in Gal. 5[:3] and says against those who wanted to make circumcision obligatory: Whoever has himself circumcised is obliged to fulfill the whole law. Therefore we must not be bound by anything in the Old Testament but rather give heed to the New Testament.

Our views of the Mosaic Covenant, of the Torah, and of their relation to politics in the present age are tremendously important. Christians still debate this stuff vigorously today, although the “dominionists” and “theonomists” make up only a small minority within Evangelicalism. Is God’s purpose for modern day America (or for modern day Israel, for that matter), for us to be an imitation of Old Testament Israel, under that Law that Christians – according to Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin in their better moments – have been freed from?

Thankfully in time the Reformed tradition came to see the mistake in insisting that civil magistrates are to enforce the true religion, and both the Westminster Confession of Faith (the Presbyterian confession) and the Belgic Confession of Faith (the Dutch Reformed confession) were modified to eliminate that requirement. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that in part this was simply a shift of convenience. When separation of church and state and religious liberty is so popular all around us, it is hard to keep such an intolerant confession. Have we ever really come to grips with the crucial theological and covenantal issues that led our tradition down the wrong path in the past? Do we still think that in some ideal sense we are “under the Torah”? There still needs to be so much discussion on this topic.

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.

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