Legislating Morality? Part 2 (Warning: Long Post for Christmas Digestion)

Posted on December 20, 2013 by


My colleague Jeff Haymond wrote in a comment on my recent blog, “Legislating Morality?  Christians, Law and Politics,” that I had raised questions but not given answers.  He was correct.  So now that he has prodded me for answers I will put myself in jeopardy of all sorts of criticism by offering some tentative answers.  They are tentative because I am still thinking all this through—after some 25 years.  It takes a long time to begin even to feel one’s way to criticisms of current solutions, let alone propose one’s own.  But here goes anyway.

Essentially, I argued that Christians seem to be “stuck” with three possible approaches to political-legal engagement in culture: (1) the new (or not new) “Two Kingdoms” theology; (2) the once venerable natural law theory; and (3) Theonomy.  I suppose there is also a fourth: pragmatism, which is not really a coherent theory, but sometimes “gets it right.”  None of these is palatable to all Christians and none is palatable to even a majority of believers.  That doesn’t make any one right or wrong, but simply points up the problem of agreement.  Besides that, we haven’t really thought as deeply as we should on it, allowing the secular political thinkers to rule the day.  We—Christians—don’t seem to want to do the hard work, or, alternatively, we have bought into non-Christian theories to a great extent, attempting to “baptize” them in Christian language to make them more acceptable.  So who am I to be so critical and offer no alternative.  I get it.  I have to produce here.

Let’s begin with something I said in the earlier blog, but that needs to be emphasized.  All thinking about anything (yes, anything) from a Christian standpoint must begin with reference to special revelation, the Bible of the Old and New Testaments, the very source of knowledge for faith and life.  There is no way to get around this requirement and still say we are being Christian. 

Having made that assumption, we then must ask, How do I go about constructing a political-legal worldview from the Scriptures that remains true to their intended meaning and which is also able to draw on (secondarily) knowledge outside the Bible, knowledge gained through reason, observation, experiment?  That question (or those questions) has at least two answers.

First, we use the standard practices and theories of orthodox Christianity with regard to interpretation and theology (or “theologizing” as some would put it). 

Second, we use “outside” knowledge to aid our arguments, but we always interpret that knowledge through the lens of Scripture.  This means that the Scriptures act as both a source of our political and legal knowledge and a boundary condition for exogenous knowledge..

Let’s go more deeply into interpretation and theology, both methodologically and, in the case of politics and law, substantively.  Methodologically, we are required to look for the author’s intent in a text, and the meaning we derive is an objective meaning, not a subjectively defined “reader response.”  This requires sensitivity to the literary and non-literary contexts, to the literary genre, and to the uses of language (Greek or Hebrew), and to other similar texts in Scripture.  But before we even begin to discover meaning in texts, we have to decide which texts are relevant.  This task is not easy.  We can’t just look for words such as “politics” or “law” or some other related terms, or else we would be hunting in vain in some cases and would be led down dead ends in others.  Yes, we can look for terms we believe will be relevant, but be careful.  In addition, we must look for texts and concepts that are relevant.  For example, Romans 13 uses none of the typical modern terminology of politics or law and yet it is a classic political text.

Once we have “collected” a group of relevant texts, we have to do two more things.  We have to begin to ask the right questions of those texts regarding meaning and then we have to develop a coherent “theology” of politics and law from all these texts.  This is where the discipline of theology enters and helps us—if we use it correctly.

So what kinds of questions do we want to ask of the biblical texts with respect to government and law?  I submit there are many, as many at least as political thinkers have been asking over the centuries.  I will list a few (not exhaustive):

  1.  Why do we have government at all?
  2. Who ordained government?
  3. What are the limits of governmental power?
  4. What type of governmental structure is right or best?  Is there a right system?
  5. What does the content of a biblical legal system look like?
  6. How does the nature of man/humanity influence the way we think about politics?
  7. What are the legitimate functions of government?
  8. What is the place/validity of the Mosaic civil law in a legal system?
  9. What is justice?  Social justice?
  10. What are property rights and their limits?
  11. Should Christians engage in the political realm?
  12. Should laws have a Christian content?  Should “we” “legislate morality”?
  13. What are the limits of a Christian’s obedience to governmental authorities?
  14. Are aspects of the Old Testament “blueprints” or models for a constitution?
  15. Is there such a concept as natural law and what is its role in our knowledge of politics and law?
  16. Does Scripture support redistribution of income by the state?
  17. Does Scripture condemn inequality of income or resources?
  18. Does Scripture contain a legal-political rights theory?
  19. When if ever can a group of people or citizens rebel against their government?
  20. Does Scripture have a theory of the rule of law?
  21. Can a group of people forming a collective institution (aggregating) do anything they wish because they have voted for it?

That is only a partial and slightly redundant list of possible questions.  As one reads through the Bible and learns it well (with the aid sometimes of Greek and Hebrew-language Bibles, concordances in the vernacular languages and in English, commentaries, historical aids for contextual purposes, grammars, etc.) and with the questions in mind, texts begin to present themselves.  One might say to himself, “Oh, this is a political text having to do with______,” or “This is a legal text.”  Then of course one must interpret the texts correctly before putting all of them together in a theology.

What can we learn from outside knowledge?  We can learn what questions are and are not being asked.  We can learn what others have answered that is consistent with Scriptural knowledge.  We can learn where and why institutional arrangements and ideologies have gone wrong and harmed people.  We can learn what has worked and at the same time been consistent with Scriptural principles.

One other component of proper interpretation arises in relation to theology.  In one sense one is involved in a sort of circle in approaching the meaning of texts.  One reads the texts in context to find meaning, but one also reads the full context to find an overarching set of ideas.  The whole and the parts are in a kind dialectic (for lack of a better term).  This comes into play, for example, when one wishes to discover the current validity of the Mosaic civil-judicial laws.  If one reads the entire Scriptures, one can construct an overall governing concept, such as, for examples, either Dispensationalism or, alternatively, Covenant theology.  The whole is then used to interpret the parts—that is, the specific texts of laws.  But the texts make up the whole and must also be treated with respect.  This makes it imperative that in attempting to find overarching themes in Scripture, we exercise the greatest care.  We cannot construct the themes without the parts being allowed to speak authoritatively.  But we must also be careful how we relate the parts to each other.  Continuing this example, suppose we took the OT law prohibiting, say, homosexual acts and then wished to correlate it with Matthew 5: 17-20.  The Dispensationalist might argue that the OT civil command aspect is abrogated, though homosexual acts are still morally wrong, while the Covenantalist might see greater continuity, arguing that the Matthew text confirms the reading that homosexual acts are both morally and civilly wrong (not all Covenantalists would agree even with this, nor would all Dispensationalists agree that homosexual acts are no longer punishable as crimes).

After all this, do I have anything to say about the content or substance of a Christian political and legal theory.  I don’t have space for very much, but I can, I believe lay a few foundations stones.  First and foremost we can look to Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 for crucial first principles about Creation and the Fall, and, in the process, about what it means to be human.  The debates on humanity are legion, but I believe Scripture is quite plain and relatively easy to grasp.  First, we were created “in the image of God.”  Second, we were created “to have dominion over all creation.”  Third, the Fall (Genesis 3) led to a fundamental change in human nature, from innocence to sinfulness.  Let’s unpack these a bit, as they are foundational for everything else in political and legal thought. 

When God created man and woman He made them in His image.  While we cannot know all this entails, we can know at least some of the implications.  In some sense, man is like God.  One way is in his creativity.  Another would be generally man’s ability to reason, to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  Still a third would be his moral perfection—to be sure, not incapable of being lost—and his capacity for a right relationship with God (as he indeed had before the Fall).  Given these traits, man could do much good.  And he was in fact called to do that, in the “dominion mandate” to subdue the earth and all creation.  This was a call to make the world a better place.  Some argue that this call included the beginning of government.  I will leave that issue aside, but if we accept it, government would definitely have been ideal.  Unfortunately, we never were able to see what that looked like formally. 

Now we skip forward to Genesis 3, where Satan tempts Eve to doubt God and covet knowledge like God.  Thus Eve sinned and then presented Adam with the same opportunity to sin.  Adam responded likewise.  The result was not just a change in status before God, but also in an essential change in human nature, from “ able not to sin” to “not able not to sin” because of the inner corruption of mind, will and affection.  Here is the fundamental principle for thinking about politics and law—that man is “depraved.”  Humans do not naturally desire the good, the holy, the just, but the opposite.  This is not only a true picture of humanity, but a realistic picture, necessary to grasp if political and legal institutions have any lasting chance of success.  In other words, we cannot design government and legal systems believing that humans are essentially good.  That is naïve and will lead to disastrous long-term (sometimes short-term) results.  To put it another way, we cannot seek utopia (in idealism) because utopia is literally “nowhere” ever to be found in this world.  We are relegated to designing government and law with human corruption as the norm.  This is also why so many Christian and non-Christian political thinkers have advocated limited government, a rule of law, separated powers and checks and balances, federalism, term limits, independence from political influence (to an extent), government at all as opposed to anarchy, etc.  We might want to trust people, but we must plan as if we cannot trust them.  After all, even if one leader is virtuous, he will leave office or die, to replaced by someone else, who may not be virtuous.

So Genesis 1 and 3 give some first principles that should be taken seriously in any Christian discussion of politics and law.  Moreover those two texts have actually answered a few of the questions listed above.  But in my limited space, I will address two more of those questions.  The first is, does Scripture give us any explicit ideas regarding the scope and limits of government?  Related to that then is, does Scripture establish the notion of individual subjective rights?  Here we are not relying on natural law ideas to try to answer these questions.  Nor must we resort to Theonomy in its strictest form, as attractive as that might be to some, given its explicit and admirable appeal to Scripture.  But we do wish to look to Scripture, correctly understood.

The fact of human corruption helps to answer the two questions raised above.  If humans are essentially fallible (Public Choice Theory would use “self-interested,” as would economists), it follows that in designing a government one would want to arrange it so that no single individual or small group of individuals would be able to act to oppress or abuse others with their power.  If this sounds similar to the design of the American Founders it is, as they recognized that men were not angels.  Therefore, governmental power must be limited in scope.  The question of specific powers must remain to be answered, but James Buchanan, writing in a manner consistent with Scripture, argued that a constitution functions (among other things) to foreclose some governmental functions simply because the potential costs of those actions are too great (see J. Buchanan, The Reason of Rules).  Those costs translate into unjust actions. 

Likewise, if one fears the possibility of abuse of power by government officials due to human corruption, one solution is an explicit list of protected rights that are enforceable against government.  This too is reminiscent of the Founding era in America.  Again, what exactly those rights ought to be should ideally be determined by Scripture, either directly or by deduction.  We may find at least the basis for rights in the Bible (as have many throughout the history of political thought).  Rights as subjective possessions of each human being have been taught by Christian thinkers since the earliest days (see F. Oakley, Natural Law, Laws of Nature, Natural Rights: Continuity and Discontinuity in the History of Ideas), even though couched at times in the language of natural law.  But the foundations were and are in Scripture, for example, the prohibitions such as “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal.”  To take the latter, the law against theft presupposes a “mine” and “thine,” that is that something is mine and thus not yours.  From this the law presumes that I have the right to possess what is mine, subject of course to limitations which all rights have. 

Let me add that while we do emphasize human depravity, we cannot forget that the imago Dei in humans is not extinguished by the Fall.  This fact also has implications as to the possibilities for human collective action.  I will take that up in more detail later.  But for now, we bear in mind that our Christian theory of government does not completely foreclose collective or governmental action to “do good.”  But the Fall does mean we have to consider that all public officials are not public-spirited and not all have the public good in mind—because of the sin nature in all humans.

This is as far as I can go in this blog, given that it is already far too long.  I intend to continue the tentative biblical blueprint for politics and law in future blogs.  For those who have been exhausted by reading this one, my apologies.