Legislating Morality? Part 3 (Warning: Another Long, Too Long, Post, Suitable for New Years Digestion, Maybe)

Posted on December 30, 2013 by


In the first two blogs, I have begun the attempt to initiate greater reflection on the origins, role, authority, limits and functions of government, as well as our place as Christians under the authority of government.  I said at the start that absolute answers were limited.  This is true mainly because the Scriptures are relatively silent (though by no means silent) on the specifics of government.  And of course that in itself raised an initial crucial issue:  Where do we go to discover principles for government?  Do we resort to natural revelation alone?  Are we limited to the Bible alone? 

We said that while the Scriptures are our ultimate source of knowledge (about all aspects of life and thought), God has allowed us to gain useful knowledge from “the world.”  At the same time we want to be careful not to eliminate the distinction between nature and grace. If we ignore that distinction, we risk treating special revelation on the same plane as general/natural revelation.  To put it in terms political science and economics professionals can grasp, it risks equating the principles of the Bible with knowledge attained through empirical or rationalistic means.  The principles of Scripture serve a dual function: (1) as direct “positive” knowledge and (2) as “boundary conditions” on non-Scriptural knowledge.  So in an important sense, the Bible is a kind of constitution, establishing the “rules of the game” for extra-biblical data, propositions and conclusions.

We were examining a few of the questions which might arise regarding government.  The most important question raised was on the nature of man.  The theme was essentially Creation in the image of God, followed by the Fall and the subsequent sinful nature of man.  So we have a Creation-Fall pattern.  There are other questions that come from this pattern.  One is the right or best form-structure of government.

Christian writers have at time taken great pains to argue that the only right form of government is a republic, as envisioned in the United States Constitution.  This works if one takes the Old Testament Hebrew Commonwealth as a republic and its structure a model for all future governments.  It is true that if God initiated such a form, it is unquestionably a good form, given that God is only good.  But it does not follow that a Hebrew-like republic is the only good form of government, even granted that one can describe such a form as the equivalent of the republic established by the Constitution. 

So it is at least possible that a republican government might not always be the best for a given nation.  Nevertheless, no matter what type a nation eventually adopts, its government must still account for human sinfulness in its design.  And a strong argument can be made that a republic meets that requirement, at least within broad limits.  Therefore, a republic may be the best form, but not the only right form.  Moreover, we may find other texts in Scripture which provide further guidance.  What we find then here is a mix of principle and prudence, rooted in facts about humans.

Another question from the previous blog post:  What does a biblical legal system look like?  Here is another controversial issue.  Theonomists will argue, not without merit, that the laws of a state ought to mimic those laid out in the Mosaic civil laws as they appear in the Old Testament to govern the Hebrew Commonwealth.  The Theonomists do force Christians to face the question squarely of which standard they will look to establish a legal system.  But on the other hand, we also have to answer the question of the particular relationship between the Old Testament and the New, or, to put it another way, between the people of Israel as a political-legal entity and modern political-legal institutions.  Do I believe we owe special attention to the legal “system” (not the ceremonial laws) of the Mosaic Law?  Yes, because we have no other biblical standard and we must take it seriously.  But how do we use the Mosaic civil laws? 

No nation today is continuous with the Hebrew Commonwealth.  That concession must be made, but it does not solve the problem, because we still have to face Matthew 5: 17-20.  Arguably, if the Law has not been abolished the civil-legal aspects cannot legitimately be rejected—at least not in principle.  So what are we left with?  Let us agree, for the sake of space, that the principles which can be derived from the Mosaic legal code can be validly used by any nation and that these will move that nation closer to a legal system that honors God.  In fact, historically this is precisely what has happened in Western civilization.  The core of the Mosaic legal code was adopted and adapted by most Western nations, even if it was not always honored by a government operating with a rule of law and just processes.

On the other hand, the Old Testament code would not have to be adopted in its precise and literal form.  We are not required to take every detail of a given law.  For example, murder may (and should) be a crime, but it would not necessarily require the death penalty and stoning would not be the required method of execution. 

One more point about a legal system in general.  God Himself instituted law for nations.  Though many nations in ancient times existed without reference to specific biblical revelation of law, we cannot conclude that they were following God’s will, except in so far as they had been given “common grace.”  But nevertheless, law is a necessary component of every government, if for no other reason than that it restrains evil (when enforced).  But ultimately it is only truly effective as it more closely approximates God’s revelation of law in Scripture.

It would not be fair to move on without addressing the concept of natural law.  Some Christians argue that a legal regime can be governed by principles of natural law, deriving that idea from texts such as Romans 1 and reference to the period between the Fall and the giving of the Law, during which there was no written law.  Natural law theory asserts that higher principles such as, for example, “do no harm,” are either innate in the human mind or can be derived through human reason, without the necessity of a special revelation.  As Christians, we must acknowledge the possibility that some principles can be known by humans apart from Scripture, in fact should be known.  But Romans 1 also seems to tell us that humans will tend to suppress those truths because of their sin nature (the noetic effects of the Fall).  Thus the attempt to know what is right and wrong will be distorted without external guidance that is from God.  So natural law theory has two important problems: (1) it is rather vague once one gets beyond the very first principles and (2) it fails to provide a grounding for what it asserts as true, except from man’s reasoning.  The latter point could be fatal to natural law.  If sin distorts reason, how can we be sure that the conclusions derived by reason are true?  We cannot be sure.  Even today, natural law theorists disagree significantly with each other on ethical principles, and this disagreement began to occur among Christians around the same time that natural law theory began to be “disconnected” from special revelation (Hugo Grotius, and forward).  While natural law can make some contributions, it cannot solve the problem of a standard.

One more question to be addressed:  What is justice?  I raise this one because of its crucial place as a normative evaluative concept for the laws and actions of a nation.  When we think about judging the goodness or badness of a governmental or legal action, the idea of justice usually comes to mind first.  But the meaning of the term and the concept have been heavily debated over the centuries.  Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Grotius, Kant, Nozick, Rawls and many, many others have advanced theories.  But the Bible also uses the term “justice” on around 150 occasions and addresses the concept in other texts.  What then is justice?  Is there only one form or kind of justice?  The Greeks said it was “what one is due,” one’s “desserts.”  This seems like an adequate definition until one asks what one is due.  At that point, we must defer to Scripture for the actual substance of justice.  If we summarize the various texts, it appears that justice is a procedural concept, insuring that people are equally treated under law, but not specifying what the outcome ought to be after the process has occurred.  So Scripture calls for a “due process” but not for some pre-determined outcome that specifies who gets what.  The latter is what we call “social justice.” 

Justice then is an essential concept, but from a Christian perspective, it must be understood mainly in a procedural sense, with the just procedures specified based on the context of the various biblical texts.  For example, one accused of certain crimes cannot be convicted except by the credible testimony of two or more witnesses.  Rulers should protect all subjects, rich and poor, alike, not the wealthy differently than the poor.  Courts must treat all equally under existing laws.  Laws themselves ought to reflect the substance of the Mosaic law, for example, the protection against theft, murder, fraud, etc. 

What is missing is the recent (the last 150-200 years) idea of social justice.  Social justice arose as an outgrowth of new (or not so new) ideas of equality and redistribution of income or resources which came from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  Essentially the idea of social justice was predicated on the notion that inequality was bad (or at least not particularly good) and that government could rectify that state (as it should) by taking from those with greater wealth and redistributing resources to the less wealthy.  Socialism, Marxism, Social Democracy, some versions of Catholic social teaching, all advanced this idea.  Methods varied, but the goal was to ensure a different configuration of income or wealth, one more egalitarian.  The ideal was absolute equality of outcome through various means—heavy progressive income taxes, abolition of property, etc.  This idea cannot be found in Scripture.  Christians may voluntarily redistribute income and resources or may share all things in common, but nowhere is government called to do that.

Before I finish for now, the above appraisal of social justice calls for a brief digression to the related topic of poverty, the usual reason for engaging in social justice policies.  Christians on the Left of the political spectrum and even some more Populist Christians in the Center argue that the poverty problem can only be addressed by government redistribution of income in various ways.  Those means would, they assert, satisfy social justice requirements of greater equality.  Without getting into a long digression about the concept of social justice itself, I will simply grant its existence as one justice concept.  Several questions immediately arise.  First, do the means of social justice advocates work (pragmatic)?  Second, are the means themselves just?  Third, is equality a necessary goal in a Christian political theory?

There is no argument that Christians ought to be concerned about the poor.  So our disagreement must be over means, not ends (as some would accuse).  Now to answer the first question, it is abundantly clear (and demonstrable) that market institutions have created prosperity on an unprecedented scale and have done so since the mid-1800s.  Markets are efficient engines of prosperity.  But, it is argued, they have created poverty in the process, necessitating government intervention.  However, that argument does not hold up to evidence, which shows that it has not been the market institutions but the lack of freedom (including freedom to conduct market exchanges) that has led to the poverty, where it exists.  At any rate, many will still argue that the solution to poverty, no matter what its cause, is the social justice approach of income redistribution.  I would argue that that approach is first inefficient—it does not work and has been shown not to work.  This is easy to see, but it has to do with incentives created by such redistribution and with the different God-given abilities and talents of individuals.

Second, however, it is unjust itself, as it requires that the government take income from those who have legally and ethically obtained it, in order to give it to many who do not need it and some who should not have it.  Third, this approach assumes that government is the best institutional form for solving the poverty problem (or any problem, virtually).  It condemns markets out of hand without due consideration of government failure and in doing so, ignores the fact of a fallen human nature in every sphere of human activity, private and public.

On the question of inequality, the Bible does not condemn inequality.  Unequal incomes, for example, have no meaning without reference to the actual well-being of those at the bottom.  If, for example, the least well-off are not poor (an extreme example), then what does it matter that the most well-off are astronomically wealthy.  To condemn inequality per se is to promote envy, which is unbiblical.

This does not mean that the Bible forbids aid by government to those unable to care for themselves.  Christians do not oppose a genuine “social safety net.”  But there are better ways to achieve that than many or most current policies (another issue).  Nevertheless, there is a limited role for government here, but also and particularly for the church and for individuals.  The social justice definition of justice, however, does little to help the discussion or to bring about the best solutions.

Again, this blog is much too long.  I may take up the remaining questions in a future post, but only if my colleagues don’t decide to “kick me off the island” for long-windedness.  In the meantime, a blessed New Year to all.