Legislating Morality? Addendum to Part 3

Posted on January 2, 2014 by


Well, it seems the third in a series of blogs on “Legislating Morality?” has elicited a few comments on the, shall we say, opposing side of the issue.  So in the interest of fairness and sympathy I will try to clarify in this blog a couple of issues.

The two most controversial issues I raised were the role of the Mosaic Law in a modern political-legal regime and the notion of social justice and its relation to redistribution of income.  Let’s look at the latter first.  Let me emphasize clearly that the conclusions reached in Part 3 regarding a Christian view of justice do not preclude governmental action to help the truly poor or destitute.  They only restrict redistributive policies, based on the very concept of justice we addressed.  So it would not be proper to label such a Christian view as “inhumane” or “heartless.”

Two texts in the Old Testament are often invoked for redistributional policies by government: the gleaning texts in Leviticus 19: 9, Leviticus 23: 22 and Deuteronomy 24: 19ff and the Jubilee texts in Leviticus 25.  A careful study of these texts reveals that they are not redistributive policies.  To take only the Jubilee text as an example, if property did have to be returned to the previous owner (this is more complicated than at first sight, reading the text closely), there was no guarantee the previous owner was worse-off or poorer than the present owner.  The “redistribution” then was random, not designed as a poverty measure.

Other texts in Scripture also come into play, which may on the surface seem to invite redistributional action by government, but which in reality address procedural justice, not “social justice.”  Again, this does not foreclose all government policy that would seek to aid the truly poor. 

Related to the redistributional question is the larger issue of the role of markets versus government.  One comment argued that government was to a great extent responsible for the overall statistical decline in poverty over the last decades (and before).  I reiterate that the evidence does not bear out that assertion.  The growth of market-oriented economies has been very largely responsible for the poverty decline.  And where markets have not been adopted (or even adapted) poverty has continued unabated. 

Now to the issue of the Mosaic Law.  The Scriptures are a unified whole, but within this unity is the diversity created by the Old versus the New Testament.  Both of these testaments/covenants testify to a difference either to come or having already come by virtue of the Messiah.  Relating to the Law, the difference is evident in the very words of Jesus in Matthew 5: 17-20.  Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”  Now whatever “fulfill” means it cannot mean “abolish.”  But whatever “fulfill” means must also include a change in the use of the Law.  It does not change the validity or authority of the Mosaic Law, but it does entail some sort of change in its meaning and use, or at least a clarification of its meaning and use (this depends on one’s particular theological presuppositions in part).  The Book of Hebrews makes clear that the ceremonial aspects of the Law cannot continue as they did in the sacrificial system, though those laws still have meaning and authority.  Minimally, they point us to Christ as “shadows.”  Laws with moral content still show the unchanging character of God and therefore must remain valid and authoritative.  Laws of a political-legal nature are problematic, but not intractable.

The political-legal commands were given by God, so God must know that they were/are good in themselves.  And that I think is the key.  Even if we assume that the Mosaic civil laws are not binding on any nation beyond the particular commonwealth of the Hebrews, we nevertheless cannot argue that those laws are bad in themselves.  If they were bad, God could be accused of being evil in giving them.  They must therefore be good, which means that it could never be wrong for any nation to adopt them, in whole or in part.  That is the minimal implication.

Some do argue that the Mosaic civil laws are the only truly valid code for any nation and that its provisions must be adopted in every detail (including particular punishments).  That is not my argument here.  But my argument does advocate for a principalized use of the civil laws, given that they are inherently good and just.  Why would any rulers who sought righteousness not first look to that code rather than to man-made philosophical systems for just laws?  From a Christian viewpoint, it would make no sense.  It would be analogous to looking at the rules of the game of Monopoly in order to discover the rules of the game of Life.  There might be some overlap, but one would not fit the other nearly closely enough to be helpful.

Does that mean we “pick and choose” arbitrarily those laws we like and discard those we don’t like, as has been suggested?  No it does not.  There are some clear-cut criteria to distinguish what was intended and used as a political-legal command.  Some commands had a dual function, for example “you shall not steal,” intended to apply to outward acts of theft and to the personal moral-ethical violation before God and against one’s fellow human being.  The former answers to the state while the latter answers to God, the church and the individual.

Some object that to separate and classify Mosaic commands is artificial and that the Hebrews did no such thing.  They did and they didn’t.  It is true that they did not reject any command or isolate it from the rest, but it is equally true that the same command could and did have different applications in different situations.  The command “you shall not steal” was applied by the civil authorities in court.  The same command made a thief answerable personally to God because he had sinned—a moral failing.

My goal has been to clarify a few items that may have caused misunderstanding.  As time permits I will finish the series I began with a discussion of rights and with the Christian’s response and attitude toward government.  But by now it must be clear, lest the reader think I have forgotten the original title, that in a very important sense, Christians must be engaged in culture and even to the extent of looking as if they are “legislating morality.”