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We at American Vision are hearing rumblings from a number of people in the Christian community that Christians are being told not to engage the culture with a distinctly biblical approach to social and political issues. So what standard is a Christian to follow when evaluating the moral boundaries of society? Some Christians will claim that we aren’t to bother with what goes on in the world. Let the world go to the devil. Others claim that it’s just not the church’s calling. Abortion may be bad, but it’s not our job to say so to anyone outside the church. Homosexuality may be immoral, but there is no word from God for the civil magistrate to obey.
The more scholarly among us say that we are to follow a Natural Law ethic. But as Gary North makes clear, “Charles Darwin destroyed natural law theory in biological science. . . . His successors destroyed natural law theory in social science. In the 1920’s, quantum physics destroyed natural law theory in the subatomic world. This immediately began to undermine modern legal theory.” The shattered foundation of Natural Law theory, like Humpty Dumpty, can never be put together again as long as evolution remains our national religion. At the moment, Natural Law theory is dead given materialist assumptions that are firmly rooted in every major secular university and law school in the country. If Natural Law is ever revived, it will have to follow on the heels of biblical law, the very thing Christian Natural advocates want to avoid. You can’t have one without the other. Take a look at William Blackstone (1723–1780) on this.
Thus when the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be.
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This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are in validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
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Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered [permitted] to contradict these.
When Clarence Thomas tried to use Natural Law theory during his Senate Judiciary hearing in September 1991, he was immediately criticized by Sen. Joseph Biden. As long as Thomas defined Natural Law as Biden did, then Thomas’ appeal to it was acceptable. But if he defined it as “Higher Law,” the belief that God was its author as Blackstone did, then his view of Natural Law would not be tolerated. Biden wrote an article that appeared in the Washington Post in which he claimed the following for his version of natural law:
Basically, natural law is whatever the courts say it is. “In our system,” Biden writes, “the sole obligation of a Supreme Court justice is to the Constitution. Natural justice can supply one of the important means of understanding the Constitution, but natural law can never be used to reach a decision contrary to a fair reading of the Constitution itself.” This is why the Left wants to be the gatekeepers to the Supreme Court by mandating a liberal litmus test to all prospective judges. Biden’s article does not tell us anything about how we determine what’s right or wrong. Morality is a matter of “individual choice.” And if these new Christian social theorists get their way, they won’t have anything to say either.
Why Christians believe there is refuge either in cultural indifference or Natural Law is a mystery to me. William Wilberforce, upon being struck with the oppression of the slave trade, wrote in his diary, “Almighty God has set before me two great objectives: The abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” Had the British government “not been in the hands of Christians there seems little reason to have expected it to mount its massive, expensive, and voluntary campaign against slavery.” If modern anti-reformists had their way, the institution of slavery would still be with us. The cultural escapists would claim that slavery isn’t their concern, since their duty is “spiritual,” to preach the gospel. Slaves would be welcomed to attend Sunday services. The balcony or some other designated area would be reserved for them. Once the benediction was said, they would be marched back to the plantation for another week of enslavement. But they would have heard the Gospel!
A Natural Law theory not tied to biblical law would have done nothing for slaves since there were many Natural Law advocates who believed, following Aristotle’s view of Natural Law, that some men were by nature inferior. Enslavement was best for them. There were others who believed that only an ethical system based on the Bible could set the standard for reform. John Stott writes about revivalist Charles Finney’s views on social reform.
Social involvement was both the child of evangelical religion and the twin sister of evangelism. This is clearly seen in Charles G. Finney, who is best known as the lawyer turned evangelist and author of Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835). Through his preaching of the gospel large numbers were brought to faith in Christ. What is not so well known is that he was concerned for ‘reforms’ as well as ‘revivals.’ He was convinced, as Donald W. Dayton has shown in his Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, both that the gospel ‘releases a mighty impulse toward social reform’ and that the church’s neglect of social reform grieved the Holy Spirit and hindered revival. It is astonishing to read Finney’s statement in his twenty-third lecture on revival that ‘the great business of the church is to reform the world . . . . The Church of Christ was originally organised to be a body of reformers. The very profession of Christianity implies the profession and virtually an oath to do all that can be done for the universal reformation of the world.’
Finney saw no contradiction between preaching the gospel and social reform: “The Christian church was designed to make aggressive movements in every direction—to lift up her voice and put forth her energies against iniquity in high and low places—to reform individuals, communities, and government, and never rest until the kingdom . . . shall be given to the people . . .—until every form of iniquity shall be driven from the earth.” In a footnote, George Marsden informs his readers that “Letters on Revivals—No. 23,” from which the above quotation is taken, is “left out of modern editions of these letters.”
When we dig a bit deeper into Finney’s thought, we learn that he too met resistance by advocating reform efforts. He was amazed that the church treated “the different branches of reform either with indifference, or with direct opposition.” Finney described opposition to reform efforts as “monstrous” and “God-dishonoring.” A careful study of Scripture and history will show that Christians involved in this world have made a profound difference. But you would never know it by listening to the cultural retreatists of today.