John Frame’s book against the so-called Escondido theology (hereafter SCET) contains a chapter, “Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture?” It goes along with his bullet-point summary of the SCET’s political platform, which is as follows (edited by all about me):
• God’s principles for governing society are found, not in Scripture, but in natural law.
• Natural law is to be determined, not by Scripture, but by human reason and conscience.
• Only those who accept these principles can consistently believe in justification by faith alone.
• The Christian has no biblical mandate to seek changes in the social, cultural, or political order.
• To speak of a biblical worldview, or biblical principles for living, is to misuse the Bible.
• Scripture teaches about Christ, his atonement, and our redemption from sin, but not about how to apply that salvation to our current problems.
Just for starters, using the verb, GOVERN, with culture is a bit odd since culture develops in ways that hardly reflect human application of either general or special revelation to it. Think once again of language. Is anyone actually responsible for channeling definitions and grammatical constructions? Maybe the editors of dictionaries. But are they the ones responsible for the differences between Shakespeare’s usage and Updike’s? (Do the cultural transformers ever really think about what they are proposing? BTW, language is pretty basic to anything we meaningfully describe as culture. BTW squared, the Bible not only refuses to give a definition of revival. It also avoids a definition of culture. In which case, anyone trying to base his definition of culture on Scripture is simply offering his opinion of what the Bible teaches.)
Frame’s objections to these points, even if he garbles them, have a lot to do with his conviction that the Bible is a surer foundation for ethical reflection than general revelation. He writes:
. . . arguments actually developed from natural revelation premises . . . are rarely cogent. Roman Catholics, for example, often argue that birth control is forbidden, because of the natural connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. That connection obviously exists [my comment – if it’s obvious, then isn’t there some cogency mo jo going on?], but the moral conclusion is not a necessary one. Indeed the argument is a naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to reason from fact to obligation, from “is” to “ought.”
Notice that Frame refuses to notice how the Bible has prevented Presbyterians like himself from rejecting the regulative principle of worship. The Bible of the Puritans is not cogent for Frame. And his observation that natural law argumentation fails a test of logic does not prove that the Bible is sufficient to GOVERN culture.
Cogent and persuasive ethical reasoning presupposes a w-w and standards of judgment. [Edited for sensitive Old Life eyes.] It is not easy to argue these from nature alone. For Christians, these standards come from Scripture. So apart from Scripture ethical argument loses its cogency and often its persuasiveness. Nonbelievers, of course, won’t usually accept Scripture as authoritative. But they may at least respect an argument that is self-conscious about its epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions.
I doubt it. Actually, I know such respect won’t be forthcoming since heaps of ridicule have been directed at evangelicals for the last thirty years for trying such w-wish arguments. Maybe Frame thinks a graduate seminar in philosophy is the context for these disputes. If so, he forgets the verb GOVERN. And when unbelievers confront people who want the GOVERNORS to implement religious teaching in politics and cultural standards, they get a little testy.
But Frame recently received support for his argument about the insufficiency of general revelation from Peter Leithart in a column about Rick Santorum (who seems to be the darling these days of more Roman Catholics and evangelicals than Romney has accounts in Swiss banks). Leithart comments specifically on the ridicule that the Roman Catholic Santorum has received for criticizing Obama’s “phony theology.” Leithart admits that he is suspicious of politicians when they talk this way. But he also finds such speech “invigorating.” The reason is that natural revelation, as Frame also says, is insufficient.
For many conservatives, natural law provides the secular grammar we need for debating moral issues in a pluralistic society. . . . I don’t think so. Natural law theory remains too entangled with the particularities of theology to do everything natural lawyers want it to do. That is the thrust of Nicholas Bamforth and David A.J. Richards’ Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender (2007). Bamforth and Richards argue that “the new natural lawyers’ arguments about sexuality, gender, and the law are religious.” Natural law theorists “meld” secular and religious motivations and norms and are “unlikely . . . to be able to draw a clean distinction between that which is knowable through revelation and that which is graspable by reason alone.” . . .
On the plus side, the fact that natural lawyers don’t actually put revelation and the gospel to the side is much to their credit. In practice, they resist the pressure to erect a wall between their faith and their public philosophy. On the down side, this “melding” of secular and religious arguments undermines their claim that natural law provides a theologically neutral grammar for a pluralistic society.
Natural law theory has many uses. Using its categories, we explore the contours of creation to uncover the pathways the Creator has laid out for us. Natural law reasoning can demonstrate the “fit” between creation and revelation. The fact that women, not men, bear babies is ethically significant, as is the fact that human beings talk but animals don’t. Natural law is rhetorically useful for advancing arguments and purposes that would be rejected out of hand if stated in overtly religious terms.
But despite all that value, natural law comes up short:
The fundamental Christian political claim is “Jesus is Lord,” a truth that lies beyond natural reason. Christians can’t finally talk about politics without talking about Jesus, and, yes, Satan and the Bible too. We can’t talk politics without sounding like Rick Santorum, and we shouldn’t try to.
This is a very strange conclusion if not for the place of publication, First Things. A Protestant talking about Jesus as Lord would never have endorsed the religious views of a Roman Catholic in submission to a bishop whom Protestants have believed to be in competition with Jesus for the rule over his church. So if we are going to bring the Bible into the public square, poof! there goes Santorum discourse as a model for Protestants.
But, let’s go back to GOVERNANCE and what book of revelation is sufficient for rulers in society. Frame and Leithart claim to take the high ground of explicit Christian affirmation and implicitly (or not so implicitly) criticize advocates of natural law for failures of courage, for not speaking frankly and openly about explicitly Christian convictions. Again, the problem they identify is one of argument. They spot a weakness and conclude that theirs must be better, though I am still waiting for a solid exegetical case that is not theonomic and that does justice to the cultural program of Jesus and the apostles for transformation and establishing Christ’s Lordship. No fair appealing to the Arian sympathizer, Constantine.
But Frame and Leithart are not actually dealing with the real world of a society that admits believers from all faiths as well as unbelievers to citizenship and allows them to run for public office. BTW, that same society includes no provisions about making special revelation the basis for how believers or non-believers will GOVERN the culture. In fact, this society excludes special revelation as the basis for national life. Maybe that’s a bad thing. But that’s where we are in the greatest nation on God’s green earth.
So how sufficient is the Bible to govern a society composed of diverse religious adherents and non-believers? We already know that the Bible has not been sufficient to yield a unified church. Now it’s supposed to give us a platform for cultural and political cogency and coherence in a diverse and religiously free society?
The objections to Frame and Leithart are not simply empirical or based on United States law. They are also theological. Appealing to the Bible as a norm for non-believers places those who don’t believe in an odd situation, at least according to theology that stresses the anti-thesis. How are those hostile to God going to submit to GOVERNMENT based on the Bible? I have asked this many times and I’m still lacking a decent answer, one that actually does justice to the Bible’s prohibitions against idolatry and the United States’ legal toleration of what some of its citizens consider idolatry. Another question is this: doesn’t a proposal for the Bible’s sufficiency as a rule for culture and society mean ultimately that only believers will GOVERN? After all, if fallen human beings cannot understand the Bible aright without the illumination of the Spirit, then only the regenerate may GOVERN because they alone have the discernment to apply Scripture to society and culture.
But maybe Frame and Leithart don’t want to go that far. Maybe they believe that people can appeal to the ethical parts of the Bible without needing to be regenerate. And then they walk over the cliff of liberalism and deny that the Bible is first and foremost not a book of ethics but of redemption. That was the basis for Machen’s opposition to reading the Bible and saying prayers in public schools. The great-grandaddy of children militia wrote:
The reading of selected passages from the Bible, in which Jews and Catholics and Protestants and others can presumably agree, should not be encouraged, and still less should be required by law. The real center of the Bible is redemption; and to create the impression that other things in the Bible contain any hope for humanity apart from that is to contradict the Bible at its root. . . .
If the mere reading of Scripture could lead to such a conclusion, imagine appealing to the Bible for running a society that includes believers and non-believers.
The lesson is that 2k (aka SCET) is really more faithful to Reformed teachings (which are biblical) than are 2k critics’ constant charges of infidelity and deficiency. Those who think the Bible sufficient to GOVERN culture or society must either form a political body comprised only of church members or they must cut and paste biblical teachings to make it fit a religiously mixed society. Either way (Massachusetts Bay or liberal Protestantism), we’ve been there and done that. Time for 2k’s critics to come up with their own proposals for GOVERNING and transforming culture that are not blinded to their own insufficiencies.