A Common Complaint from W-wers

Carlton Wynne objects to natural law and its influence among Reformed Protestants:

I believe this aspect of the Natural Law theory in view–that people can reason their way to actionable truths apart from God’s special revelation–is too optimistic about the powers of unaided reason after the fall. The general revelation of God in nature and beneath conscience must be “carefully distinguished from the reaction that sinful man makes to this revelation” (Van Til). The apostle Paul says that unbelievers “suppress the truth” that they know (including the truth of their moral obligation to God), that they are, at root, “hostile to God” (Rom 8:7); that they have become “futile in their thinking” (Rom 1:21). They are, Paul says elsewhere, “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph 4:18).

These are hard words, no doubt. But they point to one side of what has been called the “antithesis” between belief and unbelief, a moral and spiritual conflict of basic commitments that touch all that Christians and non-Christians think about and discuss. According to this Scriptural principle, fallen man is slavishly committed to his own moral autonomy, while Christians are to view all things under the Lordship of Christ and the light of His Word. This means that, at the deepest level, there is no mutually acknowledged common ground between Christian and non-Christian. And this, it seems to me, leaves NL proponents calling for peace when there is no peace.


If true, do you then only go to Christian physicians?

And if true, why would you ever let non-Christians into positions of political authority? If you assert the antithesis you wind up theonomic.

Will “common grace” really explain why you, a person who believes in the anti-thesis, choose a non-Christian physician or politician over Christian ones?

Is the Gospel Sufficient to GOVERN Culture?

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.

He continues:

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.

Mencken Week 2011

Unfortunately, old Henry’s birthday anniversary got lost in the shuffle of thoughts generated by 9/11. Since he was born on 9/12 Mencken will forever have to compete in the memories of Americans for attention. Even so, he has been much on my mind since I am offering a seminar on him for Hillsdale students. And thankfully he has not disappointed.

The following is from “A Loss to Romance” and indicates ways that Americans might support public decency and oppose sex education in public schools without having to appeal to biblical morality.

Perhaps the worst thing that this sex hygiene nonsense has accomplished is the thing mourned by Agnes Repplier in “The Repeal of Reticence.” In America, at least, innocence has been killed, and romance has been sadly wounded by the same discharge of smutty artillery. The flapper is no longer naive and charming; she goes to the altar of God with a learned and even cynical glitter in her eye. The veriest school-girl of to-day . . . knows as much as the midwife of 1885, and spends a good deal more time discharging and disseminating her information. All this, of course, is highly embarrassing to the more romantic and ingenuous sort of men, of whom I have the honor to be one. We are constantly in the position of General Mitchener in Shaw’s one-acter, “Press Cuttings,” when he begs Mrs. Farrell, the talkative charwoman, to reserve her confidences for her medical adviser. One often wonders, indeed, what women now talk of to doctors. . . .

Please do not misunderstand me here. I do not object to this New Freedom on moral grounds, but on aesthetic grounds. In the relations between the sexes
all beauty is founded upon romance, all romance is founded upon mystery, and all mystery is founded upon ignorance, or, failing that, upon the deliberate denial of the known truth. To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anaesthesia—to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess. But how can this condition of mind survive the deadly matter-offactness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose? How can a woman continue to believe in the honor, courage and loving tenderness of a man after she has learned, perhaps by affidavit, that his hæmoglobin count is 117%, that he is free from sugar and albumen, that his blood pressure is 112/79 and that his Wassermann reaction is negative? . . . Moreover, all this new-fangled “frankness” tends to dam up, at least for civilized adults, one of the principal well-springs of art, to wit, impropriety. What is neither hidden nor forbidden is seldom very charming. If women, continuing their present tendency to its logical goal, end by going stark naked, there will be no more poets and painters, but only dermatologists and photographers. . .

Two Kingdom Tuesday: When the Light of Nature Brightens

For the critics of natural law and two kingdoms who think the light of nature needs the lift of special revelation to be discernible, comes a sensible essay by one of my favorite writers, Joseph Epstein. The occasion for the piece published in the Weekly Standard was the presentation by a professor at Northwestern University that involved a sex act, performed in front of undergraduate students. Epstein himself taught for many years at Northwestern while editing the American Scholar and has first-hand knowledge of the demise of academic standards and even common sense within Northwestern and higher education more generally.

Not only is Epstein’s article worth reading for its diagnosis of the problems that afflict universities and colleges, but it also demonstrates that people who are not regenerate have the capacity for moral discernment.

Consider the following:

When I began teaching at Northwestern in 1973, the smoke had not yet cleared from the student revolution. I recall at the time hearing gossip about a teacher who was sleeping with one of his students, and when I checked with a friend on the faculty, he confirmed that it was likely true. “Do many younger professors sleep with their undergraduate students?” I asked this same friend. “I don’t know many who don’t” was his rather casual reply.

Does sleeping with one’s undergraduate students come under the shield of academic freedom, or was it instead an academic perk, or ought it, again, to be admonished, if not punished by dismissal? Although a youngish bachelor at the time, I eschewed the practice myself, chiefly because I thought sleeping with one’s students was poor sportsmanship—fish in a barrel and all that—and my own taste happened to run to grown-up women; I also thought it was, not to put too fine or stuffy a point on it, flat-out wrong. I wondered, too, if in its taking unfair advantage—a teacher after all has the power of awarding grades to students—it wasn’t an obvious violation of academic freedom, and not merely crummy.

Why would Reformed Protestants not want to encourage such wisdom and conviction by insisting that Epstein first take out his copy of the Hebrew Scriptures before commenting on conditions at his old campus?

Where's Waldo Wednesday

It is often said that union is key to connecting justification and sanctification, the forensic and the renovative. In that light, Calvin’s discussion of the motivation for good works is surprising for the way that he counts union one among several other biblical grounds for sanctification.

[Philosophers], while they wish particularly to exhort us to virtue, announce merely that we should live in accordance with nature. But Scripture draws its exhortation from the true fountain. It not only enjoins us to refer our life to God, its author, to whom it is bound; but after it has taught that we have degenerated from the true origin and condition of our creation, it also adds that Christ, through whom we return into favor with God, has been set before us as an example, whose pattern we ought to express in our life. . . .

Then the Scripture finds occasion for exhortation in all the benefits of God that it lists for us, and in the individual parts of our salvation. Ever since God revealed himself faith to us, we must prove our ungratefulness to him if we did not in turn show ourselves his sons [Mal. 1:6; Eph 5:1; I John 3:1]. Ever since Christ cleansed us with the washing of his blood, and imparted this cleansing through baptism, it would be unfitting to befoul ourselves with new pollutions (Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:10; I Cor. 6:11; I Peter 1:15, 19]. Ever since he engrafted us into his body, we must take especial care not to disfigure ourselves, who are his members, with any spot or blemish [Eph. 5:23-33; I Cor. 6:15; John 15: 3-6]. Ever since Christ himself, who is our Head, ascended into heaven, it behooves us, having laid aside love of earthly things, wholeheartedly to aspire heavenward (Col 3:1ff]. Ever since the Holy Spirit dedicates us as temples to God, we must take care that God’s glory shine through us, and must not commit anything to defile ourselves with the filthiness of sin [I Cor. 3:16; 6:19; II Cor. 6:16]. Ever since both our souls and bodies were destined for heavenly incorruption and an unfading crown [I Peter 5:4], we ought to strive manfully to keep them pure and uncorrupted until the Day of the Lord [I Thess. 5:23; cf. Phil 1:10]. These, I say, are the most auspicious foundations upon which to establish one’s life. One would look in vain for the like of these among the philosophers, who, in their commendation of virtue, never rise above the natural dignity of man. (Calvin, The Institutes, III.vi. 3)

The Bible and the Politics of Sex

Discussions about the relative value of special (i.e. the Bible) or general revelation (e.g. natural law) for politics and society often bog down on the politics of sex. What about abortion? It is a heinous practice that cannot be outlawed on as flimsy a basis as natural law or private conscience. What about gay marriage? The Greeks were pretty good at natural law sorts of arguments but not necessarily reliable on same-sex relationships. Or what about women in the military? (I actually think nature is far more instructive here than God’s word, having seen some of the tortured reasoning from Presbyterian communions on women serving in the military.) The idea that most Americans will rally around an argument from general revelation to ban women from the armed services seems far fetched.

And of course beyond whether or not natural law will be more effective than Scripture in public debate is the issue of what’s right. If God requires certain kinds of holiness from his people, and believers are implicated in a host of immoral activities by virtue of their citizenship and taxes at work, then shouldn’t Christians object to laws and policies on the clear grounds of the Bible?

The problem for sufficiency-of-Scripture advocates, though, is that government these days involves a lot more than sex. After all, the president’s health care legislation is more than 1,000 pages. I haven’t seen it. I know many believers are concerned about the potential for government-funded abortion. But can this piece of legislation simply be boiled down to pro-life implications? At stake are questions about the power of the federal government, the private sectors of medical insurers, drug companies, the livelihoods of physicians, and even public health. In other words, I’d bet that 99 percent of the document involves matters that Scripture won’t resolve. And yet, Christians only seem to react to those aspects of law that pertain to abortion while insisting that the Bible is the standard for public life.

An article in the New Republic recently about copyright laws and Google’s attempts to make all books available on line illustrates the weak link in the Bible only argument. The author, Laurence Lessig, starts with the case of Grace Guggenheim, the daughter of a successful documentary film maker who wanted to reproduce digitally all the films made by her father. But Guggenheim could not complete the task. Lessig explains:

Her project faced two challenges, one obvious, one not. The obvious challenge was technical: gathering fifty years of film and restoring it digitally. The non-obvious challenge was legal: clearing the rights to move this creative work onto this new platform for distribution. Most people might be puzzled about just why there would be any legal issue with a child restoring her father’s life’s work. After all, when we decide to repaint our grandfather’s old desk, or sell it to a neighbor, or use it as a workbench or a kitchen table, no one thinks to call a lawyer first. But the property that Grace Guggenheim curates is of a special kind. It is protected by copyright law.

Documentaries in particular are property of a special kind. The copyright and contract claims that burden these compilations of creativity are impossibly complex. The reason is not hard to see. A part of it is the ordinary complexity of copyright in any film. A film is made up of many different creative elements–music, plot, characters, images, and so on. Once the film is made, any effort at remaking it–moving it to DVD, for example–could require clearing permissions for each of these original elements. But documentaries add another layer of complexity to this already healthy thicket, as they typically also include quotations, in the sense of film clips. So just as a book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Jonathan Alter might have quotes from famous people talking about its subject, a film about civil rights produced in the 1960s would include quotations–clips from news stations–from famous people of the time talking about the issue of the day. Unlike a book, however, these quotations are in film–typically, news footage from CBS or NBC.

The point of Lessig’s example is that reproducing documentaries becomes impossible because of the fees necessary to secure permission (again) to use footage contained in the original product. For instance, one documentary on the Civil Rights movement, considered the most complete visual chronicle of the events, will never be seen again because the original permissions have expired and the company that made the film no longer exists.

Lessig goes on to raise questions about the recent settlement of Google’s plans to reproduce books on-line. He believes that a similar set of hurdles has entered the realm of books that once only applied to other media. He concludes:

I have no clear view. I only know that the two extremes that are before us would, each of them, if operating alone, be awful for our culture. The one extreme, pushed by copyright abolitionists, that forces free access on every form of culture, would shrink the range and the diversity of culture. I am against abolitionism. And I see no reason to support the other extreme either–pushed by the content industry–that seeks to license every single use of culture, in whatever context. That extreme would radically shrink access to our past.

Instead we need an approach that recognizes the errors in both extremes, and that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand. This may be too much to ask. The idea of balanced public policy in this area will strike many as oxymoronic. It is thus no wonder, perhaps, that the likes of Google sought progress not through better legislation, but through a clever kludge, enabled by genius technologists. But this is too important a matter to be left to private enterprises and private deals. Private deals and outdated law are what got us into this mess. Whether or not a sensible public policy is possible, it is urgently needed.

This is a long article, well worth reading for those interested in law and the future of the book. And this post hardly does justice either to the article or issues involved. But the article does illustrate a point: most of what magistrates do pertains to matters far removed from the clear moral teaching of Scripture about sex and marriage. So if some are going to fault natural law for not performing a slam dunk on the hot button topics of the culture wars (abortion and gay marriage), when will those advocates of a biblical approach to politics admit that Scripture won’t resolve important questions like this one about the copyright of words and images?

Some of This and More of That

Rabbi Bret explains why short of theonomy, even transformationalists like the Baylys are guilty of two-kingdom thinking:

. . . the Bayly’s are victims of compartmentalized thinking. They seem to think that one can have a Constitutional objection or financial objection that isn’t at the same time a theological connection. Would someone mind introducing me to an objection, that at its root, isn’t theological?

Let’s take the Constitutional objection. The Baylys admit that they may have a Constitutional objection that is somehow cordoned off from a theological objection. Now, presuming that the Baylys are here suggesting that they object to paying social security tax because they believe that the Constitution doesn’t make provision for it how is that not at the same time a theological objection? Theologically we are to give taxes to whom taxes are due (Romans 13:7) but if the King is asking for taxes that is not his due (i.e. – social security tax) given the law of the land as expressed in the Constitution then suddenly I immediately also have a theological reason to not pay social security taxation. My Constitutional reason not to pay the social security tax flows out of my theological reason not to pay the social security tax. When Government demands taxes (governments never “ask” for taxes) that are not its due then the Government is engaged in theft, which is a violation of the 8th commandment. What began as a Constitutional issue, when traced back to its origin, has found its theological source.

Apparently evangelical arguments against porn are now retreading arguments against alcohol – both alter brain cells. I wonder if there is a cure for testosterone. I know of one – aging.

John Fea thinks the Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey is a reason for breaking with evangelicalism. I can think of other reasons but many thanks for additional ammunition.

This review of David VanDrunen’s new book on bio-ethics may be instructive for those who think that two-kingdom theology and natural law are just so much pie-in-the-sky rationalizations of the status quo. Rated BBW (for Baylys Be Warned, with love, of course). Bill Edgar, the reviewer, writes:

In the opening chapter VanDrunen compares several possible Christian attitudes toward participation in public healthcare. He concludes that, although the world’s agendas are often different, even at loggerheads with the biblical approach, Christians need to be active in healthcare, if only because we are called to defend God’s justice in a hostile environment. More positively, as VanDrunen articulately demonstrates, cultural activities are still enjoined, alongside the duty to proclaim the gospel.

And for those old enough to remember “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this graphic on the creation of the Space Station may bring back bad memories, not to mention Chicken Little-like fears about what happens when this mass of gadgets falls out of its orbit.