Law and Religion – Reclaimed!
by Gerald R. Thompson
A BIBLICAL WORLDVIEW
I. THE WHOLE COUNSEL OF GOD
A Biblical Worldview? Where?
What is a biblical worldview? I’d like to know, because I don’t think I have ever seen one.
A large part of the problem is that people jump to define what is biblical, without thinking to define what is a worldview. Thus, we have a variety of misguided efforts to derive a biblical worldview from what amounts to no more than a comparative philosophy class: this is humanism, this is materialism, this is naturalism, and after we look at any number of other isms, we have Christianity, which is proclaimed to be a worldview philosophy.
The first problem with this approach is that redemptive theology alone does not a worldview make. Even the expanded version of creation, fall and redemption do not a worldview make. The fact that someone believes in the inerrancy of scripture does not mean they understand the first thing about law, government or a worldview. The fact that someone believes in the sovereignty of God and the fallen nature of man does not mean they understand the first thing about art, science or what it takes to construct a worldview.
Any worldview – to be considered a worldview – must take into account law, government, science and art, among a whole host of other things, and put them into some kind of organized structure intellectually that makes sense (that is, the parts must interconnect and hold together). It is silly to have a view of science and a view of religion that logically contradict each other in major points and then claim these form part of a single worldview. Nor does it make sense to have a view of law or art that has no regard whatsoever for other branches of knowledge, and then to call it a worldview.
How can anything be a worldview, unless it takes into account every area of life equally? Second, how can anything be a worldview unless its parts cohere with each other? Third, how can anything be a worldview which has not been worked through down to the details?
Take the statement, “so-and-so has a biblical worldview of the unborn.” Really? What does that mean, other than (presumably) this person is against abortion? What is that person’s view of contraception, rights to bear children, governmental regulation of the family, and the authority of an individual over their own body? Has this person thought through the legal definition of murder (historically, naturally, modernly) and has he thought through the implications of Genesis 9:6? What do you mean these things are extraneous? I thought you said this was a worldview?
What people tend to do, and Christians are no different, is jump to the bottom line on our favorite hot-button issues: does this person agree or disagree with me on this issue? This is what Francis Schaeffer called “bits and pieces thinking,” and it is the death of worldview thinking. I suggest that worldview thinking is not as much concerned with conclusions, as it is with rationale. On the one hand, rationale tends to outlive conclusions – many a legal decision has had the rationale revisited and extended, while the conclusion was abandoned. On the other hand, conclusions tend to be politically manipulated – think what you want, as long as you vote with me on this – so they are of little value in evaluating someone’s worldview, if that is all you have to go on.
Then, of course, once you have a worldview, one can ask whether it is consistent or inconsistent with the Bible. But we have a long way to go, before we will need to do that.
I have never seen a worldview which takes into account every area of life equally, has its major parts cohere with each other, is consistent with the Bible, and has been worked through down to the details. Have you? If so, please send a copy to me right away. Everything I have ever seen either takes into account only a very narrow range of subject matter, has questionable consistency with scripture, or most often, is nothing but generalities.
Show me a worldview that considers whether the U.C.C. provision on contract unconscionability, atonal music, and string theory cosmology are each consistent or inconsistent with the Bible, and then you might have something.
If that is too difficult, go for something easy. Just ask your favorite Christian political action or social policy organization to send you a copy of their comprehensive worldview of law, government and rights in a constitutional republic. I mean, they do have one, right? They don’t? Then what are they doing?
Take Every Thought Captive
The Bible contains a pretty strong incentive to promote worldview thinking. 2 Cor. 10:5 states: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” You might think this would be the rallying cry of every Christian academic institution, especially at the university level. Sadly, the opposite is true.
Christian schools suffer from the same shortsightedness that afflicts Christian religious institutions in general. God’s plan of salvation can be thoroughly known, documented, and promulgated to others with confidence. Other tenets of the faith relating to spiritual gifts, religious works, and the empowering of various ministries are proudly proclaimed and defended. Religious institutions, religious persons, and their respective rights and authorities are asserted in defiance of all hazards.
But whether God created life or let it evolve is a matter of personal opinion, we are told. Principles of law and government are open to interpretation, they say. Using the Bible as a textbook (horror of horrors!) in any non-religious subject should only be attempted by those formally trained in understanding the scriptures. Christians can be absolutely certain about speaking in tongues, but God’s laws of torts are unknowable, except of course, to seminarians, who, until someone famous writes a commentary on it, we must assume have concluded the Bible says nothing about torts.
Very few will admit it, but the prevailing view in Christian academia (certainly at the university level) is one of practical agnosticism. We know there is a God, and he loves us, but we don’t know that he has revealed anything specific about the rest of life. Or, God may have revealed something about my subject area, but it is just my opinion and I don’t want to be dogmatic. Good grief! No wonder why we have systemic paralysis in Christian higher education. Have we raised an entire generation of academic wimps?
Where are the college-level textbooks on mathematics, property law, linguistics, genetics, history, psychology, etc. written from a biblical perspective? What is everyone waiting for?
For many so-called conservative Christians in academia, there is no such thing as a biblical perspective of law, psychology, or whatever. To them, such a thing does not merely fail to exist, it should not exist. If it did exist, it would contradict what they have been saying for years, causing them to lose prestige or funding. Others think if they admit it exists, it would detract from the “purity” of the gospel (in other words, it might make what they have been saying less important).
The net result of this destructive tendency in Christian circles is twofold.
First, there is an utter failure of Christian leaders and institutions to lead the effort in academia and the professions to transform all areas of intellectual endeavor to bring every thought captive to Christ. We have either thought about intellectual subjects only so far as we can allegorize them to serve an overtly religious purpose, or more often, we have ignored whole academic disciplines altogether. We should have been the leaders, but withdrew and followed behind the non-Christian thinkers instead. Thus, the curriculum of Christian universities nationally is indistinguishable from non-Christian universities. Except, of course, for religious courses which do nothing to foster worldview thinking.
Second, there is not merely an ignorance, or lack of biblical worldview thinking, there is actually open hostility to it. Instead of being encouraged, it is persecuted as dangerous – not from critics outside of Christianity, but by opponents within. Almost everywhere biblical worldview thinking has been tried in the U.S. in the last 40 years, with very few exceptions, it has met with internal persecution in the nature of a witch hunt.
School administrators and governing board members would rather bow the knee to the idols of funding, recognition and accreditation, than tolerate the development of an academically rigorous biblical worldview which might be viewed as different. Sometimes, it is church leaders who threaten to withdraw their support if teachers are allowed to explore unfamiliar territory on their own. Who do these teachers think they are, to pronounce God’s view of matters? They haven’t been to seminary! In either case, it is done with the lofty goal of preserving the “core of the gospel” – meaning redemptive theology to the exclusion of worldview thinking. But those who do these things only delude themselves.
What Would a Biblical Worldview Look Like?
To be comprehensive, a biblical worldview would have three great divisions, each of which would have to be fully developed on an equal par with the others:
- Upward (God & Man) – redemption and religious studies.
Horizontal (Man to Man) – law and government.
Downward (Man & Creation) – dominion and stewardship.
However, these three great divisions are not listed in order of importance. There is no priority or subservience between them. All three came into existence at the same time, at creation. All three have subsequently been expanded upon by later revelation. All three are absolutely essential to mankind’s existence. All three are equally interdependent. All three are equally worthy of our attention, careful consideration, and earnest endeavor.
Nonetheless, there is one thing that undergirds all of them – law. Sin and morality are both defined in terms of God’s law, and redemption is afforded by legal mechanisms. As I stated before, redemption is meaningless apart from law. And if we understand religion in its historical sense – as the duties we owe to God alone – it is law which defines what those duties are.
And while stewardship and dominion will be guided in the practical realm by excellence more than legal considerations, yet it is law which provides the context in which all stewardship and dominion activities occur. Law is the basis of the authority to dominate and the duty to be a steward. Law ultimately provides the freedom for people to pursue the arts, science, business, industry, education, etc. Further, the moral and ethical dilemmas occasioned by artistic expression and the development of technology cannot be answered by art or science themselves, but must be addressed from the perspective of law.
Therefore, the upward, horizontal and downward relationships of mankind are equal and interdependent, but they are all ultimately contextualized by law. Law is what holds the universe together. You thought the universe was held together by love? Only in romance novels. Is mathematics the language of the universe? Only in science fiction movies. Law is the language of the universe.
The single greatest stumbling block to a biblical worldview is holding all forms of thought subservient to theology (that is, religious studies, or redemptive theology). So long as we cling to a theological view of law, a theological view of creation, or a theological view of man, we will never develop a real worldview of any kind, much less a biblical worldview. There is more to the Bible than theology, and more to life than religion.
Granted, there used to be a time (we’re talking centuries ago) when theology was viewed more broadly, as encompassing many of the social sciences. The first European settlers in America had a distinctly two-pronged basis for coming to this new land – to seek religious freedom and to spread the gospel, and to establish new dominions and a quiet and settled government. If there is a Christian religious institution today which conceives of itself as having the purpose of establishing new dominions and a quiet and settled government, I have never heard of it. The time has long since passed (we’re talking at least a century) when theology was viewed this broadly.
Some like to flatter themselves with the thought that theology today is still this grand embracer of many disciplines. To them, bringing every thought captive to Christ means bringing every subject under the umbrella of religious studies. But all this does is distort and diminish the non-religious disciplines, ultimately perverting them. This is especially true for the field of law.
To the extent theology conflicts with law, it is theology which must yield to law and not law which must yield to theology. Why? Because the nature of God cannot possibly conflict with the law of God which springs from his nature. Therefore, the study of the nature of God (theology) must take this into account. I do not say this merely for shock value, but I say it because it is true. In fact, it cannot help but be true.
Law, by its nature (that is, by God’s nature) is always mandatory. Law is never optional, or maybe. We may not always have correctly discerned God’s law – for which we must always allow healthy debate – but this will often pertain to the nuances, the fine points, etc. God’s laws have been revealed more clearly, and in more detail, than most people realize. We don’t have to guess at what God’s law is, nor do we need to hesitate in pronouncing it. God’s laws can be known with certainty, and they can never be compromised by religious exceptions.
For example, if it is a true principle of God’s law that the ceremonial law of the ancient Jews has been utterly abolished, theology cannot come along and say, “but we allow people to preach and practice animal sacrifice as a means of salvation” and claim to be biblical. If it is a true principle of the law of nature that homosexuality is always abhorrent and a crime, theology cannot come along and say, “but we allow ministers to ‘marry’ or bless homosexual couples as a matter of conscience.”
Many more examples could be collected here. In all such cases, law does not yield to theology, but theology must yield to law – not man’s law, but God’s law.
This, then, is the true reason why a biblical worldview, and in particular, a biblical worldview of law, have not flourished in Christian circles. If a biblical worldview of law was discussed in churches, then pastoral theology would actually have to change to conform to it. If a biblical worldview of law was recognized by the Christian public, then all the Christian legal advocacy organizations would have to actually conform their litigation arguments to it, and renounce the legal positions they have taken for decades. If a biblical worldview of law was encouraged by religious ministries instead of actively persecuted, then all the supposed Christian law schools would actually have to radically alter their curriculum and change their textbooks.
This is something the self-appointed religious guards of Christianity will never allow to happen. There is nothing more threatening than a biblical worldview, especially of law. Our modern understandings of the Church, of ministry and of truth, do not easily yield to God’s law. Nonetheless, in the long run, yield they will.
On the other hand, the status quo is pretty secure. After all, who would write the new law texts, and who could teach from them? You can’t teach what you don’t know. The Christian law schools have the same problem that any U.S. president has in appointing a judge who is truly law-fearing and constitution-respecting. Namely, all the lawyers who are alive today have been subject to the same kind of indoctrination about law, and suffer from the same profound ignorance of God’s law.
Thanks to the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Schools, every lawyer in the U.S. today was taught the same legal perspective, using the same methodology and equivalent textbooks, as every other lawyer. Where are you going to find someone who hasn’t conformed to the prevailing matrix? We all went through the same grid. Breaking free is hard to do.
If a lawyer tries to break free, he risks bankruptcy. If a law professor tries to break free, he loses tenure. If a judge tries to break free, he courts removal from office. Those who want to break free, but don’t know how, throw their legal training away and enter religious missions. What a legal system. What a waste.
II. KNOWING GOD’S LAW
A Framework for a Biblical View of Law
It may be hard to break free from conventional wisdom, but not impossible. We can start right here. The basic interpretational framework for a biblical view of law is not complicated.
Law did not begin with the Ten Commandments or with Moses, nor is it organized in its grand scheme along the lines of the Decalogue. Law began at creation, as a necessary component of the fabric of the universe. The universe, and everything in it, is governed by certain rules, which rules extend both to physical laws and to rules of human behavior. This initial set of laws is called the law of nature (or natural law), which will continue unabated and unaltered throughout the duration of the current universe – if you will, until the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
All other laws originating with God have come by verbal revelation in the form of divine covenants, of which there have been six to date (which I reviewed two essays back). These divine covenants are also called the divine law, the revealed law, or the laws of nature’s God.
The first five of these covenants have each been entered into in a representative capacity, that is, the covenants continue to apply to the physical descendants of the original covenanters. The last covenant (via Jesus) is generally regarded as not applying to anyone’s physical descendants, which is to say that no one can be redeemed by the actions of their ancestors. None of these covenants have terminated.
The first two covenants (through Adam and Noah) apply to all people on the earth today, because everyone alive today is a descendant of both Adam and Noah. Hence, dominion, family, capital punishment, the authorization to eat meat and the promise of the rainbow apply to all people without distinction.
Since Abraham has two kinds of descendants, the temporal aspects of his covenant apply to his physical descendants, and the spiritual aspects of his covenant apply to his spiritual descendants. The covenant with David applies only to his physical descendants, which was fulfilled in Jesus, although aspects of that covenant yet remain to be completed.
The Mosaic covenant and its derivative laws are the most extensive set of laws in the Bible. The Mosaic law consists of the moral law, the civil (or judicial) law, and the ceremonial law. These may also be termed the eternal law of nature, the law of Israel’s national polity, and the law of the Levitical priesthood, respectively.
These aspects of the Mosaic law may be identified as follows. The moral law consists of those laws which are traceable to the creation account. That is, laws such as parent and child relationships, laws of marriage, laws of the sabbath, laws of property and contract, to name but a few, all trace at least in part to creation. Consequently, it is not correct to speak of the moral law aspects of the Mosaic law as originating on Sinai – these all pre-dated Moses, and are simply reflected in the Mosaic law, not initiated by it.
The civil or judicial aspects of the Mosaic law are the laws of the civil theocracy. These laws flow from the principle that “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” Thus, laws of separation (not to mix certain foods or kinds of cloth, not to intermarry with foreigners, etc.) are all laws of the theocracy. Also bound up in the civil law are the laws of inheritance, tribal divisions, land laws, and laws pertaining to the kingship – all things connected with the unique polity of ancient Israel.
The ceremonial law is all those things relating to the Levitical priesthood – who the priests and Levites were, the tasks they performed, and how they made their living. Thus, regulations of priestly dress, priestly behavior, and the tabernacle and temple all are bound up with the Levitical priesthood system. Also inextricably connected to the priesthood are the laws of atonement, offerings, animal sacrifice, the disinheritance of the Levites, and the institution of the tithe, among others.
There are some laws mentioned in the New Testament, but apart from the Great Commission itself (discussed below), there is little which can be construed as legislation (i.e., laying down a new rule of behavior).
Many laws referred to in the New Testament are glossed over in normal reading and few people stop to think about them as actual legal rules. For example, the law of sin and death, to wit, he who sins must die. Or the perfect law of liberty, to wit, liberty is the freedom to do God’s will, but my liberty does not excuse the doing of evil. Or the law of love, the law of the Spirit of life, and other examples.
There are a number of places where legal reasoning is employed to explain the new covenant (such as in Romans and Galatians), or to explain how the new covenant abrogates the Mosaic law (such as in Hebrews). The most succinct expression of a legal rule of this last type is Hebrews 7:12 – “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
But beyond this, caution is urged. Neither Jesus nor the apostles were legislators, and Jesus expressly disclaimed that he came in any civil capacity. Neither were any of the New Testament writers functioning as legislators, or lawgivers. I will say more on this topic as it relates to the ordinances of the church in a later essay.
So there you have it – a basic framework for understanding law in the Bible. If we could just get people to agree on this much, we would be light-years ahead of where we are in developing a comprehensive biblical jurisprudence.
III. THE GREAT COMMISSION
A Delegation of Authority
I want to address the Great Commission in the context of a biblical worldview because the extent of misunderstanding concerning it is so great that it prevents the major part of the Christian community from embracing a biblical worldview.
The Great Commission is at root a delegation of authority to all Christians worldwide. This is evident from the prefatory statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go . . .” In other words, all authority belongs to Christ, who is now about to delegate some part of that authority to his believers, which is next described:
make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. [Matt. 28:19-20a.]
There are a number of interpretational issues related to who is authorized to carry out the Great Commission, and how this authority is to be exercised. However, I will defer these issues to a subsequent essay and deal only with the question of what authority is granted at this time.
The Great Commission is commonly understood to involve principally the tasks of evangelism and discipleship. Broadly speaking, evangelism is the task of gaining new converts to the Christian faith, and discipleship is the task of training Christians to become more mature in their faith. But there is a disconnect between the way these tasks were viewed historically and the way they are usually perceived today.
At the time of the founding of colonial America, it was well accepted that the Great Commission encompassed two great purposes, namely, 1) the religious conversion of the native peoples of America to Christianity; and 2) the establishment of a settled and quiet government. See, for example, the First Charter of Virginia (April 10, 1606), the Ordinances for Virginia (November 28, 1618), the Mayflower Compact (November 11, 1620), the Charter of Massachusetts Bay (March 4, 1629), the Charter of Maryland (June 20, 1632), the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (January 14, 1639), the Charter of Rhode Island (July 8, 1663), and the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania (April 25, 1682), among others.
This view of the Great Commission is not only historically demonstrable, it is evident from the text of the Great Commission itself. First, note that the prefatory statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” is not limited to religious authority. Jesus did not say, “all religious authority has been given to me,” “all theological authority has been given to me,” or “all redemptive authority has been given to me.” It is all authority in heaven and on earth, period.
Second, the phrase, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” is not limited to religious knowledge. Jesus did not say, “teach them to obey every religious thing I commanded you,” “teach them to obey every theological thing I commanded you,” or “teach them to obey every redemptive thing I commanded you.” It is everything Jesus commanded, period.
Christians like to quote Col. 2:2b-3 to the effect that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, but their religious presuppositions keep them from reading “all” as all. People today don’t generally think of Christ as the source of scientific, artistic, commercial or legal wisdom and knowledge. They see him as the source of all religious knowledge and wisdom, and think that covers it all.
They bring that same mentality to interpreting the Great Commission, which is looked upon as a call to evangelism, with discipleship viewed as simply training Christians how to evangelize, or at most, training Christians in personal piety. You won’t find any contemporary Christian ministry anywhere in the United States which views the Great Commission as an authorization to go out into the world and start a civil government, or to teach others how to establish a quiet and settled government.
This modern view of the Great Commission is truncated: it is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It is not that the Great Commission does not include the tasks of evangelism and discipleship as modernly conceived, it is simply that the Great Commission includes so much more that is being ignored. We direct our efforts to only a minor part of the Great Commission, but think we are performing the whole of it.
This way of thinking is typified by the use of world maps. Christian ministries often use world maps to show where the gospel has been taken, and where it yet needs to be taken. But to me, it indicates that the Great Commission is understood expansively in a geographic sense only – we want to take the gospel to 100% of the world, but we’re only carrying 33% or less of everything Christ commanded when we go. When will we carry the other 67% of the gospel to the places we have already been?
Christian campus ministries have this problem in particular. There they are, on college campuses all across the world, preaching the gospel. But do they ever once stop to think, much less direct any efforts toward, discovering and promulgating a biblical perspective of any of the academic subjects taught at the university? No. They do not perceive this as being part of the scope of the Great Commission. And so they condemn themselves to intellectual irrelevancy. If they aren’t willing to fight the intellectual war, why are they on a college campus? It’s one step forward, two steps back.
Oh, wait! Aren’t the faculties at Christian colleges already doing this work? I wish it were so. Perhaps here and there. But even these few are not honored for the development of a biblical view in their fields of expertise. When was the last time a Christian college honored a professor for outstanding achievement in the development of a biblical view of their chosen subject? For that matter, when was the first time?
The Beach Mentality
It is as though God gave Christians a continent to inhabit. All around the continent is the mass of humanity in a vast ocean, drowning. The Christian ministries are all there on the beach, helping people onto the shore, saving them from death. It is exciting and fun, there on the beach, helping people for eternity. Moreover, God wants us to do it. And, since this is the most important thing anyone can do (so the thinking goes), everyone on the land (i.e., all Christians) should do it.
So instead of going further inland, all the Christians settle on the beach, because that’s where the action is. Never mind what is inland – that’s not where the unsaved are. Dominion is viewed as a worldly pursuit. Science, the arts, law and commerce are only tolerated to the extent they further the work on the beach – none are viewed as valid pursuits in their own right. So all the endeavors of the settlers are devoted to bringing more people onto the beach. We build churches, ministries, and support systems, all as close to the beach as possible.
If someone wants to go inland, we chide them gently, saying, “This is where God is working, not out there.” But some people persist, claiming that they aren’t cut out for the beach, and that they really want to go elsewhere. So we build fences around the beach, to discourage anyone from venturing inland. If they do go, we tell them, “You’re on your own – we cannot support you there.” We preach sermons about the dangers to be found inland, and how God blesses those who bring new recruits into the kingdom.
As people further persist to go inland, steps are taken to actually punish them for their stubbornness. Obviously, they are persisting out of a wrong heart attitude, misplaced priorities, and wilful disobedience. We shun them when they return to the beach to report on what they found inland. We deny them any support. We don’t publish their books, or invite them to speak at conferences. They are outsiders, out of step with God’s will, so the thinking goes.
As a result, the Christians never fully take possession of the land. They have the perimeter, but not the interior. They see themselves as fulfilling God’s command to inhabit the continent, but in reality only partially fulfil it and actively frustrate it’s full implementation. This beach mentality pervades modern American Christianity, and much of Christianity around the world.
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” [Lk. 11:52.]
The main problem with the beach mentality is that it views evangelism as the lens or filter through which everything else is seen. Evangelism is not merely part of the Great Commission, but becomes the whole, and all those things we perceive as being within the realm of “all that Christ commanded” are coopted to serve the purpose of evangelism.
This is why Christian students are steered away from other careers and into full-time ministry; why Christian lawyers sanctify their legal practices by placing religious tracts in their reception areas, why Christian artists cannot present their artistic skills except as a tool to lead others to Christ, why Christian scientists feel they must link their research with redemptive theology to be valid, and why people of wealth are told to ease their consciences by making donations to Christian ministries.
The truth is Christians will never develop a biblical worldview until they see that Jesus is not merely a redeemer, that his commandments are not merely religious, that the Great Commission comprises only one of four great purposes God has for mankind, and that the Bible is not merely a religious book. To be blunt, Christians will never develop a biblical worldview until they see that a biblical worldview does not start, or end, with redemptive theology.
Christians need to stop talking about whether God really wants them to get involved in the “culture wars,” or whether they should “stick to the gospel.” God is a god of culture, so get used to it. If you aren’t going to get with the program, at least get out of the way of others.