Far too many people create a separation in their thinking between the religious and the secular. Over the last 100 ~ 150 years, it has actually been the goal of the secularists (of all stripes) to try and create this kind of mentality in the masses. They are aware that if they are able to achieve that kind of separation, Christian thought can be detached from everyday life and those with a secular agenda can take over everything that is not considered religious. Unfortunately, way too many Christians have bought into this kind of thinking. I have had more than one person tell me that we ought not to talk about “things of the world” in the church. But the fact is, God speaks to every part of life. The so called religious as well as the secular.
We are not talking, here, about creating a theocracy where some religious authority runs the government. We are, though, talking about a situation where the mindset and morality of the Bible sets the boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not.
As we look at the concept of law, there really are different ways to conceive of how it should be formulated. These different conceptions are based on the various worldview possibilities. There are ways which take into account a Biblical morality and ways which would base law on the whims of those in power. It is important for Christians to understand the various possibilities so that we can be instruments of influence in the creation and development of law in ways which correspond with God’s mind.
How Do the Four Worldviews Approach Law?
Our focus here is to grasp an understanding of law based on a Christian worldview. But it is very helpful to also understand how other worldviews regard the law in order to give us a context for personal understanding and to be able to more effectively engage those who hold other views. So, before looking specifically at how Biblical Christianity views the concept of law, we will take a moment to examine how the four worldviews understand it.
Law, from a Naturalistic worldview perspective, has no objective or transcendent basis since Naturalism does not acknowledge the existence of any supernatural reality. It is based on the perceived needs of society. The ones who get to do the perceiving are those who hold power.
The most prominent Naturalistic approach to law in our time is called Positive Law. This is the view that the foundation for a legal system should be based on enumerated powers which state what the government will do for the people. This is the opposite approach you will find in the US Constitution which enumerates what the government is not allowed to do. This Positive Law approach gives those in power more ability to control the populace it is governing
Since there is no objective foundation for law in Naturalism, laws can be changed at any time based on contemporary circumstances. Using Naturalistic belief as a basis for understanding law, a constitutional document is not seen to be unchanging based on the intent of the writers. Rather, it is subject to changing interpretations based on current societal circumstances and the views of those responsible for doing the interpreting.
The law, in Animism, is basically the rule of the tribe or family and is based on the experience of those in the tribe over many generations. This approach to law is developed by the life experience of the people in the clan and is passed down to succeeding generations through tradition.
Those making and interpreting the rules for society are generally the elders or leaders of the clan. These rules, though, are not arbitrarily made up by the leaders. Rather they are understood to be the right way for the clan to operate based on the accumulated experience of those who have lived before. It is up to the leaders to understand this way and guide the group to follow it.
Far Eastern Thought
Law in Far Eastern Thought is based on karmic evolution. The basic premise is that the universe is perfect at every moment based on the belief that karma keeps everything in balance. As mankind comes to know the right way to behave, individuals build society’s laws around this knowledge. This understanding is learned by experience as people observe what brings good and bad karma, and this knowledge is passed on from generation to generation.
The approach to law under Theism is that God is the one who has determined what is right and wrong and has revealed it to mankind though a prophet or some holy book. Human law, then, is expected to reflect these instructions from God. Thus, it is up to society to understand the revelation then make laws which match up to what has been revealed by God.
Christianity and the Law
The issue of law is a critical one to understand because the way it is expressed reflects a society’s understanding of both God and man. Society will be ordered and governed based on some system. One choice is that man decides how it should operate. The other choice is to acknowledge God as the ultimate lawgiver and his divine revealed law as the pattern for structuring society’s laws. It is a given that it is impossible, as we live in a fallen world, to achieve a legal pattern which completely adheres to the mind of God. Even if we completely understood what that meant (which we don’t) we have this built in tendency to mess it up in the implementation phase. That being said, it should still be our goal to understand God’s will as completely as possible and put in place a system of laws which reflects that will.
If a society is built on the premise that God does not exist, then no one is left but man to make laws and create societal order. In that case, law and order will be strictly based on the beliefs of those who have the power to impose their will. This is, of course, the Naturalistic approach to dealing with law. The potential consequences of this approach are quite grave. In fact, it is this approach to law throughout history which has given us systems of government which have legally slaughtered millions who did not agree with the political views of the law makers.
Man, in his fallen condition, has a tendency to deny God as being the ultimate foundation for morality. If that happens, there is no choice but for man to create his own laws. And when that kind of godless system is used, society will inevitably head toward destruction. Another inevitable effect is an ever changing set of laws based on the whims of society and the personal preferences of those in power. An arbitrary legal structure like this inserts uncertainty into society in general and creates the potential for profound danger when an all-powerful state imposes unjust requirements on its citizens.
On the other hand, if God is understood to be the originator of order in society, and thus the ultimate lawgiver, then the laws society creates will reflect what God has revealed. This does not mitigate the problems human beings have in obeying the law, but at least the laws themselves will be just.
The Bible teaches that there exists a real, objective God who has established material reality based on order. His system is based on an absolute standard which does not change. This order is, first of all, reflected in the laws of nature. Secondly, it is reflected in the revealed laws which God has given to mankind in the Bible. This revealed law casts light on the true nature of humanity and on God’s purpose for the advancement of society.
Christians believe that this absolute standard exists not only in the natural order, but in the moral order, as well. This point of view produces a legal system which does not vacillate based on the whims of the day or the preferences of those in power. It is based on the idea that an unchanging God who actually created the material order in some objective form is also the author of the ultimate foundations of law and has revealed the basis for it to mankind.
Components of a Christian Understanding of Law
If we truly want to understand the Christian approach to law, we need to become familiar with three concepts which form a foundation for that understanding. The three concepts include natural law, Biblical law and divine law.
The first concept of law that we need to grasp relates to natural law. Natural law can be divided into two parts.
The first part is found in God’s general revelation to mankind. General revelation relates to what we, as human beings, are capable of observing about God based on the natural operation of the universe. The idea is that as we observe how the universe is structured and how it operates, we are able to discern certain things about God himself. For instance, by our observation we can discern that God is a God of order and that he values what is orderly. We can also observe that the universe operates on the basis of cause and effect. Based on our observation of the universe’s operation, natural law affirms that we can discern what is “natural” (right). As it relates to human law, we apply the principles from natural law to create human laws which are ordered based on these principles.
The second part of natural law is seen in the existence of the human conscience. The conscience is an inherent sense of right and wrong that we find operative in the lives of all human beings. Based on conscience, we intuitively understand that certain things are simply wrong – such things as spitefulness, pride, boasting, hating God, disobeying parents, breaking promises, homosexuality and any other kind of sex outside of marriage. Our conscience is rooted in the very personhood of God and causes us to intuitively sense right and wrong. This sense exists in us because we are created in his image. Of course, our understanding of what is right and wrong based on conscience is flawed and incomplete. From this part of our personhood we have no way of affirming everything about right and wrong. But the fact that the sense exists at all is a profound clue concerning the operation of God in the lives of mortal humanity and has significant implications regarding law.
There is a second element of God’s revelation which is much more specific than natural law. This relates to God’s special revelation – the Bible. While natural law gives us a general understanding of right and wrong, the Bible gives us specifics as to what God considers moral and lawful, immoral and unlawful.
As God’s purpose for mankind involves living in relationship with him and requires that we put away sin as a requirement of living in that relationship, it is necessary that we have very specific knowledge as to what that involves. To provide for the fulfillment of that need, God has revealed himself to humanity by giving special revelation to particular people in history whom he commissioned to write it down. This has ultimately been compiled in the Bible.
Divine law is a combination of both natural law and Biblical law. Based on these two together, we have an objective and unchanging means of evaluating human laws. As we consider how to develop our human legal foundation based on divine law, we should recognize that it is not based on preferences. God has given us the foundation of morality by his revelation. It up to human beings to take these moral principles and make specific application of them in society by the creation of societal laws.
The end result is that it is not the purpose of governments to create laws. Rather, the work of governing authorities should be to apply divine law to human society along with proper enforcement. It is government’s job to encourage people to obey divine law by punishing wrongdoers and protecting those who live rightly. A Christian understanding of law, then, is founded on several basic concepts.
First, the source of all divine law is the character and nature of God himself. The important thing for mankind is not to merely follow a set of laws, but to become like God. Divine law is an explanation of what that looks like.
Secondly, the moral order emerges out of and reflects the character of God. The central theme in God’s character is holiness. Thus, law should lead to living holy lives.
The third important concept is that human beings are created in the image of God. As such, humans have special value. The purpose of law is not to control people or to provide a platform for the exercise of human power. Rather, it is to promote an orderly society in which every person can achieve his or her highest potential in God’s economy.
Fourthly, when Jesus Christ took on human form, human life assumed even greater significance. God saw enough value in humanity to, himself, take the form of a man in order to provide a means for overcoming sin and death. If God values man this highly, how much more should we.
Finally, God, through Christ, will judge the whole human race according to his standard of good and evil. That standard is reflected in divine law. If divine law is that special and God saw fit to reveal it to us, we ought to regard it highly, too, and base human law on it.
Duties and Rights
One of the most significant implications regarding how law is expressed in society relates to the concept of justice. The way justice is meted out in society is based on where the emphasis is placed regarding law.
The Bible teaches that God’s focus is on the value of the individual. Thus, the concept of human rights is a central focus of law based on a Christian worldview. The Bible teaches that human beings were uniquely created in God’s image. This makes human life of highest value. As a result, from a Christian perspective, human beings have a right to expect true justice from their legal system. In addition to that, God has revealed in Scripture that the fair application of justice is an element of his will for mankind.
Non-Christian legal systems tend to put the highest value in other places. It is placed either on the ones wielding power or on society in general. If those in power are considered to be of highest value, their desires become the norm for the distribution of justice. If society is considered of highest value, the rights of the individual will ultimately be trampled. We prominently see both of these situations in human society because, in our fallen condition, our tendency is toward sin rather than toward goodness and justice.
But there are also duties which come along with the rights. Divine law puts limits on our rights based on the revelation of God’s will. As important as the elevation of the rights of the individual may be, they are not as important as the accomplishment of the will of God. God’s expectation is that we become obedient to him and live out our lives according to his ways. As it relates to our interaction with society, this means that we have a duty to be obedient to its just laws.
While the Bible does not give us specific direction about how to construct laws, it does give us guidance for an ordered legal system. We find this guidance based on the instructions God gave man in Scripture regarding social interaction in particular, as well as in the various principles of Biblical morality. For instance, we see that in the Bible judges were appointed to decide disagreements according to the just laws of God. The judges themselves are commanded to be honest and fair and to treat each person by the same fair standard of justice.
The Bible also indicates that when guilt is assigned by judges, they must take utmost care to discern the truth of every criminal charge. There also needs to be such things as formal accusations, legal trials, due process, proof beyond reasonable doubt and, when proper, reasonable restitution. These are all Biblical concepts.
While every law represents the legislation of some level of morality, it is also true that every sin cannot be made explicitly illegal. Morality and legality are not the same thing. A Biblical legal system should attempt to legislate morality only to the extent that it provides for order to be maintained in society and to protect human rights. The innocent should have no fear of the law while the guilty should have everything to fear.
Of course, no legal system can make everyone act morally. But it can operate in a way which serves to create stability in society and promote justice. It can also be an instrument which is able to set the boundaries within which society operates. When the boundaries promote God’s morality, society is stronger and individuals thrive to a higher degree.
The Christian view of law is not arbitrary but is based on the unchanging character of God himself. This character is certainly expressed through natural law, but even more specifically through his revelation in the Bible. When God’s way is followed in producing a society’s laws, order and justice are preserved in ways which accomplish his purpose in society.
© 2010 Freddy Davis