God is Necessary for Civil Government and Law

This is an excerpt from my essay “Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization – Part II: A Critique of Specific Disciplines and their Christian Reconstruction” under the topic “Civil Government and Law.”

Justice Lifts the Nations

Cornelius Van Til has said, “There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy”[1] – either God’s law or man’s self-made law is the ultimate source of law for society.  If man is going to act like God and make his own law, he has two basic choices:  Abstract unity or abstract diversity.  Modern philosophy of law reflects this in presenting the two basic choices as between natural law, claiming that law derives from abstract unity, and positivist law, claiming that law derives from abstract diversity.[2]

There is such a thing as natural law because all facts of creation reveal a God who is the source of all law and whom we are obligated to obey.  However, natural law has traditionally been given an interpretation that entails anti-theistic views of the one and the many.  The premiere Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas is a prime example of one who makes such an error.  In his natural law argument for killing in self-defense he says, “Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible.”[3]  From the fact that man is a being, Aquinas concludes that man ought to preserve his being.  But the attacker is a being too.  So why choose one being over the other?  In accordance with his endorsement of the Greek view of being and matter expressed elsewhere, Aquinas is saying that man has being to the extent that he participates in the divine Being.[4]  This ultimate Being is an empty concept, because it is achieved by abstracting all diversity (“matter”).  This empty concept of being in which humans allegedly participate provides no basis for making the distinction between “is” and “ought,” no basis for a distinction between just and unjust beings, and thus provides no basis for killing an attacker rather than the attacked.  Evil, on this view, is non-being.  But complete emptiness and non-being are equivalent concepts, which means Good and Evil turn out to be the same thing.

If goodness is being, then whatever is, is right.  Such a view is consistent with Charles Manson’s pantheistic philosophy, which he explains as, “I don’t think in goods or bads, just is’s, What it is,”[5] and Marque de Sade’s naturalistic ethic in which it is right for men to dominate women just because they have the natural might.  Aquinas appeals to what is “natural,” but if a transcendent God is the source of law, nature is not itself normative.  The Christian view that God is transcendent is inconsistent with the Greek view of the Great Chain of Being (see diagram).   On the Christian view, nature cannot be appealed to as the ultimate source of law; nature can only convey what is normative.   Nature reveals God’s law; nature is not God.  Aquinas has fallen into univocal reasoning by appealing to the natural as normative.  The universal law defended by traditional natural law theory is an empty and useless authority.   But if there is a transcendent, concrete universal God, it is not necessarily true that every created being ought to preserve his being.  Some people deserve to die.  They should surrender to the authorities and meet their fate. The Bible is clear on that.[6]

Natural law advocates often try to distinguish between is and ought by looking to moral positions on which all societies are in agreement, but the Bible does not support that as a standard for the will of God because all nations turned away from God after the Fall (Genesis 6:11; Romans 3:10-18), the wide gate is the path of destruction (Matthew 7:13), and as Romans 3:4 says, “Let God be true though every man a liar.”  The unregenerate mind is set against God’s law:  “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).   Sometimes natural law advocates look to what animals do as the standard for what is “natural” (and therefore good).  But, although animals can provide examples of commendable behavior (Proverbs 6:6), acting like wild beasts is often equated with wickedness rather than goodness in the Bible (2 Peter 2:12).   Nature suffers under the curse from the Fall of man (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:20-22).

The Biblical view of natural law is that God gives everyone a conscious to follow the “work of the law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15) but conscience becomes hardened without God’s grace (Romans 1:21-32).  God reveals Himself through creation (Romans 1:20), and moral reasoning from the perfect state of affairs prior to the fall is valid (Matthew 19:8), but humanity suppresses the revelation from creation (Romans 1:18).  The God against whom man has rebelled governs all areas of life, thus man’s rebellion against God involves all of life.  Therefore, God’s redemptive revelation to man must establish the ethical ideal for all of life, and the Holy Spirit must renew man’s mind to follow God’s revealed law in all areas of life.  Given the state’s monopoly on use of the “sword” to govern, state power is especially liable to great abuses in a world of sinners.  Following God’s guidance on the proper authority and limits of the state is, then, all the more important.

Some Christians have argued that natural law could at least be a source of laws for the State for those enlightened by the Holy Spirit to discern those laws, without Christian office-holders being so “narrow” as to have to search the Bible for justification for laws and policies. But they fail to realize that even before the Fall, God did not leave Adam with natural law as his sole ethical guide; He revealed right and wrong through special revelation (Genesis 2:16-17).  How much more after the Fall is special revelation needed for ethical guidance.  God never intended natural law to be a sufficient source of moral standards.

In summary, traditional natural law theory fails because 1) it attempts to incorporate non-Christian concepts that are incommensurable with the Christian view of God and that reduce to absurdity, 2) it does not take sin seriously enough, by holding that sinful societies will express agreement with God’s law in nature without the aid of redemptive, positive revelation and the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit on the mind of man, and 3) it mistakenly believes that natural law was intended to be a sufficient source of moral standards, especially for the State. In defense of God operating as behind a mask by ruling over the State through natural law, Martin Luther allegedly quipped that he would prefer a wise Turk to a foolish Christian as a ruler.  The preference may be valid, but it does nothing to disprove that a wise Christian would be better than a wise Turk.  Through common grace, a Turk (a non-Christian) may be a good ruler in many ways, but his beliefs about the ultimate nature of the world are in opposition to the source of all justice.  Only a wise Christian would seek out the clearest and most perfect standard of justice:  Biblical law.  Scripture is profitable to instruct in righteousness so “that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis added).

One the other hand, the positivists claim that there is no law prior to man.  Man should make law purely based on a “scientific,” empirical investigation of the facts.  They are utilitarians.  In his famous essay “The Path of the Law,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes says that the study of law is the study of “the prediction of the incidence of the public force through the instrumentality of the courts.”[7]  He says that “the man of the future is the man of statistics and economics.”[8]  He takes the view of “our friend the bad man,”[9] who does not care for rights or morality; he only looks to the material consequences, whether he will be fined or imprisoned, or just set free with a warning.  Evolution, Holmes says, knows nothing of moral absolutes; the ultimate source of law is man’s instincts for self-preservation and pleasure that are his evolutionary inheritance.[10]  He says that on the basis of such a view of law, our concern should be to reform law for maximum deterrence, not to conform to an abstract principle of justice.[11]

Holmes’s view has the typical problem of utilitarianism, that there is no basis for establishing a goal by which utility can be measured (see the Ethics section my essay, “Christian Civilization is the Only Civilization”).  On the basis of non-rational sense experience, no unifying goal that ought to be pursued can be derived.  What behaviors a society seeks to deter is completely arbitrary.  The bad man has just as much right to further his goal of killing and plundering as others have to pursue the goal of protecting their life and property.  What the law defines as “right” is just a matter of who has the might to wield the force of the law’s sanctions.

Both traditional natural law theory and legal positivism fail to provide a justification for the ethical legitimacy of State law.  Neither one can account for law.  Both are empty authorities, allowing might to define right.  They both fail because they both reject a transcendent, concrete universal God as the basis for law.  Only in terms of Christian theism can the universals of law apply to the particulars of experience and can there be a distinction between is and ought.

People in modern times have been conditioned to react with revulsion to the word theocracy, often mistaking it with a form of government (like an ecclesiocracy, where the church rules over the state) rather than a philosophy of government (see Christian Views on Church and State).  But given the existence of an absolute God, it is inescapable that states are obligated to be theocracies in at least a general ethical sense.  The word “theocracy” means God (Greek – theos) rules (Greek – kratos).  An absolute God is the origin and sustainer of all that exists, including the state and its concepts of justice.  Affirmation of an absolute God entails denial of human autonomy (self [autos] law [nomos]).  The connotations of the word theocracy often include ecclesiocracy (rule by the church clergy over the state) and establishmentarianism (state favor and financial support of a particular denomination).  But theocracy does not necessarily involve either of those.  In terms of the general definition just noted, theocracy is compatible with institutional separation of church and state (thus a rejection of ecclesiocracy) and disestablishmentarianism.

The state must submit to the authority of God, and the state must look to the Bible for the content of what God has authorized.  The next question is which parts of the Bible the modern state is obligated to follow.  Everything in the Law of Moses?  Just the New Testament?  Or what?

The Biblical worldview rejects moral evolutionism.  God is omniscient; therefore He can never be confronted by new facts.  Because history can never outrun God, there is no necessary reason for His commandments to become outdated.  Therefore we should approach the issue of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments with the presumption of ethical continuity.  Situations can change so that a particular law ceases to apply, but the Bible itself must establish when that occurs.  The situation to which a law applies is part of the law.  The necessity to submit to God’s laws, therefore, entails the necessity to submit to God’s authority to determine when or if a particular law will no longer apply at some point in history.  Atheists often claim that if you hold to the continuing authority of any particular law in the Old Testament, like the condemnation of homosexuality has an abomination (Leviticus 18:22), then you must hold to the continuing authority of all Old Testament laws, like the prohibition against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10). But there is no reason that God can’t say that some laws in the Old Testament are for a limited historical situation, and others are historically universal obligations.  Beyond the presumption of continuity, determining whether a particular Old Testament law has continuing validity under the New Testament is an exegetical matter.[12]

In the minds of modern westerners, the word theocracy often conjures thoughts of a powerful police state that uses violence to coerce converts to Christianity.   Actually, the Biblical view is closer to libertarianism than statism.   The existence of an absolute God entails a limited state.  Pagan worldviews reject the distinction between Creator and creature and thus have no truly transcendent authority beyond man.  The problem of the one and the many becomes the problem of anarchy versus totalitarianism when applied to the state.  If each individual man is the ultimate authority, then there is anarchy.  If collective man, the state, is the ultimate authority, then there is totalitarianism. Freedom can only exist at the expense of order, and order only at the expense of freedom.  R.J. Rushdoony explains the inherently totalitarian nature of atheist political philosophy:

Humanistic law, moreover, is inescapably totalitarian law.  Humanism, as a logical development of evolutionary theory, holds fundamentally to a concept of an evolving universe.  This is held to be an “open universe,” whereas Biblical Christianity, because of its faith in the triune God and His eternal decree, is said to be a faith in a “closed universe.”  This terminology not only tends to prejudice the case; it reverses reality.  The universe of evolutionism and humanism is a closed universe.  There is no law, no appeal, no higher order, beyond and above the universe.  Instead of an open window upwards, there is a closed cosmos.  There is thus no ultimate law and decree beyond man and the universe.  Man’s law is therefore beyond criticism except by man.  In practice, this means that the positive law of the state is absolute law.  The state is the most powerful and most highly organized expression of humanistic man, and the state is the form and expression of humanistic law.  Because there is no higher law of God as judge over the universe, over every human order, the law of the state is a closed system of law.  There is no appeal beyond it.  Man has no “right,” no realm of justice, no source of law beyond the state, to which man can appeal against the state.  Humanism therefore imprisons man within the closed world of the state and the closed universe of the evolutionary scheme.[13]

In contrast, the Christian view, with its absolute ontological distinction between Creator and creature, does not allow either the individual or the state to be divinized to be the ultimate authority.  The Christian worldview allows both freedom from and authority for the state.  Since only God possess ultimate authority, the authority of any human institution, whether church, state, family, or an individual, is limited by the authority of God.  The state has authority to act where God has given it jurisdiction (authority, literally, to speak [diction] law [juris]), and cannot act beyond that limited authority.  Church, state, family, and individual have their own spheres of limited authority under God, and thus serve as checks and balances against the potential abuses of each other.

On the Christian view, the state cannot effect conversion by force.  The authority to use force is limited to the restraint of outward evil only.  A thief may see the light when he feels the heat of a just punishment by the state, but ultimately a changed heart can only come by an individual making that decision under the conviction from the Holy Spirit.  This is in sharp contrast with materialistic atheist political philosophies like those of Hobbes, Marx, and Skinner, which claim to be able to change the inner person by changing the environment.  The consequence of such a view is that the populace of any state become Pavolovian dogs being conditioned by their statist masters.[14]  The authority of the state on this view is not one of moral right, but of material might.  The individual responsibility of every human being before God is the only possible basis for individual freedom from the state as well as the moral responsibility of the individual to the state.

[1]  Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics,  134.

[2]  The most famous modern exchange between these two schools of thought is the one between the positivist H.L.A. Hart in “Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals,” 71 Harvard Law Review 593-629 (1958), and the natural law advocate Lon L. Fuller in “Positivism and Fidelity to Law – A Reply to Professor Hart,” 71 Harvard Law Review 630-672 (1958).

[3]  Summa Theologica, II-II, Q.64, A.7.

[4]  See my essay, “Another Round of the Thomist Rumor Mill against Van Til: Keith A. Mathison’s “Christianity and Van Tillianism” at http://christianciv.com/blog/index.php/2020/02/28/another-round-of-the-thomist-rumor-mill/.

[5]  See Charles Manson is a GOD!

[6]  The Apostle Paul said, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11).  The Bible says that nature cannot be considered normative because since the Fall, nature has been cursed, particularly sinful humans (Gen. 3:14-19).

[7]  Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Path of the Law,” 10 Harvard Law Review 457, 457-478 (1897), at http://www.constitution.org/lrev/owh/path_law.htm.

[8]  Ibid., 469.

[9]  Ibid., 460.

[10]  Ibid., 468, 477.


[12]  See Gary North, “The Hermeneutics of Leviticus 19:19 – Passing Dr. Poythress’ Test,”  in Theonomy:  An Informed Response, ed. Gary North  (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics),  255-294, Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, By This Standard:  The Authority of God’s Law Today, and No Other Standard:  Theonomy and its Critics.

[13] R.J. Rushdoony, Introduction to E.L. Hebdon Taylor, The New Legality (Nutley, New Jersey:  Craig Press, 1967),  vi-vii.  Quoted in Gary North, The Dominion Covenant:  Genesis (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), 265.

[14]  Islam, although similar to Christianity in many ways (being a Christian heresy), it results in a statism similar to Marxism, given that dying as a martyr in a holy war is the only guaranteed ticket to heaven and given that forcing outward submission to Allah is sufficient to claim to have made a convert to Islam.

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