Results tagged “Public Square” from Reformation21 Blog

Truth and Politics

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I've been listening to a fascinating audio book on the nature of warfare in World War II. Giles Milton's book, Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare details the unconventional and sometimes brutal methods employed to defeat the Nazis. Churchill's belief was that the Nazis were inflicting total warfare on the British. Thus, the only response was to defeat them by any means. The idea of a genteel and gentlemanly war was discarded in favor of espionage, deception, and sabotage. This was a zero-sum game. It was either won or lost, and losing was not an option. It seems that many today are approaching modern American politics with the same zero-sum game attitude. And in that type of battle, the end justifies the means.

The truth is, I planned on writing this post well before the current brouhaha in national politics had erupted. When it was planned, I didn't have any idea that the nation would be embroiled in a hyper-politicized "he said/she said." But here we are; a nation that feels, in many ways, to be ripping at the seams. What is a Christian to make of it? How should believers in Jesus Christ evaluate their political opinions? How should Christians express their opinions (even political ones)? The Scriptures point us to the sanctity of truth, the necessity of honesty, and the maintaining of our own and our neighbor's good name.

Truth is to be regarded as sacred because it is an attribute of God. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 Jn 1:5). God's word is truth (Jn 17:17). God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth (WSC 4). But untruth and falsehood is rampant in this fallen world because of sin. Satan is the deceiver (Rev. 12:9). He is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). The sacred nature of truth makes an ethical and moral demand upon the lives of Christian. Christians are to cherish and uphold truth while rejecting falsehood.

The ninth commandment instructs us, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exo. 20:16). Honesty is necessary in all aspects of life. Honesty requires a defense of truth and the good name of ourselves and our neighbor. The Westminster Larger Catechism 145 forbids opposing this, especially in "public judicature." Public judicature is the administration of justice in courts of the state or church. False testimony or accusations must be opposed. Likewise, "undue silence in a just cause" is wrong. Justice is perverted if those abused or those who witness abuse remain silent. Their silence only results in the innocent suffering and the guilty escaping. In this respect, the #MeToo movement has been tremendously helpful in encouraging the abused to speak up. Every accuser has a right to be fairly heard. But every accusation does not have a right to be believed. Only what is true should be believed.

Modern politics has an inflated view of its importance. As such, it views all debate and disagreement as a zero-sum game. Because of this, it excels at what the WLC calls "speaking the truth maliciously." Though what is said may be technically true, it is wielded solely in an attempt to injure someone's reputation. Half-truths and innuendo dominate this type of political discourse. Social media is filled with memes and articles that purposely distort the truth for political purposes. And we in the church are often complicit in their propagation. Before posting or sharing something we should ask, "Does this fairly characterize or summarize the other person's point of view? Am I addressing the issue or attacking their person? Are terms clearly defined? Does this statement address the topic at hand? Is it true?" If we cannot appropriately answer these questions, then posting the meme or article probably violates the ninth commandment. Careless posting on social media without a concern for the whole truth is bearing false witness. It damages others and it damages the ability of the church to speak into important matters in this culture. Honesty is necessary.

Life works best when in line with God's law. This means that even in political discourse we need to maintain the good of our neighbor's name. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) instructs us that our "neighbor" may include someone we've considered our enemy. The Larger Catechism warns against either "scornful contempt" or "fond admiration." We must not treat others in our thought, word, or deed in a way that demeans or ignores their inherent human dignity. We must also not have a blind, foolish devotion to some person because they are part of our tribe. It far too easy to overlook the faults and foibles of those with whom we agree and to target the very same faults and foibles of our enemies. This is sin.

The health of our political and social discourse seems to be approaching a critical point. The words and actions of those in the church should be different. Our words must be true. Our actions must seek and promote the truth. We must strive to preserve our own good name and reputation and that of our enemies. It is good that we debate and engage critically with ideas. There is a right and wrong way to lead the nation. There are better and worse philosophies. These things need to be discussed vocally and passionately. But we must not stoop to deceitful or dehumanizing ways. For Christians, our current political discourse is not a zero-sum game. Even a noble end does not justify sinful means. We cannot violate the ninth commandment because doing so brings dishonor upon our Savior.

       

Natural Law and the Public Square

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Being fully committed to the Protestant Reformed tradition--especially as it is represented at Westminster Theological Seminary--I have developed a basic understanding of natural law theories over the years. If by "natural law" we mean a moral order that is (a) revealed by God in nature, (b) stands behind conscience, (c) obligates all people to worship and obey Him, and (d) is sufficient to leave all without excuse and liable to divine judgment for sin, then I affirm it. However, one standard theistic account of natural law (NL) as a moral theory goes further. This account claims that all people can not only apprehend certain moral truths by unaided reason - apart from biblical revelation - but that people can, in principle, espouse and properly act upon those truths, again, apart from saving grace. It's this feature of NL theory--perhaps the critical feature, it seems to me--that allegedly opens up "common ground" for Christians to cooperate with people of other faiths (or of no faith at all) on issues pertaining to the "common good."

Now, I have learned to leave the majority of negative assessments to my colleague and resident pessimist, Carl Trueman. But I must say that, from a Reformed perspective, this additional claim by many Natural Law theorists runs into a number of obstacles. I wish to briefly mention two.

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.

This is not to deny that by God's common grace, many unbelievers are immensely gifted and do morally upright things--often outstripping many Christians in good deeds. But such acts do not spring from an essentially unfallen rational ability, in principle, to discern and apply precepts of natural law. Rather, it is God who mercifully restrains the unbeliever's hostility against Him, so that the unbeliever is led, to some degree, to live inconsistently with his moral depravity. So common grace may facilitate a kind of formal agreement between the Christian and non-Christian. But common grace remains just that--grace. God gives it when and where He wills. You can't count on it as a foundation for public policy. This is a second reason why, I think, the NL theory I have in mind is a non-starter for programmatically advancing public morality.

To close on a positive note, Christians should confidently reason from Scripture in all of life, including life in the public square--rather than appeal to fallen unaided reason. We should do it because failing to do it leads, at best, to what we could call various forms of "well-articulated pragmatism." We should do it because God designed for us to read His general and special revelation together, never to separate the two. But Christians should reason from Scripture, above all, because it is there that we meet the Christ in whom are hidden "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col 2:3), including wisdom for the public square. Such a Christ-centered theology for the public square, I think, better comports with what God says to us, and does not depend on what we say to ourselves.


*This post is a slightly revised version of the opening remarks Dr. Wynne offered during a panel discussion on natural law at a "Faith in the Public Square" conference at Westminster Theological Seminary in October 2016.