Foundations of a free and virtuous society:


What follows are my sketchy notes on a session at Acton University yesterday, June 16, 2010. The presenter was Dr. Stephen J. Grabill. Dr. Grabill received his Ph.D. from Calvin Theological Seminary. He is a research scholar in theology and editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is the general editor of The Stewardship Resource Bible: ESV, which was released in November of 2009. He is the author of Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics and is currently editing Sourcebook of Late Scholastic Monetary Theory.

Foundations of a Free and Virtuous Society, Dr. Stephen J. Grabill

Christian social thought is distilled wisdom over the ages . . . Christian thought will be anti-revolutionary, as Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper used the term. The former offer titled a book Unbelief and Revolution. A Protestant Lord Acton. He thought false dichotomy between spiritual destiny and earthly _____. Thought Christians should see selves as the people God had called to shape history according to God’s ordinances. But saw conflicting religious visions at work. Autonomous vision of French Rev at odds w/ Christian vision. That vision couldn’t be carried on by preserving orthodox church in secularized world, but must be carried out in all departments of life.

Kuyper was inspired by Groen [I have spelled this Gruen later in the notes. Same guy.] and wanted to seek reformation of life according to God’s ordinances, rather than revolutionary principles or liberal appeal to historical development. Kuyper became ed-in-chief of daily =newspaper giving voice to what became anti-revolutionary parter under Gruen’s and later Kuyper’s leadership: to empower common Christian citizens to influence public life: not just politics but university, church, business, all sectors of society.

NOT a conservative reaction longing for good old days of 16th c. But an evangelical movement opposed to relativistic/atheistic starting points of socialists/libertarians animated by revolution (French).

True law of life, including economic and political life, comes from moutside the human will, from the sovereign personal God, who has infused his will into creation ordinances. What he meant by that was: natural law. Ordinances given in creation, reiterated in biblical revelation. Harmony btwn general and special revelation. If it weren’t for sin, his oredinances would fully reveal their rule by man’s progressive development.

Now some of the difficulties of using the bible in public life.

What is Bible? Record of God’s redemptive address to us in the totality of our lives, our whole network of institutions, projects, aspets of life. Holistic, including socio-economic existence. Bible is nOT systematic treatise on economic, political theory, or any other subject. But insight can be drawn from Scripture and systematically arranged. Sin, grace, judgement, redemption . . . addresses parents, for instance, as stewards of their children’s spiritual lives. (other examples)

Answers not by strict deduction from Scripture in these matters, but also not irrelevant. What must change about our thinking, so bible can speak to these areas.

First, Bible alone not enough to relate faith and freedom. Missing theological piece of puzzle: Bible only part of the revelation needed. A fair bit of the bible is special revelation: that God infallibly provides in words, visions, personal appearances, to the community of faith. But also general revelation, made evident not only to Christians but to all people. Grasped not through words, but by other means, as Bible itself says. Psalm 19:1-4. Heavens tell glory of God, firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day and night to night give speech, knowledge. No voice heard, yet voice goes throughout all earth, words to end of world.

Divine word is imparted without words in general revelation. This is the essence of general revelation. Many Christians are unfamiliar with this concept of general revelation. Pastors haven’t said much about it. Fear saying too much about it may detract from the more perfect, redemptive message of the Bible. Odd, though understandable: defend Bible by restricting its message?

Of course bible indispensible: tells us of God’s dealings with fallen human beings. But assumes we know certain fundamental truths before this instruction. Principle of non-contradiction, of identity, link between cause and effect, basics of natural teleology (and sex roles), basic moral requirements

Bible assumes we know these basic truths before we come to Bible. Unless Abraham had known justice, he couldn’t have debated it with God. Israelites knew gratitude (example missed), and family, life, property, truth-telling . . . without which commandments, etc. would have been incomprehensible. These are first principles of knowledge—the preconditions of all subsequent knowledge. It is acceptable to call these revelation, because they come from God. We know them for no other reason than divinely ordained design of world, of mind, and correspondence between world and mind.

Creation may be fallen, but not destroyed. Its structures resisted, but cannot, over the long term, be destroyed. Knowledge of them suppressed, but not abolished.

The natural law tradition acknowledges both general and special revelation, though specifically referring to the former.

Includes both truths about right and wrong, but also the first few rings in the spreading ripple of implications.

Why then do we know so little about it, esp. since it has been used to such great effect throughout Christian history?

Many Christians think natural law places misguided trust in human reason. Ignores sin. Promotes works-righteousness. Because it doesn’t require you to get saved to do something right or good. They also assume it operates under the radar of Christ’s redemption and of God’s providential care of the world.

Nothing of the source was believed by the church fathers or the Reformers themselves! Bible itself speaks of “common grace” that is there for everyone to see. That’s why in Rom 1:20 “All are without excuse.” Natural law by definition is open, public, universal, non-exclusive moral truth. Yields vital information that people simply can’t live without. Which is why you don’t have to be able to read, hear to get it. And why ppl don’t have to read Bible to get these truths.

While Reformers champion Augustinian notion of grace, this doesn’t rule out the universal sense of right and wrong, as with Augustine himself. [MISSED—recover from around 24 on—important; how natural law a seamless part of Christian tradition]

CS Lewis: natural law not entirely new in world! All came to JC with repentance, seeking forgiveness: assumes a moral law already known and already broken. “It’s no more possible to invent a new ethics than to place a new sun in the sky. Some precept of traditional morality must be presumed. We never start with a blank slate, or we would end with a blank slate.”

For me: rejection of natural law leads to false division of nature and grace, and also leads to two ethical codes: one for Christians and one for everyone else. Fails to see how common human nature plays in the ways we ALL think and talk about morality. Cuts out dialogue with non-Christians. Our morality pits the thought of Catholics, Jews, Protestants against secularists. The clash manifests in disputes over financial regulation and deregulariaation, globalization, immigration, abortion, climate change, etc. Underlying these conflicts are profound differences of the nature of morality, relationship of moral judgment and law, public policy.

So how should Christians engage others? As reasonable citizens seeking welfare of city as in Jeremiah 29:7. Using arguments based on what’s reasonable . . . not on biblical authority at least right away, is appropriate. Natural law useful esp because it reflects on what reason can show us. Not infallible, but a good starting point. DOESN’T mean ignoring effects of the fall. Implication of saying that all humans are fashioned in image and likeness of creator, thus having dignity, that others are bound by reason to respect and protect.

In this sense, natural law is a doctrine of public reason(s) that would command a universal concensus under ideal conditions of discourse and meanwhile are available to, accepted by, anyone willing nd able to give them fair hearing.

But how ideal are our circumstances today?

These reasons affirmed by Christian churches can be and have been accepted by people who don’t accept Jewish, Christian sources of revelation. Respect for these reasons as reasons is what makes civilized debate possible in the forums of democracy.

This is why we must challenge the view that theology offers no access to natural law. That its views of redemption, etc., exclude all forms of natural theology.

But it is necessary to acknowledge natural law’s theological limitations, especially for Protestants.

The Reformer’s hold to existence of a natural awareness of morality, but think that knowledge has no saving power or merit associated with it. Its primary role: to make ppl accountable for the basic moral laws they are already under, without allowing for excuses. Natural law informs the mind of what’s right and wrong, but can’t ensure that peole will choose to do good over evil. Thus natural law ineffective, insufficient to bring about right action, even though reliable source of moral information. Knowing and doing the good are totally different matters.

The Reformers’ assessment of natural law complicated further by issue of free will and morality. Will free in the sense that it is not coerced, can self-dtetermine, to choose to do or not do something. Many have a caricature of protestant idea of free will as complete determinism. False. We can be held accountable. The will has a form of self-determination. We know right and wrong. The Reformers reject will’s complete unimpeded freedom, as well as will’s external coercion. Instead they think the will is self-determined, willing voluntarily on its own, but because of corruption, in bondage ot sin, and therefore subject to a state of sinning. We are talking about morality here, n ot salvation issues.

Underlying bondage of will is Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Fall impacts every aspect of human nature. Thus fallen humans remain in bondage to sin: can’t help but sin, despite fact that human nature created good. It has become corrupted as result of Aam’s sin.Will stays in bondage to sin. No way for people to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace. This is where prevenient grace doctrine sometimes mistakenly enters the natural law debate. Prevenient grace doesn’t justmake it possible for people to respond to God’s grace. It actually brings salvation about. It is needed at every stage, including to persevere in grace.

This DOESN’t mean that people don’t ever do anything morally good. It just means the initiative for justification and sanctification is with God, not man. So the confusion about prevenient grace enters in here and causes problem.

Common grace, unlike prevenient grace, is God’s favor extended to ALL human beings through providence, in regulation of seasons, order of government to restrain evil, and natural principle of justice that facilitate trade and all aspects of human interaction.

While Protestants pushed natural law out front door, but slipped it back in through common grace, conscience, imago dei, general revelation, and the ordinances of creation. It’s because of God’s image in us that we can receive general revelation, and he gives it for the same reason. The pattern for God’s grace are the ordinances of creation. The mode is God’s care in sustaining those ordinances. The purpose of common grace is to convict, preserve, and lead us to the greater grace that actually saves: the internal witness to common grace is conscience. And its fundamental requirements are the natural law, confirmed and illustrated by Scripture.

What the natural law teaches us is what nonbelievers in fragmented fashion already know, whether they know they know it, think they know it, and even if they would rather not know it. The art of cultural engagement is not laying foundations, but digging up and repairing them. Not teaching trutsh they don’t know, but dredging up what they do know but haven’t acknowledged or connected with other things they believe.

Purpose of this lecture: to recap ideas from earlier sessions. Not give the last word on any of the topics we’ve gone through, but to anticipate some concerns people may have and invite each of us to further thinking on integration of faith and freedom. This work faces many difficulties, but Kuyper: “Ther elationship one posits between God’s life and the world governs our undertakings.”

1.    We can separate God’s life and human world

2.    Can relate them in external way

3.    Can allow them to permeate in internal sense.

Encourages us for robust integration of the third way.

One response to “Foundations of a free and virtuous society:

  1. Pingback: Blogging AU (cont.) « Acton Institute PowerBlog

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