Our wisdom and understanding shown to the nations? God’s Law as curb, coherence, and comfort… (part I of II)

04 Aug

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” – Deuteronomy 4:6

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:19


curbs4Around the internet, some Christians have been discussing what “branch of Christianity” is best suited to weather the storm of the coming exile from American society.*

Of course when Christians talk about this inevitable marginalization we are not talking about, in Amish-like fashion, withdrawing altogether from society (it does us well to realize that there are different strategies one might take in withdrawing to this or that degree – I myself reflected on what a particularly Lutheran monasticism might look like several years ago here). Further, many of us are not saying that we want to let up on preaching the Gospel in the narrow sense as opportunities arise – that is the death and resurrection of Jesus that saves even chiefs of sinners from sin, death and the devil (this emphasis of ours is, of course, one of the reasons many Lutherans are convinced we will weather the storm) – but I suspect we are often thinking about no longer trying so hard to impress God’s law upon our fellow citizens (utilizing “natural law” argumentation and the like).

Lutherans like to point out that the law of God, holy and righteous and good, performs three main functions. It convicts us (it is a mirror – see Romans 3:19-20), it is a guide (it makes clear the paths the believer is to walk – see Psalm 119:105) and it is a curb (it prevents gross outbreaks of evil in society – see I Timothy 1:9). This is a post about the law as a curb, otherwise known as the first use of the law.

Curbs needed.

Curbs needed.

Further, this is a post/series reflecting on the best way to proclaim God’s law in a society that no longer wants it. In the past, reflecting on the transformation of societies affected by the Christian Gospel, I asked rhetorically “once large groups of people begin moving from darkness to light, is assistance also not necessary to help cultures take active steps to transform themselves politically to accommodate the Christian way of life – whether we are talking more or less radical changes?” But what happens when Christianity is shrinking? As we ponder our role, I think it does us well to consider the following fact: If we think about curbs and the function they provide, we realize that they rightly comfort us – and not only us Christians. God’s law is tied up with true love (Romans 13) and the law as curb is just one of the ways that God’s shows His love to the world.

I know that persons throughout history have thought that their own societies were exceedingly immoral and decadent but I think we can safely say that American-style autonomy is increasingly running wild. Notions of a real common good – something that is intrinsic to humanity – are unarguably more uncommon than ever. Yeat’s “the center cannot hold” becomes truer with each passing day. The rapid progress of the gay rights movement – and the increasing sexual, gender, and family chaos that certainly will follow in its wake (see the last part of this Rod Dreher post about coherence from the other day) – is only indicative of the wider problem that humanity has in general, but we 21st century persons – we 21st century Westerners – have in particular.**

Of course we modern Westerners, not apart for some biblical reasons, have run with freedom – the intrinsic desire we have not only for political rights but to be all we imagine we can or should be. But of course we all know we need order as well. As an agnostic Jewish commentator put it many years ago:

“I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoratively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.”

Curbs needed.

Curbs needed.

That of course will sound intelligible not just to many of us Christians (as we think about Romans 7), but to many other Westerners as well, if for no other reason because they have known a culture created in large part by biblical truth. In a similar sounding both/and statement, the scientist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher, in his enlightening little 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, looks at life in a rather broad fashion and puts it this way:

“Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind.”***

Today, the reigning “mono-logic” of a modern scientific and technological mindset (MSTM) is increasingly hostile to the idea of natural limits. And with this, we realize that any semblance of moral coherence is ever more quickly leaving the building. And yet, when things get radically out of wack, “reality always bounces back” – however Antinomian (anti-eternal Law of God) we get we can’t be totally antinomian (anti-law in general) – we will hit the curb. Given that Christ does not rapidly come back to judge and “set the world to rights” (to quote N.T. Wright) a strong man – one who seems to externally embody good and righteous law – will come and fill the void. As moral dissipation, disarray and collapse continues, even those with the most truly liberal tendencies (not those who have now revealed themselves to be illiberal) will find themselves looking for the restoration of order – which will, inevitably conform more or less to what we Christians know as God’s “moral law”.

Writing in a recent Lutheran Quarterly article and arguing for the primacy of God’s grace in all Christian preaching, the Lutheran theologian Peter Malysz observes

“….[the] culture [is] widely perceived as permissive, lawless, and even immoral. In response, many conservative Christians and churches have taken it upon themselves to defend and proclaim God’s law, so much so that the law has become a veritable ecumenical platform even among churches that hardly see eye to eye where the gospel is concerned.” (p. 156, Lutheran Quarterly, “Sin, Between Law and Gospel”, vol. XXVIII)

Curbs needed.

Curbs needed.

Malysz is right that God’s grace in Christ must always accentuate and predominate in our preaching, but of course this should never be at the expense of upholding the value of God’s eternal law (see my series, “We are all antinomians now”, where I struggle with the idea of being grace-centered yet faithful to the whole counsel of God).**** We do well to remember Christ’s words in Matthew 5 where He says those who uphold it in every jot and tittle are those who will be honored.

As noted above, we will seek law, and not only because we, as Lutherans would like to point out, have the opinio legis – that is, we seek to justify ourselves. True though this may be – and its truth cannot be minimized – we also rightly seek out the law because it is holy and righteous and good as Paul says – whether one thinks about the law in terms of before or after the Fall of man (see Genesis 3 and Romans 8).

So what Malysz writes is true enough – but it should hardly surprise. It makes good sense that we would find some measure of agreement here in that on the last day judgment will be according to the works we have committed for and against God’s law.  Not only this, but in more sober and reflective times when people – and not only Christians and religious people! – can’t not wonder “what went wrong?”, those who spoke up against particular excesses or evils will often be vindicated in this life. Yesterday’s prude and killjoy may well be tomorrow’s wise man. For example, most all of us now wish that financial excesses that led up to the 2008 recession would have not only been realized but somehow curbed. Or, that Roman Catholic bishops would have been – and would now be! (hello?) – just a tad more “legalistic” in their dealings with sexually-abusing priests. Those who spoke up earlier find their voice imbued with a new authority.

Curbs needed.

Curbs needed.

Again, even in the fallen world, law can rightly be seen as beautiful indeed in our time of need – whether or not one sees it as having further ontological grounding, as Christians do (i.e. that we are creatures who are designed to live in particular ways, to inhabit particular “grooves” and forms of life – and not others). In times of disorder and collapse, many will see more clearly the “perfect law which gives liberty” and rightly exalt “law and order” for the protection that it brings – hopefully apart from any vindictiveness but rather tempered with compassion and kindness.

In light of these thoughts, the debate that happened a few months ago between Ross Douthat and Joseph Bottum, both Roman Catholics, about the difficult problem of same sex marriage is particularly interesting.

In short (and I will not do justice to his thoughtful piece, which I recommend reading), complaining about “a world in which politics has become soteriology”*****, Bottum argues that the world has become disenchanted – it no longer recognizes powerful and sacred objects outside of us that influence us and deeply affect us as persons and communities.* Since the culture has largely forgotten “the essential God-hauntedness” of the world, if we insist that same-sex marriage should not be allowed in civil law, persons will not understand this. Therefore, rather than doing things like making the case against same-sex marriage in the political realm – same-sex couples desiring marriage should be “left alone to try” – we must focus on efforts to “re-enchant” the world, “making the church more seductively beautiful” as another has put it (here).

Is this wise?  In part II I will continue to discuss our topic here – proclaiming the law of God to the world – in light of this debate.





*Some have pointed out that theologically speaking, Christians, being strangers and aliens in the world, have always been in exile, but of course from a cultural and sociological perspective the question is still relevant.  My favorite answer given at Gene Veith’s blog was by a man named Kerner, who quoted C.S. Lewis:

“Don’t waste time trying to make him think that [insert false idea here] is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Good to keep in mind when you think about answering the question!

**I know we all want to be sensitive about not making homosexual acts a sin greater than others – and I really do think it is good that we see things this way – but perhaps as our “experiment” runs it will become increasingly clear to us why Paul thought – why the Spirit of God thought – it was the kind of illustrative sin that should lead off all the others he discusses in Romans 1.

***p. 127. More excellent, and I would say very ethical, observations from p. 5 and 125: “What we have to deplore… is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalizing…. Convergent problems relate to…where manipulation can proceed without hindrance and where man can make himself ‘master and possessor,’ because the subtle, higher forces – which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness – are not present to complicate matters. Wherever these higher forces intervene to a significant extent, the problem ceases to be convergent”.

**** It does us well to note here that even though it is true that unbelief, or “gospel-lessness”, is the most important sin, in 1 John 3:4 we also read that “sin is lawlessness”. Luther and others have unbelief in the gospel as the chief sin, but it is then always tied back to the law (just like in the Formula of Concord). The law, not the gospel, is God’s “eternal, immutable will.”

***** I note that culture – this word has its root in the Latin word cultus, which is intricately tied up with worship (i.e. “cult”) – certainly goes hand in hand with soteriology. Hence, “culture warring”.

Bottum, for his part, complains about Douthat thusly:

“Douthat has been one of the most appreciative of culture, but he’s still caught by the modern trap in which everything seems politicized, and our cultural understandings, our spiritualized experiences of the world, become political battles. The Catholic work that needs to be done is the work that rebuilds Catholic culture, restoring what in An Anxious Age I call “a room with a view,” a spiritually and theologically secure place from which to look out on the world and offer both criticism and praise.

…[Douthat embraces the] late modern premise that the supernatural enchantment of reality is primarily a political thing. For that matter, [he begins] with the notion that homosexuality—and the issue of same-sex marriage in particular—ought to be near the center of Catholicism’s public moral concern. That’s bad politics and bad metaphysics, in just about equal measure.”



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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


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