Christianity and Law – Introduction
When it comes to Christianity and Law, Christians believe that God gave us divine laws and the means of discovering them. Carl F.H. Henry says, “God is the only Legislator. Earthly rulers and legislative bodies are alike accountable to Him from whom stems all obligation—religious, ethical and civil”1 (2 Chronicles 20:6; Acts 17:24–31).
The truth of Henry’s summary of the Scripture passages mentioned above holds serious implications for all of us, and not just in the realm of law. We acknowledge this truth when we examine the assumptions and failings of all human-centered legal systems, especially those that deny God as Lawgiver. They fail because they recognize neither our dignity as God’s image-bearers nor our fallen nature. The twentieth century alone proves both our fallen condition and the failure of human-based legal systems. The reigns of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Tse-tung are gruesome examples of societies in which law was twisted by the state to allow the murder of millions of human beings, more than in all previous centuries combined.2
Christianity and Law – Systems of Man-Centered Law
If God exists and imparts divine law, then any society that ignores His laws is risking untold consequences. People who ignore or deny the law of gravity by jumping out a ten-story window earn severe consequences. Societies that ignore or deny the prohibition against murder or theft also suffer severe consequences. A society that rejects God may pass arbitrary laws that result in a loss of respect for the law by its citizens. John Whitehead says that when fundamental principles of law are undermined, “public confidence in law and public willingness to abide by law are also sapped.”3
When we fail to consider law as sacred, we also fail to consider it binding. If in our fallen condition we create our own laws, we are likely to revise them to better suit our selfish needs. A weak foundation for law creates a weak foundation for morality. We need laws that are unchanging and worthy of our obedience, but we cannot discover a consistent moral code within ourselves. If God does not exist, all things are permissible.
The bankruptcy of the world’s legal and ethical codes demonstrates the need for a legal system based outside human interests. John Warwick Montgomery writes, “The horrors of our recent history [have] forced us to recognize the puerile inadequacy of tying ultimate legal standards to the mores of a particular society, even if that society is our own.”4 Most of the horrors can be traced back to positive law. As Christians, however, we believe that the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, loving God is the world’s Lawgiver (Psalm 127:1) and provides His own character as an absolute basis for law.
Christianity and Law – An Absolute Standard
One aspect Christians find troubling about the theory of legal positivism is that it builds law on an ever-changing foundation—the whims of governmental authorities or political superiors. Legal positivists, though, view it from a different perspective. They believe a flexible system of law is desirable, since we and our laws are caught up in the process of evolution. Positivists believe laws are logically formulated by the state to best suit these evolving needs.
The failings of a system based on evolutionary processes are obvious, as A.E. Wilder-Smith points out: “Since humans are allegedly accidents, so are their laws.”5 Positive law is arbitrary and creates the profound danger of an all-powerful state (no matter how benevolent its purposes). Whitehead observes, “[I]f there is no fixity in law and no reference point, then law can be what a judge says it is. If, however, there is a fixity to law, there is some absolute basis upon which judgment can be made.”6
Christians believe this fixity exists in the moral order in the form of divine law, which is grounded in the immutable nature of God, a firm foundation that does not flex or evolve. Whitehead explains the superiority of a fixed system of law over a flexible one: “Law has content in the eternal sense. It has a reference point. Like a ship that is anchored, law cannot stray far from its mooring.”7 The Christian view of law produces a legal system that does not fluctuate according to our whims and preferences; rather, it remains constant and therefore just. This perspective provides law grounded on the absolute foundation of God as the ultimate Lawgiver.
Legal positivism cannot adequately explain the nature of law—why it is necessary and why human-determined law is not just. Christian legal theory, on the other hand, explains that law is necessary because we are universally in rebellion against God and His moral order, and we need earthly law based on His moral order to curb our rebellion. Further, our implementation of laws is always imperfect because our fallen nature prevents us from formulating and enforcing a totally just legal system. Christians believe that in spite of our corrupted, fallen nature we can, nevertheless, know God’s laws through general and special revelation.
Christianity and Law – Conclusion
The notion of Christianity and Law is based on God’s unchanging character as an absolute foundation rather than on a foundation that evolves and changes over time based solely on societal concerns. Christian law ensures specific, absolute human rights that other worldviews that deny God’s existence cannot guarantee. Christian human rights are based on specific duties prescribed in the Bible. God assigns us specific rights, and we are responsible for obeying God and protecting our rights as well as the rights of others.
The Bible provides specific instructions for establishing earthly legal systems and He requires such systems to be orderly and equitable. God expects our legal systems to hold individuals responsible for their actions and to work to restore God’s order wherever possible. God does not expect legal systems to declare every sin illegal, but rather to maintain order and liberty by promoting justice.
The Bible tells us what God sees as good and what He requires of us: “to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8). Our motivation to “do justly” comes from knowing that “the Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nahum 1:3). Our motivation to “love mercy” and to “walk humbly” comes from Jesus Christ, who said to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). We know that we are not perfect, as Christ was, but we are assured that God’s grace, mercy, and love will be shown to us on the final Day of Judgment.