Inaugural Address and Charge to the Paul B. Henry Institute
for the Study of Christianity and Politics
"Apostles of Common Grace"
Every day the position of Western Christians seems more and more like the position of the early Christians in pagan Rome. Really it never ceased to be like that, for although for some time in some countries the rulers have made free with the name of Christ, and although for some time in some countries the bread of the law has been leavened by the word of God, the world has never become the city of God; it remains the city of Man against God. Do we require evidence? Consider our own dear country: a nation conspicuous for its Christian origins, whose Congress once proclaimed days of prayer and fasting, whose very coins declare trust in God, and whose highest tribunal opens its sessions with the words "God save the United States and this honorable Court." Yet in some of our cities there are more abortions than live births, and great numbers of our countrymen have come to think that it is normal and desirable that their sick, their weak, and their helpless should be killed or pressured into suicide.
We are in Rome.
So long as we remain in Rome, each of us has two responsibilities. The first is to put on the mind of Christ; the second is to carry His mind into the Roman public square.
My original plan was to speak to you about the former responsibility. It would not be difficult, for a speaker has many texts from which to choose. "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind," says Paul. (Romans 12:2, RSV). In another place he says, "for though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, RSV). These alarming passages, I thought, would be enough to keep a rhinoceros awake, if any rhinoceri were to be found in Grand Rapids.
I had planned that I would then speak about the intellectual obstacles to putting on the mind of Christ in Rome, the chief of which are neutralism, positivism, and accommodationism. Neutralism means thinking that Christ shouldn't make a difference in Rome because the public square is not the church. Positivism is the version of neutralism that political scientists tend to favor: it means thinking that although Christ should make a difference to what we do in the public square, He shouldn't make a difference to how we study it because we should suspend our world views and let the facts speak for themselves. Finally, accommodationism means imagining that we have put on the mind of Christ because we have absorbed one of the secular ideologies, liberal or conservative, and declared it Christian. The answer to neutralism is to affirm the difference between the church and the public square, but point out that Christ is interested in both. The answer to positivism is to affirm the need for objectivity, but point out that facts never speak for themselves; one must have a certain view of the created world to believe that there are facts at all. And to answer accommodationism -- why, it suffices to describe it. Liberal accommodationists confuse the doctrine that only God can cure the soul with the notion that only government can cure the soul. Conservative accommodationists confuse the doctrine of the election of Israel with the notion of the election of the United States. Clearly accommodationism belongs in the ash heap along with neutralism and positivism.
One thought interrupted this happy plan to speak about the need to put on the mind of Christ and the obstacles to doing so. I would be preaching to the converted. I stand, after all, before a group of people whose very name declares their commitment to the Reformational tradition of thought epitomized by John Calvin. It was the Reformed thinker Abraham Kuyper, I believe, who remarked that every square inch of the universe is claimed by God and counterclaimed by the Enemy. One must assume that such teachers have had their effect, and that you already understand everything I would have wished to say about the snare of neutralism, the fallacy of positivism, and the delusion of accommodationism.
For these reasons I will not address you about putting on the mind of Christ after all. Instead I will address you about our second responsibility: carrying that mind into the Roman public square. Every Christian should be ready to bear public witness, but it is a systematic necessity for two groups of Christians in particular. Those of the first group, the evangelists, are called to bear public witness to the "special" or "saving" grace by which God redeems those who turn to Him in faith. Those of the second group, the sustainers, are called to bear public witness to the "common" or "preserving" grace by which He keeps the unredeemed world from becoming even worse than it is already. It is this common or preserving grace on which we depend when we try to leaven the civil law that we share with our unbelieving neighbors who so outnumber us in the public square, for instance in seeking agreement with them that life in the womb should not be destroyed, that sodomy should not be granted legal equivalence with marriage, or that sick people should be cared for and comforted instead of starved or pressured into suicide. Only by common grace have we a common ground.
From Scripture and tradition we know a great deal about the vocation to evangelize, but not much about the vocation to sustain; a great deal about the grace that saves, but not much about the grace that preserves; a great deal about shedding light, but not much about strewing salt. That is too bad, because it is the sustainers, not the evangelists, whom I address tonight, and whom the Paul B. Henry Institute hopes to encourage: Some of you as political scientists and philosophers, some as policy advocates, and, so long as conscience permits, some even as holders of public office. Well, my fellow salt strewers and future salt strewers, we must do what we can. Let us reason together and see what we can learn about bearing witness to common or preserving grace in the Roman public square.
The most systematic Christian effort to explore common grace is the doctrine of general moral revelation, and the most complete expression of the doctrine of general moral revelation is the tradition of natural law: the tradition which holds that certain moral principles are not only right for all, but at some level even known to all, independently of the Bible. Historically, Catholic thinkers have been enthusiastic about natural law. By contrast, Reformed thinkers have been ambivalent about it. On the one hand is the Reformed thinker Calvin himself, who affirmed it: as he says in the final chapter of the Institutes, "It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing less than a testimony of the natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men." But on the other hand are equally reformed thinkers like Cornelius Van Til, who denied, derided, and discouraged the whole natural law tradition.
On closer examination, though, what Van Til rejected was not natural law itself but what he considered un-biblical elements in its traditional formulation - and what Calvin accepted was not the traditional formulation itself but what he considered its truly biblical elements. For instance, Van Til was determined to deny that moral obligation could flow from human nature as though God had nothing to do with it - but Calvin was equally determined to uphold the notion that moral obligation is impressed upon human nature and that God has everything to do with it.
So let us reconsider the biblical basis for a truly Christian doctrine of natural law. Doing so will yield three benefits. First, it will arm us to bear witness in Rome, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12). Second, it will enable us to draw discerningly from the natural law tradition, neither repeating what has already done nor accepting what was done incorrectly, Third, it will show us the basis on which those of us who are Evangelical or Reformed can cooperate with our Catholic brothers in opposing the common foe.
Surprisingly, the Bible doesn't make the claim that God's basic moral requirements are revealed nowhere else but in itself. In fact it tells of at least five other ways in which God by his common or preserving grace has made them known. Because of this universal instruction, this general moral revelation, no human being can honestly claim to be ignorant of the natural law.
First is the witness of conscience. In Romans 2, Paul says that even the pagans know God's basic moral law because it is "written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness." Their sins come not from genuine moral ignorance but from stubbornness or denial, for they "hold the truth [down] in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18, KJV) - they "suppress it by their wickedness" (NIV).
Second is the witness of Godward longing. Acts 17 records that the Athenians built an altar to a god they couldn't name. They knew their gods could never save; they had an intuition of a Holy One who could, a god "in whom we live and breathe and have our being" and who is somehow our Father.
Third is the witness of God's handiwork. Paul and David say creation cries out about its eternal, glorious, powerful and merciful Creator. (Psalm 19:1-6, Psalm 104, Acts 14:17, Romans 1:20.) Not only do the heavens proclaim the glory of God: so do our very forms. "For you created my inmost being," says David; "you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made." (Psalm 139:13-14a). Any such recognition has moral implications too.
Fourth is the witness of the harvest. As Scripture repeatedly assures us, every sin is linked with consequences; whatever we sow, we reap. (Proverbs 1:31, Jeremiah 17:10, Hosea 10:12.) People may play dumb about these consequences, as our people still play dumb about the harvest of the sexual revolution, but there is a difference between playing dumb and being in genuine ignorance.
Fifth, is the witness of our design. God makes some of His intentions plain just through the way He made us - He stamps them on the "blueprint," the plan of our physical and emotional design. Why else would Paul call homosexual intercourse "against nature?" (Romans 1:26-27.) In the same way, no one celebrates a D&C, but everyone celebrates a birth.
So it is that unconverted gentiles, who have neither waited at the foot of Sinai nor sat at the feet of Jesus, are still accountable to God.
Now if all of this is true, then modern ethics is going about matters backwards. It assumes that the problem of human sin is mainly cognitive - that it has to do with the state of our knowledge. In other words, it holds that we really don't know what's right and wrong and that we are trying to find out. Actually the problem is volitional - it has to do with the state of our will. In other words, by and large we do know what's right and wrong but wish we didn't, and we are trying to keep ourselves in ignorance so that we can do as we please.
Do you see the implications? Most defenses of moral evil reflect self-description rather than real intellectual difficulties. Our main task is to remove the mask from such self-deceptions and bring to the surface what people really know.
They will, of course, resist. They would rather remain in denial. That is why Naomi Wolf has recently been so roundly criticized by her fellow feminists. Like them, Miss Wolf is pro-abortion. The difference is that she has let the cat out of the bag. For years, she says, feminists have been pretending not to know that the fetus is a baby, but really they do know. For years they have been pretending not to know that abortion is murder, but really they know that too. She forthrightly declares that abortion is real sin that incurs real guilt and requires real atonement, and that we have known it all along. The only problem is that Miss Wolf does not carry her reasoning to its conclusion. She wants women to go on aborting, but proposes that they hold candlelight vigils at abortion facilities afterward to show their sorrow. For Miss Wolf is pretending too; she too is in denial. She pretends not to know that God is not mocked.
You see that denial presents a paradox. The natural law is really known, and yet it is really suppressed. Among my Catholic friends, who see the knowledge, I stress the suppression; among my Reformed friends, who see the suppression, I stress the knowledge. Sometimes people think that suppressed moral knowledge is the same as weakened moral knowledge with weakened power over behavior. On the contrary, pressing down one's conscience doesn't make it weak any more than pressing down a wildcat makes it docile. It only makes it violent. One woman had an abortion to punish her husband for unfaithfulness. By the time she became pregnant again she was finished punishing him, yet she aborted a second time. Her reason? "I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby." Her aim was to atone without repenting. Outraged conscience revenged itself by driving her to repeat her sin.
By the way, the power of conscience to revenge itself is one of the reasons that, when a culture turns aside from the narrow path, it so swiftly gets worse and worse. The reason it plummets so quickly lies not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape. We aren't gently wafted into the abyss as our inhibitions grow hazy and dim; rather we propel ourselves into it as the held down conscience buckles. The propulsive force is even greater in a culture like our own, for people here have more to hold down than in some places. After all, our country once had a Christian culture. Consequently, the people of our generation must hold down not only the present knowledge of general revelation but also the troubling memory of special revelation.
So it is that things stand in Rome today. And so I am brought to the purpose of this address, which is to deliver a charge.
I charge you, then, friends and associates of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics - I charge you, present and future students of politics, present and future policy advocates, present and future holders of public office - I charge you to find the ways to stir up that present knowledge and arouse that troubling memory.
We know that the knowledge and memory can be stirred and aroused in private conversation. A young man proclaimed to a colleague that morality is relative, that we don't even know that murder is really wrong. My colleague asked him, "Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?" After a long uncomfortable silence the young man realized that he wasn't.
And we know that the knowledge and memory can be stirred and aroused in the classroom. A student confessed to me one day that my lecture about Aristotle had frightened him, and I saw that he was trembling. All the old pagan's talk about virtue had made him realize, he said, that he had not led a virtuous life. How interesting that God could use such an instrument to bring the conviction of sin.
The charge I set before you is to find out how to stir the same knowledge and memory in the public square. I set it before you because it pertains to your calling, your vocation. You are called to a political science that assumes the moral law, which no one else dares to avouch, and asks the questions which no one else dares to ask. You are called to a public apologetics that connects the dots of our nation's fragmented moral consciousness, and reminds people of what they know already. You are called to a civic rhetoric that dissipates smokescreens and disperses self-deceptions.
There is no such political science, public apologetics, or civic rhetoric today. I charge you to find them. There is no one else to do it.
I charge you to be sustainers of this perishing world.
I charge you to be strewers of preserving salt.
I charge you to be apostles of common grace.
I charge you to prepare, by these lesser means, the way for the greater grace that saves: to make straight a highway for the King, whose hem our scholarship is not fit to touch.