Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Declaration of Independence

CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION

 

The Tower of Babel

 

 

In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior.  But what is a Christian to make of all of this?  Is civilization good or bad?  Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?

The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad.  It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature.  We are created in the image of God and have consciences.  We are social creatures.  Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad.  And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.

On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization.  In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good.  When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing.  The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2).  Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature.  All of this is undeniably good.

But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well.  Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons.   Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live.  They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term.  They go along in order to get along.  At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.

Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God.  Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society.  And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.

But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe.  No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them.  Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with.  We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  And so we rationalize our bad behavior.

What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization.  In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria).  They then proceeded to build a city.  “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV).  What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it.  They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.”  In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition.  And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language.  The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.

To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history.  The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21).  The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth.  But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a).  In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.

The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system.  “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13).  And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world.  “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.

But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy?  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25).  Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality.  They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact.  The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.

That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization.  But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?  How does he fit in?  Or doesn’t he?

On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society.  Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors.  We are to “Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17).  It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal.  The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).

Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence.  Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world.  Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .”  He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).

But what about Western Civilization?  Was it not a “Christian” civilization?  Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?

The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian.  It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out.  Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity.  But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings.  Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.

The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it.  He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins.  While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life.  The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.

AMERICA’S BROKEN COVENANT WITH GOD

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Today is the day, of course, when we celebrate the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  And yet this year it comes at a troublesome moment in American politics.  In just a few weeks the Republican and Democratic parties will be holding their national conventions.  The Republican Party is poised to nominate a demagogue as its candidate for president, the streets are likely to be filled with violent protests, and the Republican Party may very well self-destruct.  This, coupled with the chronic social and economic problems that have increasingly plagued the nation bodes ill for the future of the republic.  What many of us have taken for granted as the American way of life seems to be coming to an end.

Our end is just.  What many do not realize is that when we declared our independence form Great Britain we entered into a tacit covenant with God.  Almost everyone is familiar with the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.  Almost no one has read the last paragraph.  There, after having stated the basic principles of government and delineated King George’s “long train of abuses and usurpations,” the Declaration went on to state that the Continental Congress, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” declares our independence.  It then concludes by saying, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The statement, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” amounts to an oath.  It fits the definition in the Westminster Confession of Faith of a “lawful oath”: “. . .the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth” (WCF, XXII.1).  By “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” we were doing exactly that.

But what did we assert or promise?  The Declaration says that we are appealing to God “for the rectitude of our intentions.”  We are calling God to witness that our intentions were right and proper.  What is implied in this is that 1) the reasons stated in the Declaration are the real reasons we were declaring our independence; and 2) those reasons were right and proper, i.e., they were in accord with “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”  That means that if we succeeded in winning our independence we would proceed to establish a government that would secure “the unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To achieve these ends we proposed to fight “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”  We were, in effect, asking God to give us victory on the condition that we were acting in good faith to achieve the ends stated in the Declaration.  In other words, we had entered into a tacit covenant with God – we swore to create a government that would respect people’s rights in return for God giving us the victory.

And God did indeed give us victory.  No less than Benjamin Franklin could acknowledge at the Constitutional Convention several years later that during the War for Independence, “we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection,” and that “all of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor” (Madison’s Notes, June 28, 1787).  We won our independence having fought the greatest military power on earth at the time.

And yet we did not live up to our end of the covenant.  In spite of having declared that “all men are created equal,” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” we failed to apply that principle to African-Americans. After years of controversy over the slavery issue the U.S. Supreme Court tried to settle the issue once and for all in its decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857.  Writing for the majority Chief Justice Roger B. Taney went so far as to assert that African-Americans were not included in the “all men” who were “created equal,” and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  It was a clear and direct violation of the covenant, and God’s judgment was not long in coming.  Within four years America was engulfed in a bloody Civil War in which a total of 620,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives.  Near the end of the war President Lincoln could proclaim, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).

And yet today we have gone one step even further.  In 1962 the Supreme Court handed down another decision with disastrous consequences.  This was the case of Engel v. Vitale, the New York Regents’ Prayer Case.  The New York State Board of Regents had composed a brief prayer to be recited in public school classrooms.  The prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.”  The prayer was brief, non-sectarian, and strictly voluntary.  Nevertheless the Court ruled that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Admittedly there is a difficult church / state issue involved in having a prayer composed by a government agency recited in a public school classroom.  In fact, the question might be raised as to how the state can conduct a program of public education without getting entangled in religious and moral issues.  Such a program of education will either have to be implicitly atheistic or else amount to little more than vocational training.  But in this case the Court’s decision had the practical effect of abolishing even the most rudimentary forms of civil religion, and making the government, for all practical purposes, atheistic.  The government, as the government, could no longer recognize the existence of God at all, let alone acknowledge a covenant with Him.  This was not simply another breach of the covenant; it abrogated the covenant altogether.

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).  Again, the judgment of God was not long in coming.  Within just a few short years President Kennedy was assassinated, the U.S. became mired in a no-win war in Viet Nam, our cities were torn apart by race riots, and the nation’s youth turned to drugs and promiscuous sex.

God had indeed withheld His blessings from America’s educational system.  A whole generation was given a thoroughly secularized education, and the foundations of public morality were eroded.  “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful . . .wherefore God also gave them up . . .” (Rom. 1:21-24).  Today we have legalized abortion (another violation of the covenant), a high divorce rate, single-parent families, same sex marriage, openly practicing homosexuals in the military, women in combat roles, and “transgender” people free to use the public restrooms of their choice.  Mass murders have become more frequent, and once again we are facing a drug epidemic.  It is hard to imagine a society more dysfunctional than ours, and it is a sure prescription for an authoritarian government.

President Lincoln was certainly right when he quoted in Psalm 19:9 in his Second Inaugural: “. . .the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

THE FOURTH OF JULY – THEN AND NOW

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Thomas Jefferson

Today, of course, marks the 239th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, in some ways, forms our national creed, and contains the ringing affirmation that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But how literally did Jefferson intend these lines to be taken? While Jefferson certainly was not what we would call a biblically orthodox evangelical Christian, he was not an atheist either. He did believe in the existence of God, and that God was the Creator.

Jefferson was a man of the 18th Century Enlightenment. He believed that reason was able to ascertain truth because he believed that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an intelligent Supreme Being. The men of the 18th Century believed in “natural law.” The English philosopher John Locke could state that “the law of nature stands as an eternal rule on all men, legislators as well as others’ (Second Treatise of Civil Government, sec. 135). And Sir William Blackstone, the famous 18th Century jurist, said that “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator, for he is an entirely dependent being.” “These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all His dispensations conforms: and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions” (Commentaries, The Nature of Laws in General). And thus Jefferson could argue that American independence was something “to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”

Alas! How very different it is today! Just last week we were treated to a spectacle of raw judicial power by the Supreme Court of the United States. In Obergefell v. Hodges they presumed to rewrite not only the U.S. Constitution, but even morality itself. In the Court’s decision legalizing same sex marriage throughout the United States, Justice Anthony Kennedy resorted to a dubious constitutional doctrine known as “substantive due process.” The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, it will be recalled, simply states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” What the clause does not specify is what rights a person might possess. It simply states that due process must be followed before any of them can be restricted or taken away. Under the doctrine of “substantive due process,” however, the existence of certain fundamental rights is implied, and it is left to the Supreme Court to determine what they are. For Justice Kennedy this provides a golden opportunity to legislate from the bench. “The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution,” he writes (opinion, p. 10). Moreover the Court, he says, in “identifying these rights, is not necessarily bound by history and tradition.” According to him, as time goes on we gain “new insights” and see rights that escaped the notice of previous generations. And thus the Court is free discover new “rights” in the Constitution previously unknown.

What is striking about the Court’s decision is the complete absence of any moral point of reference. Thus Justice Kennedy could say that the liberties presumably protected by the Due Process Clause “extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” Whereas Blackstone could say that “man . . . must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator,” Justice Kennedy sees autonomous individuals choosing their own identities and beliefs. We detect here a kind of Post-Modern sensibility that rejects the very idea of universal truth. Thus Justice Kennedy has rejected not just Christianity, but the Enlightenment as well. Any though of natural law, or of any other kind of transcendent divine law, has completely vanished. We exist as autonomous beings in an essentially amoral universe.

At first glance we might be tempted to celebrate our newly discovered freedom.

“It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”   (Henley)

But then enters a disconcerting thought. If we live in an amoral universe, where do rights come from? Jefferson had said that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But if there is no Creator, what makes a right “unalienable”? A 5-4 decision on a human court? The same Court that once said that black people have no rights that white people were bound to respect? The same Court that has reversed itself on more than one occasion?

But more to the point, how can human society function if there is no universally binding moral code? When “justice” depends on whoever happens to be in power at the time? When ultimately there is no “right” or “wrong”? When might makes right, and it all comes down to what you can get away with? Is this the kind of society the Founding Fathers sought to create?

But what if God actually exists?

GOOD GOVERNMENT

   

Solomon's Judgment

Solomon’s Judgment

    With election day just around the corner here in the U.S. it might be worth our while to take a look at what Scripture has to say about government. The Book of Proverbs in particular, most of it written by a king (Solomon), brings an interesting perspective to bear on the subject.

    We might begin by asking, what is the purpose and function of government? Why do we need government, and what is a government supposed to accomplish? We are all familiar with the language of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that we have a natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Accordingly the preamble to the U.S. Constitution states, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    The Bible, however, presents a somewhat different picture. Human beings are prone toward sin, and this tends to result in social chaos. Without some form of government we would be at each other’s throats, and in the end it would be the criminals who control society.

        “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices;

          And when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.

         By the blessing of the upright the city is exalted,

          But it is overthrown by the mouth of the wicked.”

                        (Prov. 11:10,11; NKJV)

In other words, when the wicked prevail we have a situation in which evil appears to be rewarded and virtue punished. Crime pays and nice guys finish last. And when that happens all of society becomes corrupt and unjust.

    Therefore the chief function of government is to administer justice. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, / And plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:9). “The poor and the needy” are the weak and vulnerable elements of society, the one who are the most likely to get taken advantage of by the rich and powerful. Thus one of the key functions of government is to protect the weak from the strong. Its decisions, especially in judicial proceedings, must be based on what is right, not on who has the most influence.

    When a good government is in power justice and social stability are the result. “A king who sits on the throne of judgment / Scatters all evil with his eyes” (20:8). “The king establishes the land by justice, / But he who receives bribes overthrows it” (29:4). On the other hand, “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, / For a throne is established by righteousness” (16:12).

        “Like a roaring lion and a charging bear

         Is a wicked ruler over poor people.

         A ruler who lacks understanding is a great oppressor,

         But he who hates covetousness will prolong his days.”

                            (28:15,16).

    What will often ruin the effectiveness of a government are bad advisers. “If a ruler pays attention to lies, / All his servants become wicked” (29:12). “Take away the wicked from before the king, / And his throne will be established in righteousness’ (25:5).

    Moreover, what is needed in a ruler besides integrity is wisdom. In Proverbs 8:14-16 wisdom personified speaks and says,

        “Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom;

         I am understanding, I have strength.

         By me kings reign,

         And rulers decree justice.

         By me princes rule, and nobles,

         All the judges of the earth.”

    Government involves some of the most difficult decisions that mortal human beings are ever called upon to make. Laws are passed, policy decisions are made, and court decisions are handed down, many with far-reaching consequences that we can scarcely foresee. In some cases life and death hang in the balance.

    No government is perfect, of course, and there will inevitably be miscarriages of justice. But does that mean that we should cease to care what happens in the political realm? Not at all! For human governments are still accountable to God, the righteous Judge, for their actions, and He demands justice. “Many seek the rulers favor, / But justice for man comes from the Lord” (29:26).

    In a democracy “we the people” are presumably the rulers. Our elected representatives supposedly make decisions on our behalf. The question is, will we choose our leaders wisely?

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AMERICAN FREEDOM – HOW MUCH LONGER?

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

    Today, of course, is Independence Day here in the U.S., the day on which we celebrate our birth as an independent nation. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence took a bold step indeed, not only in that they were challenging established authority and the greatest military power on earth at the time, but because they aimed to create a new government founded on entirely new principles, a government which would, in the words of the Declaration, “derive its just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    Our bold experiment in democracy has now lasted 238 years and has brought us unprecedented freedom and prosperity. Not that we have always been successful. The Republic has weathered its storms – civil war and economic depression among them – and has sometimes failed to live up to its own professed ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” But somehow we survived and we are still free – at least for the time being.

    For the future may not turn out as rosy as the past. We have been a free and democratic society for so long that there are certain things that we take for granted. But if we take them for granted we run the risk of losing them, along with many of the benefits that go along with them.

    As we have learned from recent events around the world there are certain cultural factors that are necessary for a successfully functioning democracy. Chief among them is the capacity of the people for self-government. If political power is to be placed in the hands of the people, and if the people are to enjoy a large measure of freedom from government interference, they must be able to use this power and freedom constructively. They must be able to manage their own affairs capably and not harm others in the process. But this presupposes a certain measure of self-control and individual responsibility. The citizens must be productive enough to meet basic physical needs, wise enough to raise their children to be responsible, law-abiding members of society, and thoughtful enough to respect the rights of others. All of this, in turn, assumes a standard of morality – a basic level of honesty and integrity. People should fulfill their duties and obligations in society simply because it is the right thing to do.

    In other words, democracy works best when there is a strong religious base on which to build. If people are sufficiently motivated by the fear of God to govern their own passions and appetites they will not need a dictator to make the trains run on time. They will work diligently, honor their commitments, obey the law, and provide for their own. But when public morality collapses, when people lack a sense of obligation to anything outside of themselves, they tend to care only for themselves. They will try to “game the system” and take advantage of others. They will lie, cheat and steal in order to get ahead. The eventual result is chaos, anarchy and social disintegration – until the dictator arrives to restore order.

    And so, on this, the anniversary of our nation’s independence, how goes it with us? On the surface things seem normal enough – we work and play and go about our daily routines. But beneath the surface things are not quite so healthy as they may seem. Our economy has been deindustrialized, our family structure has crumbled, our government is paralyzed. The federal government’s finances are a mess. How much longer can such a state of affairs continue? It looks like a prescription for revolution and eventual dictatorship.

    Centuries ago a wise king of Israel put it like this:

        “Righteousness exalts a nation,

         But sin is a reproach to any people.”

                        (Prov. 14:34; NKJV)

Or, as George Washington put it in is Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

    The question is, will we turn back before it is too late?

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