Normally here on Schaeffer’s Ghost, we stick to reviews of books and movies. But today we’re presenting something a bit different: a ‘review’ of—or, more accurately, a ‘response to’—G. Shane Morris’s recent piece over on Troubler of Israel called “Rules without Reasons: Why the Culture is Eating Evangelicals for Lunch.”
If you’ve not read it, I’d encourage you to do so now. It is well-written and thoughtful, and at least partially right. But it is also partially wrong, hence this response.
For those of you too lazy to go read the article, shame on you. But here’s a brief summary anyway: Evangelical Christians lose cultural debate after cultural debate because they have abandoned the long Christian tradition of ‘Natural Law’ thinking in favor of a shallow (or even of a deep) biblicism based on Sola Scriptura that cedes far too much ground:
“Everywhere we turn, evangelicals seem to be floundering to come up with good reasons to oppose secular culture on issues pertaining to nature—sexuality, marriage, reproduction, gender, and the like. On some issues, we have simply capitulated to the culture with little fight. The unquestioning acceptance of cremation (and creative and even less reverent alternatives for body disposal), birth control, IVF and surrogacy, and now “LGBT” terminology and the “gay Christian” identification are all prominent examples.
The common thread running through all of these examples is the evangelical abandonment of natural theology, accompanied by a biblicist approach to morality, and an over-realized eschatology that expects the grace of salvation to abrogate human nature. Put simply, evangelicals have largely abandoned the categories that would allow them to take moral stands on issues not explicitly discussed in Scripture. So, instead of appealing to creation, as the authors of Scripture themselves do, modern evangelicals are left with deracinated special revelation—isolated commands mostly found in the Pauline epistles about how marriage, the church, and sexuality should work. And instead of receiving these as restorations of a this-worldly natural order, the average Christian reads them as other-worldly restrictions on an otherwise unregulated state of nature.”
Even more thoughtful Protestants like Carl Trueman, Morris argues, fall into this trap when they grant only the explicit Biblical gender categories (women can’t be elders in a church, e.g.), but then cede everything else to the cultural narrative.
Now, I think in one sense Morris is exactly right. There are good historical arguments from creation/Natural Law to be made concerning marriage, the family, morality, etc. Evangelicals since the mid 19th century have been increasingly lazy when it comes to using or even being conscious of the great tradition that we are a part of. That is surely to be repented of and corrected—and the sooner the better.
But in another sense, I think Morris is wrong on two counts. First, I’m not convinced that a growth of “natural theology” among Evangelicals will be as helpful as its proponents seem to think. I do think that Evangelicals need to have more of a sense of the Natural Law—though I would also want us to remember that it has largely been a tool of Rome, rather than a useful tool for Bible-believing Christians. More importantly, even a solidly Protestant development of Natural Law would only be of limited use. I think (and I’m not scholar of Natural Law, so take this with a grain of salt) that the problem is with the fallenness of creation and, as a result, of Natural Law itself.
To take an example from Abraham Kuyper—someone who, while not exactly a natural theologian himself certainly lays an appealing groundwork for a Protestant Natural Law approach—let’s assume as an example from the sphere of science the ‘Natural Law’ that distance equals rate times time, or d=rt (the famous ‘dirt’ formula that we learn in high school and that our parents learned in middle school). That law, within its proper limits, is pretty well established. I think I’m even comfortable saying that it is a bit of natural revelation about the regularity with which God rules the world.
And yet, we also see that these sorts of Natural Laws are fluid and evolving as well. The old Newtonian view of the universe has given way to the Relativity of an Einstein—just as Newton himself supplanted the older understanding of the world. d no longer always = rt, and we find that we’ve got to re-evaluate our view of the scientific sphere.
What we see in science is true as well in Natural Law. It is both flexible and non-binding in the exactly the same way that Morris accuses Evangelicals of being when they are driven by emotion and cultural pressures. (And that’s another point where he’s correct: Evangelicals are driven too much by our emotions and cultural pressures. But Natural Law isn’t the solution—a more robust Biblical Theology is.) There is no reason to suppose that Natural Law thinkers won’t ‘evolve’ and reach the same cultural accommodations that so many Evangelicals are sadly making. Traditionally this approach has of necessity underplayed original sin and usually ended in a progressive relativism. Not always, of course, but often enough to make me hesitant about using it to fill in perceived deficiencies in Scripture.
Second, and much more importantly, Christians will always lose the cultural battles, because it’s the culture’s game, rules, tools, and umpires—and it’s a game Christians are no longer playing anyway. Morris’s complaint seems to be that in the game of golf (to pick a sport… well, a ‘sport’), Evangelicals are using a balsa wood club, when what they need to do is pick up a Honma titanium head Five Star driver while taking lessons from a Scotsman.
The problem is that the Christian is someone who sees that the golf course is on fire and that the players are all deaf, dumb, and blind. While the world is busy sinking putts and stacking the rules against God’s people, we are busy keeping our eyes on the Exit and shouting to others to warn them about their danger and about the only Person who can save them.
To give up the golf image before I torture it completely to death, the world is concerned with things like personal autonomy, self-indulgence, physical prosperity, and what is trending right now on Twitter. The Christian is (or should be) concerned with repentance and faith, the life of the church (as in: the faithful preaching of God’s Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the legitimate exercise of good membership practices), personal and corporate holiness, and what was written in a Book two millennia ago. In any given battle of the moment we shouldn’t expect to ‘win’ by the world’s standards. Instead, we should remember that the game that matters has already been won and that our concerns are now fundamentally different.
Again, that’s not to say that Morris is completely wrong about Evangelicals and Natural Law. We should give our best arguments to the world on these kinds of matters, and maybe that does mean digging into the tradition of natural theology. But we should also remember that these kinds of arguments are at best going to be a sideshow compared to what we’re really concerned with. They’re a part of a game we’re no longer playing, and as such it is going to look like we lose time after time. We know the truth, however, and so we should chug along faithfully warning the world and keeping our eyes on the hope we have in the founder and perfecter of our faith.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO.