THE NATURE AND ROLE OF LAW
DEFINITION OF LAW
Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action, applied indiscriminately to all kinds of action, animate or inanimate, rational or irrational. Thus the law must be prescribed by some superior, which the inferior is bound to obey. As Plutarch said, “Law is the king of mortal and immortal beings.”
For this reason, laws are fixed and invariable. If there is deviation, then it isn’t law. For example, we use to say that it was a law that what went up must come down. Now we know that this isn’t a law. Although we cannot break the law of gravity, precisely because it is a law, we can overcome the earth’s gravitational pull and send objects into space so that they will never return to earth.
RELIGION AND LAW
Cultures spawned by the Judeo-Christian religion teaches that there is a personal God who stands above and over His creation. Psalm 33:6-9: “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. 7 He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap: he layeth up the depth in storehouses. 8 Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. 9 For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.” God created the universe and it obeys His unchanging will.
As we saw in the eschatology series, the Bible views history as linear rather than cyclical. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created….” In the beginning of what? Most agree that this is the beginning of time. God created and transcends time. In time He created the universe. History describes the events of this time/space creation of God. Just as history had a beginning, it will also have an end. II Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The world as we know it will cease to exist.
This biblical world-view teaches that there was a time when a person was not, but there will never be a time when he will not be. God created him an eternal being. In this, people differ from Jesus Christ, for God did not create Christ. There never was a time when He was not. This eternal dimension to man means that upon death he must give account to God for the way he lived his life. Just as immutable law governs the world God created, so also these same laws govern His people.
In this, the Judeo-Christian world-view (and those sects spawned by it) is unique. All other religions teach that there is no personal, transcendent God who relates to His creatures. He may be a force, but he has no law governing how man treats his fellow man. In the Hindu world-view, a person may disturb his karma or fate, and suffer the consequences in his next life on earth in what they call the transmigration of the soul. But neither he nor the created order live under the authority of immutable law and answer to a personal Creator for the way they respond to that law.
In such a world-view, history is cyclical rather than linear. Escape from the cycle of reincarnation, if such an escape exists, comes about by ceasing to exist. The world is god and god is the world. Trees, animals, humans, all have a bit of the divine. Nirvana, the closest thing to heaven in the Hindu system, consists in ceasing to exist as the person blends into the Oneness of the unified whole.
Thinking peoples everywhere and in every age believe in pre-determinism. As much as we would like to think we are in control, in reality we are not; being in control is a myth. As you know, you did not determine your parents, sex, color, gifts and abilities, country of birth, etc. Nor do you determine the flow the circumstances imposing themselves on your life, circumstances such as cancer, accidents, and the reaction of people towards you.
Solomon says in Ecclessiastes 3:1-2: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die.” Man is locked between the two limits of birth and death. He does not determine the day of his birth, and in all likelihood will not determine the day of his death.
If history is cyclical, then man is passive. Law does not govern him and there is no personal God shaping his destiny. He is the victim of “the fickled finger of fate.” If history is linear, then man is active. He must obey the laws of revealed religion, for after death he must give an account to his Creator for how he responded to that law. Furthermore, there is no second chance, no recycling into another temporal existence for another try.
The Bible teaches that you will live in eternity with the consequences of how you lived on earth. You may not be able to control much in your life, but you won’t be held accountable for what is beyond your control, only that for which you do exercise control. It is not how much you have or your circumstances that determine the quality of your eternity, but rather what you do with what you have and how you respond to your circumstances.
From the Judeo-Christian world-view came the birth of modern science built on the assumption that the laws of nature are fixed and invariable. Natural laws such as the speed of light and sound, thermo-dynamics, etc. are predictable and reliable because they flow from the creation of an immutable God.
For example, we built a rocket ship and launched it to the moon convinced that the laws governing its flight would not vary. The risk inherent in the project was not in the laws themselves, but in our ability to understand and obey them. Thus when the space shuttle “Challenger” blew apart on take-off, killing all on board, no one said the fault lay in whimsical laws that changed. All agreed that the fault was in the planning and execution of the mission.
We may modify our understanding of a law such as that governing the speed of sound. Ostensibly sound travels at 740 mph in air at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The density of the medium through which it travels and the elasticity of the medium influence that speed, but all of this is governed by exact, unchanging law. No one argues that the speed of sound changes.
A scientist in the field of medicine or quantum mechanics may argue that in his specialty nothing is certain; there exists only degrees of probability. But that same scientist operates on the foundation of a set of laws assumed to be absolute, predictable, and unchanging.
Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was an English mathematician and philosopher. No friend of Christianity, his writings did much to narrow the gap between philosophy and science. He said that because of a belief in the rationality of God, the early scientists had an “inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope.”
The Chinese discovered gunpowder, but did not develop it, simply because they did not see the world as defined by Whitehead. In their world-view the gods are arbitrary, and when the powder didn’t explode because it was wet, they assumed the fickle gods intervened. Western scientists had the world-view to apply it with devastating consequences.
Someone once said, “The God of the Bible commanded us to make use of those faculties in the general regulation of our behavior, in keeping with both reason and freewill, with which we are endowed.” That man is subject to the law of his Creator was assumed not only in the realm of science, but also in the moral realm governing the affairs of man. This was certainly the understanding of the Founders of our great republic. Thomas Jefferson penned in The Declaration of Independence, “We hold thee truths to be self-evident…”
This world-view freed man to pursue the wonders of nature, but bound him to the laws of God. God’s law is unchangeable and therefore predictable. The pagan gods are unpredictable, whimsical, and easily offended. Thus storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc., are the activities of angry gods. A biblical world-view gave us the security that when God’s law is applied to science the consequences are predictable. Natural disasters are evaluated from the perspective of law. For example, atmospheric conditions, water temperature and currents, winds, etc., create hurricanes. All are predictable to the degree that we understand them.
God’s law in the moral realm, however, carries with it the same force as natural law, along with the certainty of judgment when violated. This produced a bifurcation in man’s world-view: God’s natural law is absolute and unchanging, but His moral law is relative and changeable.
This bifurcation is between reason and faith. We arrive at natural law via reason, moral law via faith. Moral and natural law are equally normative, but moral law cannot be seen via reason. Conscience affirms moral law, but it does not make it law.
The certainty of His unchanging ways ensures success in the natural realm when His law is obeyed. But this personal, transcendent God, who speaks, has devoted His revelation to the moral realm, spelling out clearly His expectations in an inviolable set of laws. Observation and experimentation discover natural law, which exists because of an immutable God. Moral law, on the other hand, comes from this same immutable God via revelation.
If moral law revealed in Scripture is not normative, why conclude that natural law is normative? This bifurcation is irrational, but eagerly embraced for obvious reasons. The certainty of natural law combined with the refutation of moral law seems to offer man the autonomy he so passionately seeks.
Grateful for His Sovereignty,