[From the archives.]
I recently finished Philip Yancey’s Rumors of Another World* where I found these gems:
… the average citizen of modern Europe perceives only one world, the here and now. She assumes that rational people make society’s rules based on a common good, not on any revealed or ‘natural’ law. (p. 164.)
The biblical view is at once more subtle and more connected. It presents reality as a seamless whole, with no neat divisions between sacred and profane or between natural and supernatural. There is only God’s world, a sacred world, which has been profaned by human rebellion. (p. 188.)
These two views, the spiritual and the secular (or, as Yancey puts it in more traditional terms, the sacred and the profane), have not just recently come into contrast of course. People have denied God’s existence almost from the beginning. In fact, I used to be of the same mind as Yancey’s hypothetical European
Yancey’s observations clearly display that acknowledgment of God – or lack of acknowledgement – affects people’s understanding of law and legal theory. It’s that legal theory that comes into play in our understanding of God and his relationship with his creation.
Natural Law Theory
Natural Law theory holds that there is only one law, and that this law applies universally. The way this operated under English Common Law, for example, was that when a case was appealed to the high court the court’s justices would discern legal principles and then apply them to the case at hand. Sometimes, though, the court would later overrule itself, rejecting precedent set by earlier justices (or perhaps even their own decisions) and declaring the law to be different from what they had earlier decreed.
This is where it gets interesting.
The court would not admit that the law had changed. Instead they declared the earlier statement of the law to be error, and that their new statement was really what the law had been all along. It’s not a matter of old law and new law. It’s a matter of recognizing the Natural Law and getting it right.
That’s not how legal systems work now, at least not in most countries. Now we operate under the theory of Positive Law, meaning law posited by people in a particular society and not necessarily universally applicable. This leaves governments free to change laws as they see fit.
The Place for Natural Law
This does not mean that Natural Law is obsolete. We know that God’s law is the only true and eternal way to live. We also know that for those under the New Covenant it is a law of love:
Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10.)
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14.)
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. (James 2:8.)
Even those who have not yet entered into this New Covenant still have God’s law written on their hearts. (Romans 2:14-15.) This too is a Natural Law, one that is universally applicable.
So for the modern person Yancey mentioned, whether they know it or not there is more to law than what is posited by people. As he points out, the Bible teaches a nuanced and subtly connected understanding of how the world is governed, one that recognizes no neat divisions between the spiritual and the secular.
There is only one world, after all, and no matter how we profane it it still belongs to our sacred and holy King.
*I won this book in a giveaway at Laura Martin’s blog, Enough Light.