by John M. Frame
The Blackstone Fellowship, June 7, 2004
First let me express my sincere thanks to the Alliance Defense Fund for arranging this program and to Jeff Ventrella for inviting me to come. I don’t have PowerPoint for you today, just an old-fashioned lecture outline. I don’t normally think of myself as a traditionalist, but pedagogically, I must admit, time has just passed me by.
Further, I won’t tell you any lawyer jokes today, but I will mention that of the three boys in our family my parents wanted one of us to be a lawyer, one to be a doctor, and one to be a businessman. They achieved two out of three. I was the one that was supposed to be the lawyer, and I worked in the offices of a legal firm one summer. But I turned into a theologian instead, somewhat to my parents’ chagrin.
Yet they weren’t entirely wrong in their aspirations for me. Theology and law have a lot in common. Both of them apply principles to cases. In the case of lawyers, the principles are those of the Constitution, state and local statutes, legal precedents, and so on. In the case of theology, the principles are those of Scripture, reflected as they may or may not be in the traditions of the church. Many noted theologians have had legal training, including Tertullian, John Calvin, and Charles Finney.
What I have to say today will be theology, not law. Other speakers during these lectures will be lawyers, judges and law professors, and they will speak on subjects more specific to your profession. But the whole purpose of the Blackstone Fellowship is to relate the law to a Christian world view, and that brings theology into your studies in a major way. So I hope this presentation will apply theology to law in a number of important ways, and, perhaps even more important, will apply theology to your life, and to the life of any Christian who seeks to honor God in society.
The Gospel of the Covenant
The relations of law and theology are even deeper than the methodological overlap I mentioned. For it’s possible to see the biblical message itself in terms of a legal model. God has given us his written word, which in the interpretation of Meredith G. Kline is a kind of treaty. In the ancient near east, a great king or emperor would make a treaty, sometimes called a “covenant,” with a lesser king, dictating the terms of their future relationship. That treaty would serve as a legal constitution, the ultimate law. The written law that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai was like that. It begins with the author’s name: I am the Lord your God; so God is the author. It was put in the holiest place in Israel, by the Ark of the Covenant, where God himself dwelt. Other parts of Scripture were added to those tablets at later times, and it is evident that Jesus and the apostles looked at the Old Testament as a whole as God’s treaty with his people. So the people of God have a written constitution. The highest law of the people of God is a written document, as in the United States, not a long tradition of precedent, as in Great Britain.
In the legal system of the covenant, God served as both prosecuting attorney and defense attorney. Through his prophets, he conducted the “covenant lawsuit,” charging Israel with disobedience to his revealed law. But amazingly, he also promised mercy and blessing. How can he do this? How can he promise mercy and blessing to people that are so disobedient they deserve only death and destruction? It doesn’t become evident until the New Testament, where God sends his only Son Jesus to take the penalty for sin in the place of his people. So Jesus is our advocate, our paraclete, our defense attorney, the one who pleads our case before the Father. Because the penalty is paid, and God looks on Jesus’ righteousness as ours, we are justified. That is, God pronounces us, not only to be not guilty, but to be positively righteous in Christ.
So we can put the biblical gospel in terms of a legal transaction. That’s not the whole of the gospel. The gospel also teaches sanctification, how God progressively makes us holy, and adoption, how God brings us into a new family. And there are other images, models, ways of conceiving the wonderful riches of God’s redemption. But the legal model is important, though many theologians are trying to get away from it today.
Remember that the gospel, the good news, is the announcement of the coming reign of God. The idea of a “gospel,” “good news” in the Bible goes back to Isaiah:
Isaiah 52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Isaiah 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.
(Remember how Jesus preached on this passage in the synagogue at Capernaum in Luke 4:18-19: he said, in verse 21, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”)
The gospel is a political announcement: It says that a new government, a new order is coming. And the new king will make everything right that was wrong. When John the Baptist begins to preach good news, gospel, his message is “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). That is also Jesus’ original message (4:17).
And after Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, the church went out and proclaimed “Jesus is Lord.” Salvation comes to those who confess that with their lips and believe it in their hearts, Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:2, Phil. 2:11.
“Jesus is Lord” is a highly political message. The Roman emperors were called “Lord.” When a new emperor was crowned, announcements through the empire were called “gospel.” Similarly, the gospel that the church proclaimed was the coming of a new king. The Romans, of course, misunderstood what kind of king Jesus claimed to be. But they were not wrong to see him as a rival to Caesar. The church taught, not only a means for individuals to be reconciled with God, but also that God is coming to bring radical changes to society. That gospel will not be completely fulfilled until Jesus comes again and brings us a “new heaven and new earth, wherein dwells righteousness.” But whenever people’s hearts are changed by God’s Spirit, they bring their new values into the marketplace, into the arts, into sports and entertainment, into government, and into law. The laws of nations have been profoundly changed by the leaven of the gospel. The Gospel is that leaven that has moved many nations toward democratic institutions, free markets, social conscience (as in Isaiah’s “good news to the poor”).
Please don’t get the idea that the Gospel is only about the hearts of individuals and not about social justice. It is profoundly about both. Indeed, it is even broader than that! It’s about the whole universe, that is groaning and travailing in pain until the manifestation of the children of God.
Theologians sometimes make radical distinctions between law and Gospel, and I think that’s wrong. I believe we are saved by grace and not by works; so the contrast between grace and works is very sharp. But that is not the same thing as the contrast between law and gospel. In the Bible the gospel is the announcement of a new law. Indeed, it is a law; it’s a command, “Repent!” It commands people to repent, believe, and obey the coming King.
So I’d like to look with you at the covenant, the treaty, that is at the heart of that new law which is gospel. I want to set before you three very important concepts that are found in every biblical covenant treaty. As I said, God is the author of the treaty constitution. And in the decalogue and in Deuteronomy, the covenant has a definite literary form that Meredith Kline identifies with the Hittite suzerainty treaties. In this form, the great King first identifies himself by giving his name, “I am the Lord your God.” So he identifies himself as the author of the covenant document. This is his Word, not the Word of any man.
Then he presents the three elements I want to draw your attention to. First, he narrates past history: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. That is a narration that describes Israel’s situation in the past and her situation today. Then the Lord sets forth his law: You shall have no other gods before me, etc. That’s the norm, the standard for their behavior. Then he makes it personal: Don’t worship idols, he says, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. That’s called a “sanction.” Sanctions are blessings and curses. They tell us what will happen to us if we obey, and what will happen if we disobey. So the three important elements are the historical situation, the law, and God’s personal involvement with us in blessing or cursing.
Covenant Christian Ethics
Now this covenantal model tells us some important things about the nature of Christian ethics. I think also that Christian ethics has a structure very similar to that of legal practice. There are three basic elements in it: the law, the situation, and the person. Somebody comes to your office, asking your help. There are three things you want to look at. The first is the situation, the problem. The second is the law that applies to that situation. The third is the person involved: can he pay, can he testify? What happens to him if the judge or jury rules this way or that? The situation, the law, and the person.
That triad also describes the discipline of ethics. With every ethical problem, there are always these three elements: the situation, the law (in this case the norm or the relevant ethical principle) and the person.
Secular ethical systems have tried to focus on one of these factors to the exclusion or neglect of the others. There is, for example, the tradition of deontologism, represented by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, in which the only important thing in ethics is finding your duty: the norm or law. In deontologism, it’s wrong to look at situations or at yourself, for these distract your attention from your duty.
Then there is the teleological or utilitarian, school of ethics, which focuses on the situation. Utilitarians say that there is no law or norm above us to tell us what to do. Nor do you look within yourself to decide what to do. Rather, you look outward. You look at the situation around you and seek to bring about from that situation the greatest good (happiness or pleasure) for the greatest number. Here the important thing is the “consequences” of actions. So this kind of ethics is sometimes called “consequentialist.”
And then there are the existentialists, who say that you should look inward. Ethics, they say, is really a matter of inwardness, a matter of your heart. It is a matter of character, in Aristotle’s view, acting in accord with what you really are, our essence or nature as rational animals. Or, for Jean-Paul Sartre, since in his view we don’t have an essence or nature, it is acting out of our free decisions.
These three secular traditions each have a valid ethical intuition: The deontologists are right to say that ethics is a matter of duty, that it must be based on objective norms. The utilitarians are right to say that ethical action must be relevant to the situation, that it’s important to know the consequences of your actions. And the existentialists are right to believe that goodness and badness are basically located in our hearts: our motives and character.
But secular ethicists have a hard time making these intuitions work together without friction. Some problems arise. For example, it’s all very well to say that right and wrong must be objective norms; but where do you find those absolute norms in a relative universe? And it’s understandable to want to derive ethics by calculating what act maximizes pleasure or happiness. But how can you calculate indefinitely into the future how much pleasure or pain your action will bring about? And of course you want your ethical choices to reflect your inwardness. But does that mean that you can do anything you feel like doing? And if not, why?
As a matter of fact, these three approaches to ethics are interrelated, so that you can’t do one of them without the others. You can’t understand what act brings happiness out of a situation without having a norm to guide you. People who try to deduce ethical principles from situations alone, without norms, are often said to be guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is the fallacy that says “Government welfare makes people happy, therefore we ought to have government welfare.” As David Hume showed, the ought doesn’t follow from the is. “People love themselves, therefore they ought to love themselves.” That’s another example. You can’t reason from is to ought, from valueless facts to moral values. So ethical evaluation of a situation requires norms. And similarly, ethical evaluation of yourself– your inward character and motives, requires norms.
But similarly, you can’t use a norm unless you can apply that norm to a situation. Unless your client tells you what is bugging him, the law is of no use to you or to him. Unless he tells you the situation he’s in, you have no idea what laws to look up. So to rightly use the law, you must be able to apply it to the situation– and to the client.
And if you look at the client, the person, the ethical agent: you can’t properly evaluate his motives and character without the norm, and you can’t understand him outside his environment, the situation.
In one sense, each of these factors includes the other two. The norm includes the situation and the subject, because everything is God’s revelation: Scripture, the world, and human beings all reveal God. The importance of the Bible is not that it is the only revelation of God, but that it is what theologians call a “special” revelation. That means it has a special content (redemption), a special medium (written words), and a special function (it is the gospel that opens our eyes to see the rest of God’s revelation truly: the “spectacles” by which we see nature aright (Calvin)). “Norm,” then, is broader than “Scripture,” and it includes everything.
Similarly, the situation is everything. It includes Scripture and the self. And the self, too, is everything, in the sense that everything we know we know through ourselves, through our reason, sense, and experience.
So norm, situation, and self are not separate segments of reality. They are the whole of reality, seen from three different perspectives.
In all these ways, then, law, situation, and self are inseparable. You can’t understand one without the others, and you cannot have a viable ethical system without all three.
But here is where secular ethics gets into trouble. As I mentioned, secular ethical systems tend to want to separate these three factors. They want an ethic of pure duty, or pure situation, or pure inwardness. Why? Because they feel they have to choose. Duty, after all, might say one thing, the situation something else, inwardness still something else. How do you know which to choose?
The Christian says, wait a minute. You don’t have to choose. Ultimately, the three factors agree. Why? Because God exists. God is the author of the moral law, he’s the creator of the world, and the creator of the self, which bears his image. When we do our duty, we are maximizing happiness, and we are doing what’s in our own self-interest. There is no conflict between the three. Secular ethics can’t get the three together, because they don’t believe in God. They don’t believe there is any being big enough to insure the consistency of duty, situation, and self.
So God’s Word provides a far more credible view of ethics than any secular system. It unites the three factors and relates them intelligibly to one another. Indeed, each includes the other two in a sense. The situation includes the self and the law. The law takes account of every situation and every person. And the person cannot be understood except in the environment of God’s world and God’s law; for these are our environment. Each presuppose the other two, so each is a perspective on the whole.
So the Christian ethic is tri-perspectival. The Westminster Confession of Faiith 16.7 raises the question of what is a good work. It gives three answers: (1) a right standard, the Word of God, (2) the right inner motive, faith (Rom. 14:23), and (3) the right goal, the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). (This is what we seek to bring out of every situation we face, the most desirable consequence of any action.)
Consider how the Bible appeals to us to do good works. (1) Sometimes it cites divine commandments: Matt. 5:17-20, 19:18-19, Luke 10:26-27, John 14:15, 21. (2) Sometimes it calls on us to keep in step with the Spirit, who works within (Rom. 8:1-17, Gal. 5:16-18, 22-26, Eph. 5:8-21). (3) Sometimes it appeals to the events of redemption (Ex. 20:1ff, John 13:34-35, Col. 3:1-4).
So for the Christian, ethics is the application of a norm to a situation by a person. These may be described as “perspectives” on ethics. In each perspective, we ask a certain question; but all three questions have the same answer. The normative perspective asks, “What does God’s Word say to me about this situation?” The existential perspective asks, “How must I change if I am rightly to apply God’s Word to the situation I’m in? The situational perspective asks, “What is (biblically) the best way for me to change this situation to achieve greater glory for God? This way of putting it brings out the interdependence of the three perspectives.
This tri-perspectival approach to ethics has these advantages: it reconciles these three factors that have been so hard to reconcile in secular ethics: law, situation, and ethical agent. It reconciles elements of the biblical message that theologians sometimes like to tear apart: law, gospel, experience. It shows the importance of a theistic basis for ethics, because only the biblical God is sufficient to bring these three perspectives together. And this model presents a Christian basis for making personal decisions and addressing public issues. When you face an ethical decision it’s often helpful to ask (1) what’s my situation, my problem? (2) What does God’s Word say about the problem? And (3) how must I change as a person if I am to make the right decision here?
Excursus on Natural Law
I’m sometimes asked how my tri-perspectival ethics relates to natural law theory, which is one of the great traditions of Christian ethics and often presented today as a way of bringing society back to some level of moral stability. I sat in on J. Budziszewski’s lectures at last year’s Blackstone Fellowship, and his lectures moved me to buy three of his books, which I’ve placed in your bibliography. Although I’ve not usually been seen as an advocate of natural law thinking, I was deeply impressed by Jay’s lectures and his books. I was especially impressed by the fact that Jay puts a stronger emphasis on the importance of Scripture than many natural law theorists do, and that creates a lot of commonalities.
I said earlier that on a biblical understanding revelation is to be found in Scripture, but also in the world and in ourselves. Natural law theory focuses primarily on the revelation in the world and ourselves, though as I mentioned Jay’s version of it also focuses on the role of Scripture. Romans 1 deals especially with God’s revelation in the world, in nature, in the creation. It says that God’s eternal power and deity—his divine nature—are clearly revealed in the world, even to those who don’t have contact with the Bible. This revelation also has ethical content. Paul says in that chapter that when the pagans know God, but reject him, that leads not only to idolatry, but to all forms of immorality. He emphasizes sexual immorality especially. Then in verse 32, Paul says “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” So general revelation, God’s revelation in nature, reveals not only God’s existence, but his moral law as well. It doesn’t tell people how to be saved, how to be forgiven for their sin, but it certainly tells them that they have sinned. That we may call the natural law, God’s moral law discovered in the world and in ourselves.
But of course Paul also says that apart from God’s grace, apart from regeneration, people “suppress” this law (verse 18), “exchange it for a lie” (verse 25), “do not see fit to acknowledge God” (verse 28). How can they stop this and stop suppressing God’s truth? Only through God’s grace, through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now Jay’s books are enormously valuable in showing the foolishness of that suppression. Jay tells them, “you really know that abortion is wrong, that homosexuality is wrong. You might try to fool others or yourself by denying these things, or by maintaining a relativistic view of ethics. But when you think about it, you know that you’ve fallen for a lie.” Then comes the Gospel and the Bible.
It is right, as the natural law tradition does, to bring these arguments to the public square and to use them to influence legislation. But it is also important, as the natural law tradition does not always do, to insist that the whole Bible should be brought into the public square, to bring all of culture, including law, captive to Christ. Some have argued that we should not appeal to any revelation except natural law to influence culture, that we should avoid reference to the Bible. That might be good strategy in some circumstances. But make no mistake. The gospel itself is political and cultural: it announces the coming of a new King. And our culture needs to hear that message just as much as Roman culture needed to hear it.
Covenantal Christian Epistemology
Now let me propose a parallel way of looking at epistemology, or theory of knowledge. I’m proposing that we look at epistemology as a subdivision of ethics. That’s not as odd as it may seem at first glance. A lot of secular and Christian philosophers have been talking lately about the “ethics of knowledge.” Note especially the titles of Esther Meek and Jay Wood in your bibliography, as well as the more famous philosophical works of Alvin Plantinga. At the very least, knowledge seems to be dependent on ethics in this way: to really know a subject, you need to be honest with the evidence, honest with yourself and honest with others who are working in the same area, for knowledge is often a communal effort. That’s an ethical value. Or perhaps more fundamentally, you need to value truth above falsehood, truth above what you’d like to believe. That’s an ethical value too.
The philosopher Alvin Plantinga has much to say about our “epistemic rights,” that is, what we have a right to believe, given the evidence before us and our mental equipment. Rights are an ethical topic. For what it’s worth, I think much more should be said, not only about epistemic rights, but also about epistemic obligations. What ought we to believe, given the evidence and our mental resources? But oughtness is certainly an ethical concept.
The word “knowledge” bears several senses, and it can take different kinds of objects. You can know persons, skills, or propositions (a proposition being an item of information). When we say we “know that” something is the case, we’re talking about knowing propositions, as when I say I know that Phoenix is in Arizona. When we say we “know how,” we’re talking about knowing skills, as in “I know how to play lacrosse.” When we say we “know him,” we’re talking about knowledge of persons, which is usually a matter of friendship (or perhaps enmity), rather than just the knowledge of facts. Someone may know a lot of facts or information about Colin Powell without being able to say that he knows Colin Powell. To know Colin Powell is to have a personal relationship with him in friendship or enmity.
In the Bible, the most important kind of knowledge is the knowledge of persons, or, I should say, one person in particular. In John 17:3, Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In Phil. 3, Paul states the great goal of his life: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.”
Knowing God, knowing Christ; is that the center of your life, the center of your quest for knowledge? It ought to be. And that should mean that all other knowledge is knowledge in relation to God. On the first page of his Institutes, Calvin says that he can’t know himself apart from God—or, significantly, God apart from himself. The most important part of knowing anything is knowing how that thing is related to God. Proverbs 1:7 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
And that’s another ethical element in knowledge. Knowledge is part of our life before God. When Paul in 1 Cor. 10:31 says, “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God,” what do you think is included in the whatsoever? Everything. Does that include thinking? 2 Cor. 10:5 speaks of bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Does that include knowing? Of course it does. Knowing is a human activity among others, like eating and drinking, like worshiping, honoring your parents, killing, stealing. It’s a human action subject to ethical predication. In seeking knowledge, you can do it to the glory of God or in rebellion or disobedience. Your way of seeking can be good or bad, right or wrong.
The Bible emphasizes the ethics of knowledge in so many ways. It contrasts wisdom and foolishness in Proverbs and 1 Cor. 1, 2. The wisdom of the world is foolishness to God. 1 Cor. 8:1-3 tells us that knowledge without love is worthless. Rom. 1 (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 4:4) tells us that God is clearly revealed in his creation, but that sinful human beings suppressed that revelation, exchanged it for a lie. Here we see a darkening of knowledge, based on ethical rebellion. And Scripture presents itself, God’s Word, as the ultimate criterion of truth, the God-breathed Word that enables us discern between false teaching and true. If we love God, we will trust his Word and believe what it has to say to us.
When Paul speaks of the qualifications of elders, those appointed to teach in the church, he says some things by implication about the level of knowledge required for this office, but he says much more about the ethical qualities required to be a good teacher (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9, 2:1; cf. James 3:1-12, 1 Pet. 5:1-4. A teacher is to be a model of godliness, somebody that other Christians can imitate (1 Tim. 4:12, Heb. 13:7). If you teach true doctrine, but show by your life you are a hypocrite, your teaching will only confuse your hearers. They will not hear the truth from your lips; they will hear instead a combination of truth and error from your lips and from your life. So in many ways, there is an inseparable connection between teaching and life, knowledge and ethics.
When you study your law books, do you ask how this study is bringing glory to God? You should. Do you evaluate your teachers’ lectures by the Word of God? You should. Otherwise, you’re not learning as you should, as God intended. Otherwise you are accumulating errors along with truth. We hear a lot about the need to avoid sins like murder, adultery, dishonesty, but we don’t hear all that much about intellectualsins, sins of the mind. But those are just as important to God. When we exchange the truth for a lie (Rom. 1:25), God isn’t pleased. Jesus wants us to love God with the mind, as well as with all our heart, soul, and strength. Hence the title of this lecture. The rest we’ll get into later.
Now is any of this relevant to the theory of knowledge? I think so.
Given the inseparability of ethics and knowledge, we should ask if perhaps knowledge has three perspectives, just as ethics does. Notice first that the traditional philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified, true belief.” That has three elements. First, knowledge is a belief. A belief is something subjective, something in the mind. Second, that belief must be true. Truth is objective: it is agreement with actual states of affairs. Third, that true belief must be justified: that means there must be a good reason to believe it. Justification has to do with the laws of logic, the use of evidence, all the laws that govern thought. This justification is an ethical category. It suggests that there are norms of thought as there are norms of behavior, and our beliefs ought to measure up to those criteria.
So, just as in ethics we deal with the triad of norm, situation, and person, so in knowledge we deal with the triad of the laws of thought, the object of knowledge, and the subject of knowledge. Looking at it from the history of secular thought, there is also a parallel. Just as there have been three emphases in secular ethics: ethics of duty, situation, and inwardness, so there have been three tendencies in secular epistemology: rationalism (focusing on the laws of thought, especially logic), empiricism (focusing on the object of knowledge, the facts of the situation, the object of knowledge) and subjectivism (focusing on the subject of knowledge).
As in the ethical case, these emphases reflect legitimate intuitions about knowledge. Most of us would say that human thought must obey the laws of thought, must be in accord with the facts, and must come out of a valid thinking process. But secularists find it hard to reconcile these intuitions. What happens if the apparent laws of thought seem to conflict with the objects or the subjects? Which should we accept? Rationalists have said “reason,” the norm. Empiricists have said “facts,” the object. Subjectivists have said “myself,” the subject.
Rationalists have been criticized for being speculative: letting their minds run wild, without any solid grounding in sense experience. Empiricists have been criticized because through the senses they cannot know anything universal, necessary, or normative. Subjectivists have been criticized, because they make thinking wholly subjective, relativistic, lacking all claim to truth.
But if God exists, law, subject, and object cooperate harmoniously. God is the one who legislated the laws of thought. He has made himself an object of knowledge, and he has created all the other objects of knowledge. And he has created us as subjects of knowledge, to live in the world of objects and to know those objects according to his laws of thought.
So we seek to follow the laws of thought, but we avoid speculation, because the ultimate laws of thought are dictated, not by the mind, but by God’s revelation. We seek objective truth in the situation around us, but an objectivity enhanced by the fact that we have a knowledge of universal and necessary principles. And we seek knowledge as an element of our own minds our own subjectivity, without falling into relativism.
So like ethics, knowledge has three perspectives: The normative perspective asks what laws, norms, standards God has laid down for human knowledge. The situational perspective asks what we know about objective reality. The existential perspective asks what the subject, the self, contributes to his knowledge.
Obviously the three are inseparable. You can’t understand the laws of thought unless you understand what realities these laws are legislating for, how the laws apply to the situation and the self. 2+2=4 would mean nothing unless it could be used to count pencils, or cars, or tuba players. Further, you can’t understand the situation or the self except in the light of God’s norms, his Word. And you can’t understand the self except in its situational environment, or the situation apart from the selves that are a crucial part of it.
So you can start at any of these three points, but wherever you start, you’ll encounter the others. If you start with the situation, part of that situation is God’s revelation, and God’s revelation will tell you how you should look at the rest of the situation. And part of the situation is yourself, so you have to give account of that. If you start with yourself, you’ll look at your own subjective inwardness and experience. But part of that experience is experience of the world God made, and of God’s revelatory norms. And if you start with God’s revelation, you will have to consider the things that revelation is speaking about: the world and yourself.
Covenantal Christian Psychology
In this section I will try to extend our model to philosophical and theological psychology. This is not the kind of psychology where you put somebody on the couch, but rather an attempt to enumerate and describe the components of human personality.
One of the main questions among philosophers and theologians down through the years has concerned the relations of the intellect (mind, reason), the will, and the emotions (affections, feelings, passions). The intellect is the faculty that gains knowledge, the will the faculty that chooses, decides, acts, and the emotions are the faculty that makes us happy, sad, anxious, etc.
The picture that often emerges is that these are three things in our heads that are fighting for supremacy. Intellectualists like Plato believed that the intellect directed the will and the emotions, or at least should direct these if we know what’s good for us. Voluntarists like John Duns Scotus believed that the will directed the mind and the emotions. There have also been emotionalists, like Schleiermacher, who said that all theology is an attempt to put into words our feeling of absolute dependence, and David Hume, who said that reason was the slave of the passions.
Reformed theologians, to refer to my own tradition, have sometimes maintained a form of intellectualism known as the “primacy of the intellect.” That means basically that God’s revelation comes first to the intellect, and from there goes on to influence the will and the emotions. Reformed theology was essentially a scholars’ movement, and it tended to attract people with high levels of intellectual interest if not attainment. It’s significant that Ulrich Zwingli, one of the earliest leaders of the Swiss reformation, banned music from Sunday worship and conducted it as a teaching meeting. Reformed preachers wore academic gowns rather than priestly vestments, cultivating a rather academic model of piety. Their picture was that the Word of God is addressed to the mind and from the mind goes on to the will and the emotions. In our century, Reformed thinkers like Gordon H. Clark and J. Gresham Machen have defended the primacy of the intellect.
This approach naturally attracted many educated people. In our time, it has, I think, been one of the reasons why Reformed churches appeal mainly to college-educated whites and not much to the poor, minorities, or people with less education.
I question the primacy of the intellect on the following grounds:
1. Obviously, the intellect influences the will and the emotions, by informing them.
2. When we are presented with facts, the will plays a role in deciding whether or not to believe those facts. In Rom. 1, God revealed himself clearly to people, but they chose not to accept that revelation. So in their case, we might say, their will dominated their intellect.
3. But the same is true for those who accept and believe God’s revelation. Accepting revelation is just as much a decision of the will as rejecting it. So, as we said earlier, belief is an ethical issue.
4. In seeking any kind of knowledge, the will makes the decision to examine the evidence, to interpret it this way rather than that, to evaluate it one way rather than another.
5. In Rom. 12:1-2 and some other passages (Eph. 5:8-10, Phil. 1:9-10, Heb. 5:11-14), we learn that the way to know God’s will is by living a transformed life. In Rom. 12, Paul might have said that we learn God’s will by reading the Bible, and that is certainly true from one perspective. But he doesn’t say that. What he does say is that the way to know God’s will is to avoid conforming to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. Those transformations, of course, are the work of God’s Spirit, but we bear responsibility for them. So the will to seek holiness leads to knowledge of God’s will.
6. So Jesus says to inquirers that if anyone chooses to do the will of God, he shall know whether Jesus’ teaching comes from God (John 7:17).
7. The emotions are a route by which data enters the intellect. When I feel hot, or cold, or happy, or sad, these emotions provide data that the intellect must deal with.
8. The will never acts until it feels like acting.
9. When I have studied a matter thoroughly, I often sense an uneasiness with my conclusions. That is an emotion that drives me back to study some more.
10. When that uneasiness goes away, that’s when I say I have “knowledge.” The lack of uneasiness is a feeling also. It my emotional sense that the work is finished, a sense of satisfaction with the task. This is what I call “cognitive rest.” So from one perspective, knowledge is an emotion: a feeling of cognitive rest over the results of my inquiry.
So emotions, will, and intellect are mutually dependent. What seems to make most sense to me is the view that these three are not really distinct from one another, not little people in our heads contending for dominance. Rather, we make decisions as whole persons. Our thoughts, decisions, and feelings come from the heart, the center of our consciousness. Words like “intellect,” “will,” and “emotions” don’t designate objects, like cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem, but rather different aspects of the thinking process, or perspectives on the personality. We can think of the intellect as normative, the will as situational, the emotions as existential. The intellect is the self as thinking, the will the self as choosing, and the emotions the self as feeling.
On this analysis, it’s unnecessary to insist that one or the other faculty should be primary and the others should be subordinate. The important thing, rather, is to insist that they all be subject to the Word of God.
The Bible appeals to all these aspects of personality. It presents reasoned arguments to the mind, but it also exhorts the will (“Turn! turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezek. 33:11) And it is full of godly passion. That’s all through the Psalms. Consider Paul’s hymn of praise to God’s incomprehensibility:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments,
And his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever! Amen.
Can you feel the emotion pulsing through that passage? That passage is not meant only to inform you, but to make you feel differently. The emotional content is part of the meaning of the text. If a preacher doesn’t communicate that feeling, that emotion, he’s depriving his congregation of an important element of the text. Imagine somebody reading this text in a monotone. That is a distortion of the text as much as a theological error would be.
I tried to admonish a Reformed theologian friend recently for being insensitive to the feelings of someone, and he replied, “I don’t play the pathos game.” Yes, I’m not wild about all the sensitivity rhetoric we hear in modern culture. I certainly reject the attempts on college campuses to try to force people to be sensitive: what a contradiction that is! But much as we’d like to parade our macho indifference to people’s tender feelings, Scripture does play the pathos game. Listen to Paul,
For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Cor. 2:4)
1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:17 But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.
1 Thess. 3:6-10 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you… How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of the Lord because of you?
Philemon 12 I am sending him (Onesimus)— who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.
Again and again, Paul pours out his heart, expresses his own emotions and expresses his deep care for the emotions of the people.
So my Reformed community, and perhaps other Christian communities as well, needs to look at emotions much more positively, as the Bible does. We need to play the pathos game. There is no reason for us to disparage or try to dampen emotions in the Christian life, or even in worship. And if we don’t have the resources in our tradition to express the extreme emotions found in Scripture itself, then should be humble enough to go beyond that tradition to use resources from other Christian brothers and sisters.
We should counsel people not to act on momentary emotions. We should also counsel them not to act on every idea that pops into their heads, or on every desire or impulse appears in their thinking. But ideas that are tempered and refined and prayed over to the point of cognitive rest ought to be acted on. And emotions refined by thought, maturity, and good habits of decision-making may well be reliable guides.
Scholarship in Service to Jesus
I want now to make some applications to ourselves as Christian scholars. Make no mistake, that’s what you are as you study—a Christian scholar. You’re not going into theology professionally, but you’re studying law as a Christian. And this week you are studying the Christian faith as it bears on law. Many will want you to share with them the insights you’ve learned here. You’ll be considered an expert in the Christian approach to law. And that’s a very dangerous position to be in. So I’m going to exhort you along the same lines that I exhort people studying to be pastors. Just as in their case, I’m concerned about what youdo with what you learn here, how you use it. Briefly: Will you use it to build up, or to tear down? First, to review:
1. Epistemology is a branch of ethics. For knowledge of facts, like knowledge of ethical values, involves the application of God’s norms to the facts before us, by persons.
2. Norm, situation, and person are perspectives on all our experience.
3. In the hierarchy of God’s norms, Scripture plays a unique role. It is the written transcript of God’s covenant with us and therefore must have the final say in all our life and thought.
4. Intellect, will, and emotion are not competing faculties, but aspects of all human thought and life, mutually dependent.
In discussing the ethical side of epistemology, my discussion has so far been fairly formalistic. I’ve talked about the factors involved in ethical decision-making and in epistemological decision-making. So in effect I’ve proposed a decision-making model or a meta-ethic of knowledge. But it’s important now for us to move from meta-ethics to ethics, from abstract questions of method to concrete questions of how to carry on our work as Christian scholars to the glory of God.
It’s hard to separate meta-ethics from ethics, especially on the model I’ve given you. If ethics is applying a norm to a situation by a person, then there is an ethical aspect in everything we do, including meta-ethics. We are, again, to do everything to the glory of God. So my meta-ethic has already spilled over into practical application, as in the last section where I advised you to play the pathos game. But there is more to be said.
Hear this passage from James 3:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
See again here the ethical aspects of knowledge. And see the danger here—what danger you are in as a Christian scholar, expert, and teacher.
The Bible is very hard on professional knowers, those who claim to know and teach God’s truth. In the Old Testament, it was very dangerous to claim to be a prophet. If your predictions didn’t come true, you were to be stoned to death. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, he was subject to constant hostility from the scribes and Pharisees, those who were regarded as the most learned experts in God’s law. Jesus condemned them in some of the most severe language in Scripture. You can read that condemnation in Matt. 23:1-39, a very long chapter filled with devastating invective. I won’t try to read it to you, but I want to look at some themes. It begins with what I believe is a summary: Jesus says that the scribes and Pharisees “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was threefold. First, the Pharisees added to the Word of God. In Deuteronomy, God had told Israel that they should neither add to, nor subtract from, his Word (Deut. 4:2, 12:32). But the Pharisees thought that the many-layered Jewish tradition was virtually identical in authority to the Scriptures. But Jesus said they had made the law of God void by their tradition (Matt. 15:1-9). These traditions were the “heavy loads” Jesus spoke of. God gave us his law to be our delight, but the Pharisees turned it into a multitude of prescriptions, many of them having little connection with the God’s Word and some of them going against God’s Word.
That danger is still with us today. I’ve written critically of some movements in Christian circles that aim to restore traditional patterns of worship, evangelism, church life. I think we have much to learn from the past, so I find much of this discussion valuable. But I do differ very strongly from those who say that I am not truly evangelical or truly Reformed if I don’t accept all the Reformed traditions. Protestants believe in sola Scriptura, the sufficiency of Scripture, and that means that just as Luther and Calvin we need to be critical of all the traditions of our past, both in the church and in the general culture, measuring them against the infallible standard of Scripture.
When you seek to bring God’s standards to bear on cultural, political, social issues, remember that history and sociology are not enough. Some Christian writers today seem to base all their thinking on a historical analysis of how our culture came to be as it is, and a sociological analysis of what culture has become today. Then the social critic picks up on some historical trend that he likes or some modern trend that he likes or doesn’t like (usually the latter) and bases his whole evaluation on that. What one misses among these Christian culture critics is an analysis of what God’s Word says. Is popular music a valuable form of culture or not? Some are very sure one way or the other, but the argument makes little reference to Scripture.
Second, Jesus says that after the Pharisees lay those heavy loads on people shoulders, they are not willing to lift a finger to move them. The Pharisees didn’t care about the hurt they were causing to people. They had made people miserable, and they did not care about that misery. Maybe they said, look, the law is objective; it’s true. It’s not important what people feel about it. We don’t play the pathos game. That’s subjective, sentimental. If people don’t like keeping the law, that’s their problem. Let them answer to God. Of course in saying this they would have ignored the fact that much of what they proclaimed as law was not God’s law at all, but their own creation. But even if their teaching about the law were rigorously true to God’s Word, they shouldn’t have been making their people miserable. Learning God’s law should be a delight. And if people aren’t delighted by it, we ought to care. Caring about this is not merely sentimental or subjective. God’s law is objectively delightful, and if it makes people miserable there is something objectively wrong, either with the preacher or the hearer. Again, if we don’t communicate the emotional aspect of God’s Word, we haven’t communicated it truly.
But the Pharisees left a trail of misery among God’s people. What could they have done about it? Some might say that we can do nothing; it’s all in God’s hands whether people receive the Word with joy or in misery. No; God is sovereign in this area, to be sure; but there is also a role for human responsibility here. The Pharisees might have cured the people’s misery by telling them of God’s grace. They might have taught that God is love, and he takes away from us the awful burden of trying to earn salvation by keeping the law. God takes that burden away, even when that law is wrongly taught and misunderstood. And the Pharisees might have pointed people to Jesus, who even before the atonement was pronouncing God’s forgiveness, who was calling, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28). Indeed, it was Jesus himself who was preparing even then to take on himself the sins of his people, their awful burden of guilt. But the Pharisees hated Jesus and wanted no part of his free gift of salvation.
This happens today too. When we communicate to others what we think is the truth, especially truth about ethics and law, it’s importance also to communicate God’s love, his forgiveness in Christ. We need to show people what the gospel means in daily life, how to maintain a grace perspective on everything. When Christian people help the poor, support their families, honor their parents, resist temptation, they need to know the difference between just keeping rules and living out of thankfulness to God. To teach them that requires special care—not just to cover biblical content, but to present it in such a way as to convey the full joy of the redeemed life.
I prepared this message originally as a charge to seminary graduates, many of whom hoped to become preachers. I know that’s not true of many of you. But you need to learn these lessons too. For study in any field, whether theology, philosophy, history, science, or law, involves application of God’s word to your subject matter and communicating it to people. In the secular academy, and far too often in the Christian academy, the truth is hindered by squabbles and jealousies, and people communicate their learning without any sense of how that communication is getting across to persons. We are often told that academic writing and lecturing should be impersonal. Certainly there is a difference between preaching and lecturing in the response we seek from the audience. But in both cases our hearers are people, human beings, made in God’s image.
Jesus says that leaders ought to be servants of those they lead, following his example (Matt. 20:20-28). I think he intended this teaching, not only for the apostles and preachers, but for all of us who come into some position of responsibility. Our study and practice of our vocation ought to be a means of service to the church and to the world. As lawyers, you will be in a great position to help remove burdens from people’s shoulders. You’ll have opportunities to present the gospel to people in trouble, but beyond that, through your own legal work, you can show the love of Christ by going the second mile for your clients.
So the Pharisees (1) laid heavy loads on people, (2) did nothing to help move them. They really didn’t care much for the people who heard their teaching. What did they care about? So we come to the third part of Jesus’ critique. They cared about themselves. They wanted recognition from people. They made a big show of their piety, so that people would give them seats of honor and honorific titles. In their teaching, their main goal was to feed their own pride, not to build up the people of God.
It’s so easy to use our knowledge, even the knowledge we gain in seminary, for ourselves rather than for others. It also happened in the church at Corinth, where some were claiming to have “knowledge.” Most likely they were correct in claiming to have knowledge; but they were using that knowledge as a club to beat their fellow-Christians over the head. Of this kind of knowledge, Paul says,
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by him. (1 Cor. 8:1b-3)
I won’t unpack everything in these remarkable sentences. But the passage certainly challenges us in two areas: knowledge without humility, and knowledge without love. On the subject of humility and pride: after several years of education, you probably don’t know nearly as much as you think you do. There is so much more to learn than anybody can teach in a normal course of college and grad school. In my seminary teaching, I confess I’m both amused and appalled at a certain syndrome I’ve noticed in a few graduates: guys who were C and D students in seminary, who barely pass their ordination exams, who, after they are ordained, suddenly decide to present themselves as experts on all the difficult theological issues of the day. And I urge them to understand that a theological degree does not automatically entitle them to pontificate thoughtlessly on every theological issue; only a huge amount of pride could make you think that it does.
Knowledge without humility is ludicrous and useless. Knowledge without love is also destructive, Paul teaches us. It tears down rather than building up the church. It feeds the error we just discussed, for it succeeds only in puffing up the preacher, feeding his pride. Indeed, knowledge without love is not knowledge in the fullest sense. Knowledge without love distorts the truth so as to make it unrecognizable, so as to turn it into falsehood.
What I see over and over again in young preachers is that they are not conscious of their audience. They cover biblical material, but they don’t know how to communicate it; they don’t know how to relate it to where people really are. They don’t know how to put it in the language of real people. They don’t know how to illustrate, how to apply. The problem here, I think, is not only immaturity of preaching skills, though that is part of it. The problem here is often that there is not enough love. For if the teacher had more love for the people, he would have a passionate zeal to put the truth where the people could find it. He would show by his choice of words that he wants them to hear, so that they will take the Word to heart. And he would, as I emphasized earlier, get involved with people pastorally to help them, by word and example, to put their teaching into practice.
The same advice, mutatis mutandis, goes for Christians in all professions, including the legal. You have to keep reminding yourself that you are not just dealing with a case or an issue; you’re dealing with persons. And the goal is not to achieve some distinction for yourself, though it’s nice if God gives you that. Rather, the goal is to use your knowledge to glorify God and to help people. Anything less falls short of the biblical ethics of knowledge.
The lawyer jokes have proliferated in our time, I think, because a kind of negative stereotype. A lot of people see attorneys as people who run around playing “Gotcha.” You make a little mistake, and a lawyer shows up ready to take away your life savings. As I say, that’s a stereotype, and it certainly doesn’t fit the majority of lawyers I’ve known. It does fit one, but I won’t get into that. Most all lawyers I’ve known have been people of integrity, even godliness. But the legal profession has an image problem in our day.
The theological profession, my profession, also has an image problem. Our stereotype looks like this: a church has a vital ministry going, and the theologian comes in and tears it all down by nitpicking about theological details. The theologian is the one who finds a peaceful church and turns it into a battlefield of controversy. Now most theologians I know are pretty good guys, but that stereotype has an uncomfortable amount of truth in it. I’ve recently done some study of American Presbyterianism through the twentieth century for a paper I’m writing: it is a history of battles, 21 of them, by my count. Twenty-one theological battles that have divided churches, seminaries, even households. Twenty-one theological battles over things like premillennialism, Christian liberty, the incomprehensibility of God, apologetic method, the nature of covenant, theonomy, and on and on. As I study them, I don’t think many of these battles were worth fighting, and those that were I think should have been fought very differently. The battles have wasted a lot of energy that could have been devoted to building churches and reaching the lost.
I think when a student gets out of seminary, or out of law school, he often imagine himself as a kind of warrior who goes into a situation and overwhelms people with his overwhelming knowledge and devastating ability to destroy another person’s case. The Bible does use military metaphors in speaking of our conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But it’s one thing to fight the devil. It’s another thing to fight people. With people Scripture speaks over and over of gentleness, graciousness. The exception is the Pharisee, with whom one must sometimes follow Jesus’ example of harshness and severity.
But with that exception, neither lawyers nor theologians ought to be in the business of destroying people. Our business is to serve others in the love of Christ. If a lot more of us did that, it would help do away with our image problems. But our public image is not the important thing. The important thing is to know Christ in his sufferings and in the power of his resurrection, and to make him known to others through our words and our lives, speaking the truth in love.
Earlier I commended to you a “grace perspective:” what is that? It’s recognizing that you are just as great a sinner as any of your clients, bosses, or political opponents. It’s recognizing that you yourself constantly need God’s forgiveness in Christ for the thoughts, words, and deeds that go against his will. And it’s recognizing that God’s grace is greater than you have ever imagined. My friend Jack Miller, now with the Lord, used to say, “Cheer up; you’re a far worse sinner than you think.” If you were just a little bit sinful, you might think you can make yourself better, but even a little moral improvement is very, very hard. But since you’re a far worse sinner than you think, you can only rely on God’s grace, and that’s good news. Then Jack said, “Cheer up, God’s grace is far greater than you have ever imagined.” Christian leaders, especially those well-informed enough to be considered teachers, need to have and display that kind of cheer. They need to have that sense of humor about themselves, that readiness to ask forgiveness of God and others, that openness to others, that love, that alone is appropriate to the gospel of grace.
May God therefore bless you with the vision of Christ himself as you learn this week, and as you seek to apply his Word to your legal practice.