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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

The Law of God - The Touchstone Of The Protestant Ethics - Part 2

By Professor W. Childs Robinson, D.D. Columbia Theological Seminary, An Address given at the Edinburgh Calvanistic Congress in 1938 IN FOUR PARTS
Professor W. Childs Robinson


IN DISTINCTION FROM THE AUTONOMOUS ETHICS OF PHILOSOPHY, CALVINISM PROCLAIMS THEONOMY, THAT IS, THE NECESSITY OF SCRIPTURE FOR AN ADEQUATE ETHICS.  Or otherwise put, the Reformed hold that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, “the ethical system of the universe.”

(a) The Rule of Conduct

Man's desire to be his own lord led to his fall from a life of obedient fellowship with God into sin. In contradiction to the very concept of the creature man is continually seeking to give the law to his own being. This claim to autonomy is characteristic of human philosophy.  The current Aryan ideology substitutes honour, courage and fidelity for love and humility, virtues which God commands. The Bekennende Kirche Theses affirm that “the law reminds man that he is not autonomous, but is accountable with his whole existence to the Creator” and that “the standard by which every life situation will be measured is the law.”


This does not mean that we disregard  ethical studies of the great philosophers. That which we have learned from philosophy may often be used as tools for the better construc­tion of what we have to say from the Bible.  The moral nature of man properly invites the researches of every thinker. Paul speaks of the work of the law written in the hearts of men (Rom. ii. 14‑15).  Calvin recognised a “light of truth” in heathen writers and was careful to state the psychological views of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero (II. ii. 15; I. xv. 6; II. ii. 2‑3).  American Calvinists ‑ Thornwell, Hodge and Shedd ‑ acknowledged conscience or the elemental principles of right as the birthright of man's being.  Theologians have often been called to a deeper study and a fuller appropriation of the truth of the Word by the vigorous ethical probing of great philosophers.


However impressed by the darkening effects of sin, neither Paul nor the Reformed theologians maintain that it is possible for man to deduce from conscience a perfect system of natural morality.  Psychological studies in rationalisation show how difficult it is for one to reproduce in reflection the spontaneous processes of conscience, or to apprehend from his own nature the fundamental moral laws in their integrity and completeness.

Nor can the heart, which, according to the Word, is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, be trusted to apply laws resting on fallible deduction to concrete cases. It is all too easy by foolishly measuring ourselves by ourselves and comparing ourselves with ourselves to justify any act which we may wish to perform by some test of evolution, pragmatism, or dramatic completeness. On the other hand, the Scriptures  “prescribe the law in its fullness and integrity, illustrate its application by description and example, indicate the prejudices which are likely to pervert us, and signalise the spirit which will always ensure obedience.”  We seek to profit by the great ethical studies, but in the clear realisation that our moral philosophy must be subject to the Word of God, the only adequate rule for life.


Kant's ethics have aroused more than one theologian from his dogmatic slumbers. His attacks upon heteronomy, or the purely objective character of duty, have led men to recognise that the law of God cannot be rightly understood apart from the living Law‑giver. The Kantians teach that man stands in independence of God, of a Divine will and law, that all theonomy must be regarded as heteronomy and simply rejected.  Bavinck replies:  “This philosophy is right in its opposition if this heteronomy be thought of as a moral law which comes to us from without, is imposed upon us from above, and finds no echo in our own spirit.  Such a merely external law may be, perhaps, a natural law, but in no case can it be a moral law.  Such a view accords with those who think of man merely as an animal become man by external influences, but it is not Christian ethics.  For Scripture teaches that man was originally created after God's image, and bore the moral law in the inmost recesses of His heart; and that even in the state of sin he is still bound to the ideal world by his reason and conscience; and that the dissension which now exists between duty and inclination, according to all experience, is, in principle, reconciled in regeneration and conversion.  As Jesus said that it was His meat to do the will of His heavenly Father, so Paul testified that he delighted in the law of God after the inward man; and all sincere Christians humbly speak the same words.  To do good is a duty and a desire, a task and a privilege, and thus the work of love. Love is, therefore, the fulfilling of the law.  Thus the true, and the good and the beautiful, which ethical culture means and seeks, can only come to perfection when the Almighty Divine will not only prescribes the good in the moral law, but also effectually works it in man himself.  The heteronomy of the law and the autonomy of man are reconciled in this theonomy.”  And epigrammatically “Rabbi” Duncan writes: “What is man's creation?   Being like God. What is the law? Surely a very reasonable one.  Be like God.”  The Scriptures presuppose man as originally made in the image of God, and when they command him to be like God they are not demanding something essentially foreign to his moral nature, but the exercise of his energies in God, an exercise re‑established and sustained by God's grace.  

Christ not only reconciles us as our Priest, legislates for us  as our Prophet, and goes before us as our Example, He also dwells within us by His Holy Spirit as the power of a new life and the hope of glory. The soul of man cannot properly be subject in the ultimate sense to the will or command of any other human being. But the Infinite Person sustains such multiple relations to the soul that man can and should obey His Will and seek His likeness. Or better, as the Lord, God calls man to the obedience of faith and, in responding to this call, the believer finds that slavery  to Christ alone is the true and only freedom of the the soul.


Those who reject theonomy in the interest of human freedom generally end by substituting some form of heteronomy for the authority of God. In place of the infinite wisdom of Heaven many are setting up the arbitrary will of an economic or political idol. A recent inquiry into Christian missions rejected the finality and sufficiency of God's Word at the same time that it gave dogmatic sanction to the particular type of philosophy taught by its authors, namely empirical idealism.

The current American movement for a new or progressive education affords an interesting concrete example of this difference between human heteronomy and true Theonomy. For some time the new educators have been decrying any imposition of the teacher's views upon the pupil. According to the pupil‑centred curriculum, the purpose is not indoctrination, but the leading out of the natural talents and interests of the students. Too much of this reasoning has been taken over into religious education by those who have forgotten that Christianity being a historical and a supernaturally revealed religion can never be merely led out of the child, or for that matter, out of the adult. As a result in many places the use of the catechism is taboo. However, one of these new educators became interested in the bringing in of a socialistic economic order, and immediately urged the schools to reject the bogies of imposition and indoctrination, to reach for power and impose a new social order. 


Calvinism opposes this Dewey-Counts programme in both its tenets. We object to the heteronomy which imposes any merely human ideology.  No man has the right to impose principles, customs, morals or beliefs, resting on no better foundation than his own opinions, as ultimate authority upon students or children.  On the other hand Calvinists will continue to accept, indoctrinate and impose the truth of God upon as many as possible; for, while man is imperfect, arbitrary and external in relation to his fellows, God is infinite in His perfections, wisdom and relations to His creatures.  And, though the method of inculcating Divine truth may vary, the Calvinist, in the opinion of the speaker, will not hastily dispense with the Heidelberg or the Shorter Catechisms which magnificently summarise, expound and apply the moral law as given in the Word,  and which have been so effective in moulding individual ethical conduct.

He that hath the words of eternal life calleth the sinner unto Himself in order that his inner life may be made conformable to that outer law, that his aims may  ennobled and his motives purified, that temptation may find him armed with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  Christ came to establish the law as a rule for a holy life. (Institues IV. xvi. 15).

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