The homage which the deity is due

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.
~ Leviticus 18:1-4 ~

These verses address one of the most common temptations faced by the people of God—the temptation to conform to the standards of the surrounding unbelieving culture. The Israelites had only recently been delivered from slavery. They had never existed before as an independent nation. They, their parents, and their grandparents were born and raised in Egypt. Egyptian ideas of religion, family life, education, ethics, culture, and law were all they knew. And they were about to settle in a land and among a people whose culture was equally devoid of the knowledge of the true God. The question was, “How were they to organize a new nation?” Their natural inclination would be to use what was familiar to them as a model. But God nixed the idea. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt…and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan…You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them.” It was this above everything else that would reflect whether or not Israel truly regarded God as God, for a nation’s laws are inevitably derived from the deity it worships.[1] This is true regardless of whether or not that deity is conceived of as a personal being. Here I define deity very broadly. Whatever is regarded as the fundamental reality—the thing prior to which nothing else existed and the thing upon which everything else’s existence depends—is in effect the god of that society, and thus its source of law.

In the West there are two rival claims to the nature of ultimate reality. Some say, “In the beginning God…” Others say, “In the beginning matter…” It makes a difference which claim is believed because whatever is regarded as the fundamental reality has the privilege of serving as the organizing principle of all human thought. Everything—including (or should I say, especially?) law—must be explained in light of that reality. This is the homage which the deity is due. In the Christian worldview, everything is explained in terms of its relationship to the eternal God. In the secular worldview, everything is explained in terms of its relationship to eternal matter and the properties inherent in it. In such a worldview, no appeal can be made to anything higher, anything more fundamental, because there is nothing higher or more fundamental. The properties of matter alone explain reality because they alone are reality.

A society that thus pays homage to matter will necessarily look very different from one that pays homage to the God who has revealed himself in the pages of the Bible. This is because matter has no wisdom, no will, no intelligence. It has no purpose. It certainly carries no moral imperative. This is why, from a legal standpoint, the U.S. looks very different than it did just one or two generations ago. A change of gods necessarily results in a change of law. Or, to put it another way, a change in law reflects a prior change in gods. We have changed our conception of ultimate reality from “In the beginning God,” to “In the beginning matter.” The legal changes we have witnessed in the last several decades are the nation’s attempt to live more consistently with its new religious commitment. These changes are often more than merely foolish; they are frequently unjust, and sometimes even bizarre. And they seem to come at such an increasingly rapid rate that one almost loses the capacity to be surprised.

So what is the faithful Christian to do? I can tell you what he must not do. He must not despair. It would be too easy to follow the trajectory of current events and conclude that things are hopeless, that Christian culture is irrecoverable. It is not. There is hope as long as God is God. Things look no bleaker now than they did in Nero’s Rome. Who would have thought that in three short centuries the throne would be occupied by a Christian ruler who would begin to make legal and other changes that would eventually result in the Christianization of the institutions of Europe?[2] I am well aware, of course, of the imperfections and shortcomings of the process and of the key people involved in it. But the point is this:  the process took place. Furthermore, it took place to such an extent that it was appropriate to speak of Christian Europe.[3] Few at the time would have believed it possible when Christians were being fed to the lions. Nevertheless, the Lord brought it to pass. Even so, there are few now who believe it possible to recover a distinctly Christian culture. But there is no reason to think the Lord will not bless our faithful labor to that end as he blessed the labor of our forefathers.

[1] See Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 4.
[2] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine:  The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2010)
[3] Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe:  An Introduction to the History of European Unity (New York, NY:  Barnes and Noble, 1994)


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