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There are certain tenets most of the world’s societies and cultures have abided by since the dawn of time.

Many consider murder, theft, dishonesty and other violations of human relationships to be taboo.

Such prohibitions hold the world together and prevent it from becoming chaotic and bloody.

I read a concise summary of this in a reader’s comment on Religion News Service. Jack wrote:

There is a thing that Catholics call natural law, Protestants call common grace or general revelation, and Jews call the Noahide laws.

It says that God has revealed to all human beings, through nature, reason, and conscience, the rightness or wrongness of things.

Most secularists and pagans have a similar set of ethics.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive exploration of a topic that fills books and comprises university courses.

Nor is this saying, as many Christians who object to it think, that we do not need the Bible. Not at all.

However, it does point to a commonly shared broad set of universal values in mankind.

Below are a few broad brush citations as examples of the larger picture.

Secularist thought

Aristotle believed mankind was meant to pursue a higher state of being. This quote is from Jonathan Jacob’s paper ‘Aristotle and Maimonides on Virtue and Natural Law’ (pp 47, 48):

In Aristotle’s ethics, practical wisdom is the action-guiding intellectual virtue, and it is crucial to the genuineness and unity of the ethical virtues overall …

In Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that contemplative activity and intellectual immortality are our best end, but also that we are human beings in need of political life and the ethically virtuous activity that is part of our perfection. There is a bit of oscillation between urging us to transcend our humanity and reminding us of it and its needs and excellences; the interpretive difficulties are well known.

Noahide Laws

In 2014, I wrote about the biblical account of Noah and the covenant God made with him and humanity after the flood. God caused the flood because mankind was so evil He decided to destroy everyone except Noah and his family. The rainbow He sent afterward was a sign of this covenant.

That covenant provides the background for the Noahide Laws in Judaism. Judaism holds that the Noahide Laws extend to non-Jews as a sign of divine grace and a share in the world to come.

The New World Encyclopedia lists the seven laws, which forbid murder, theft, unnatural sexual relations and eating a living animal. The seventh law decrees the establishment of a legal system with courts to ensure justice.

Natural law

The Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations (e.g. Church of England) teach that natural law predominates in human behaviour. Thomas Aquinas developed this in a religious and philosophical context.

Wikipedia has this definition of natural law (emphases in the original):

Natural law is a philosophy that certain rights or values are inherent by virtue of human nature, and universally cognizable through human reason. Historically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze both social and personal human nature to deduce binding rules of moral behavior. The law of nature, being determined by nature, is universal.[1]

The article explains that natural law was part of ancient Roman and Greek philosophy. It also has a place in Islam.

The Catholic Church:

understands human beings to consist of body and mind, the physical and the non-physical (or soul perhaps), and that the two are inextricably linked.[111] Humans are capable of discerning the difference between good and evil because they have a conscience.[112] There are many manifestations of the good that we can pursue. Some, like procreation, are common to other animals, while others, like the pursuit of truth, are inclinations peculiar to the capacities of human beings.[113]

Natural moral law is concerned with both exterior and interior acts, also known as action and motive. Simply doing the right thing is not enough; to be truly moral one’s motive must be right as well. For example, helping an old lady across the road (good exterior act) to impress someone (bad interior act) is wrong. However, good intentions don’t always lead to good actions. The motive must coincide with the cardinal or theological virtues. Cardinal virtues are acquired through reason applied to nature; they are:

  1. Prudence
  2. Justice
  3. Temperance
  4. Fortitude

The theological virtues are:

  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Charity

According to Aquinas, to lack any of these virtues is to lack the ability to make a moral choice. For example, consider a man who possesses the virtues of justice, prudence, and fortitude, yet lacks temperance. Due to his lack of self-control and desire for pleasure, despite his good intentions, he will find himself swaying from the moral path.

Common grace

The concept of common grace is one that grew out of the Reformation and is predominantly, though perhaps not exclusively, a Calvinist one.

It is not saving grace and its proponents are careful to distinguish between the two.

Wikipedia defines common grace as:

the grace of God that is either common to all humankind, or common to everyone within a particular sphere of influence (limited only by unnecessary cultural factors). It is common because its benefits are experienced by, or intended for, the whole human race without distinction between one person and another. It is grace because it is undeserved and sovereignly bestowed by God. In this sense, it is distinguished from the Calvinistic understanding of special or saving grace, which extends only to those whom God has chosen to redeem.

I’ve written several posts on common grace, which include several citations from the Revd Michael Horton who is also an author and university professor at Westminster Seminary in California.

The Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof wrote:

[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.

I am not sure why Christians object to a common, natural order amongst everyone. Without it, we would be like the societies which existed in Noah’s time and God would be extremely disgusted with all of us.

Common grace and natural law do not replace or obviate the need for saving grace. No one ever said they did.

However, they do help to explain the survival of people in the world, social order and why we are generally outraged at atrocities such as genocide, war and social problems.

If objectors can come up with better ideas, let them do so.

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window_pfcross271w St Mary the Virgin Gillingham DorsetIn reading any Telegraph article about the Church which is open to comments, invariably one finds militant atheists astroturfing it.

Among the astroturf comments are those which condemn prayer as being ‘stupid’, ‘useless’ and worse.

Yet, Catholics and Protestants alike see the power of prayer at work in their daily lives. Prayer for some is a sincere and short plea for help. For others, it might be a 15-minute conversation with the Lord, petitioning, thanking and praising Him. A good clergyperson tries to spend at least a half-hour, if not more, of the day in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer often comprises part of these prayers.

The more one prays the more comfortable one feels in opening up  oneself to the Trinity — our real worries, sincerest hopes and grievous faults.

We pray to God, to Christ and to the Holy Spirit — depending on the context.

We recall past prayers unanswered — to our minds — which God in His infinite wisdom often answered in a dramatically different and better way than we had envisaged at the time we made our heartfelt petitions.

Prayer does change believers. Even in adversity, many Christians believe that God will not fail them and trust in Him to help them.

Sometimes people fall away from regular prayer. We assume that, because God is omniscient, He knows our situation in life. True, He does.

However, the greater question is — do we know our real situation in life? By articulating our prayers silently, we begin to refine our requests and our gratitude. We see the adversity He has saved us from and the many blessings He has bestowed on us. Keeping that in mind helps us fine-tune what we pray for and how we pray for it.

In 2000, an American film Pay It Forward made the rounds. Its message was to pass on good things — a kind word, a bit of help — onto the next person. As I recall — and I only saw it once — it started in a school between teacher and student. The teacher (Kevin Spacey) asked his class to think of practical, simple ways to improve the world. The student (Haley Osment) came up with the idea of doing three favours for three different people. After each good deed, Osment said, ‘Pay it [the favour] forward’, which the recipients duly did by helping someone else. They, too, said, ‘Pass it forward’. And, so, this rather gentle yet pleasing chain of events involving different deeds, circumstances and people took off from school into the wider community, including the family home.

Although it was secular, that film illustrates common grace at work. The Holy Spirit’s common grace doesn’t discriminate between believer and non-believer; it is for all humanity.

The thing that struck me, however, was that every character in the film who ‘passed it forward’ felt a real desire to do something considerate for someone else, often someone they did not know well.

This idea, which isn’t new but was nicely portrayed on screen, evolved into ‘Pass It On’, the name of a number of different networking programs involving churches, private charities (9/11-related) and socio-political causes.

The point here is that the more frequently Christians pray, the more God’s grace works through them to accomplish the same ‘pass it on’ effect.

If all Christians took prayer seriously, what a difference it would make in our fallen world.

If negativity is contagious — if we put someone in a bad mood because of our own demeanour — then, surely, feeling the urge to do a good deed must also be contagious. I emphasised ‘urge’ there to demonstrate that I am not talking about works-based ‘merit’, rather fruits of faith. Perform good deeds because you feel driven to do them, not because someone says so. That is a sign that God’s grace is working through you.

Prayer is one of the Christian’s greatest assets. The further one is moved towards prayer, the better one’s life will be. A good spiritual outlook can help to mitigate much adversity and evil in this world.

An intense, private prayer life can make our immediate circle much happier and balanced. This goes against the worldly, postmodern grain, but so be it. In other words, amen.

Hmm.

What can one say? When I was a child, my family and I spent nearly two years living in the western United States. Anyone who knows his geography and religious history will know that a sizeable number of Mormons — members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) — live in that part of the world. We lived near the State of Utah.

The Mormons are terribly nice people, but one would be well advised to leave faith-based discussions out of the frame.

During our time out West, an LDS colleague of my father’s gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon. After my father’s death, my mother and I agreed to throw it out. He had politely accepted it (in order to be agreeable at the time), put it on our bookshelf as if to say to other proselytes, ‘Thanks, we already have one’, then promptly forgot about it.

One thing that did catch my eye was the angel named, of all things, Moroni, who delivered the revelations to Joseph Smith. Was this a joke?

Unbelievable as it might seem, I have had close friends whose relatives converted to Mormonism. My friends and I could never quite figure this out. Still, such as it is, the Church of Latter Day Saints continues to expand in number. Perhaps this is a reaction to today’s relaxed social attitudes. Or maybe it is because converts see a bit of a meal ticket in the local charity through which Mormons provide for their own.

Today, if you visit Free Republic, you’ll see lively, if not hostile, weekly discussions of the LDS. LDS members defend their corner fiercely as Christians try to enlighten them.

So, it is with some reluctance that I promote Mitt Romney for President. I certainly hope for all his business acumen that he also has a streak of libertarianism. Nonetheless, what he offers has to be a degree or two better than the Marxism that Americans have experienced over the past four years.

Believe me, if Americans don’t vote the incumbent out on November 6, they will find that the noose will tighten to the point of no return.

However, back to the Mormon phenomenon.

Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California and Heidelblog discussed the American fascination with this aberration of Christianity in ‘Good Mormon Families?’

He says (emphases mine):

When discussing the success of Mormons, who prefer to be known as Latter Day Saints, in spreading their religion,  people point to four points of persuasion:

    • They have good families
    • They are nice people
    • They’ve had an intense religious experience
    • They’re right on the social-family issues

I sometimes worry that the same ethos that makes Mormonism attractive to middle-class, suburban American families has a greater influence in evangelical and Reformed churches and families than we might realize. To be sure, it is a great blessing to have a peaceful, well-ordered family. Being appropriately pleasant is a good thing. A Biblically-informed, confessional piety of Word and sacrament may be quite intense at times. Most confessional Reformed folk probably reach similar conclusions regarding the necessity of stable, nuclear and extended families for the well-being of society. These things are all to be desired.

The interesting thing about this list, however, from a Christian perspective, is that there isn’t anything distinctively Christian about it. Virtually every world religion has produced followers that meet these criteria. Lots of non-Christian religions have adherents who have good families, are “nice” people, have had intense religious experiences, and place a high value on sound families and societies.

The use of such criteria is symptomatic of the temptation to set up standards of measurement in the church that may be good, true, and useful but that are not well grounded in Scripture.  Such criteria may be useful when thinking about standards for what makes a good civil community but is this how the Scriptures think about the people and social units that make up the visible church?

Take the Mormon doctrine of the “burning in the bosom.” The confirmation that the Mormon claims are true lies in a subjective religious experience. The truth is, however, that the NT says remarkably little about our feelings. There are passages in the ESV translation of the NT that use the word “feeling” that have some reference to subjective religious experience and in each case the translation is questionable. There are other passages that imply religious feeling or experience but where does the NT use such as the basis for doctrine or as the basis for conviction? The basis for our conviction that the tomb is empty is the eye witness testimony of witnesses recorded in Scripture. That testimony is reliable. The Spirit gives us new life, gives us faith, and through faith justifies and unites us to Christ. The Spirit witnesses to us that the Scriptures are true but the illumination of Scripture and witness of the Spirit is not a “burning in the bosom.” It is not the intensity of one’s personal experience that makes us certain. Experience waxes and wanes. It is the unchangeable promise of God that we rely.

In the comments, Clark also wonders about the angel Moroni:

What word would you have us use, to describe religions that were originated by a huckster who interpreted plates delivered by an angel named Moroni (surely a giant practical joke) via a hat and magic glasses?

Indeed. I fully agree.

With regard to the American election, however, this is a prime example of where the doctrine of Two Kingdoms (2K) — divine and secular — comes into play. Lutherans and Calvinists are taught not to merge the two into one, because the Holy Spirit works His wisdom through us all via what is called common grace. (Catholics and Anglicans also adhere to this teaching but don’t use such terminology or formal theology.)

Examples of 2K and common grace include Jesus’s healing and feeding of Gentiles and the first American Thanksgiving in New England.

I would never go on record as saying that life under Mitt Romney’s administration will be a treat, but it has to be far more Constitutional and responsible than the Democrats’ alternative.

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