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 [3] Legal Autonomy of Children in an Ethical and Christian Context

by Lisa A. McGuire

Ethical issues for psychologists working with children have long been an established concern. However, due to changing state and federal legislations, children are afforded greater autonomy over self now than in previous eras, which are resulting in significant potential for conflicts within the field of psychology. Reflecting upon the APA Ethics Code, this analysis will explore the changing legislative landscape, the role of psychological ethics as they pertain to child autonomy, the dynamic of child autonomy within psychology, and the interplay of legislation with practical, professional obligations.

The Issue of Child Autonomy

In the late 1980s, the United Nations adopted a treaty entitled Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (Hafen, 1995). The majority of UN nations have accepted the CRC, setting precedence for children’s greater legal and personal autonomy. Although repeatedly brought forth to the United States’ Senate for ratification, the CRC has not been adopted in this country. The ideology is that children are autonomous individuals that deserve the same rights as adults (Hafen, 1995). This seemingly contradicts the previous views towards children, namely that there is an inherent vulnerability (and potential for exploitation) of children because of their as-yet developing cognition and capabilities (Hafen, 1995). U.S. legislative policy has been best summed by Justice Powell in the late 1970s, arguing that children still face challenges in making critical decisions and that parents play a critical role in shaping their choices as they develop (Hafen, 1995). To date, the United States is the only country among the United Nations to not ratify the CRC treaty (Rothschild, 2017).

Despite the reticence to ratify the CRC treaty, U.S. legislation has recognized children’s autonomy over their personal decisions, particularly in regards to health care. As Hill (2015) posited, children have a right to make decisions over their bodies, classifying this as “bodily integrity” (p. 1297), although most commonly this is associated with rights regarding sexuality and reproduction. Furthermore, children’s autonomy over their bodily integrity in many states supersedes the parental authority (Hill, 2015). Affording children these rights, though, can override parental autonomy to make the best choices for their children, and in many ways, grants the state greater authority over children than the parent. Hill (2015) elaborated that granting children the rights to make these decisions, through legislation and court cases, parents and state may be in direct conflict. For example, within my home state of Missouri, the case of Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri versus Danforth (428 U.S. 52, 74) led the Supreme Court to conclude minors are able to decide to have an abortion without needing parental consent or approval (Hill, 2015). It is in this climate of increasing child autonomy that ethical conflicts can arise for the psychologist.

Child Autonomy and Psychology 

For any practicing psychologist (research or clinical), the welfare of children is paramount, given that children are classified as vulnerable populations.  As Rutja (2016) examined the history of child exploitation and as subjects of unethical practices for decades, it’s logical that the Protection of Human Subjects from the Belmont Report stipulated children (below aged 18) as vulnerable populations in need of greater protections. Under the principle of Respect for Persons, children have been rather limited in autonomy in that parents must provide consent for minor children in research practices (Rutja, 2016). However, as previously addressed, children are increasingly being afforded greater autonomy over their health care and medical decisions, their educational processes, and general life decisions. Within psychology, it is presumed that adults are capable of making decisions for themselves, but children still have a diminished capacity (Schwartz, 2017). Within the APA Ethics Code, Standard 3.10b established that psychologists must receive parental permission to include minors in research, or to provide them with psychological services (Fisher, 2017).  Schwartz (2017) argued that in actuality children as young as 13 or 14 are just as capable of developmentally appropriate autonomous choices as older adolescents. Schwartz (2017) rationalized that psychology research itself supports the idea that the teenage brain is sufficiently developed to determine personal involvement (outside of parental consent) in both research and their health care decisions.

Kaltiala-Heino and Eronen (2015) view the CRC in a different light, positing that it is because of the child’s immaturity and delayed cognition that practitioners (in their study, both psychologists and psychiatrists) need to have a higher threshold of responsibility in assessment and treatment. They further posited that practitioner treatment of children sets up ethical challenges solely due to the minor status, namely that the work itself precludes mindfulness of serving “the patient, justice, and public” (Kaltiala-Heino & Eronen, 2015, p. 763).  According to Kaltiala-Heino and Eronen (2015) it is not always clear how much autonomy a child should be afforded in a given situation, and balancing their rights and best interests can be challenging for practitioners. Heckler and Murphy (2015) also addressed this difficulty, noting that in some cases understanding the individual’s best interests can interfere with family advocacy or family therapy goals.

A Subjective Perspective

From a subjective position, I struggle with giving the state autonomy over children at the cost of parental loss of authority. Likewise, as a mother of six, I do not feel children are cognitively or developmentally mature enough to make their own life-path decisions. Although I encourage my children to grow into self-sufficiency, and a sense of personal responsibility, a teenager is not capable, in my opinion, of determining the most appropriate choices for their body (such as their sexuality, or their health care needs). My position towards an early affordance of child autonomy is shaped by two factors: my worldview, and personal follies.

My subjective position is undeniably shaped by my Christian worldview. As a Christian, I feel my children are subject to my authority. I firmly believe each of my children is a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-6), and chosen for me, specifically, to parent. I feel that it is my husband’s and my job to teach our children right from wrong, and wisdom and discernment, as we are exhorted to do in Proverbs 1:8-9. I feel that our relationship model is clearly established from Ephesians 6:1-4, denoting that children will have a longer, enjoyable life when they listen to the wisdom of their parents. This worldview often directly contradicts the more popular model of parenting and family structure which exists within society, but I know within our homeschooling communities, at least, that many perceive the CRC as a direct threat to challenging parental authority.

Second, I cannot omit the role that personal follies plays in influencing my position to restrict child autonomy. I grew up in a single-father home, having lost my mother in early childhood. I had little supervision during those developmental years, and struggled to find appropriate role models. I had no faith system imparted or even emphasis upon morality in my childhood. I was fully autonomous by about 8 years old. Unsurprisingly, this led to one poor life decision after another, hampering my physical, mental, and emotional development. The consequences could have been much worse, did I not have a loved one introduce me to Jesus when I was 18. Given my position on this, it would be necessary to incorporate my personal perspective towards child autonomy with an awareness of the required accommodations established by the Code and legislative policies.

The Interplay of Legislated Autonomy and Psychological Ethics

Despite being unratified within the United States, Fisher (2017) argued that the CRC nonetheless still influenced the APA Ethics Code, and regulations which shape research and practice. The ideological position is that children should have some say in the decisions which directly pertain to their welfare (Fisher, 2017). To respond to this ideological framework, the APA Ethics Code has included consideration of child assent. Even though parents need to provide consent for children to participate in psychological research or practice, children of a developmentally appropriate age (which is very subjectively established as being capable of understanding the processes and expectations) can and should be able to decide for themselves if they want to engage, ascertained by assent. Typically, as Rutja (2016) noted, this is considered when children have normal cognitive ability, around the age of 12. Still, as noted, this is a subjective consideration since a child may be developmentally capable of deciding at 8, whereas another may be incapable yet at 12. There are also accommodations made for emancipated minors, or children who have legally been denoted as responsible for their own competency (through a court hearing) despite still being legal minors (Fisher, 2017).

It is easy to envision a scenario of a psychologist providing care to a minor child in a state which recognizes greater child autonomy, and running into ethical conflicts. For example, the child may be engaging in negative behaviors unbeknownst to the parents and potentially damaging (physically or psychologically) to the child, and yet the psychologist may be bound by patient privileges to treat the child autonomously. There could be conflict in assessing the propensity for the child to be harming themselves, and the psychologist to lack clarity in the best recourse for the sake of the child, should autonomy or confidentiality be in direct conflict. There is yet another potential for ethical conflict in instances where the child is suffering from potential emotional maltreatment in the home, and difficulty ascertaining just where the risk is coming from (Morelen & Shaffer, 2012). If the child’s autonomy is established over parental autonomy for the child, it could be difficult for the psychologist to isolate the risk elements. Generally the limits of confidentiality of Standard 4.02 (APA, 2017) would ensure the psychologist has proactively addressed mandatory reporting procedures with both parent and child, but there still exists difficulty determining child’s best interests in this case (namely, state authority versus parental authority).


The state and federal recognition of greater child autonomy is changing both family and societal structures, although repercussions are unclear. Giving children greater autonomy over their own decisions, namely for mind and body, can create distinct challenges for the psychological field. Although the APA Ethics Code has attempted to address this ideologically, there still exists the potential for direct ethical conflicts wherein the best interests of the child contradict their legally-afforded “protections”. There are two key ideas which could help psychologists find balance in this conflict. First, as Hecker and Murphy (2015) proposed, consider the impact they have upon the client at all times. In practice, this could be considering the power they hold in their relationship with the child, but be cognizant of the child’s interests. This highlights the relational ethics over a more bio-ethically based ethics model (Hecker & Murphy, 2015). Second, Schwartz (2017) posited that various social institutions (governments, families, and other agencies) recognize maturity for a child in one respect is not synonymous with maturity for all respects. To that end, instead of determining a child’s autonomy as afforded at a given age or varying from state to state or across contexts, psychologists should be mindful of the ethical inconsistencies this can create for research or practice. This doesn’t provide full clarity from the perspective of the APA Ethics Code, but it does justify a psychologists’ personal ethical foundation to be used in conjunction with the professional statutes in acting in all children’s best interests.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 amendments. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx#

Fisher, C. B. (2017). Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN-13: 9781483369297

Hafen, J.O. (1995). Abandoning children to their rights. Retrieved from: https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/abandoning-children-to-their-rights

Hecker, L.L., & Murphy, M.J. (2015). Contemporary and emerging ethical issues in family therapy. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 36(4), 467-479.

Hill, B.J. (2015). Constituting children’s bodily integrity. Duke Law Journal, 64(7), 1295-1362.

Kaltiala-Heino, R., & Eronen, M. (2015). Ethical issues in child and adolescent forensic psychiatry: A review. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(6), 759-780.

Morelen, D., & Shaffer, A. (2012). Understanding clinical, legal, and ethical issues in child emotional maltreatment. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, 21(2), 188-201.

Rothschild, A. (2017). Is America holding out on protecting children’s rights? The Atlantic, 2 May 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/05/holding-out-on-childrens-rights/524652/

Rutja, P. (2016). Ethical issues in research on children. Pacific Rim International Journal of Nursing Research, 20(4), 271-274.

Schwartz, R. (2017). Drawing the line at age 14: Why adolescents should be able to consent to participation in research. 22nd Annual Thomas A Pitts Memorial Lectureship, April 7-8, 2016, Charleston, South Carolina. Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, 46(3), 295-306.

Lisa McGuire is an adjunct faculty member at Central Methodist University. She holds a MA from Wichita State and is a doctoral student at Grand Canyon University.

[2] The Problem of Ethics

by Charles W. Colson

I’m no longer in politics. But, it’s awfully hard not to watch what is happening on the political scene without a certain sense of dismay. Look at the Keating Five—five United States senators, tried, in effect, by their own tribunal. Just before that, Senator Dave Durenberger, who happens to be a good friend of mine, was censured by the Senate. I also spent some time with Marion Barry, the former mayor of the District of Columbia, who was arrested for drug use. And in South Carolina and Arizona, scams in the legislatures have been exposed by federal prosecutors.

I saw a press release in which the Department of Justice boasted that last year they had prosecuted and convicted 1,150 public officials, the highest number in the history of the republic. I read it with a certain sadness because it seems that kind of corruption has become epidemic in American politics.

We have seen congressmen, one after another, being censured or forced out of office. We see probably the cynical HUD scandal—where people were ripping off money from the public treasury that was designed to help the poor. Then, we’ve seen spy scandals–people selling their national honor for sexual favors or for money.

Business is not immune. The savings and loan scandals are bad enough on the face of them, but the fact that they’re so widespread has fostered almost a looter’s mentality. Ivan Boesky, speaking at UCLA Business School five years ago, said, “Greed is a good thing,” and ended up spending three years in a federal prison. Recent polls find that business school students across America, by a two-to-one margin, believe that businesses are generally unethical. It’s a very fragile consensus that holds together trust in our institutions. When most business school students believe there aren’t any ethical operations, you begin to wonder if something isn’t affecting us a lot more broadly than isolated instances of misbehavior that have been exposed.

It affects athletics. Sugar Ray Leonard admitted to drug use. He’s been a role model for lots of kids on the street. Pete Rose spent time in prison for gambling. Academia has been affected. Stanford University’s President Kennedy was charged with spending $7,000 to buy a pair of sheets and charging them improperly to a government contract. One day a Nobel Prize winner was exposed for presenting a fraudulent paper, and the very next day a professor at Georgetown University was charged with filing a fraudulent application for a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Probably saddest of all, at least from my perspective, are cases of certain religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Bakker was prosecuted for violating what should be the most sacred trust of all: to speak for God and to minister to people in their spiritual needs.The first question that comes to mind is whether these are simply examples of rotten apples or of better prosecutors. Maybe you can dismiss these by saying, “this is simply the nature of humanity.” I think it was Bishop Fulton Sheen, in paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, who said that the doctrine of original sin is the only philosophy empirically validated by 3,500 years of human history. Maybe you dismiss this, too, and say, “This is just the way people are.”

But is there a pattern here?

Time magazine, in its cover story on ethics, said: “Hypocrisy, betrayal and greed unsettle a nation’s soul.” The Washington Post said that the problem has reached the point where “common decency can no longer be described as common.” The New Republic magazine noted, “There is a destructive sense that nothing is true and everything is permitted.” When the Washington Post, the New Republic magazine, and Time magazine—never been known as bastions of conservative, biblical morality—begin to talk about ethical malaise, a line has been crossed. These aren’t simply isolated instances, but rather a pattern emerging in American life.

I believe we are experiencing today a crisis of character: a loss of those inner restraints and virtues that prevent Western civilization from pandering to its own darker instincts. Plato once said, if you asked why we should educate someone, “we educate them so that they become a good person, because good persons behave nobly.” I believe we should be deeply concerned about the loss of what Edmund Burke called the traditional values of republican citizenship–words like valor, honor, duty, responsibility, compassion, civility. Words which sound quaint.

Why has this happened? Through 23 centuries of Western civilization, we were guided by a shared set of assumptions that there was a transcendent value system. This was not always the Judeo-Christian value system, though I think the Judeo-Christian values were, as the eminent historian Christopher Dawson wrote, “The heart and soul of Western civilization.” It goes back to the Greeks and Plato’s saying that if there were no transcendent ideals, there could be no concord, justice, and harmony in a society. There is through 23 centuries of civilization—the history of the West—a strain of belief in a transcendent value system. Whether it was the unknown god of the Greeks, the Christ of the Scriptures revealed to the Christian, Yahweh of the Old Testament revealed to the Jew, or, as Enlightenment thinkers chose to call it, natural law—which I believe to be not inconsistent with Judeo-Christian revelation—this belief guided our conduct for 23 centuries until a great cultural revolution began in America. In the 1960’s.

It goes back further. Paul Johnson wrote a history of Christianity, a history of the Jews, and a classic book called Modern Times. Johnson said all of this began in 1919 when Einstein’s discovery of relativity in the field of physical sciences was confused with the notion of relativism in the field of ideas. Johnson says that gradually, through the 1920s and 1930s, people began to challenge what had been the fixed assumptions by which people lived—the set of fixed and shared common values.

In the 1960s it exploded. Those of you who were on college campuses in the sixties will well remember that the writings of Camus and Sartre invaded American campuses. Basically, they were what Camus said when he came to America and spoke at Columbia University in 1947. To the student body assembled he said, “There is nothing.” The idea was introduced that there is no God. In this view there is no transcendent value; life is utterly meaningless, and the only way that we can derive meaning out of life is if we overcome the nothingness of life with heroic individualism. The goal of life is to overcome that nothingness and to find personal peace and meaning through your own autonomous efforts.

Most of the people of my generation dismissed what was happening on the campuses as a passing fad—a protest. It was not. The only people who behaved logically in the sixties were the flower children. They did exactly what they were taught; if there were no other object in life than to overcome the nothingness, then go out and smoke pot, make love, and enjoy personal peace.

Then America came through the great confusion of Watergate and Vietnam—a dark era—and into the seventies. We thought we shook off those protest movements of the sixties. We did not; we simply embraced them into the mainstream of American culture. We emerged into a decade that Tom Wolfe, the social critic, called “the decade of Me.” That’s what gave rise to the “me” decade. If you look at the bestsellers of the 1970s, they are very revealing: Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number One, and I’m Okay, You’re Okay. Each of these were saying, “Don’t worry about us.” Very logically that graduated into the 1980s and what some have cynically called “the golden age of greed.”

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote a book titled Habits of the Heart—a phrase he borrowed from Tocqueville’s classic work on American life. Bellah examined the values of several hundred average, middle-class Americans. He came to the conclusion that the reigning ethos in American life in the eighties was what he called “ontological individualism,” a radical individualism where the individual is supreme and autonomous and lives for himself or herself. He found that Americans had two overriding goals: vivid personal feelings and personal success. Bellah tried to find out what people expected from the institutions of society. From business they expected personal advancement. From marriage, personal development. No wonder marriages are in trouble. And from church, personal fulfillment. But the “personal” became the dominant consideration. This self-obsession destroys character. It has to. All of those quaint-sounding virtues, which historically have been considered the elements of character, are no match for a society in which the exaltation and gratification of self becomes the overriding goal of life.

Rolling Stone magazine surveyed members of the baby-boom generation. Forty percent said there was no cause for which they would fight for their country. If there’s nothing worth dying for, there’s nothing worth living for. Literally the social contract unravels when that happens, and there can be no ethics.

How can you have ethical behavior? The crisis of character is totally understandable when there are no absolute values. The word ethics derives from the Greek word ethos, which literally meant “stall” —a hiding place. It was the one place you could go and find security. There could be rest and something that you could depend upon; it was immovable. Morals derives from the word mores, which means “always changing.” Ethics or ethos is the normative; what ought to be. “Morals” is what is. Unfortunately, in American life today we are totally guided by moral determinations.

So, we’re not even looking at ethical standards. Ethical standards don’t change. It’s the stall, it’s the ethos–the environment in which we live. Morals change all the time. So, with shifting morals, if 90 percent of the people say that it’s perfectly all right to do this, then that must be perfectly all right to do. It’s a very democratic notion. Ethics is not—cannot be—democratic. Ethics by its very definition is authoritarian. In a relativistic environment ethics deteriorates to nothing more that utilitarian or pragmatic considerations. If you look at the ethical questions you’re asked to wrestle with, you will see that you are taught to arrive at certain conclusions yourself, and to make certain judgments yourself, which ultimately are going to be good for business. That’s fine, and you should do that. That’s a prudential decision. That’s being a responsible business leader. It just isn’t ethics and shouldn’t be confused with ethics.

Ethics is what ought to be, not what is, or even what is prudent.

Stanley Hauerwas, of Duke University, wrote that “moral life cannot be found by each person pursuing his or her options.” The only way moral life can be produced is by the formation by virtuous people of traditional communities. That was the accepted wisdom of Western civilization until the cultural revolution of the sixties, with which we are still plagued.

What is the answer? I’d like to address two points: first, how each of us, individually, might view our own ethical framework, and second, why some set of transcendent values is vital.

We live in a pluralistic society. I happen to be a Baptist and believe strongly that, in a pluralistic environment, I should be able to contend for my values as you should be able to contend for your values, and out of that contention can come some consensus. That’s the beauty of pluralism. It doesn’t mean extinguishing all ideas; it means contending for them and finding truth out of that consensus. But I would argue that there must be some values; and I would take the liberty of arguing for my belief in a certain set of historic values being absolutely essential to the survival of society.

How do we find it ourselves? In Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative we read about rationalism and the ways in which people can find their own ethical framework. I can tell you is that in my life it didn’t work. I grew up in America during the Great Depression and thought that the great goal of life was success, material gain, power, and influence. That’s why I went into politics. I believed I could gain power and influence how people lived. If I earned a law degree and accumulated academic honors and awards, it would enable me to find success, power, fulfillment, and meaning in life.

I had a great respect for the law. I had a love for the law. I learned the history of jurisprudence and the philosophy underlying it. I studied Locke, the Enlightenment, and social contract theories (at Brown), and had a great respect for the political process. I became very self-righteous. When I went to the White House in 1969, I gave up a law practice that was making almost $200,000 a year [and] took a job at $40,000 a year. There was one thing about which I was absolutely certain: No one could corrupt me. If anybody ever gave me a present at Christmas time, it went right to the driver of my limousine. They used to send in bottles of whiskey, boxes of candy, and all sorts of things. Right to the driver of my automobile. I wouldn’t accept a thing. Patty and I were taken out on someone’s boat one day. I discovered it was a chartered boat, and ended up paying for half of it because I didn’t want to give the appearance of impropriety.

I ended up going to prison.

So much for the categorical imperative that says that through our own rational process we will arrive at that judgment which, if everyone did it, would be prudent and the best decision for everyone. In other words, that which we would do, we would do only if we could will it to be a universal choice for everybody.

I really thought that way, and I never once in my life thought I was breaking the law. I would have been terrified to do it because I would jeopardize the law degree I had worked four years at night to earn. I had worked my way onto the Law Review, Order of Coif, and Moot Court-all the things that lawyers do—and I graduated in the top of my class. I wouldn’t put that in jeopardy for anything in the world!

I was so sure, but, you see, there are two problems. Every human being has an infinite capacity for self-rationalization and self-delusion. In my case, amid an enormous amount of peer pressure, I believed that the fate of the republic rested on the reelection of Richard Nixon. I did not stop and think, Is this right by some absolute standard or does this seem right in the circumstances? Is it okay? I was taught to think clearly and carefully. As a lawyer we used the case method. The case method in law school is a little bit different from business, because there is always a fixed law that one would arrive at. I had all the mental capacity to do that. I was capable of infinite self-delusion.

Second, and even more important–and this goes to the heart of the ethical dilemma in America today—even if I had known I was doing wrong, I would not have had the will to do what is right.

The greatest myth of the twentieth century is that people are good. We aren’t. We’re not morally neutral. I asked my great friend, Professor Stanton Samenow, an orthodox Jew, “Stan, if people were put in a room and no one could see what they were doing or no one knew what they were doing, would they do the right thing half the time and the wrong thing half the time? He said they would always do the wrong thing. We aren’t morally neutral. [Hence,] the fundamental problem with learning how to reason through ethical solutions is that it doesn’t give you a mechanism to override your natural tendency to do what is wrong. This is what C.S. Lewis says.

Tom Phillips gave me the book Mere Christianity at a moment of great anguish in my life. I wasn’t so worried about what was going on in Watergate, but I knew I didn’t like what was going on in my heart. But something was different about him (Phillips). That was the evening that this ex-Marine captain, White House tough guy, Nixon hatchet man found myself unable to drive the automobile out of the driveway when I left his home, after he had told me of his experience with Jesus Christ. I was crying too hard.

I took Mere Christianity, and began to read it and study it as I would study for a case. I’d take my yellow legal pad and get down all the arguments—both sides. I was confronted with the most powerful mind that I had ever been exposed to. I saw the arguments for the truth of Jesus Christ, and I surrendered my life 18 years ago. My life has not been the same since and can never be the same again.

I discovered that Christ changes that will. It gives you that will to do what you know is right, where even if you know what is right—and most of the time you won’t—you don’t have the will to do it. It’s what C.S. Lewis wrote in that tremendous little book, Abolition of Man. If you had to read just Mere Christianity or Abolition of Man for today’s cultural environment, read Abolition of Man.

He wrote a marvelous essay called “Men Without Chests.” It’s a wonderful article about the will. He said the intellect can’t control the passions of the stomach except by means of the will—which is the chest. But we mock honor—and then we are alarmed when there are traitors in our midst. It is like making geldings, he said, and then bidding them to multiply. He was talking about the loss of character in 1947 and 1948, long before the results we are witnessing today of the loss of character in American life.

So much for the individual. What about society as a whole? Margaret Thatcher said that the truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition is infinitely precious, not only because she believed it to be true—she professed her own faith–but also, because it provides the moral impulse that causes people to rise above themselves and do something greater than themselves, without which a democracy cannot survive. She went on to make the case that without Judeo-Christian values at the root of society, society simply can’t exist.

Our founders believed this. We were not formed as a totally tolerant, neutral, egalitarian democracy. We were formed as a republic with a certain sense of republican virtue built into the citizenry, without which limited government simply couldn’t survive. No one said it better than John Adams: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

There are four ways in which that moral impulse works. Someone sent me a letter suggesting the topic for this speech, “Why Good People Do Bad Things.” I really think that it would be more appropriate to address “Why Bad People Do Good Things,” because that’s a more difficult question. If we live in an age of ontological individualism, if radical individualism is the pervasive ethos of the day, if we simply live for the gratification of our senses, of our personal success, and vivid personal feelings, why do anything good? Who cares? It won’t make a particle of difference unless it’s important to your balance sheet. But that’s pragmatism, that isn’t doing good things. That’s pure utilitarianism.

First, we do good things because there is something in us that calls us to something greater than ourselves. Prison Fellowship is a ministry in the prisons—not a very glamorous place to be. I visited three prisons this weekend. I was so moved in one prison because there were 600 inmates that came out and saw their lives change. Now those were people who were lost and forgotten. One man stood up and said, “Ten years ago I was in this prison, and two of your volunteers came in, Mr. Colson, and they befriended me, this couple from Akron, Ohio.” He said, “You know, they’ve been visiting me every month and writing to me ever since, for 10 years.” He continued, “I get out of prison in September, and they’ve invited me to live in their home.” He said, “I’m going to make it.”

Why do people do things like this? Why do they go to the AIDS wards? One of my friends goes into the AIDS ward of a prison all of the time, and people die in his arms. Do we do it because we have some good instinct? No! It’s a moral impulse. Why did William Wilberforce stand up on the floor of the Parliament in the House of Commons and denounce the slave trade? He said it was barbaric and cost himself the prime ministership of England when he said it. But, he said, I have no choice as a Christian. He spent the next 20 years battling the slave trade and brought it to an end in England because of his Christian conscience.

Second, a society cannot survive without a moral consensus. I sat next to the president of the United States and observed our nation’s fragile moral consensus during the Vietnam era. We did some excessive things, and we were wrong. But we did it feeling that if we didn’t, the whole country was going to fall apart. It was like a banana republic having the 82nd Airborne down in the basement of the White House. One night my car was firebombed on the way home. They had 250,000 protesters in the streets: You almost wondered if the White House was going to be overrun.

The moral consensus that holds our country together was in great peril during that era and during the entire Watergate aftermath of Vietnam. A free society can’t exist without it. Now, what gives it to us? Thomas Aquinas wrote that without moral consensus, there can be no law. Chairman Mao gave the other side of that in saying that morality begins at the muzzle of a gun. Every society has two choices: whether it wants to be ruled by an authoritarian ruler, or whether there can be a set of shared values and certain things we hold in common that give us the philosophical underpinnings of our value system in our life.

I submit to you that without that–call it natural law if you wish, call it Judeo-Christian revelation, call it the accumulated wisdom of 23 centuries of Western civilization–I don’t believe a society can exist. The reason we have the most terrible crime problem in the world in America today is simple: We’ve lost our moral consensus. We’re people living for ourselves. We doubled the prison population in America during the 1980s. We are today number one in the rate of incarceration per capita in the world. When I started Prison Fellowship (1976) the U.S. was #3. We trailed the Soviet Union and South Africa. Today we are #1. While we build more prisons and put more people in, the recidivism rate remains constant at 74 percent. Those people go right back in.

The answer to it is very simple. There are kids being raised today from broken families who are not being given values. Remember that Stanley Hauerwas said the way you foster ethics is in tradition—formed communities. They’re not being given values in the home, they’re not being given values in the school, they’re watching the television set for 7 hours and 36 minutes a day, and what they’re seeing is, “you only go around once, so grab for all the gusto you can.” Now if that’s the creed by which you live, then at 12 years old you’re out on the streets sniffing coke. We arrest them and put them in jail. They think we’re crazy. So do I.

Until you have some desire in society to live by a different set of values, we’ll be building prisons in America until, as is the case today, 24 percent of the black, male inner-city population in America is either in prison or on probation or parole. We can’t make it without that moral consensus. It will cost us dearly if we can’t find a way to restore it. Professor James Wilson, formerly at Harvard Law School, wrote one of the most telling pieces I’ve ever read, and I refer it in one of my books, Kingdoms in Conflict. He wrote a primer about the relationship between spiritual values and crime. The prevailing myth is that crime goes up during periods of poverty. Actually, it went down during the 1930s. He found that, during periods of industrialization, it went up as what he called Victorian values began to face. When there was a resurgence of spiritual values, crime went down. He saw a direct correlation. Crime went up whenever spiritual values went down; when spiritual values went up, crime went down.

Third, we often miss the basis of sound policy because we have become secularized in our views in America and afraid to look at biblical revelation. We’re terrified of it. When Ted Koppel gave the commencement speech at Duke University in which he said the Ten Commandments weren’t the Ten Suggestions, and that God handed the Commandments to Moses at Mt. Sinai, you know what the press did to him. It was horrible. A fellow like Ted Koppel couldn’t possibly say something like that! So we blind ourselves to what can often be truth. I have spoken to over half of the state legislators in America and have spoken with many of the political leaders around this country. I always make the same argument to them. We have way too many people in prison. Half of them are in for nonviolent offenses, which to me is ludicrous. They should be put to work. People should not be sitting in a cell at a cost of $20,000 a year to taxpayers while doing absolutely nothing, and while their victims get no recompense. Offenders ought to be put in a work program paying back their victims. Whenever I speak about that, the response I get from political officials is amazing.

In the Texas legislature, I gave that talk and they all applauded. Afterward the Speaker of the House said, “Mr. Colson, wait here. I’m sure some of the members would like to talk to you.” They came flooding in afterward. They all said that restitution is a wonderful idea—where did that come from? I asked, “Have you got a Bible at home? Go home and dust it off and you’ll see that’s exactly what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai.”That’s biblical truth. That’s the lesson of Jesus and Zacchaeus. We blind ourselves to it because we think there’s something wrong with that in today’s tolerant society. But in a pluralistic society that ought not to be wrong. We ought to be seeking that out. If we can find wisdom, find it. So often we find wisdom in the teachings of the Holy Scripture.

Fourth, no society exists in a vacuum. In a vacuum, a tyrant will often emerge. You’ve seen years of that crumble in the former Soviet Union. Isn’t it interesting that when it crumbles, it so often crumbles because people have an allegiance to a power above the power of that earthly potentate? Pope John Paul II said that he would return to Poland if the Soviets invaded during Poland’s period of martial law in the early eighties. Years earlier Stalin had said, “Hah! The Pope! How many divisions does he have?” Well, as a result of the Solidarity movement, we saw he had a whole lot more than the Soviets.

I remember getting on a plane and coming up to Boston to see our first grandson when he was born, back in 1981. A man got up in the aisle of the plane and was all excited. He introduced himself as Benigno Aquino. He was in jail for seven years and seven months as a political prisoner of Marcos, [and] had read my book Born Again. He had gotten down on his knees and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He said after that his entire experience in prison changed. Nino and I became pretty good friends.

He called me up one day and said, “I’m going back to the Philippines.” I said, “Nino, do you think that’s wise?” He said, “I have to. I’m going back because my conscience will not let me do otherwise.” He was safe here in America, he had a fellowship at Harvard, he could lecture anywhere he wanted. He and his wife had everything they could possibly want.But he knew he had to go back to the Philippines. “My conscience will not let me do otherwise.” He said, “If I go to jail, it’ll be okay, I’ll be president of Prison Fellowship in the Philippines.” He said, “If there are free elections, I’ll be elected president. I know I can beat Marcos. And if I’m killed, I know I’ll be with Jesus Christ.” He went back in total freedom. And he was shot and killed as he got off the airplane.

But an extraordinary thing happened. People went out into the streets. The tanks stopped. People went up and put flowers down the muzzles of guns: A tyrant was overthrown. A free government was reasserted because people believed in a power above themselves.

I was in the former Soviet Union and visited five prisons, four of which had never been visited by anyone from the West. I met with Vadim Bakatin, then minister of interior affairs. When talking about the enormous crime problem in the Soviet Union, he said to me, “What are we going to do about it?” I said, “Mr. Bakatin, your problem is exactly the one that Fyodor Dostoyevsky, your great novelist, diagnosed. In Brothers Karamazov, he had that debate between the older brother, who is unregenerate, and the younger brother, Alexis, who is the priest, over the soul of the middle brother, Ivan. At one point, Ivan yells out and says, “Ah, if there is no God, everything is permissible.” Crime becomes inevitable. I said, “Your problem in the Soviet Union is 70 years of atheism.” He said, “You’re right. We need what you’re talking about. How do we get it back in the Soviet Union?”

I leave you with a very simple message, as someone who had thought he had it all together and attained a position of great power. I never thought I’d be one of the half-dozen men sitting around the desk of the president of the United States, with all of that power and influence. I discovered that there was no restraint on the evil in me. In my self-righteousness, I was never more dangerous. I discovered what Solzhenitsyn wrote–that the line between good and evil passes not between principalities and powers, but it oscillates within the human heart. Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn’t the will to do what is right. On my own I do not have that will. That which I want to do, I do not do; that which I do, I do not want to do.It’s only when I can turn to the One whom we celebrate at Easter—the One who was raised from the dead–that I can find the will to do what is right. It’s only when that value and that sense of righteousness pervade a society that there can be a moral consensus. I leave with you the thought that a society desperately needs those kinds of values. And each one of us does as well.

Charles W. Colson (1931-2012) delivered this speech in 1991. Disturbed by reports that Harvard did not really teach ethics but pragmatic approaches to living , Colson wrote an article claiming that real ethics emerge from a foundational understanding of right and wrong, based on absolute truth, hence, making it difficult for Harvard to teach ethics. The Harvard Business School invited Colson to speak at its Harvard’s Distinguished Lecturer series.  He was surprised at how well he was received.  This speech was published on the Colson Center website, and was retrieved from http://www.colsoncenter.org/search-library/search?view=searchdetail&id=3191

[1] “And the Nations Will Say”: An Unlikely Apologetic Source

by Mark Eckel, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Crossroads Bible College

For years in my classes I have suggested that pagan people must steal their ethics from Christians.  Outside of the obvious irony, unbelievers cannot function without ethics yet do not have a self-sustaining answer to the question “What should I do?” on their own.  Now while I would never be so brusque in my delivery of such an idea outside a Christian context, the idea itself bears reflection.  Without any other foundation, where do questions of justice, decision-making, or simple issues of right-and-wrong find their answer?  What makes law, law?  How do courts equivocate between two parties?  How do we get along with each other when we disagree?  If no recourse for ethics exists within a human paradigm should not the paradigm change?  And if no one at the discussion table has a viable solution for standards of conduct, would not allowing another party at the table who could offer a proposal seem a viable option?  Steven D. Smith has not only accepted the nakedness of the so-called secular arguments but indeed suggests where one might find their clothes.  The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse contains a series of essays where Smith shows the need to “consider deeper commitments and their bases in such things as metaphysics, ethics, and theology.”  Smith admits and argues for what he terms “smuggling” as “inevitable . . . even indispensable.”[1] Whether one steals or smuggles, the baseline conclusion remains—without a transcendent source of true Truth there is no basis for ethics outside of human power.

Smith questions whether one can have “morality without religion.”  Quoting from Carl Becker’s 1932 work The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, anti-Christian moral theorists assume “everything that most needs to be proved, and begs every question we could think of asking.”[2] Herein lays both opportunity and responsibility for The Church.  Not only must Believers champion Smith’s premise, but we must show just cause why anyone should listen to us in the first place.

Deuteronomy 4:5-8—An Expositional Interpretation And where should Christ’s Body begin to look for an avenue into our cultural city?  The First Testament provides the gate through which we can pass as we map our apologetic approach into the metropolis of our age.  Continuity between The First and Second Testaments link The Church as “the Israel of God.”[3] “Every tribe, language, people, and nation,”[4] “once far off,” are now “brought near by the blood of Christ.”[5] “The deceiver of the whole world”[6] has been defeated by Jesus “who is to rule all the nations”: those which receive His grace might be saved.[7] Our Lord’s instruction to preach The Gospel to all nations was constant,[8] always for all nations, to be proclaimed among all nations.[9]

“All the nations” is a recurrent Scriptural phrase[10] punctuated by 1 Chronicles 16:23-24

Sing to Yahweh, all the earth!
Tell of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples.

Both kinship and king-ship—social and political groups—are included as “peoples.”[11] “That the world may know that I am Yahweh” is a cry that reverberates from once supreme Egyptian corridors of power through Goliath’s defeat; from David’s covenantal commitment to Solomon’s temple tribute; from Namaan’s confession to Hezekiah’s petition; from Jesus’ incarnation of Heaven’s love for the world to His Church’s embodiment of love for the world.[12] Inclusive by being exclusive, Yahweh demands that all nations, all people everywhere serve Him alone.[13] Abraham will have nations come from him and be blessed because of Him.[14] Paul referred to international inclusion as The Gospel preached “beforehand.”[15]

As God’s people, Deuteronomy contends, Israel was to be a nation unto Himself saved by Yahweh, peculiar, special, holy, above all people, and Yahweh’s inheritance.[16] “Blessed above all people,” Israel existed to reveal the greatness of God’s Name.[17] Deuteronomy 28:10 declares, “All the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of Yahweh and will be afraid of you.”  So it was important that Israel not make God’s name “vain” or empty as in Deuteronomy 5:11.  The nomenclature “Yahweh” was the basis for an oath, having a place in the encampment.[18] Israel was God’s reputation since they “wore” His name.[19] But since the Hebrews rebelled against Yahweh, “I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived.”[20]

Fearing “this glorious and awesome Name” was connected to keeping God’s law.[21] The intention was that Israel’s character and conduct would cause the nations to say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”[22] How God’s people lived would be the apologetics coup of the day “because in the ancient world nations were accustomed to think, and prove, that they had superior gods and divinely appointed institutions.”[23] The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, claimed only legal decisions.  As John Walton points out “Today we think of justice as that which conforms to the law.  For them justice was that which conformed to traditions.”[24] But Deuteronomy 4:6 and other texts[25] counter the accepted political views of the day: Yahweh alone is righteous, establishing fairness, by creating just laws, wrapped in wisdom.  Yahweh’s Law is holy: distinctive, peerless, in a class by itself.

God’s laws lived out before the nations, set an example for the nations.  Keeping God’s commandments meant Yahweh would set Israel “in fame and in honor high above all nations that He has made.”[26] Threaded back to promises made to Abram in Genesis 12:3, “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed” by God’s people.  Yahweh’s inclusive international interest can be traced back through the Genesis 10 table of nations, the Genesis 5 genealogies, the representation of an either-or, Cain-Abel choice in Genesis 4, the universal headship of “Adam’s race,” and ultimately to His immanent concerns for creation as “the Spirit of God was hovering” in Genesis 1:2.  Yahweh’s Law through His people should have been “a city set upon a hill which cannot be hidden.”  Believers’ responsibility to let their “light shine before others” immediately precedes Jesus’ linkage to the First Testament: after the Beatitudes, before His fulfillment of the Law.  [While this is not the place to pursue instruction on the continuity between The Testaments, it should be said responsibilities for God’s chosen people have never changed.  Salvation is by faith.  Faith is shown by works.  Works are a testimony to those “outside.”[27]]

So, Deuteronomy 4:6-8 sets a standard for international acclaim in response to a people group whose lives are dedicated to Torah. C. J. H. Wright reaches back to Exodus 19:1-6 to proclaim that Israel was to be

A priesthood . . . teacher, model and mediator for the nations. Keeping the law, then, was not an end in itself for Israel, but related to their very reason for existence—God’s concern for the nations.[28]

So Moses links Israel’s obedience to The Law with witness for The Law.  The claim in Deuteronomy 4:6 is that “the nations will say.”  There is an attraction to torah’s ordered uprightness which cannot be denied.[29] People talk about our lives when we walk The Laws.  God’s rules are pervasive involving all of Hebrew life.  Again and again words such as “statutes,” “rules,” “laws,” and “commands” are repeated, preceded by “all.”  Perhaps the best 21st century connection to such inclusiveness is the word “lifestyle.”

Israel’s way of life would promote the view that she was a “great nation.”  The phrase is used three times in the passage.  It seems that other nations include the existence, importance, and comparative success of Israel as a goy amongst the goyim.[30] The Hebrew adverb raq sets the stage for exclusivity and distinctiveness: “surely this great nation. . . .”  The superiority of Israel over all other cultures rests on the phrase “a wise and understanding people.”  These two adjectives were prized elements in the socio-political life of First Testament culture.  As a class, wise men were considered advisors and consultants to governments.[31] Ancient Near Eastern kings relied on their collection of laws to convince the gods they were wise and just rulers.[32] The application of knowledge (“wisdom”) and ability to judge (“understanding”) were prized possessions.  Deuteronomy begins and ends with dependency upon respected, spirit-filled leadership.[33] So Israel was not dependent upon despotic decrees or a king’s whim.  The Law was for all people, practiced by the populace, so pervasive that judges from family heads were more important than a sovereign’s headship.[34] Genesis 18:19 famously predicts

Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nations, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him . . . for I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

Moses picks up the “great nation” mantle given by the nations to ask two rhetorical questions.  The second establishes the basis for the first.  Yahweh’s righteousness is consistently linked with acts of justice throughout The First Testament.  So complete is the connection between the two words “righteousness and justice” that they often appear as a couplet.[35] Those who seek justice must first stand on the righteousness of God.  The nearness of “a god” was a proclamation of superiority.  The act of establishing laws reveals Yahweh as distinguished from other gods.  In ancient Near Eastern belief, human laws were simply resident within the structure of the universe.  That Yahweh declared Himself to be the source of The Law, coming from His personal character, He was considered “near” His people in that sense.[36] Yahweh’s holy character is the essence of The Law’s distinction.  Whereas, for the ancient Near Eastern king, the law existed for self-glorification, torah displayed Yahweh’s nature.  Whereas, human sovereigns revealed despotic justice, Yahweh’s Law required obedience to His covenantal grace.  Whereas, ancient Near Eastern concerns had to do with order in society, Yahweh was concerned with building a community.[37] As Psalm 147:19-20 makes abundantly clear

He declares His Word to Jacob, His statutes and rules to Israel.  He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know His rules.

Summarizing the distinction between cultures becomes clear: the Hebrews were to worship their God based on gratitude, other nations worshipped man-made gods for fear. Military and economic exploits, created by Yahweh’s Law-Wisdom, would contribute to international fear of Israel.  Nation states would “hear the report of you and shall tremble” Deuteronomy 2:25 states.  But make no mistake: it would be Yahweh’s presence and power that defeated mighty nations.[38] Deuteronomy 9:4-5 make it doubly clear that triumph is not based on human righteousness.  Because of Yahweh’s blessing, banking practices (lending and borrowing) would be controlled by Israel, making His people “the head, not the tail.”[39]

Israel’s headship of the nations reached its apex of apologetic achievement in 1 Kings 9 and 10.  If ever Deuteronomy 4:6-8 had its near fulfillment on earth, it was in the kingship of Solomon.  Other nation’s testimony recorded by Moses would be repeated by an African queen.

And she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom . . . Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. . . .Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! . . . Because the LORD loved Israel forever, He has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness. . . . And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.[40]

So eschatologically important was Solomon’s witness to the nations that Jesus Himself repeats the 1 Kings 10 episode, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.”[41] If the wisdom of Israel could make Israel a great nation, the opposite was also possible.  Israel could “become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples”[42] Israel would be scattered in other lands and nations.  There would be no respite, no resting place for “the sole of your foot.” Yahweh would bring a nation against His people for discipline which would then take them to a place they had not known.[43] The nations would take note as Deuteronomy 29:24-28 states:

All the nations will say, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land?  What caused the heat of this great anger?”  Then people will say, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.  Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.”

What would cause this?  A desire to be “like all the other nations.”[44] The famed comment came in conversation between The Almighty and Samuel.  One of the results of kingship patterned after pagan thinking would be the usurpation of power by the powerful.  If Israel failed to maintain the distinctiveness of Yahweh or Yahweh’s Law in comparison with other cultures, then syncretism would replace Yahwehism.  The Naboth episode in 1 Kings 21 stands as an insult to Yahweh, His Law, and the common man whom The Law was to protect.  Ahab the king wants to follow the general cultural course of his day: totalitarian despotism over people and property.  Paul Hanson reminds us

Ahab’s attitude toward his subject’s property was consistent with that of the Canaanites, as indicated by the Ugaritic texts of ancient Ras Shamra and by Egyptian attitudes toward real estate, including the Pharaoh’s unlimited claims over property.  But Naboth responds from a completely different perspective: “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”  He thereby appeals to the early Yahwistic institution of the nachala . . . as a means in early Israel of protecting the rights of each family against the self-aggrandizement of the powerful.[45]

While the intention was that the nations would look at Israel as “a wise and understanding people” for keeping God’s statutes, the standard for the nations would always be the righteousness of Yahweh.[46] God considered all people from every nation as important, calling them to repentance and rejoicing.[47] Centerpiece to Yahweh’s concern for goyim was Israel’s just treatment of the resident alien.  True empathy for displaced peoples was impressed on the Hebrews because they literally understood what it felt like to be enslaved by foreigners.[48] While The Law made outsiders a special focus of protection, they were also to obey Yahweh’s commands.[49] Contrary to every other culture in the ancient world, foreign servants were to be included in another cultural anomaly—Sabbath rest.[50] Ultimately, Israel would have the obedience of the nations, bringing justice to the nations, climbing Mt. Zion with the nations, worshipping alongside the nations.[51]

God called people to Himself through the witness of creation, conscience, human law, miracles and the attraction of First Testament believers.[52] Even God’s judgments were designed specifically to demonstrate to other nations that “there was no one like Yahweh in all the earth.”[53] And His people were to bear the light of “the gospel” to others.[54] There is hope for all nations, even in the afterlife.[55] The ethical codes of the First Testament are universal in scope, based on the righteousness of the “creator of the ends of the earth.”  All earthly nations were to know the statutes of Yahweh by the priestly nature of His people.  Yahweh’s covenant loyalty would create “a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” Yahweh’s “treasured possession” would be set “in praise and in fame and in honor high above all the nations that He has made.”[56]

Yahweh’s eternal glory, through the future redemption, of His people is praised through international testimony captured by Isaiah and Ezekiel:

Strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you . . . And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’  Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD . . . and I will do it.[57]

All the nations will be united by the blood of Christ, uttering the words of Isaiah 2:2-3, “‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’”  And Yahweh concludes in Isaiah 66:18-20, “The time is coming to gather all nations and tongues.  And they shall come and shall see my glory . . . and they shall declare my glory . . . and they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD.”

Deuteronomy 4:5-8—A Practical Application How, then, do Christian academicians lead intellectual pursuits so that “all the universities will say”?  Establishing the biblical record of national responses to Israel in the First Testament sets parameters for application in the academy, now and in the future.  Unapologetic apologetics, extolling the greatness of Yahweh’s name, is possible through rigorous, robust, and redemptive Christian scholarship.  Based on the Deuteronomic statement of Israel’s greatness based on Yahweh’s Law, and many companion passages, I suggest five traits for a conservative, evangelical reputation in the university.  

1. “Surely, this great nation”: Superior by Comparison As the Hebrew adverb suggests,[58] life lived based on Heavenly wisdom should stand out.  When compared with all the other nations, “this great nation” was found to be superior because of Yahweh’s Law-Wisdom.  By way of scholarly application, a spate of articles and books has suggested recently that university research has become lax, superficial, and what’s worse, unimportant.  Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich[59] shows, among other things, how peer-review failed over a four year time frame.  Sloppiness together with misuse of statistics questioned several studies in social psychology.[60] The title of Mark Bauerlein’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: we must stop the avalanche of low-quality research.[61]

Pursuit of scholarship by Christians in the academe cannot afford and should not stand for such appalling responses to the pursuit of knowledge.  Christian social science work should demonstrate its superiority as does the work of Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition. Joseph Pearce’s work in new critical editions of classic works of fiction through Ignatius Press renews the place of authorial intent in literature.  Our empirical data via the application of human study can reveal little more than “the tip of the iceberg” of God’s works.[62] Yet, it is our “glory” to search out what God has concealed.[63]

2. “Statutes and rules so righteous as all this law”: Uniqueness of Biblical Thinking The Hebraic-Christian system of thought should be distinctive from all others.  Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality[64] exposed the fallacy that unbiased research is possible.  Counter-cultural assumptions obviously do exist in a Christian framework.  As Polkinghorne contests, “All participants seek to speak humbly but definitely from the integrity of their own positions.”[65] Arguing for the indispensable role of theological encounter in the university, Polkinghorne—who holds terminal degrees in both theology and the sciences—continues, “In the case of Christianity . . . Theology can no more be forbidden this use of its own rational resources than science can be forbidden a similar freedom.”[66]

While biblical thinking is distinctive there should be no distinction from the ordered processes of defining theories, setting hypotheses, exploration, interpretation, statistical analysis, peer-review, or any other universally accepted parameter for academic research.  Francis Collins, leader of the human genome project, is a sterling example of unique utility in discovering secrets in God’s world.  As he told National Geographic, “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome . . . He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory.”[67] Yahweh’s Law establishes a standard by which all other standards can be measured.

Yet, David Solomon, director of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, asks an important, illustrative question, “Who remembers that the University of Chicago was ever a Christian university?”[68] If the current infatuation with perspectivalism, for instance, continues to permeate the university one wonders if “graduates of religious colleges will add anything distinctive”[69] to life.  However, the unique Christian view of academic inquiry can demonstrate rigorous, robust scholarship.  

3. “Keep them and do them for this is your wisdom”: Attraction of Discernment Susan M. Felch believes in the “hermeneutics of delight” as an educational marker.[70] Beauty as an aesthetic demonstration of mathematics is a mysterious marker in the definition of mathematical formula.[71] One of Susan Handelman’s students suggested that truth in literature “stops the heart.”[72] These affective attractions are accessible apologetic markers which peak the interest of outsiders.  Jesus’ deference to the wisdom of serpents and the shrewdness of unbelievers tickles the need for academic subtlety.

For my part, I believe E. B. White’s dictum, “Humor plays close to the white hot fire of truth.”  So, for years, I have adorned the doors and walls outside my office or classroom with cartoons using them in teaching for their philosophical truths.  I connect narrative to doctrine by collecting stories which draw my students by true Truth.  Just as the incarnation “fleshed out” God to us, so we place the flesh of story on the bone of truth.  Poetry and proverb I believe identify invasive instruction, unattainable in other forms.  Film clips and internet connections are ever before my classes.  The Word will interpret the picture attracting the inquiry of discerning academicians.  

4. “In the sight of the peoples”: Cultural Inclusion Aurelie A. Hagstrom calls it “Christian Hospitality in the Intellectual Community.”[73] The Consortium of Christian Study Centers headed by Drew Trotter, connects biblical thought with university settings.  Of course, our own host The International Institute for Christian Studies endeavors to place Christ followers on pagan campuses so that Jesus’ name may be heard through how the believing professor practices his academic craft.  Alistar McGrath is part of a growing number of scholars who have advanced degrees in two separate fields, building bridges between them.  One of my own students, Dr. John Milliken, obtained his Ph.D. in practical philosophy turning then to study theology.  The only way for believers in Jesus as Lord to attract the attention of the academe is to be “in the academe but not of it.”  Perhaps Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, says it best:

Through the law he offers Israel the opportunity to build a social and political order that breaks new ground. Through the law he makes Israel wise and shows her the way a man should live, so as to live aright. . . . This joy in the law astounds us. We have become used to regarding it as a burden that oppresses man. At its best periods, Israel saw in the law in fact something that set them free for the truth, free from the burden of uncertainty, the gracious gift of the way.[74]

5. “When they hear all these statutes will say”: Wordless Witness Verizon uses the promotional phrase, “Raise your voice without having to say a thing.”  My dentist, a Seventh Day Adventist, gives two weeks out of his year to apply his skills in poor countries via Christian Medical Mission.  The John Jay Institute, founded by and functioning as a Christian enterprise, prepares cultural apologists in law, public policy, and political theory.  H2O Africa is headed by believers who initiate clean water applications for the poorest of the poor.  This is the point of Scripture’s many “so that” passages.  Often the apologetic method of Christ and His followers was to preach without speaking.  “That they be won without a word” metaphors communicate lifestyle witness: “A city set upon a hill,” “speech seasoned with salt,” “walking properly,” and “adorning.”[75] Christian scholars should be missionaries or, as Haddon Robinson put it, “evangelistic scholars.”[76] We are strategically placed in a position of influence to influence others’ vocational commitments.  Hear Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra:

Mission is about being. It is about being a distinctive kind of people, a countercultural, multinational community among the nations.  It is modeling before a skeptical world what the living God of the Bible really is like.  Whether we remain all our lives in the towns of our birth or travel to the slums of Calcutta or the wastelands of Madison Avenue, we are all called to mission.  For mission is to put our lives on the cutting edge where God is at work.[77]

Conclusion: It is fitting that Deuteronomy 4:6-8 is followed immediately by the second usage of the Hebrew adverb raq in this pericope.  Verse nine reads, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart.”  The verbal structure demands introspective reflection, personal accountability, to stay within the boundaries of Yahweh’s Law.  The enticements particular to our station in life as scholars must caution us always.  Idols, the product of other worldviews, are monuments of human affection for the created and rejection of The Creator.  Any representation, theory, or model which sets itself up in the place of God is objectively compared and found wanting.[78] The hubris of academic prowess or success is the potential downfall for any of us who believe that our acumen or achievement is anything other than the beneficence of Providence.

Yet, we have been given Heavenly responsibility for earthly scholarship.  We agree with Jeremiah 31:35-37 that it is Yahweh who created a “fixed order” so that “the foundations of the earth can be explored.”  Mathematicians and scientists rely upon God’s stable universe. Order establishes logic, logic constitutes pattern, pattern produces models, models make possible probability, probability allows for prediction, prediction predicates hypothesis, and hypothesis identifies proof. A proof demonstrates “true Truth.”  We believe with Psalm 64:9 that “All mankind ponders what God has done.” Discoveries are verifiable by researchers around the world.  What is true in one place is true in another.  All people, consciously or unconsciously, take note of God’s interaction in the world.[79]

So it is no surprise that Steven Smith in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse knows that secularists depend upon “smuggling” theological concepts into their discussions.  My students have heard my similar concern for years: unbelievers cannot live without stealing Christian ethics.  It is fitting that another voice be added to this refrain begun in Deuteronomy 4:5-8.  James Orr, a 19th century Christian integrator, completes the seminar with these words,

No duty is more imperative on the Christian teacher than that of showing that instead of Christianity being simply one theory among the rest, it is really the higher truth which is the synthesis and completion of all the others; that view which, rejecting the error, takes up the vitalising elements in all other systems and religions, and unites them into a living organism, with Christ as head.[80]


[1] Steven D. Smith. 2010. The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse. (Harvard University Press): 105, 106. [2] Ibid. 151, 186. [3] Galatians 6:16.  Scripture quotations are from The English Standard Version (ESV). [4] Revelation 5:9; 14:6; cf. 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 15:4; 17:15. [5] Ephesians 2:13. [6] Revelation 12:9, 13:14, 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10. [7] Revelation 12:5; 19:15 and Revelation 21:24. [8] Matthew 24:14; 28:19; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47; John 20:21 with Acts 1:8. [9] cf. Exodus 19:6; 1 Kings 9-10; Psalms 96-100; Ecclesiastes; Nahum, Jonah; Romans 1:5; 4:17-18; Galatians 3:8; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 4:17. [10] I.e., Gen 22:18; Deut 14:2; 1 Kings 4:31; Ps 67:4; 72:11; Isa 66:18, 20; Jer 3:17; etc. [11] “Goy” has the political sense whereas “ham” is the ethnic concern.  A.J. Kostenberger. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. (Reprint, IVP, 2006): 676. [12] Exodus 7:5, 17; 8:6, 18; 9:14, 29; 10:2; 14:4, 18; 16:12; Joshua 4:23-24; 1 Samuel 17:46; 2 Samuel 7:22-26; 1 Kings 8:41-43, 60-61; 2 Kings 5:15; 19:15-19; John 14:31; 17:23. [13] Psalm 66:1-7; 67:1-7; 72:11. [14] Gen 17:4, 5, 6, 16 and Gen 18:18; 22:18. [15] Galatians 3:8. [16] God’s people (Deuteronomy 3:28), a people unto Himself (29:13) saved by Yahweh (33:29), peculiar (14:2; 26:18), special, holy, above all people (7:6), and Yahweh’s inheritance (9:29). [17] Deuteronomy 7:14; 2 Samuel 7:23; 1 Kings 8:43, 60; 1 Chronicles 22:5; 2 Chronicles 6:33; Isaiah 12:4. [18] “Oaths” in Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20; “encampment” 12:3, 5, 11. [19] Numbers 6:27. “We are called by your name” Jeremiah 14:9 (cf. 2 Chron 7:14). [20] Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22.  Yahweh cares about His reputation.  Notice the multiple times “for His name’s sake” is emphasized in Scripture: 1 Sam 12:22; 1 Kings 8:41; 2 Chron 6:32; Pss. 23:3; 25:11; 31:3; 79:9; 106:8; 109:21; 143:11; Isa 48:9; 66:5; Jer 14:7; 14:21; Ezek 20:44; 36:22. [21] Deuteronomy 28:58. [22] Deuteronomy 4:6. [23] J. C. McConville Deuteronomy. In Apollos Old Testament Commentary, eds. David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wenham. (Baker, 2002): 104-05. [24] John H. Walton. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. (Reprint, Baker, 2009):291. [25] Deuteronomy 4:32-34; 29:20, 24; 1 Kings 9:7-9; 10:1-9. [26] Deuteronomy 26:19, ESV. [27] The 21st century application later in this paper will be developed through 1st century declarations in Matthew 5:16, Colossians 4:2-6, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, 1 Peter 2:11-12, 3:1-2, 16 and Titus 2:1-10. [28] Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin, 43:2(1992):227. [29] See also Deuteronomy 26:19 where Israel is to bring Yahweh “praise, glory, and fame” (Jer 13:11; 33:9).  Titus 2:10 picks up the theme: believers are to “adorn the doctrine of our Savior” by how they live. [30] Comparison between “The One” and “the others” is constant in First Testament concerns.  Measuring Yahweh against all other deities tops the list. [31] Earl S. Kaland, “Deuteronomy,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3 (Zondervan): 44. [32] Walton, et al.  IVP Old Testament Background Commentary. (IVP): 175. [33] “Respected,” 1:13, 15; “spirit-filled” 34:9. [34] Kingship is limited in Israel.  He is simply “one of the brothers.”  He has no jurisdiction over land—Yahweh alone retains that right (Deut 16:18).  He cannot go to war, create a harem, or amass wealth.  The people request his services (17:14-15; 28:36).  The king’s role is subservient to every other position: judges, priests, and prophets are chosen by God.  Even the king’s words are less important than that of the prophet: the king must copy words already in existence, the prophet speaks God’s words into human existence (compare Deut 17:18-20 with 18:15-22). [35] For example, Genesis 18:19; Psalm 89:14; 97:2. [36] Walton, OTBC, 175. [37] Walton, Ancient, 293. [38] Deuteronomy 4:34, 38; 7:22; 8:20; 11:23; 12:29; 19:1; 31:3. [39] Deuteronomy 15:6; 28:12 and 28:13. [40] 1 Kings 10:6-9, 24. [41] Matthew 12:42. [42] Deuteronomy 28:37 [43] Deuteronomy 30:1, 3; and 28:64; and 28:65; 28:49-51 and 28:33, 36. [44] 1 Samuel 8:10-18. [45] Paul D. Hanson. The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible. Reprint. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001): 143-44. [46] Deuteronomy 4:6.  The First Testament, though written to the Hebrews, was germane to and, at times, composed directly for Gentile nations. Genesis 3 shows the whole human condition; Genesis 6-9 the sin of whole earth brought judgment; Genesis 11 the sin of unified humanity was judged; Genesis 12:1-3 the whole earth was blessed through the Hebrews; Genesis 13:13 the 5 cities “sinned greatly against The LORD”; Genesis 18:20 the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah sins “were grievous”; Genesis 18:25 “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”; Genesis 19:13 “the outcry was so great, I sent to destroy”; Isaiah 13-23; Jeremiah 45-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Daniel 2 and 7; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; Jonah; Nahum. [47] Pss. 96-100. [48] Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; 24:14, 17-18 [49] Leviticus 24:22; 25:35; Deuteronomy 14:29; 24:19; 26:11-15 [50] Exodus 20:8-11. [51] Obedience Genesis 49:10; justice Isaiah 42:1; 49:6; Zion Isaiah 2:2-4; worship Isaiah 66:18-20. [52] Psalm 19; conscience (Rom 2:14-15), human law (Deut 4:5-8; 1 Tim 1:8-11), miracles (2 Kings 5) and the attraction of First Testament believers (Ruth 1:16, 17; 1 Kings 10:1-9). [53] Ex 9:13-21; cf. Daniel 4:28-37. [54] E. g., Gen 12:1-3; Ex 19:5, 6; Deut 4:5-8; 1 Kings 10:1-9, 24; Ecclesiastes; Is 42:6; 49:6. [55] Is 19; Zech 14:16-19; Mal 1:5. [56] Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:5, 18, 19. [57] Isaiah 25: 3 and Ezekiel 36:35-36.  See also Zechariah 8:20-23 and Micah 4:2. [58] See above.  The ESV translates the word “surely.” [59] Eugenie Samuel Reich. 2009. Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World. (Palgrave MacMillan). [60] Carl Bialik, “Are You W.S.J.? Is That Why You’re Reading This?” Wall Street Journal 15 May 2010. [61] Mark Bauerlein, et al, “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 13 June 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Stop-the-Avalanche-of/65890/ [62] Job 26:14; “these are but the outer fringe of God’s works; cf. 28:3, 11. [63] Proverbs 25:2. [64] Roy A. Clouser. 1991. The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories. (University of Notre Dame Press). [65] John C. Polkinghorne. 2006. “Christian Interdisciplinarity,” In Christianity and the Soul of the University. (Baker):61 [66] Ibid., 62-63. [67] National Geographic February, 2007. [68] Naomi Schaefer Riley. 2006. God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation are Changing America. (Reprint, Ivan R. Dee): 54 [69] Ibid., 236. [70] Susan M. Felch. 2006. “Doubt and the Hermeneutics of Delight,” Christianity and the Soul of the University. (Baker):103-18. [71] Polkinghorne, 55-56 [72] Susan Handelman. 2002. “Stopping the Heart.” In Religion, Scholarship, & Higher Education: Perspectives, Models, and Future Prospects, ed. Andrea Sterk. (University of Notre Dame):202-29. [73] Aurelie A. Hagstrom. 2006. “Christian Hospitality in the Intellectual Classroom.” In The Soul :119-32. [74] http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features/ratzinger_godisnearusjuly04.asp [75] 1 Peter 3:1, Matthew 5:16; Colossian 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Titus 2:10.  See many others. [76] Haddon W. Robinson. 1985. “The Theologian and the Evangelist.” JETS 28:1 (March):3-8. [77] Howard Peskett & Vinoth Ramachandra. 2003. The Message of Mission. (IVP):123. [78] Romans 1:22, 23, 25; Jeremiah 10:11-13; 51:16-18. [79] See also Psalm 65: esp. v. 8; 66: esp. vv. 3-4; 67: esp. v 7; 107; etc. [80] James Orr. 1897.  The Christian View of God and the World. (Reprint, Morrison and Gibb): 11-12.

“And the Nations Will Say” was a paper delivered at the International Institute for Christian Studies, 15 July 2010 in Kansas City, MO. Mark Eckel, ThM PhD, is a frequent contributor of book and movie reviews to this site.  [This paper has been published in Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics (2:1, 2011).]

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