Where does law come from? More specifically, what gives a law the authority by which to direct men so that those who violate it may be punished.
It should be obvious that most laws have little or nothing to do with what is natural, that is, they are not derived from principles we might observe in the natural world apart from man. What animal is there which does not, if the opportunity is present, steal from others, even of its own kind. Likewise, the lion feels no guilt over killing its prey and the natural world, including our own diet, is predicated upon violence. So where then comes the stricture against murder?
It has oft been noted that when those German leaders who were tried for the murder of millions of Jews, and others deemed undesirable by German society, stood trial at Nuremberg, as the courts could not try them for violating either international or national laws, as they had done neither, accused them of violating a higher law. Justice Jackson famously said of the validity of those trials: “These men should be tried on this basis: on a higher law, a higher law which rises above the provincial and the transient.”
The word “provincial” refers to a local region, in this case, Germany, and the term “transient” refers to a fixed point of time, the period of Nazi Germany, under whose laws the murder of millions was valid. Clearly, if society alone dictated law, there would be no basis upon which the Nazi’s could be condemned, for their society supported what they had done. Men instinctively recoil, however, from their actions as immoral. Yet such horror must be based on a law, a system of morals, which is higher then the law of men.
Likewise, if society alone dictated right and wrong, where then is the place for the reformer. Upon what basis can a man like Martin Luther King Jr. argue for change within that same society? If one acknowledges that the cause of King was just then one must acknowledge that society, popular opinion, and tradition do not determine right or wrong. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave Dr. King a prize because they recognized that his call for reform, for change, was a noble endeavor. Any who call for a change in the laws of men based on a moral appeal, as did King, and those who agree with such a call, are recognizing that right and wrong are independent of law, tradition and cultural mores.
The Bible identifies for us where law originates, and the answer the Bible gives is the only reasonable and logical basis for any systematic system of morality: Morality must derive from the divine, from that which is higher than man himself. The Bible identifies the source of law, indeed the source of all authority as God.
In the book of Romans we read, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” (Romans 13:1) The point of Romans 13 is that Christians must be respectful of authority, but the verse also makes an argument for the perspective that when a government goes beyond the authority it rightfully possesses, it is in the wrong.
The founders of our country recognized this principle, stating in the Declaration of Independence that rights come from God, and that government exists for the purpose of securing these rights for the populace. Thus they also spoke of the laws of nature and of Nature’s God, referencing the idea that there was a natural law, not found in the manners of beasts, but rather in the hearts of men, which inform us as to right and wrong.
More to the point for Christians is this thought: the authority of God, that authority which He owns as the Creator of all that is, was and will be, has been placed in the person of Christ. Jesus, rising from the dead, declared, “All authority has been given to me, in Heaven and on Earth.” (Matthew 28:18) The scriptures warn us against resisting the authority of Christ. The Psalmist says of Jesus, “Now therefore, be wise, O kings; be instructed, you judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way.” (Psalms 2:10-12a)
At the church of Christ, we seek to submit ourselves to the authority of Christ in all things and we invite you to join us in study and worship at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.