When we ponder the world God made, we have to marvel: The sun rises and sets right on time, the tides advance and withdraw according to schedule, and summer gives way to fall with perfect precision. As theologian Albert Wolters explains, God built the universe to a set of exacting standards so that it — and we — would thrive.
Likewise, Wolters explains, God created the world so that our social institutions — things such as business, education, law, and government — also thrive when they conform to certain, intrinsic realities. Businesspeople, scientists, and artists — in fact, those in every field — recognize that certain standards apply to their work. That’s how we know that Leonardo da Vinci was a masterful painter, that Isaac Newton was a brilliant scientist, and that Steve Jobs was an entrepreneurial genius. We understand that each discipline has a unique and defined purpose: Business meets one objective; science serves another. Art makes one kind of cultural contribution, while government exists for altogether different reasons. We approach our own work with the understanding that everything fits together; our work (and our neighbors’) is a component part of this vast interconnected system.
As British historian Niall Ferguson has pointed out, we create institutions and then work within them. They are to humans what hives are to bees, Ferguson continues. They’re where and how we organize ourselves. They’re the way humans construct boundaries and enforce rules. They’re where we do the things that make life full.
By God’s design, the world works in particular ways, and He’s given us, His image bearers, the capacity to know them. He has created us to understand what works and what doesn’t and to understand what’s right, good, and wise. As a result, our lives and His world can flourish.
We Know What’s Right
The Apostle Paul explained that everyone, regardless of what they believe about God, instinctively knows His law. It’s hardwired into us, Paul explained – a part of the reality that’s been woven into the very fabric of creation. We know what’s right and wrong, and we instinctively grasp what makes sense in the world God gave us.
We’ve seen this reality in every civilization throughout history. We find it in ancient Greece, for example, woven into Sophocles’ play “Antigone.” The story is about the town of Thebes, which is racked by civil war. Two brothers have fought on opposing sides; one of them — an insurgent — is killed. Their sister Antigone loves them both and is trapped in a moral quandary. Creon, the king, has ordered that only loyal soldiers are to be buried. The rebels, as a sign of disgrace, must be left to decay.
Father Joseph Koterski, a Fordham University professor, explains that Creon’s decision makes sense. As king he has a responsibility to maintain order and keep the government secure. But Antigone can’t muster the will to obey. Her family duty conflicts with her civic duty, and she honors her fallen brother with a proper funeral. Her disobedience prompts this exchange with the king:
Creon (to Antigone): You, tell me not at length but in a word. You knew the order not to do this thing.
Antigone: I knew, of course I knew. The word was plain.
Creon: And still you dared to overstep these laws.
Antigone: For me it was not Zeus who made that order. Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below mark out such laws to hold among mankind. Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could over-run the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws. Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live, and no one knows their origin in time ….
In this story, Koterski says, no one disputes that Creon is the legitimate authority, nor does anyone claim that the law is unreasonable or unclear. Even so, Antigone appeals to a greater authority. At one point she invokes the name of Zeus, but later she appeals to the overarching concept of Justice, arguing that justice itself requires her to bury her dead brother.
Such a notion is rooted deep within her. Antigone intuitively understands that there are implicit and constant laws — not made by men — that govern the world, and that the world works best when mankind obeys them.
“Crimes Against Humanity”
We find a more recent example in the aftermath of World War II. As the Nuremberg war crimes trials began the judges faced a delicate problem. The British, French, Russian, and American judges couldn’t try German officials under any of their own laws: none of the crimes had been committed in their countries. They couldn’t use German law either, because the Nazi leaders, though thoroughly evil, were also scrupulous. They had carefully passed legislation that authorized every monstrous act.
The judges, Koterski explains, not only had to find a legal basis for trying these men, they needed an approach that would resonate in the hearts of people around the world. They needed to convey to people in every culture that justice had been served.
After days of legal and intellectual wrangling they decided to prosecute the defendants for “crimes against humanity.” With that phrase the court acknowledged — whether consciously or not — that certain laws are written on every human heart; therefore, every human understood that the Nazis had broken them.
A more familiar case occurred in the United States in the early 1960s. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. regularly appealed to this higher law. By doing so, Koterski asserts, King not only protested existing laws, he challenged the country’s customs. Unlike Antigone, Koterski says, King wasn’t resisting a specific decree, nor was he protesting a system of government such as Nazism. King had something more pervasive in mind. He appealed to the transcendent law to prompt a nationwide examination of customs, attitudes, and long-held tradition.
In his famous letter from a Birmingham jail King argued, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God … an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.’” King invoked Aquinas in order to emphasize that this higher law, which is imprinted on every human heart, exists to shape the morality of secular society.
Throughout time — in different cultures, different situations, and in various religious settings — mankind has appealed to a higher law. In these three examples, and in thousands more, we see what the Apostle Paul was getting at: The requirements of [God’s] law are written on our hearts; therefore our consciences bear witness to them (Romans 2:14-15). Even in our sin and rebellion, Wolters says, we can thrive in God’s world because we know what’s right.
Not only that, we know what’s wise. In part four of the series, we’ll look more at the character of God’s wisdom.