The Acquaintance with Things Human and Divine
By Michael P. Schutt1
Today's lawyers make two mistakes in thinking (or in failing to think) about the nature and purpose of law. First, most lawyers completely ignore Christian theology as the source and primary exponent of the civil law. Second, even Christian lawyers have a tendency to view law as a sort of necessary evil, the opposite of God's grace. But civil law does in fact have its most firm foundation in God's revealed truth. And law in the general sense and civil law in particular are, in fact, the gracious provision of God for His people. The Emperor Justinian expressed this orthodox understanding when he defined jurisprudence as "the acquaintance with things human and divine, the knowledge of what is just and unjust."2 The study and practice of law, then, is truly an exercise in applied Christian doctrine and Biblical theology. While many lawyers may agree that lawyers should be "good people" and perhaps read the Bible, they stop there. That is a grave error, for it reduces the lawyer's calling to mere pietism.
We know that the law is written on our hearts,3 and "that which is known about God is evident within" us.4 But because of our sin nature, our minds are imperfect, and in the absence of God's revelation, we cannot know God's law-or any truth-with certainty.5 In His mercy, therefore, God gave the law to His people from Mount Sinai,6 provided His Word in the flesh in Christ,7 and supplied us with His revealed word, the Holy Scriptures. From this revelation, we can know His law and understand the relationship between His law and man's law.
Beginning in Genesis 9,8 God gave men authority to execute temporal judgment as an expression of His justice. He ordains the civil authority as his agent to execute God's wrath on the evildoer9 and give His praise to those that do good.10 Of course, not all of God's authority is delegated to the civil ruler; the civil ruler does not administer all of God's law. Therefore, much of what God requires of us is beyond the jurisdiction of human governors. For example, Christ explains in the Sermon on the Mount that obedience to the civil law is not enough to satisfy God's requirements for righteousness.11 There is, in short, a distinct difference between God's authority (over the character and hearts of men, for example) and the civil ruler's jurisdiction, which is limited to punishing conduct only, and only some conduct, at that.
Although the civil ruler has jurisdiction to enforce only a portion of God's law, the civil law is no less based on His revelation. This is so whether the law is based directly on divine law (such as laws prohibiting murder), or simply patterned after it (such as tax or traffic laws, of which we provide prior notice and for which we execute penalties proportionate to the crime). Godly civil rulers and our obedience to them can result in great benefits to society. For example, when we "do right," we "silence the ignorance of foolish men."12 And our prayers for the civil ruler can lead to "tranquil and quiet lives" for citizens.13
The civil law, then, although imperfectly administered by man, is a gift from God that flows from his nature and reflects his character. Not just its roots, but its trunk, branches, and leaves, are in a real sense "Christian." It is increasingly difficult, of course, to discern God's character in modern law and legal scholarship, and it is more important than ever that lawyers understand the nature and purpose of law as flowing from the Lawgiver.
1This short article is simply on overview of some of the basic biblical principles regarding law. To the extent it departs from the basics, the original ideas are those of Dean Herbert W. Titus and my colleague Craig Stern. For better and more full treatments of these subjects, see, for example, HERBERT W. TITUS, GOD, MAN, AND LAW: THE BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES (1994), and Craig A. Stern, Things Not Nice, An Essay on Civil Government, 8 REGENT U. L. REV. 1 (1997).
2JUSTINIAN, THE INSTITUTES OF JUSTINIAN 1 (J.A.C. Thomas trans., 1975), quoted in Craig A. Stern, Justinian: Lieutenant of Christ, Legislator for Christendom, 11 REGENT L. REV. 151, 161 (1998-99).
5See, e.g., 1 Cor. 13:12.
6See Exodus 20 - 21.
8Genesis 9:6. "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man." Prior to this, God had expressly forbidden men from executing this type of judgment over others. See Gen. 4:15.
101 Peter 2:14.
121 Peter 2:15.
131 Timothy 2:3.