The Law is Inescapably Theological (Just Like the Rest of Life)

There is the falicious idea among we moderns that somehow life can be compartmenatlized such that only certain things implicate theological issues.  We want to entertain the idea that we can separate those things that are inherently religious or sacred from those things that are not.  (I have written about this in other posts on the “secular-sacred” distinction here, here, here, and here.)

However, despite what we may want to believe, all of life, including the law and “secular” government, is inherently and inescapably theological.  What you believe about who God is, who man is, what God expects of man, how we all got here, etc. necessarily impacts every part of life, including the so-called “secular” parts of life.  Maybe especially those parts. 

This is wonderfully illustrated in the American legal system in particular and the Western Legal Tradition in general.  Our entire legal tradition is pervasively theological.  That is why it fails to make sense to us so often.  We have forgotten or rejected the theological underpinnings of the system.  Prof. Berman, in his excellent book Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, puts it this way:

[The] basic institutions, concepts, and values of Western legal systems have their sources in religious rituals, liturgies, and doctrines of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, reflecting new attitudes toward death, sin, punishment, forgiveness, and salvation, as well as new assumptions concerning the relationship of the divine to the human and of faith to reason.  Over the intervening centuries, these religious attitudes and assumptions have changed fundamentally, and today their theological sources seem to be in the process of drying up.  Yet the legal institutions, concepts, and values that have dervied from them still survive, often unchanged.  Western legal science is a secular theology, which often makes no sense because it theological presuppositions are no longer accepted.  (p. 165, emphasis mine)

That sums up not only modern law but modern life.  It often makes no sense because the necessarily theological presuppositions are no longer accepted.

Berman goes on to give an example from Western law.  He notes that a sane man who is convicted of murder and sentenced to death will not be executed if he becomes insane on death row.  However, if he later becomes recovers his sanity, he will then be executed.  Why?  Because it was thought that impending death has a way of wonderfully focusing one’s mind on eternal things.  Therefore, he would be provided with the opportunity to confess and repent of his sins rather than facing eternity unrepentent.  Berman asks, “[b]ut where none of this is believed, why keep the insane man alive until he recovers?”  An excellent question that cannot be answered without resort to Christian theology.

After giving this example, Prof. Berman continues:

The example is, perhaps, of minor importance in itself; but what it illustrates is that the legal systems of all Western countries, and of all non-Western countries that have come under the influence of Western law, are a secular residue of religious attitudes and assumptions which historically found expression first inthe liturgy and rituals and doctrine of the church and thereafter in the institutions and concepts and values of the law.  When these historical roots are not understood, many parts of the law appear to lack any underlying source of validity.  (p. 166, emphasis mine)

And, thus, here we are living in the ruins of a once great civilization.  We look at the ruins of a great society all around us, like a child looking at the Parthenon, and we wonder, “what could all these big rocks be for?”