Depravity and Social Cooperation for Christians in Pluralistic Civilization
Post by Mark Horne
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
We all know this Scripture (Matthew 7.9-11). It is part of a famous passage exhorting hearers to trust God and pray to him. What I find interesting about it is that it doesn’t come up more often in questions about human depravity and human virtue. I wish I knew what Abraham Kuyper said about these verses, since he wrote a great deal about “common grace.” As it stands now, what I mainly have is an extensive reading in virtually everything Cornelius Van Til ever wrote. Van Til was a famous Kuyperian, but my reading took place many years ago.
This passage strikes me as interesting because it seamlessly weds a dire verdict on human nature with incredible optimism. Jesus says:
- you are evil
- you do good
What do we make of that?
First of all, we know that Jesus is not saying that this is some bedrock virtue in all human behavior throughout history and cultures. The Israelites had to be warned against offering their children in fire as human sacrifices the way many pagan nations around them did (Leviticus 18.21; 2o.2-5). At the same time, these nations had not always been so bad. Abraham was told it was not time yet to be granted the territory of the Canaanites because the Canaanites had not yet descended into such sin that warranted their destruction (Genesis 15.16). Sodom and Gomorrah arrived at that level ahead of schedule, so God dealt with them in Abraham’s lifetime.
As I see it, this should encourage us to pursue constructive agreement or cooperation with non-christians to the extent we can. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility. We should pray for such opportunities.
At the same time, I don’t see any basis here (or anywhere else in the Bible) for claiming there is some self-evident bedrock built-in level of morality that is common to human nature to which Christians can or should always appeal . Nor do I see any evidence that such a foundational level of virtue can be encouraged apart from the preaching of the Gospel and the claims of King Jesus. Arguments from nature are fine, but they should be arguments for the trustworthiness of the Bible.
So what this means, as I see it, is that we can find cultural virtues and use them as opportunities to build culture and to evangelize. But we shouldn’t infer from this “common ground” that it represent some permanent form of human behavior.
One unsettling aspect of my reasoning is that it pulls in two directions in modern political debates. On the one hand, Christians might find natural affinity groups who “though evil do good” along with them. But they will also be opposed by other groups who have drifted from this aspect of God’s common grace. I don’t see any way to really constructively speak to the opposition group except to declare God’s character as revealed in the Bible. Jesus is king and we must conform to his ways. That is the fundamental “nature” of the universe now. It is the only real “natural law.” But this is exactly what any non-Christian affinity group will want to discourage us from saying.
It won’t seem like good strategy while it may be the only strategy worth following.