Not “By What Standard?” but “By What Means?”

selective focus photography of white baseball balls on ground

The ultimate foundation for the playing of a game of baseball is the truth of Christian theism. But I don’t believe that the participants need to agree about that for us to play baseball together.

Sport is a good place to begin sketching my argument because it is a fine example of the ordinary usefulness of arbitrary law. By definition, the rules of sports are not necessary. The first guy who ran a Marathon covered 26.2 miles because he needed to; current marathon runners run that distance because they’ve decided to do so. We could choose other distances; we can choose to race with roller skates or cars. The essence of sport is that we define the rules. Why must I run the bases counterclockwise? Why can I only place my ball on a tee for the first shot and not all the other shots on a hole? The answers to these questions are entirely determined by the rules of their respective sports. If we’re playing baseball or golf, these are the rules. There is no higher authority, nor are the rules in any sense objectively necessary.

Transgressing these rules is not the same thing as transgressing moral laws. But if a particularly headstrong Little Leaguer insists on running the bases backwards, an appeal to the arbitrary rules of baseball is no longer adequate. At this point, we begin to insist that for baseball players, conforming to the arbitrary rules of baseball must be rooted in some deeper moralauthority. We appeal to the duty of obedience, or to safety, or to good order, or to unselfishness.

It is for this reason, as a Van Tilian, that I believe that the ultimate foundation for the playing of a game of baseball is the truth of Christian theism. Without Christian theism, the framework of moral obligations that makes the rules of baseball binding on baseball players collapses. Even arbitrary law must rest on a foundation of absolute law.

But can I play baseball with people who disagree with this argument? I can—so long as they are willing (for whatever reason) to follow the agreed-on rules of baseball.

But what if they don’t?

Van Til and Christian Nationalism

I am a Van Tilian apologist. I’m not a Christian nationalist. And Doug Wilson ably—repeatedly—places his finger on the apparent tension between those positions.

As a Van Tilian, I’m skeptical of the bearing power of natural law. To be sure, because we live in God’s universe, a person who insists on transgressing God’s law will often discover that “the way of the treacherous is their ruin” (Prov 13:15). But deducing binding, invariant morality from natural consequences is not so simple. Do natural outcomes always indicate moral virtues? Remember the consternation of the psalmist, envying the wicked who “have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind” (Ps 73). It is true that Aseph is rescued from a collapse of his faith by discerning “their end” (73:17). But this conclusion moves us out of the realm of natural law into supernatural revelation.

Van Tilian apologists make much of the argument that moral laws have their full justification only if they are situated within a Christian universe. This insight is aptly captured by Rushdoony’s piercing question (regularly echoed by Wilson and others): “By what standard?” The argument is that, unmoored from God’s revealed law, all moral claims reduce to suggestion and preference.

The apologetic case built on this observation is straightforward: no one can meaningfully engage in any argument at all unless there are universally binding obligations. There is a morality to epistemology. Those obligations must be more substantial than manners and conventions; as Bahnsen said to Stein:

Dr. Stein has said that the laws of logic are merely conventional. If so, then on convention he wins tonight’s debate, and on convention I win tonight’s debate. And if you’re satisfied with that, you didn’t need to come in the first place. You expected the laws of logic to be applied as universal standards of rationality. Rationality isn’t possible in a universe that just consigns them to convention.

Yet no non-Christian worldview can adequately account for such transcendent standards. Thus, when an unbeliever makes his case against God, his anti-theistic argument presumes the truth of Christianity.

The application of this to government seems straightforward: if one function of law is to announce and enforce a public morality, surely that morality must then be rooted in Christianity. For this reason, it’s not hard to see what seems to be a necessary connection between Van Tilian apologetics and Christian nationalism, if not full-blown postmillennial theonomy.

My argument is that I can coherently reject Christian nationalism while embracing the Van Tilian argument that morality has an exclusively Christian foundation. I agree with Wilson on the answer to the question “by what standard?” Our disagreement is better discerned by asking “by what means?”

The Collapse of the Consensus

We began by considering an example of a human activity with arbitrary rules. I contend we can establish the same pattern if we move up from the trivial example of a baseball game to institutions with more overtly objective moral obligations. Can a grocery store exist and function without an explicit Christian consensus? Again, as a Van Tilian, I’m going to insist that functional grocery stores presuppose Christ. The determination that avocados don’t belong in the toiletry section, the trustworthiness of the sums calculated by the cash register, the alarms at the door to catch the guy with the pack of replacement razors in his sock—all of these would be merely arbitrary and groundless if Christianity were false. Grocery stores, properly run, are evidence that Jesus truly is Lord.

But again, must everyone confess that Jesus is Lord for the grocery store to function? Must the grocery store itself acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ to continue its business?

Baseball games and grocery stores can function at the level of consensus without either the institution nor its participants explicitly affirming the Christian theology that gives true moral structure to the consensus. It is indisputably true that the duration of that consensus will be extended by a shared coherent moral vision.

If we have one headstrong Little Leaguer, we could send him home; the rest of the people who want to play baseball can keep playing baseball. But what if the majority of kids—and most of the umps—decide to ignore the rules? What do we do then? And what if (to make the obvious transition) the collapse of consensus occurs not in a baseball game, but with regard to the rules of government and civil society?

We are right to be dismayed at the collapse of that public moral consensus, a collapse brought about by the spiritual hollowing out of our nation’s people—by their turning from the Triune God of Christianity. What is to be done about this collapse?

In my judgment, this is where my disagreement with Doug Wilson (and others who share his position) is located. I affirm entirely that at its foundations, a stable and functional government presupposes the truth of Christian theism. I do not disagree with Wilson that the final answer to “by what standard?” is “the law of God.” But I do not believe that the force of government is the means by which this standard is to be established.1An earlier version of the essay included the line, “But I do not believe that the force of government is the means by which this standard is to be established in the hearts of people.” … Continue reading Our disagreement is not over the standard by which a government is judged good; it is over the means by which we are to work to see that standard embraced by—or enforced upon—our fellow citizens.

I think it’s important, as I conclude, to make clear the specific thesis I’m defending. I’m merely making the case that one can simultaneously believe that 1) all moral claims, including the obligation to conform to arbitrary laws, ultimately are groundless unless Christianity is true, while also believing that 2) if the consensus about these conventions disintegrates, it is not the role of the state to enforce the underlying, explicitly Christian foundations for these laws. 

If you’re convinced that Christian nationalism is justified on other grounds, this argument won’t be persuasive, and that’s fine. Here, I’m not arguing that Van Tilian apologetics precludes Christian nationalism. Instead, I’m merely arguing that Van Tilianism doesn’t demand it, either.

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1 An earlier version of the essay included the line, “But I do not believe that the force of government is the means by which this standard is to be established in the hearts of people.” The phrase “in the hearts of people” is not a fair summary of the CN position and has been removed.