The Rule of Law

Note:  This is an old speech I gave at an Interfaith Immigration Forum that focused on compassionate immigration reform from a biblical perspective, held at Messiah Lutheran Church (Springfield, MO) on June 11, 2007. I didn’t want to lose track of it, hence the reason I’m posting it here. I was asked to discuss the rule of law in relationship to theology, ethics and the Bible.


“The Rule of Law”
by Phil Snider


Good evening.  My name is Phil Snider; I am the senior minister at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, where I have served since 2003.  I grew up in Springfield, and upon completion of my graduate studies, I was pleased to have the opportunity to move back to what my family and I consider to be our home.  I’m pleased to be part of this evening’s immigration forum and would like to formally extend my thanks to Dr. Emge for inviting me to address the topic of the rule of law, to Rev. Dan Friburg and Messiah Lutheran Church for their gracious hospitality, and to each of you for taking the time to be part of this incredibly important conversation taking place in this great country…


Respect for the rule of law has been foundational in the history of civilization.   In its ideal form, the rule of law intends to define the proper boundaries for the flourishing of human life and of creation.  Ethically speaking, respect for the rule of law recognizes the common good of everyone involved.


Throughout history, there have been several different ways of acknowledging the authority of law, particularly the ways in which it is determined, applied and enforced.  Most religious communities have distinguished between Divine Law, also called the Moral Law (with a capital M and capital L), and human law (with a lower case h, lower case l).


Let’s begin with a look at Moral Law.  Its major tenets have been expressed in both scripture and religious tradition.  One Catholic theologian says that, “The Moral Law is both a rule for what must be…and also a rule for what ought to be.”[1]


The Decalogue, better known as the Ten Commandments, are viewed as primary expressions of Divine, Moral Law (capital M, capital L).  Martin Luther went so far as to say that these ten commandments represented the natural order of all things.[2]


While philosophers and ethicists from various religious perspectives have argued the finer points of the Moral Law as expressed in scripture and tradition, the symbols and stories of the enduring religious traditions, particularly of those represented on this evening’s panel, hold on to a single, fundamental principle that is the foundation of all Abrahamic Moral Law, a principle at the heart of both Hebrew and Christian scripture:  It is the proclamation made clear in the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapter 1, when we read that all human beings, both male and female, are created in the very image of God.


The ethical demands found in both Jewish and Christian scriptures that consist of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, of welcoming the stranger, of showing compassion to the enemy (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan); all of these are all deeply rooted in the fundamental biblical concept that all human beings are created in the very image of God.  This is the foundation of Moral Law, capital M, capital L.


By contrast, human law, in its ideal form, is intended to reflect the order of the greater Moral Law, but not be confused for it.  Following the Greek philosophy of Plato, the Moral Law does not change, whereas human law is always open to reform.  As Catholic theologian J. Heckel writes, “The Moral Law appears as a force which is always working for the reform of human law.”[3]


As we gather here in this Lutheran church, perhaps it is fitting to recall one of the primary theological affirmations held dear by the Protestant Reformers:  Ecclesia reformata simper reformanda (A reformed church always reforming).  In a similar fashion, in order to reflect the greater Moral Law, human law must always be open to reformation.


Postmodern ethicists have consistently pointed out concerns about the nature of lawmaking, particularly the ways in which powerful human beings have the tendency of making laws that do not ensure the common good, but rather ensure their own power.  Such tendencies have been reflected throughout history, and when there has been a conflict between obeying the Moral Law or the human law, history’s heroes have shown us that it is better to honor the former.


One might recall the biblical story of Daniel, who was thrown into a den of lions because he refused to acknowledge Babylonian law over and above the law of his God.


One might recall the early Christian apostles in the book of Acts, who, when faced with a similar conflict, stated that “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”


One might recall the Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which the greatest moral theologian of our time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminded us that everything Hitler did in Germany was  perfectly ‘legal’; but aiding and comforting a Jew in Hitler’s Germany was nothing but ‘illegal’.[4]


In relation to the civil rights movement, he responded to several of his critics with these words, also from the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  He writes:  “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.  This is certainly a legitimate concern.  Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision…of outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.  One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’  The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws:  there are just laws and there are unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine (who said) that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’


Now what is the difference between the two?…An unjust law is a (human)-made code that is out of harmony with the Moral Law….Any law that uplifts human personality is just.  Any law that degrades human personality is unjust…Of course, there is nothing new about (breaking unjust laws).  It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.  It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”[5]


The question King puts before us is not whether or not respect for the rule of law is foundational to the well-being of society, it certainly is.  Rather, what King calls us to do is to assess our human laws, to ask whether or not they pass the test of justice, to ask whether or not they hold up to the greater Moral Law, with a capital M, capital L.


Indeed, respect for law has been foundational to civilization.  But recognizing the ways in which some laws have failed to pass the test of justice, the test of dignity, the test of the greater Moral Law—and working to correct them (one might recall the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement)—these moments, these times, have represented our finest achievements as a society.


Thank you.



[1] J. Heckel, “Law:  Theology and Moral Theology,” in Encyclopedia of Theology:  The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, edited by Karl Rahner, p. 830.

[2] Patrick Keifert, “Law and Gospel,” in A New Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Donald Musser & Joseph Price, p. 284.

[3] Heckel, p. 834.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Washington, p. 294-295.

[5] Ibid., p. 293-294