In the 1992 presidential election, we heard a lot about “family values.” I believe in family values. But an appeal to “family values” without a corresponding acknowledgment of God’s existence, God’s law and the biblical revelation as a basis for them will always have a hollow ring and sound purely political and manipulative.
Again, I say that I believe in such values. But unless we acknowledge God and God’s saving acts as the source and basis for them, anyone who thinks clearly may refute our concern with such questions as: “What kind of family values are we talking about? A nuclear family? A single parent family? A homosexual family? Why should any one be preferred above another? Or why should we want families at all?” In other words, the call for values always invites the rejoinders: Whose values are we talking about? Why those particular values?
During a meeting of college educators at Harvard University in 1987, President Frank Rhodes of Cornell University suggested in an address on educational reforms that it was time for the universities to pay attention to “values” and the students’ “moral well-being.”
At once there were gasps from the audience, and one student jumped to his feet demanding indignantly, “Whose values are to be taught? And who is to teach us?” The audience applauded loudly, which meant that in its judgment the student had rendered the president’s suggestion foolish by these unanswerable questions.
President Rhodes sat down without even trying to answer them.1
A generation or so ago, it would have been natural for an educator to at least point to the accumulated wisdom of more than two millennia of Western history—to the writings of philosophers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, to historians and modern thinkers, even if not to the Bible, though many would have included it as well. It is for a return to precisely this type of education that Allan Bloom called so eloquently in his book The Closing of the American Mind.2 But all this has been forfeited today, as President Rhodes’ capitulation showed. And it is not just that times have changed or that people today are skeptical. The problem is that without the absolutes provided by God’s revelation of Himself and His ways, all views are relative and there is no real reason for doing one thing rather than another—except for selfish, personal reasons, which obviously destroy morality rather than establish it. In other words, our days have become like the times of the Jewish judges when there was no king, the law was forgotten and, as a result, “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25).
If revelation is the basis for social morality and ethics, then it is impossible to have valid, effective or lasting morals without it. We must have Romans 1-11 in order to have Romans 12-16.
John Calvin knew this and spoke about it at the start of his lectures on Romans 12, only he was comparing Christianity and philosophy. He said, “This is the main difference between the Gospel and philosophy. Although the philosophers speak on the subject of morals splendidly and with praiseworthy ability, yet all the embellishment which shines forth in their precepts is nothing more than a beautiful superstructure without a foundation, for by omitting principles, they pro- pound a mutilated doctrine, like a body without a head…. Paul [in Romans 12:1-2] lays down the principle from which all the parts of holiness flow.”3
1Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988), 170.
2Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).
3John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross MacKenzie (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 262.