Pierre De La Place on Christians & Politics

Pierre de la Place was martyred in France in 1572, a few days after the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre where it is estimated by some that up to 30,000 protestant Christians were killed. While this man is most famous for his death, he also wrote a wonderful short book entitled the The Right Use of Moral Philosophy. Don’t let the title scare you off. The purpose of the book is to demonstrate how Christians who are rooted on the Bible, can work together with nonbelievers (who utilize Moral Philosophy) when it comes to Civic Engagement. There are plenty of gems in this short book, but I’m going to use it in this post for a bit of a backdrop to help modern Christians consider how to engage in modern politics well.

De La Place believed that Political Science was the highest of all the sciences because it was primarily concerned with the governing of a people towards virtuous living, something every Christian ought to take some interest in. It is for this reason that he lamented that so many who operated in government had so little training on the Bible. The ideal government would have Christians, thinking Christianly, in every corner. Laws would be deep reflections on God’s eternal and perfect law, and in this way light would spread throughout the nation as God’s morality would be governed.

De La Place’s primary concern is how believer’s can work together with non believers in policy-making. The reason this is a difficult question is because the believer and the non-believer have entirely different visions for what De La Place refers to as ‘felicity,’ the ultimate good. The Christian’s vision of the ultimate good, the primary aim of all areas of life including politics, is to glorify God. The nonChristian does not share this vision of felicity, in fact they may not have a clear vision of the what the ultimate good is at all. Therefore the direction of the leadership most often simply follows the whims of whatever cultural ideology floats to the surface. As a result government and policy end up traveling in circles at best, or causing mayhem and destruction at worst.

Here is where De La Place offers a bit of insight. De La Place argues that there does exist some kind of common ground between believer and nonbeliever when it comes to governance. That common ground is the Natural Law. By Natural Law we refer to those guiding ethical principles that just about every breathing, right minded person, would agree to, simply by virtue of being human. De La Place arrives at the discovery of this common ground by considering the great philosophical discoveries of men like Aristotle and Plato, who were able to use the natural order and rational logic (without Biblical insight) to arrive at a fairly complex and often Biblically accurate ethical system. Of course, De La Place recognizes the that Moral Philosophy alone (philosophy without the Bible) cannot account for the true reason of ethics, the source of ethics, the explanation of why brokenness exists in the world, and ultimately where this world is headed or its ultimate purpose to glorify Christ. Nevertheless, despite these obvious inabilities of Moral Philosophy, it has and often does arrive at often quite Christian-like ethical ideas simply through use of the Natural Law.

Philosophers and theologians have debated over the centuries what exactly constitutes the Natural Law. Many of the Reformers, myself adhering to this group, would claim that the 10 Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai constitute the Moral Law and that the Moral Law is simply the Natural Law stated in human language. I do not believe De La Place would go this far. He seems a bit uncertain on what exactly constitutes the Natural Law, but he does assume that even if the Natural Law is not specific and agreed upon through something as clear as the 10 Commandments, that it is basic enough that believer and nonbeliever agree. He writes,

Moral Philosophy is, properly speaking, is nothing but an exposition of the law of nature by which everyone can see with considerable ease, pleasure, and contentment how the precepts and teachings of natural law are naturally imprinted on us, and by which everyone can tame and soften human morals and outward life, which had once been savage and fierce, finding the mean with reason as its compass and rejecting the extremes of excess and deficiency

Pierre de La Place. The Right Use of Moral Philosophy. Page 12.

De La Place’s argument is that it is around Natural Law that believer and nonbeliever can come together and labor to develop a government that leads a virtuous people. A nonbeliever will not agree that Jesus is ruling and reigning as King of Kings right now, but in general they will agree that murder is wrong. Therefore, the Christian ought to study Moral Philosophy and excel in its use in order to discover that common ground, those shared moral principles between believer and unbeliever due to the Natural Law, in order to best govern a society.

My Critique of Pierre De La Place

In a general sense I think De La Place has great insight to offer. In line with orthodox Christianity. Pierre De La Place affirms that such a thing as Natural Law exists. The Bible says as much in Romans 2:14, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” This short passage in Romans explains how it is that ‘gentiles who do not have the law’ are able to recognize and live out many of God’s laws that are recorded in Scripture even without ever reading the Scripture. The answer—God’s Natural Law is written into the fabric of their being. They know it is wrong to kill, not because they first read it in the Bible, but because they are alive and bearing the image of God.

I am not as optimistic as De La Place however on the extent to which believer and nonbeliever can find working common ground through the Natural Law. History offers moments where some form of this kind of optimism has been evident. Take the American Revolution as an example. The Founders were a mixed bag of Christians, Theists, and Enlightenment Philosophers. Yet, together they were able pen these classic words in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They understood that human rights are a very real thing, but only because God created humans and endowed them with rights. If one were to remove God from the equation, no such rights could possibly exist.

This is why the Founders of America were such vigilant defenders that of the idea that for the great American Experiment could only work for a religious people, a people who knew where their rights originated from. John Adams put it this way, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thomas Jefferson said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath?” And perhaps most insightfully Alexander Hamilton, “The wise politician knows that morality overthrown (and morality must fall with religion), the terrors of despotism can alone curb the impetuous passions of man, and confine him within the bounds of social duty.

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are violated but with his wrath?

Thomas Jefferson

We have laid before us the central weakness of De La Place’s theory. He assumed an anchored world, a world in which even the philosopher admitted that God (however incorrect they were in what that God might be like) must exist. But what happens when a majority of a culture believes the insane premise that no God exists? In that world, the world we now inhabit in the West, God’s Natural Law would not cease to be written in their hearts any more than any previous generation. But the degree to which the common person might suppress that law (Romans 1:19-23) so deep down inside that it is nearly unrecognizable would be massive. For this reason there is decreasing working common ground in American politics at least. Those ideas that are truly human rights, rights endowed by our creator, are scarcely recognized, and new concepts of human rights foreign to God, are suggested as potential anchors for society to build upon.

So What

If you read this and you are feeling rather hopeless about how government might move forward, rest assured there is great hope! Christians need not give up—rather we must dig in with more vivacity and clarity than ever. While my optimism is not for the same reason as De La Place, I have optimism of a different sort. I believe a nation like America can be turned, can be reformed, can honor Christ! But that… is for another post on another day.


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