The Manhattan Declaration, released November 20, 2009, firmly yet winsomely takes the stand in defense of truths that are increasingly undermined in contemporary Western societies, including our own. Drafted by Princeton law professor Robert George and evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Timothy George, this declaration focuses on three issues: (1) the inherent dignity and rights of each human life (including the unborn) by virtue of being created in God’s image; (2) the integrity of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and (3) religious liberty, also anchored in the image of God.
There is a lot of wisdom in this document. For one, it does not breathe the vitriol that is often too common on the religious right and left. In this declaration one will find more light than heat, yet a sense of personal concern for the humaneness of the common culture, even for those who are pursuing antithetical agendas. May this more thoughtful approach to public engagement become more characteristic!
The framers wisely appeal to natural law as well as to Scripture and its revealed doctrines. After all, these three issues are grounded in creation. They are deliverances of the law that God inscribed on every human conscience, not of the gospel that God announced beforehand through his prophets and fulfilled in his incarnate Son’s life, death, and resurrection.
However, it is just for that reason that I stumbled over a few references to the gospel in this declaration. It took me back to the old days of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” when I joined others in raising concerns with Chuck Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, J. I. Packer, and others that this 1996 document announced agreement on the gospel while recognizing remaining disagreement over justification, merit, and the like. Many true and wonderful things were affirmed in that ECT document, but the gospel without “justification through faith alone apart from works” is, as I said then, like chocolate chip cookies without the chips.
This declaration continues this tendency to define “the gospel” as something other than the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits. The document recites a host of Christian contributions to Western culture, adding, “Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good. In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.” The declaration concludes, “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.” In an interview, Mr. Colson repeatedly referred to this document as a defense of the gospel and the duty of defending these truths as our common proclamation of the gospel as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals.
Having participated in conversations with Mr. Colson over this issue, I can assure readers that this is not an oversight. He shares with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI the conviction that defending the unborn is a form of proclaiming the gospel. Although these impressive figures point to general revelation, natural law, and creation in order to justify the inherent dignity of life, marriage, and liberty, they insist on making this interchangeable with the gospel.
The error at this point is not marginal. It goes to the heart of the more general confusion among Christians of every denominational stripe today, on the left and the right. The law is indeed the common property of all human beings, by virtue of their creation in God’s image. As Paul says in Romans 1 and 2, unbelievers may suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but the fact that they know this revelation makes them accountable to God. However, in chapter 3, Paul explains that a different revelation of God’s righteousness has appeared from heaven: God’s justification of the ungodly through faith alone in Christ alone.
When we confuse the law and the gospel, there is inevitably a confusion of Christ and culture, and there is considerable evidence in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical histories to demonstrate the real dangers of this confusion. In this otherwise helpful declaration, the confusion is evident once more. Alongside the theological claims that witness to the dignity of all people created in God’s image, Christianity seems to be defended as a major stake-holder in Western culture and society. By tending to confuse the gospel with the law, special revelation with general revelation, and Christianity with Western civilization, the document actually undermines its own objective—namely, to defend the dignity of human life as a universal moral imperative. Not only Christians, but non-Christians, are recipients of this general revelation.
The church has a responsibility to proclaim the gospel of free justification in Christ and to witness to God’s universal rights over humanity in his law. This law is sufficient to arraign us all before God’s court, pronouncing every one of us guilty for failing to love God and our neighbor, and it remains the rule for all duties and responsibilities that we have to contribute to the flourishing of our culture and the good of our neighbors. Yet the gospel itself is the testimony to God’s act of redemption in Jesus Christ, which delivers us from guilt, condemnation, and the tyranny of sin. The commands of the law, both natural and clarified in Scripture, ring in the conscience of everyone, but the gospel is the only “power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).