SBTS Hosts Renowned Scholar Robert George for Lecture, Panel with President Mohler
Moral truth is attractive and leads to human flourishing, Robert George and Albert Mohler said during a discussion in the Bookstore at Southern. George serves as McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and is one of the world’s most respected voices within American social conservatism.
George delivered a lecture on natural law and the crisis of Western morality, then joined Mohler for a conversation on social conservatism. Andrew T. Walker, professor of ethics at SBTS, led the discussion. The lecture was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.
“We are in a new intellectual context,” Mohler said. “When the liberals of the last century claimed to save Christian morality from Christian theology, they lost both. For SBTS, we are proud to be cobelligerents against evil with Dr. George. But more than that, we are proud to be co-thinkers.”
George and Mohler discussed the state of contemporary conservatism; For George and Mohler, true conservatism differs from blood-and-soil nationalism and popular expressions of neo-conservatism.
“American conservatism was never blood and soil or throne and altar,” said George. “We American conservatives believe in a creedal nation where our identity is built on a shared commitment to the principles found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—which is why anyone can become an American.”
George said a unified culture must flow from the nation’s founding ideas. Mohler agreed and pointed out the difference between true conservatism and many of those who label themselves as conservatives.
“I think one of the most crucial distinctions we can make today is between right-wing and conservative,” said Mohler. “Just wanting to blow up the left doesn’t make you a conservative. A conservative believes in permanent things and first principles.”
Walker asked the two scholars to discuss the importance of institutions. The key difference between conservatives and liberals on the issue, according to George and Mohler, is that conservatives believe in building families and communities in ways that liberals don’t, and that liberals won most institutions.
“God created institutions,” said Mohler. “We lose everything except what we are determined to build and hold on to. When I see Christ building his church and Christian families—the foundational institutions—I see the beauty and attractiveness of truth.”
On the state of the evangelical mind and his hopefulness for the future, Mohler said the recovery of social conservatism starts in local churches.
“We are only here because of churchgoers in the pews,” said Mohler. “Knowledge production is a privilege, but discipleship is a mandate. Grassroots believers, through their sacrifice, are responsible for recovering social conservatism.”
George stressed the need for courage and engagement with the world’s ideas. He’s hopeful that a rising group of conservative intellectuals will contend for truth and pass down a body of scholarship that future generations may build on.
“If we’re going to march back through the institutions, we need young people who are brilliant, dedicated, adept, and courageous,” said George. “When I look around, I see young men and women committed to their faith and willing to take the stones and arrows coming for them. That inspires me to keep working and doing what I’m doing.”
George’s appearance at Southern came on the heels of the release of Social Conservatism for the Common Good: A Protestant Engagement with Robert P. George, edited by Andrew T. Walker. The book is a collection of essays from Protestant writers and thinkers written to help evangelicals apply George’s philosophical and practical insights to their own public witness. One chapter is a brief biography of George by John D. Wilsey who serves as associate professor of church history at SBTS.
In George’s afternoon lecture, he set forth an introduction to natural law theory and its relationship to basic moral goods. According to George, the natural law is discerned through the use of practical reason. By practical reason, George simply means that we come to understand the exact contours of the natural law as we reflect on the reasons for our everyday actions that cause us to flourish.
For example, because speed limits protect us, we should obey such laws because they are designed to keep us alive. As we obey the laws that cause us to flourish, we come to learn what norms are necessary to bring this state of affairs about.
George also lectured at length about the basis of human rights, which he referred to as norms of justice that civil law recognizes to protect the ability of human beings to flourish. A just act, according to George, is what helps us reach the end for which God has made us.
George went on to argue that the natural law is taught in Romans chapters 1-2 as the “law written on the heart” that God implants inside of every human being. The reason George’s lecture is important is because it stresses the reasonableness of Christian ethics as consistent with human flourishing. Human beings cannot flourish apart from obeying God’s order of creation that we learn through the natural law.
Walker said he was thrilled that George spent time at Southern and believes the seminary community will benefit from the lecture and discussion.
"I hope students come away with a deeper appreciation for an approach to ethics that speaks to the comprehensive nature of Christian ethics,” said Walker. “As Professor George taught us, theology not only grounds ethics, but explains why ethics can possess the rational explanation that they do; and that’s because Christian ethics promote human goods that are conducive to human flourishing."