Whose Law Did the Nazis Violate?

LandscapeThose who argue for the existence of God based on human morality have often cited a particular statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. His statement is particularly relevant because it came in the trial of Nazi war criminals at the close of World War II. The Nazi leaders had argued that they were guilty of violating no laws, for they were accountable only to German law, which permitted their heinous actions. Jackson’s response was,

“As an International Military Tribunal, it rises above the provincial and transient and seeks guidance not only from international law but also from the basic principles of jurisprudence which are assumptions of civilization and which have long found embodiment in the codes of all nations.”1

In other words, the Nazis had violated not German, American, British, Russian, or French law, but a law that, rising “above the provincial and transient,” applies to all people at all times. Christian apologists have claimed that Jackson was making a tacit reference to God’s law2

An astute person might challenge the Christian apologist on this point by arguing that a law rising above the provincial and the transient is not necessarily from God. After all, many ethical systems have been proposed, and many of them purport (1) not to rely on God in any sense; and (2) to bind all people at all times. Our philosopher might suggest, for example, that an ethical law such as that presented by John Stuart Mill or Immanuel Kant may be both correct and universally applicable. Therefore, the Germans may have been guilty of violating a law higher than the provincial and transient without violating God’s law.

This objection to the Christian apologist’s argument is unsound, however. It is true that some humanistic ethical systems (i.e., those that do not ground morality in God’s values) do purport to bind all men, and are in this sense “above the provincial.” Such an ethical system may teach that it is immoral to kill innocent people, simply because such people add happiness to the world, but not because of anything God says about it. However, if we take Jackson at his word, he must have been making tacit reference to a divine law, for only the divine ethics bind all the time. Consider the following points:

  • All humanistic ethics necessarily require men to be present, for without human beings, there can be no humanistic value (where humanistic value refers to value that originates solely with humans).
  • Since all admit that there was a time when there were no humans, then all admit there was a time when there was no humanistic value.
  • Thus, all admit that there was a time when there was no humanistic ethics and no humanistic law.

God’s law, on the other hand, is timeless. To use Jackson’s words, God’s law is “above the provincial and the transient.” Thus, it was true even before man was created that what the Nazis did is wrong. If one does not believe this, then he is forced to conclude that the Nazis were wrong only in virtue of a manmade norm that is relative to cultures at different times and places. (And if value and ethics were relative, then contradictions would result, for a given action would be both right and wrong depending on the culture or personal preference.)

In fact, man is only secondarily accountable to the laws of a particular land at a particular time (see Acts 5:29). Man is ultimately accountable to God’s law and will be judged according to it (John 12:48).

For further discussion of this topic, see The Warren/Flew Debate on the Existence of God.3


  1. See Glenn Hawkins, “The Higher Law in Civilization,” Warren Christian Apologetics Center, http://www.warrenapologeticscenter.org/resources/articles/god/the-higher-law-in-civilization.html (2014). 

  2. E.g., Thomas B. Warren in Warren and A.G.N. Flew, The Warren/Flew Debate on the Existence of God. (Ramer: National Christian Press, 1977). 

  3. Ibid. 

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- 2017