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2023 Commencement Speech
The Problem with Core Values
"To you graduates of Logos Online, warm congratulations. To you parents and grandparents of these graduates, deep respect. To the administration and faculty of this wonderful educational service, well done, yet again. Another batch of cookies out of the oven.
I learned many valuable things from my father, and as I thought about what I wanted to say to you all by way of exhortation today, I settled on passing along just one of them. The thing I want to talk about today is the difference between principles and methods. When you come to understand this, you will be in a position to ground your principles where they absolutely need to be grounded, which is in the law of the triune God, and you will also be in a position to distinguish your principles from their relativistic counterfeit, which frequently travels under the misleading name of “core values.”
You are called to live a principled life, grounded in the will of the eternal Creator God. Your values need to come from outside the world, otherwise they are not values at all, but rather just opinions. Not only would they be mere opinions, but they would be the mere opinions of meaningless bits of protoplasm, floating on the surface of a large and entirely pointless sewage lagoon.
So here is the logic—right reason in the light of God’s gift of Christ. He is the Light who enlightens every man. Apart from Christ, we dwell in darkness. In order to be principles at all, your principles need to be anchored. They must be anchored in the law of God, which in turn is a revelation of the very character of God Himself. Because God is entirely righteous, and because God is immutable and unchanging, the law that manifests His character is also righteous, and also unchanging.
All law reflects the character of the God who gives it, and if the law arises from an idol, then the nature of the law is going to reflect the nature of the idol. If you serve cruel idols, you are going to have cruel laws. If you have carnal idols, you are going to have carnal laws. But if you worship God the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, He is holy, and He is good, and He is immutable. Then the law is going to reflect the character of the God who is the God of the system. If we serve the true God, the law that we use to affirm what is right and wrong, is going to be true law. If we serve idols, it is going to be an idolatrous law. Because God is entirely righteous, and because God is immutable and unchanging, the law that manifests His character is also righteous and also unchanging.
But it is the principles that are unchanging, not the external circumstance. And this is how we come to understand the difference between principles and methods.
For example, the law of God requires the people of God to place a railing around the roofs of their houses.
“When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8, NKJV).
There is the law. Now suppose a miracle happened, and the rulers of this current generation turned to us Christians and said, “All right then, you make the laws.” —As I like to say, “Suppose I were president, what a glorious three days that would be.”— Because we believe Deuteronomy is the Word of God, would we require a change to the building codes, such that all houses would then need to have a balustrade along the roof, just above the gutters? No, of course not. That law was given in the ancient Near East, in a time and place where people would go up to their flat roofs in the evenings to cool off. It was like a second story deck and was used as such. So, yes, railings in such circumstances. That’s the principle.
The principle is that homeowners have an ethical obligation to take obvious prudent measures to protect those who are on the premises. If there is an accident, failure to do so brings blood guilt on the person who neglected this basic obligation. The principle is that of safeguarding others. The method is the railing. The principle is safeguarding others. The methods could include covering the well, fencing the pool, shoveling the walk, reinforcing the rail on a second-story deck, and so forth. These are methods, and they are methods that embody the principle. Good methods always embody the principle. But, residents of Hawaii don’t need to shovel the walk.
Here is another illustration. Military thinkers, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, have long known about the principles of warfare—things like mobility, surprise, concentration, communication, and so on. Now these principles can be observed (or neglected) by armies and navies that have a wide range of methods when it comes to their technology and weaponry. An army with slings, bows, spears, and catapults can observe these principles, or neglect them. A navy with fighter jets, aircraft carriers, submarines, and surface-to-air missiles can observe these principles, or again neglect them. Methods come and go. Bows and arrows were traded in for rifles. But, principles do not come and go. An army fighting in 500 B.C. needs to observe the principles of war just as an army fighting today would need to observe those same principles. Principles do not alter because of how they are anchored. Principles don’t change.
So here is my charge to you graduates. I know that what you have studied—your classical and Christian education—is consistent with all of this. You are therefore in a position to look at a particular circumstance and see what is actually going on. You can take it all in because you have been taught to identify the central point. You’ve been taught to analyze the argument and see the hinge upon which everything turns. But you still have to grow in wisdom, and you are the ones who still have to do it. You’ve been taught how to do it. You have been equipped to do it. But you have to decide, before God, that you’re going to do it, and you have to start practicing it.
There are people who have the appearance of an education. Unfortunately, there are many of them that are educated way beyond their intelligence. It’s a peculiar affliction of our time. But all they do is focus on methods. They tick boxes. They paint by numbers. They follow directions without understanding the point of the directions. Don’t be like that. Always look at the root of the tree, and don’t get distracted by any of the twigs. What’s the root? What’s the basic issue? There are people who have been offered a classical Christian education, but they have only grasped the outside of it. Someone who is truly educated is someone who knows how to see down to the root of the matter.
So, this is the way of wisdom when you are choosing between options that conservatives follow. Some conservatives love the principles, and they understand the principles that they love, and they select the best methods in that moment, given the circumstances. The methods might change, the principles never do. Other conservatives, however, act as though the method is synonymous with the principle —and as long as I’ve got a Latin text on my desk what I’m doing is classical education— that’s not true. Some people say, well, classical Christian education is hard. Eating a bowl of gravel is also hard. Therefore, eating a bowl of gravel is classical Christian education. No. That does not follow. And if you’ve paid attention in your Logic training that’s affirming the consequent. So other conservatives act as though the method is synonymous with the principle. And so they put a balustrade up on a part of the roof where no one ever goes.
But I said something earlier about core values. Because the world you are going out into is a relativistic swamp. At night. It’s a mess out there. We’re sorry about the world we’re in, but there it is. We’ve done our best to train you, such that you’re equipped to deal with what you’re going to find there. But what you’re going to find there is a mess. And you’re going to find a lot of people out there appealing to what they say are core values. If you know the principles are grounded in law, and that all true law is grounded in the nature and character of God Himself, you are not going to be blown around by every wind of doctrine. You’re going to be rooted. Settled. You’re not going to be destabilized by the latest fad or fashion.
In our time, rootless individuals and rudderless companies and corporations draft and post mission statements that say quite a bit about their “core values.” But where do these core values come from? Invariably, our relativistic generation wants to say that these core values are derived when you learn how to “follow your own heart.” But that’s not the solution. All you’re going to find there is sin. That’s no good. Don’t follow your own heart. The Babylon Bee put it, “Couple follows their own heart. Billions dead.” Adam and Eve followed their heart. But because everyone’s heart is different, and all of our hearts are corrupt, sinful, and bent toward wickedness, the advice to follow your heart is actually disastrous counsel.
“He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: But whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered” (Proverbs 28:26).
Walking wisely means paying heed to what God tells us. Paying attention to the revelation of God. Putting your feet in the path that He has carved out for you. So, “don’t lean on your own understanding” as it says elsewhere in Proverbs.
You should know by now that one of the basic questions raised by all truly educated Christians is this one: by what standard? Someone says something, you should have a screen that pops up in your head, by what standard? What are you appealing to? What law are you appealing to?
Virtually, every discussion you have with non-believers out in the world today can be intelligently reduced to two third-grader playground questions. Why? And, Who says? —You should do this. You should follow your own heart. Love is love. You should let anybody marry whoever they wanna marry. You should let trans kids do their thing.— Why? Who says? It all boils down to those. Why should I listen to you? Who says I should do this?
You have been taught to ask intelligent questions, and to insist on intelligent answers. So suppose that someone of your acquaintance points to “core values.” The questions should just tumble into your brain. The core of what? The core of the founder’s opinions? The core of the curriculum at some Ivy League business school where the person who drafted the mission statement went? The core of this person’s sentiments, not that other person’s counter-sentiments? No.
So here’s the charge. You have been Christian students, and in just a moment you will be Christian graduates. Acquit yourselves, then, like Christians. Walk like Christians. Love like Christians. Sing like Christians. Worship like Christians. And to bring us to the basic point of this exhortation, continue to think like Christians."
This speech was condensed and published here.