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Vol. XIV No. 23
5 March 2017
“The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep SILENCE before him.”
Call to WorshipDn Charles Kan
Opening HymnOur God Is a Loving Father
Invocation/Gloria Patri
Responsive ReadingPsalms 127 & 128
HymnA Christian Home
Ministry of MusicChurch Choir
Offerings/HymnJesus Loves Me! This I Know
Doxology/PrayerDn Charles Kan
Scripture TextMark 10:13–16
Pastoral PrayerPastor Jeffrey Khoo
SermonMinistry to Children
(Pastor Jeffrey Khoo)
Closing HymnJesus Loves the Little Children
BenedictionPastor Jeffrey Khoo

Jeffrey Khoo

Lord Denning was one of the finest judges England ever had, to many the greatest in the 20th century. Lord Bingham called him “a legend in his own lifetime.” What made Denning such a judge par excellence? There were no doubt a number of factors, but one cannot escape the fact that his Christian faith played a vital role.

I first came to know about Lord Denning through Andrew Phang’s article on the subject in the July 2005 and January 2006 issues of the Global Journal of Classic Theology—an online journal edited by Dr John Warwick Montgomery—published then by Trinity College and Seminary (Newburgh, Indiana, USA) my PhD alma mater. The Honourable Justice Andrew Phang is a Judge of Appeal in the Supreme Court of Singapore, and the title of his article is “A Passion for Justice: The Natural Law Foundations of Lord Denning’s Thought and Work”. Justice Phang’s article piqued my curiosity, and so I purchased a couple of biographies, namely, Denning’s autobiography The Family Story (1981) and Iris Freeman’s Lord Denning: A Life (1993) and read them with great interest. Let me share with you what I have learned about Lord Denning from Andrew Phang and those two books.

Christian Upbringing

Lord Denning was born Alfred Thompson Denning in 1899. His parents were devout Anglicans. In his autobiography The Family Story he recounted how his father would read to him John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The stories and illustrations in Pilgrim’s Progress stuck in his mind throughout his life. He recalled, “We pored over the picture of Apollyon barring the way to Christian … The etching shows the hideous Apollyon with his darts: and the bold Christian with his shield and his sword.” For those who do not know, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is a puritan classic and considered “the second best book in all the world” (the first of course being the Bible itself). Bunyan’s classic spoke vividly of man’s utter depravity and sinfulness, his hopeless and condemned condition and his desperate need for salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is likely that young Denning received faith in Christ through the gospel told to him in that good book.

Education and Career

Lord Denning excelled in his studies. He graduated from Oxford in 1920 with first class honours in Mathematics. Math however was not his cup of tea. Denning wanted to do law, “I felt that is what I would like to do. I would like to become a barrister as I told Mother long ago!” Hence, he returned to Oxford to study jurisprudence, and was eventually called to the Bar in 1923. He rose to become King’s Counsel in 1938 and High Court judge in 1944. In 1948, he made it to the Court of Appeal and in 1957 the House of Lords. In 1962, he returned to the Court of Appeal as its presiding judge—Master of the Rolls. As Master of the Rolls, Denning was the highest ranking judge second only to the Lord Chief Justice. He served as Master of the Rolls until his retirement in 1982.

Belief in God

What has life taught Denning? “The most important thing that life has taught me is to believe in God.” Lord Denning’s belief in the God of the Bible would play a big part in his work as a lawyer and then as a judge. In a BBC Home Service broadcast in 1943 he testified, “My belief in God is due in part to my upbringing—to what I have been taught—and in part to what I have found out in going through life … My experience as a lawyer has verified what I was taught about God. Many people think that religion and law have nothing in common … People who think that have a wrong idea both of law and religion. The aim of the law is to see that truth is observed and that justice is done between man and man … But what is truth and what is justice? On those two cardinal questions religion and law meet. The spirit of truth and justice is not something you can see. It is not temporal but eternal.”

Denning humbly confessed that life must be lived in utter dependence on God: “I do know that in the great experiences of life, and indeed in the small ones too, such strength as I have is of God, and the weakness is mine. Need I enumerate the experiences? Take the hard things. When faced with a task on which great issues depend; when high hopes lie shattered; when anxiety gnaws deep; or when overwhelmed by grief; where can I turn for help but to God? Or take the joyful things: A hard task attempted or done; the happiness of family life; or the beauty of nature; where can I turn for thankfulness but to God? All experiences convince me, not only that God is ever-present, but also that it is by contact with the spirit of God that the spirit in Man reaches its highest and wisest plane.” Indeed, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10).

Law and Religion

Lord Denning did not believe that law and religion could be separated. He criticised those who had a false philosophy of religion, who thought that religion had nothing to do with the life here and now, but only the life hereafter. Denning said that religion, law and morals are “very dependent on one another. Without religion there can be no morality: and without morality there can be no law.” Indeed, “Worship is the mother of all virtues.”

How does man know what is truth or justice? Denning’s answer was spiritual: “It is not the produce of his intellect, but of his spirit … How, then, is the right spirit created in man? … Religion, or rather the Christian religion, is concerned with the creation of a spirit out of which right acts will naturally flow.” To Denning, the greatness of the common law of England was because “the law has been moulded for centuries by Judges who have been brought up in the Christian faith. The precepts of religion, consciously or unconsciously, have been their guide in the administration of justice.” Freeman says, “To people all over the world, [Denning] imparted his belief that English justice, founded in the Christian religion, was fundamental to English liberty.”

Denning felt strongly, “If religion perishes in the land, truth and justice will also. We have already strayed too far from the faith of our fathers. Let us return to it, for it is the only thing that can save us.” Phang opines, “Lord Denning’s greatest contribution … was not merely ‘the law’ that he left behind but, rather, the spirit of justice that was guided by a supernatural force. Denning never wavered from the conviction that this was always so.” (emphasis mine).

The Bible and Its Decalogue

I learned from my teacher the Rev Dr Timothy Tow that English law is based upon Roman law and Roman law is based upon the Law of Moses as found in the Bible. What makes English law so great? That could be the underlying reason above all.

The Bible is indispensable to every Christian lawyer and judge. As a devout Christian, Denning always had the Bible in hand. In The Family Story, he wrote, “In coming upon legal obstacles, it is not enough to keep your law books dry. It is as well to have a Bible ready to hand too. It is the most tattered book in my library. I have drawn upon it constantly.” Phang cites one instance, “In the context of family law, Lord Denning does refer to the Bible. He also asserts that ‘[t]he only basis for a sound family life is a Christian marriage — the personal union of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for better or for worse, so long as both shall live … Whilst accepting the principle of divorce when a marriage has irretrievably broken down, we should do all we can to maintain the Christian concept of marriage’.”

Denning believed English Law has its foundation in the Ten Commandments. He condemned sin and “[s]in is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q14). He spoke against abortion, euthanasia and suicide. He condemned homosexuality which he considered to be of a different category than adultery or fornication. Denning explained, “Natural sin is, of course, deplorable, but unnatural vice is worse; because, as the law says, it strikes at the integrity of the human race.” Freeman says, “Denning had no doubt that homosexuality was wrongful. The Bible called it ‘an abomination’, and ‘it was an offence not to be named among Christians’ … He recommended that the law should continue to condemn ‘this evil for the evil it is’.”

Effective Speech

Lord Denning was a most effective communicator. According to Lord Edmund-Davies, Denning’s “familiarity with Biblical texts which he acquired at an early age did much to form and, indeed, to transform his style of speaking, so that in later life his judgments and addresses have (like most parts of the New Testament) consisted of sentences of remarkable clarity and brevity, frequently declining to recognise any need for an accompanying verb.”

To seminary students who are honing their homiletical skills, here is good advice from Lord Denning, “You are not supposed to read your speech: but you can use notes. You must prepare beforehand what you are to say—otherwise you will muff it. I always prepared carefully. I did research. I made notes. I tried always to introduce some little story or incident—so as to give colour to my arguments. But when I got up to speak, I put my notes aside. I did not look at them. I trusted to my memory. Your speech loses much of its effectiveness if you read it or if you keep looking down at notes. … Above all, speak clearly and distinctly.”

Keeping the Faith

Lord Denning was once asked, “When are you going to retire?” Like our founding pastor—the Rev Dr Timothy Tow—who did not believe in retirement, his reply was, “I am going to stay as long as I can do the job … Every Christian virtue except resignation.” Indeed in God’s service, whatever your vocation, there is no retirement. Freeman reveals that even at 83, it was hard for Denning “to give up the work he loved. He had no intention of settling into leisurely retirement.”

Denning said that at the end of his life, he would like to be able to say, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”, a quote from 2 Timothy 4:7. Phang avers, “He can, and ought to, say it.” Denning was called home on 5 March 1999, 100 years old.

How would people remember Lord Denning? Freeman answers insightfully, “Unlike most judges, his memorial will be more than the body of doctrine found in his judgments. The influence of his speeches, reproduced in his books, was immense; but if he is remembered for them alone, it will be as a prophet, as a wise man rather than a judge.”

Lord Denning is a good model of a Christian judge. Let me conclude with what Denning said in his farewell speech as Master of the Rolls, “Four things a man must learn to do if he could make his record true: to think without confusion clearly, to act from honest motives purely, to love his fellow man sincerely, and trust in God and heaven securely.” In Denning we see a display of the good that God requires of man: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8).

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