I have previously mentioned Joshua Moon’s dissertation “Jeremiah’s New Covenant: An Augustinian Reading.” I do not agree with everything he has to say, but I highly recommend reading it (PDF) as he explains Augustine’s view of Jeremiah 31, as well as how that Augustinian reading was held down through church history up until the Reformation. Below is an excerpt (66-74 PDF) of his account of Aquinas’ Augustinian reading of Jeremiah 31 (see my previous Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant).
In summary form the lex nova for Thomas is the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.64 Thomas identifies the lex nova with the Law of the novum testamentum (‘lex nova est lex novi testamenti’), and defines the new law as the grace of the Holy Spirit:
‘Each thing appears to be that which is foremost in it,’ as the Philosopher states (Ethic., ix). That which is foremost in the Law of the novum testamentum, and in which all its power consists, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the lex nova is principally the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.65
To establish his position he cites Jer 31:31,33, followed by two citations of Augustine from the De spiritu, the second of which reads: ‘What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of his Holy Spirit?’ From Augustine, Thomas reads the contrast in Jer 31 as between an old law without further power, and the ‘new’ work of the Spirit in those who believe.
The consequences of this for Jer 31 are then spelled out by an objection now somewhat familiar: what of those prior to the nova lex? If the new law is the Spirit’s work by which people are made friends of God, and if the ancient faithful had that Spirit’s work, then you have the novum testamentum in the era of the vetus. Thus, the objection runs, the new law cannot be defined this way:
The Law of the Gospel is proper to those who are in the state of the novum testamentum. But the Law that is inscribed [on the heart] is common both to those who are in the novum testamentum and those who are in the vetus testamentum. For it is said in Wisdom 7[:27]: ‘Divine wisdom conveys herself through the nations into holy souls; she establishes the friends of God and the prophets.’ Therefore the lex nova is not the Law inscribed.66
Thomas answers by appeal to an implicit distinction between membership in the novum testamentum and the ‘state (or era) of the novum testamentum’:
No one ever possessed the grace of the Holy Spirit except through faith in Christ, explicit or implicit. Through faith in Christ a man belongs to the novum testamentum. Thus whoever had the Law of grace infused, accordingly belonged to the novum testamentum
At first glance it does not appear that Thomas answers the objection. He solves the dilemma by agreeing that there have always been those who had the Law of grace and belonged to the novum testamentum. The implicit point, however, is that Thomas does not see ‘belonging to the novum testamentum’ as the same as being in the statu novi testamenti – otherwise the reply would not at all address the objection. Thomas thus drives a distinction between two realities, that of the era of the Gospel or the statu novi testamenti, and that of membership within the novum testamentum. And Jer 31:33-34 is addressed to the latter. Thus, in article 4 of the same question he asserts that the state of the new law succeeds the state of the old law (‘successit enim status novae legis statui veteris legis’), a claim he finds consistent with the novum testamentum existing during the state of the old law.
Matthew Levering summarizes the distinction being made this way: ‘The state of the new law begins after the Incarnation, while the new law itself, as the grace of the Holy Spirit, is found in all places and times.’68 Or more fully is Colman O’Neill:
the new law exists as the mystery of salvation at work in the world from the time of the restoration of man to grace. Yet, though the new law thus transcends historical periods, the state of the new law does not. For the state of the new law is precisely that third state of revelation and faith which was initiated in the Incarnation and in the mysteries of Christ.69
That Thomas owes this position to Augustine is clear: Augustine is cited no fewer than 8 times in answer to this one question. One can speak two different ways of the vetus and novum testamentum (or lex): either to a ‘state’ or era, or with respect to the thing itself. If the former, then one can speak of the economical differences. But if the latter, then any view of temporal succession is impossible. And Jeremiah is speaking of the latter. The lex nova, spoken of in Jer 31:33-34, is available throughout all ages and without the possession of it, one’s happiness (proper end) is unattainable – for that which is outside of a person cannot justify. The virtue of being just before God cannot be acquired unless given by God, and clearly those faithful of the ancient era were just. Thus ‘in all times there have been some belonging to the novum testamentum’, even if the statu novi testamenti awaited the coming of Christ.70
This point is made concrete in Thomas’ treatment of David in Psalm 51 (Vg. 50) and Thomas’ view of David as having the Holy Spirit (i.e. the lex nova):
The reason for this manifestation [of guilt (culpa) being wiped clean] is a divine mercy; for the manifestation of righteousness (iustis) is useful so that we do not presume on his righteousness (iustitia). For if David sins – after all of his victories, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, after all his familiarity with God and prophecy – how much more ought we to fear how weak and sinful we are?71
If Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant is a prophecy of the lex nova, which is contained fundamentally in the giving of the Holy Spirit, then David is here explicitly counted as a member of the new covenant. The exhortation even hinges upon an a fortiori privileging of the place of David: if even David can sin, how much more should we fear? There is only one way by which anyone is made right with God, and that is through the novum testamentum or the lex nova, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe. This is true for Augustine and Thomas regardless of era, and this right standing before God is the substance of Jeremiah’s new covenant.72
About a week ago a pastor named Erik Raymond wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition titled Are Masks a Conscience Issue? Regretfully, I think the article is a bit confusing (and perhaps confused).
When most people say that wearing or not wearing a mask in response to COVID-19 and various governors’ Executive Orders (not laws) is a matter of conscience, what they mean is that it is not a black and white issue that Scripture speaks to directly. It is a “gray area” that requires additional information not found in Scripture over which people may disagree. Therefore Christians may disagree with one another as to whether or not God requires them to wear a mask. “[C]onscience is the application of what [one] knows both about God’s law and about [oneself] to a particular case.” This 4-min video is a helpful presentation of that point.
Let’s call this Conscience Argument A: Whether or not God requires one to wear a mask is a matter best left to individuals to decide for themselves.
What is confusing about Raymond’s piece is that he is not responding to that argument. He is arguing against some other appeal to conscience on the mask issue. He does not provide any references, so it is hard to tell if he has accurately understood whoever he is arguing against or if he has just misunderstood the appeal to conscience on this point. What he is responding to is an individual who says their conscience forbids them from wearing a mask. “While I’ve not met anyone who enjoys wearing a mask, I’ve come across many who do not. Some say they cannot as a result of their conscience.” He refers to it as “the tenuous position that wearing a mask is a sin.”
Conscience Argument B: I cannot wear a mask because it violates my conscience.
Against Argument B, Raymond says
When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask. When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23). But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask… [T]he objection to masks is not fundamentally a conscience issue. It may be a health or a political objection, but it’s not fundamentally a moral objection supported by a Christian understanding of conscience.
I agree with Raymond’s refutation of Argument B, but I don’t think there are many people making that argument. His points #1 and #2 are irrelevant to Argument A. I encourage you to re-read Raymond’s article.
His point #3 is aimed at Argument B, but some parts of it would also apply to Argument A, so let’s take a closer look.
Submission to Authorities
Submission to the Authorities (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17) Christians are commanded to submit to and honor the governing authorities. This is in the Bible because it’s not something we’d naturally want to do. Imperfect people run governments. The authorities at the time of Paul and Peter were notoriously evil. Nevertheless, such submission is the will of God for his people (1 Pet. 2:15). Failing to do so is a sin against God. Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands. It’s hard to argue that masks fall into this category reasonably.
This is a common argument that some pastors make, but I don’t think it’s what those passages of Scripture teach. I do not believe it is true that “Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands.” Most theologians recognize that any divine requirement to obey civil rulers is limited to when that ruler is functioning within his proper, limited jurisdiction – a question best left to the individual conscience to determine.
Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…
The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.
Samuel Waldron makes the same point.
The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power].
“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished
I do not believe that Scripture warrants a pastor telling his congregation that they are sinning if they do not wear a mask when a Governor has issued an Executive Order under the Emergency Powers.
Love for Neighbor (Matt. 22:39) In our churches, there are various levels of concern about COVID-19. Some have lost friends and family members to the virus. For many wearing a mask is one reasonable way to love other people and protect them. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore their concerns, especially in light of the evolving data and heightened case numbers. Christian love requires a willingness to follow Jesus and set ourselves aside. Christians should be eager to do this.
Here Raymond simply betrays his own opinion of the science and politics. He cannot bind others with his opinion on those points. Yes, we should love our neighbors and should not unnecessarily cause them harm. But whether or not wearing a mask is a way to protect others from harm is a disputed point. Furthermore, love for neighbor and setting ourselves aside is a two-way street. It would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who choose not to wear a mask just as it would be unloving to minimize or ignore the concerns of those who do wear a mask. As with much of life, there is no obvious, one-size-fits-all answer to how these different people may live and assemble together, but “Christians should be eager to do this.” A proper understanding of Argument A would help Raymond better understand this point.
Wisdom Toward Outsiders
Wisdom Toward Outsiders (Col. 4:5) It’s saddening to read of some churches who disregard safety standards and then become super-spreaders for the virus. This harms the testimony of the church in the community. Christians should be concerned with reasonable efforts to preserve and promote the gospel. At this moment, failing to wear a mask doesn’t seem wise.
Once again, Raymond betrays his own opinion of the science and politics of COVID – opinions that he cannot bind other Christians with. Following Col 4:5, Raymond even says it’s a matter of wisdom. How then can he possibly place this point under the heading that not wearing a mask “causes disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture”? Once again, a proper understanding of Argument A would really help Raymond better understand and apply Col. 4:5, which says “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” After all, an argument could be made that dissenting from the COVID narrative is quite wise.
Submission to the Elders
Submission to the Elders (Heb. 13:17) God requires church members to submit to their elders. Failing to do so is a sin against God. There’s obviously a bevy of caveats here, but in this conversation, if the elders believe it’s right to submit to the government by wearing a mask, then there’s not a provision for the conscience to disregard them. There may certainly be principled disagreement, but there is no conscience clause that allows a perpetual lack of submission. The solution would be to either submit to the leadership of the church or find a church where they could worship according to their convictions and joyfully submit to the elders of that church.
Heb. 13:17 says “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” I do think this is a more valid point by Raymond. Our elders do possess spiritual authority that we must obey. But note carefully the rest of the verse “…for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Wearing or not wearing a mask is not itself a danger to one’s soul, so hopefully elders will be careful about wielding the hammer of their spiritual authority on the question of masks. (Of course, if those elders misinterpret Romans 13 and believe it is sinful to disobey a governor, then they would see the matter as a spiritual one. In that instance, I would encourage them to reconsider their interpretation of the passage.)
In my opinion, Raymond’s article confuses the issue. Wearing masks is a gray issue that is best left up to individual Christians to determine whether or not the law of God requires it.
His answer was that the difference between the Old and the New is that only some of the members of the Old covenant were saved, while all of the members of the New covenant are.
[T]hat which the New Covenant provides in perfection the Old only provided in part or in picture… [W]here something is found in both covenants, it will be seen to be partial and incomplete in the Old, finished, total, and perfect in the New…
The Old Covenant was, by nature, breakable. Why? Because it did not, in and of itself, effect the change in the heart and mind of each member thereof that would cause them to “continue” therein…
While there were those who knew the Lord and followed his statutes, they were the remnant, not the norm…
All those with whom he makes this covenant experience what the remnant experienced under the old: true internal conversion resulting in a love for God’s law and a true relationship with him. Quite simply, there is no “remnant” in the New Covenant, and all those with whom God makes this covenant experience its fulfillment. This is why it is better, and hence proves the author’s apologetic presentation of the supremacy of Christ over the old ways…
The contrast drawn here between the old “faulted” covenant and the new faultless one is simple: the New Covenant brings salvific knowledge and relationship to all who are in it, “from the least to the greatest of them.”
…Reformed credobaptists have asserted that if this passage teaches that the New Covenant differs from the Old in the matter of the extensiveness of the work of grace in the lives of the members (i.e., the New Covenant is not a mixed covenant of regenerate and unregenerate, elect and non-elect), then the most needed element of the paedobaptist argument regarding the continuity of the covenants and the covenant sign is disrupted at its most vital point. The “continuity” of the Covenant of Grace is seen in the expansion of God’s work of grace, so that the New Covenant in the blood of the Son encompasses all of God’s elect, with the older administration’s ceremonies pointing forward to the perfection that would come in Christ…
We must agree that considered individually, each of the elements of the New Covenant listed in Heb. 8:10-12 can be found, in particular individuals in the Old Covenant…
if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it…
We are not saying there were none who experienced God’s grace under the Old Covenant, but that the Old Covenant, in and of itself, did not guarantee that those who partook of it were, in fact, heirs of grace. The newness of the New Covenant in the blood of Christ is found in the reality that the better mediator, better hope, better sacrifices, mean that all, from the least to the greatest of them, know the Lord savingly. This is its glory, for it reflects the power of the blood in which it is sealed. Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new. While some in the Old Covenant experienced this, all in the New Covenant do so.
While White is correct that all in the New Covenant receive new hearts and the forgiveness of sins (they are saved) while only some members of the Old Covenant did, he is ambiguous as to how exactly those members of the Old Covenant were saved. Were they saved by the Old Covenant? Numerous statements by White seem to deny that.
[The author of Hebrews’] view of the New Covenant as “better” must be seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work of mediation…
Is this ministry simply of the same kind as the ministry of the old priests, only, in some fashion, “more excellent”? Or is the point of the passage that the Messiah’s ministry, the covenant in his blood, and the promises upon which the covenant stands – all these things are substantially different, better, than that which came before?…
Surely, at this point there can be no argument that the betterness of the sacrifice of Christ is qualitatively superior to that of the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. His death is not just more effective or in some fashion greater than the sacrifice of a lamb or a bull. That sacrifice differs on a fundamental, foundational level. It is better by nature and definition...
As a result of the permanence of his priestly position, Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save…
Christ is the mediator of a better covenant, based upon better sacrifices, with a more excellent ministry, based upon better promises, which include, he will later assert, the very promise of the eternal inheritance for those in the New Covenant (9:15)…
What the Old Covenant had only pictured and hinted at, but failed to produce in them, God fulfills in the better covenant with the better sacrifices and better promises and better mediator…
These repetitive sacrifices lack the power or ability to take away sins…
The text presents an apologetic argument that unlike the Old Covenant, where “they did not continue in My covenant” (v. 9), the New Covenant presents a perfect, full work of God which includes the internal renovation of the heart, salvific knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins…
We must further note that the contrast in Heb. 10 is between the repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which could never take away sins, and the singular sacrifice of the New, which not only can but in reality does do so for those who are in the covenant (Heb. 10:10-18)!
There appears to be some unresolved tension in White’s argument. On the one hand, he argues that the New covenant is qualitatively better than the Old because it does what the Old could not: give a new heart and take away sins. Yet on the other hand he argues that the difference is quantitative because the Old covenant did give a new heart and take away sins, just not for all in the covenant (“it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new”).
I believe the logic of White’s argumentation throughout the two essays requires him to modify his conclusion. If Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means simply that more members of the covenant are saved, does that mean that some members of the Old covenant were saved apart from his mediation and sacrifice? On the other hand, if Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means “Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save” then perhaps those in the Old Covenant who were in fact saved were saved by Christ’s better New covenant. Perhaps the “Newness of the New Covenant” is that it is able to save! As White himself says
The writer plainly sees in these words a prophetic proclamation of what Christ, the one high priest, would accomplish through his better sacrifice so as to initiate a better covenant based upon better promises leading to a better hope. The singular offering of Christ (Heb. 7:27) and the acceptance of that offering pictured in his entrance into the Holy Place and his being seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1) has made it possible for God to be merciful to the iniquities of those for whom the High Priest now intercedes (Heb. 7:24-35).
Note Owen’s observation on the same text.
Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large… [T]herefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.
Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, p. 187-8, 241
I have previously shown at length how very similar Augustine’s understanding of the New and Old Covenants is to 1689 Federalism. He limits the Old Covenant to temporal, earthly promises and argues that OT saints were saved by the New Covenant.
[T]he happy persons, who even in that early age [the Old Testament] were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God
Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, citing him several times in Summa Theologica I-II, 106-107 (Old “Law” = Old Covenant; New “Law” = New Covenant).
[T]he Old Law, which was given to men who were imperfect, that is, who had not yet received spiritual grace, was called the “law of fear,” inasmuch as it induced men to observe its commandments by threatening them with penalties; and is spoken of as containing temporal promises…
the New Law which derives its pre-eminence from the spiritual grace instilled into our hearts, is called the “Law of love”: and it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises…
although the Old Law contained precepts of charity, nevertheless it did not confer the Holy Ghost…
the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ…
Nevertheless there were some in the state of the Old Testament who, having charity and the grace of the Holy Ghost, looked chiefly to spiritual and eternal promises: and in this respect they belonged to the New Law…
As to those under the Old Testament who through faith were acceptable to God, in this respect they belonged to the New Testament: for they were not justified except through faith in Christ, Who is the Author of the New Testament…
No man ever had the grace of the Holy Ghost except through faith in Christ either explicit or implicit: and by faith in Christ man belongs to the New Testament. Consequently whoever had the law of grace instilled into them belonged to the New Testament…
at all times there have been some persons belonging to the New Testament, as stated above.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically quotes Aquinas on this point (1964).
There were . . . under the regimen of the Old Covenant, people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit and longed above all for the spiritual and eternal promises by which they were associated with the New Law… [E]ven though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom “God’s charity has been poured into our hearts.
I mention all of this simply to re-iterate the historicity of the concept. It is not an idea invented by baptists in response to paedobaptism. It is drawn from Scripture itself and has been recognized by various traditions for a very long time.
The Reformation Study Bible correctly explains that the difference between the visible and invisible church is simply a matter of perspective: God’s vs. man’s.
The church on earth is one in Christ despite the great number of local congregations and denominations (Eph. 4:3-6). It is holy because it is consecrated to God corporately, as each Christian is individually (Eph. 2:21). It is catholic (meaning “universal”) because it is worldwide. Finally, it is apostolic because it is founded on apostolic teaching (Eph. 2:20). All four qualities may be seen in Eph. 2:19-22.
There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as people see it and as God alone sees it. This difference is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” “Invisible” does not mean that no part of it can be seen, but that its exact boundary is not known to us. Only God knows (2 Tim. 2:19) which members of the earthly congregations are inwardly born again, and so belong to the church as an eternal and spiritual fellowship. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who seemed to be Christians, not excluding leaders, who were nevertheless not renewed in hart and would be exposed and rejected at the judgment (Matt. 7:15-23; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). There are not two church, one visible and another hidden in heaven, but one church only, known perfectly to God and known imperfectly on earth.
Reformation Study Bible, comment on Eph. 3-4
This was taken (almost word for word) from J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology, though Packer adds a helpful comment at the end.
There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as we humans see it and as God alone can see it. This is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” Invisible means, not that we can see no sign of its presence, but that we cannot know (as God, the heart-reader, knows, 2 Tim. 2:19) which of those baptized, professing members of the church as an organized institution are inwardly regenerate and thus belong to the church as a spiritual fellowship of sinners loving their Savior. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who thought they were Christians and passed as Christians, some indeed becoming ministers, but who were not renewed in heart and would therefore be exposed and rejected at the Judgment (Matt. 7:15-27; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). The “visible-invisible” distinction is drawn to take account of this. It is not that there are two churches but that the visible community regularly contains imitation Christians whom God knows not to be real (and who could know this for themselves if they would, 2 Cor. 13:5).
Theonomy rightly believes that political theory must be deduced from Scripture, but it misinterprets Scripture – namely the law given to Israel and covenant theology as a whole.
Theonomy is the starting presumption that the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel have not been abrogated therefore all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce them (including the specific penalties) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).
Defining Our Terms
Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was used by Greg Bahnsen in the 1970s to describe his presuppositional political philosophy in contrast to “autonomy” (man’s reason independent of God’s revelation). This post addresses theonomy as defined and defended by Bahnsen. (If you think theonomy has a broader definition, that is a separate discussion we can have. For the purposes of this post, theonomy is being defined according to Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis). Bahnsen argued that
[T]heonomy teaches that civil rulers are morally obligated to enforce those laws of Christ, found throughout the Scriptures, which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention)… Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel… “He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still.”
The core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. All the Old Testament laws that are moral in content, that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics, are binding on all men (both Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations).
Therefore, not only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality, fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). In addition, the civil penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but are required as well.
That being said, theonomists do not always agree with each other regarding particular Old Covenant judicial laws. Bahnsen therefore clarified that even when they do not agree, there is still nonetheless a distinct, definable view called “theonomy.”
Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…
Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?
[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.
Theonomy’s strength is its commitment to presuppositionalism – the belief that political philosophy and civil law must be deduced from Scripture. Its weakness is its actual exegesis of Scripture. While I agree that Scripture must be the source of our political philosophy, I believe that theonomy has misinterpreted Scripture on two foundational points. (Note: Bahnsen was a very gifted logician and I respect him enough to interpret and critique him according to his systematic understanding of theonomy.)
The Law(s) of God
Theonomy rejects the distinction between moral law (a transcript of God’s nature that applies at all times) and positive law (law that is created and abrogated at God’s will for certain times). Instead, it holds to a mononomism that sees all biblical law as an unchanging transcript of God’s nature. Bahnsen argued “Does God have a holiness, a standard of ethics, of perfection that is changing?… Jesus says every jot and tittle and he doesn’t allow us to draw lines and seams and divide God’s law up into what we’ll accept and what we won’t.”
I agree with the historic threefold division of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral law transcends and predates Mosaic law and applies to all image bearers. Ceremonial and civil law are positive laws created for Israel under the Old Covenant and have been abrogated. Theonomy teaches a different two-fold division of Mosaic law.
The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. (Two subdivisions within each category will be mentioned subsequently.) This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation. On the other hand, ceremonial laws–or redemptive provisions–reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.
(By This Standard, 97)
The important point is that due to a mistaken exegesis of Matthew 5, theonomy has no category for positive law that may be abrogated. Not only moral (which includes judicial) law, but even “restorative” law continues (though the way we observe it changes).
It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”
The reformed law/gospel distinction refers to two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is rooted in the distinction between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Messianic Covenant of Grace. While Bahnsen held a law/gospel antithesis with regards to salvation through faith in Christ (even having a better interpretation of Matt 5:20 than many reformed theologians), he was influenced by his thesis advisor Norman Shepherd with regards to covenant theology.
Shepherd left WTS under controversy for teaching that we are justified through faith and works. He rejected the Adamic Covenant of Works and emphasized the unity of the Covenant of God. RJ Rushdoony likewise said
[T]his idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to Dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace. Precisely because He is God the only kind of covenant He can enter into with man involves free grace on His part. It is at the same time a covenant of law but every covenant is a law relationship… [T]he covenant of God with man is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of law. [B]asic to the making of a covenant with God was the invoking of curses and blessings, Deuteronomy 27 and 28 give us that very, very clearly.
The New Testament and Covenant continue the same demand for obedience… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.
Theonomy in Christian Ethics (201-2)
I reject this monocovenantalism. I affirm the Adamic Covenant of Works as distinct from the Messianic Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, I recognize a typological element to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. Those blessings typified the blessings Christ earned for us through his perfect obedience to the moral law while the curses typified the judgment that we all deserve (and those outside of Christ will receive) for breaking God’s moral law. Theonomy’s commitment to monocovenantalism and mononomism, and its subsequent understanding of Mosaic blessing and curse, prevents it from affirming this understanding.
Stoning as Typological (Cherem) Curse
After responding to every known criticism offered against his thesis, Bahnsen held out the theoretical possibility of one remaining criticism that would be a valid objection.
[I]t must be argued by somebody who feels the penal sanctions were not given to anybody but Israel that there is a very strong distinction within the law itself between stipulation and sanction. That God stipulates this kind of behavior and then he lays down a punishment if you don’t follow that stipulation, and that the fact that a law binds Israel as well as the Gentiles with respect to stipulations does not therefore mean that the law with respect to sanctions binds Israel and the Gentiles. You see, the premise then is that there is a difference between stipulation and sanction. Now, is there exegetical evidence for this distinction?… Well, we haven’t been given evidence of that distinction.
It is precisely this distinction that I affirm and give evidence for (see links below – notably this one). The stipulations in question are part of God’s unchanging moral law for all image bearers. Violation of this unchanging moral law warrants eternal death at the final judgment. However, at the fall God delayed this final judgment, beginning a post-fall world restructured in subservience to the work of Christ. The death penalty instituted under the typological Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was a typological, positive law addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a typological curse.
“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal. 3:12)
Commenting on Gal. 3:12 (Lev. 18:5) Augustine said “Now those who were living by these works undoubtedly feared that if they did not do them, they would suffer stoning or crucifixion or something of this kind.”
“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10).
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)
It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a typological covenant of works that we are free from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).
The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).
While theonomy presents an appealingly simple answer to the question of political philosophy and civil law, our presupposition must be Scripture properly interpreted.
On May 1, Samuel Waldron participated in a panel discussion titled “When to Disobey the Government.” He made one very important distinction between subjection and obedience. He argued that Romans 13 commands subjection, not necessarily obedience. He clarified that if Christians are commanded to sin, they must disobey, but in areas where they are not commanded to sin but a ruler exceeds their jurisdiction, Christians have the liberty to disobey. Watch this 2 minute excerpt:
Paul begins the passage by declaring to his readers a broad obligation to submit: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers”; the Greek word translated in the King James Bible as “be subject unto” is hypotassomai, “a hierarchical term.”51 It is important to note that the word is not synonymous with “obey.” “The Greek language has good words to denote obedience, in the sense of completely bending one’s will and one’s actions to the desires of another. What Paul calls for, however, is subordination.”52 The word chosen by Paul generally does not mean “obedience”…
The conscientious objector who refuses to do what his government asks him to do, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him to death, is being subordinate even though he is not obeying.
This distinction helps untie the Gordian Knot of Romans 13:1-7. Most interpreters believe the passage forbids disobedience and revolution. However they disagree on the limits of that prohibition. One side (epitomized by Rutherford) argues that if a magistrate exceeds their jurisdiction, the prohibition no longer applies and Christians are free to disobey and revolt. The other side (epitomized by Calvin) argues that Christians must continue to obey tyrants (unless commanded to sin) and may never revolt. Waldron provides balance between the two.
Did Calvin Hold to the Distinction?
In the full video, Waldron suggests Calvin would have agreed with his distinction. However, I do not see that in Calvin. Rather, he uses the terms interchangeably. Furthermore, he is clear that the only time a Christian may disobey a ruler is when they are commanded to sin, even if the ruler is a tyrant who acts illegally.
[M]any cannot be persuaded to recognise such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey… But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes… in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.
(1 Sam 8:11-17) Certainly these things could not be done legally by kings, whom the law trained most admirably to all kinds of restraint; but it was called justice in regard to the people, because they were bound to obey, and could not lawfully resist: as if Samuel had said, To such a degree will kings indulge in tyranny, which it will not be for you to restrain. The only thing remaining for you will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.
But rulers, you will say, owe mutual duties to those under them. This I have already confessed. But if from this you conclude that obedience is to be returned to none but just governors, you reason absurdly.
Finally, in paragraph 36 he seems to give the only indication of a limit to a ruler’s authority and thus our requirement to obey.
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow… On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan. 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power.
Where Calvin Erred (The Two Wills of God)
The reason why subsequent generations of reformed theologians disagreed with Calvin is because his interpretation is inconsistent. He failed to adequately distinguish the two wills of God. He argued that we must obey rulers because they occupy a divine office possessed with divine authority. Rutherford agreed, but he and others (like Beza) recognized that any divinely delegated office is limited in scope and thus if an individual acts beyond the limits of that office, they act as a private individual and may be ignored. (This is the same for a pastor who steps beyond his authority and starts telling members of the church they may only marry who he says they may marry or may only take jobs he says they can take.)
The reason for the difference is that Beza, Rutherford, et al recognize that divine offices are established mediately. Beza said
[T]he authority of all magistrates, however supreme and powerful they are, is dependent upon the public authority of those who have raised them to this degree of dignity, and not contrariwise.
I conceive it to be evident that royal dignity is not immediately, and without the intervention of the people’s consent, given by God to any one person, and that conquest and violence is no just title to a crown… Politicians agree to this as an undeniable truth, that as domestic society is natural, being grounded upon nature’s instinct, so politic society is voluntary, being grounded on the consent of men.
Calvin disagreed. He believed that conquest and violence were legitimate titles to a crown because the office is given immediately to individual rulers by God’s providence.
It is thereby intimated that they have a commission from God, that they are invested with divine authority, and, in fact, represent the person of God, as whose substitutes they in a manner act… it is not owing to human perverseness that supreme power on earth is lodged in kings and other governors, but by Divine Providence, and the holy decree of Him to whom it has seemed good so to govern the affairs of men, since he is present, and also presides in enacting laws and exercising judicial equity… (Rom 13:1,3)
[I]f it has pleased him to appoint kings over kingdoms, and senates or burgomasters over free states, whatever be the form which he has appointed in the places in which we live, our duty is to obey and submit.
Those, indeed, who rule for the public good, are true examples and specimens of his beneficence, while those who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power.
And, first, I would have the reader carefully to attend to that Divine Providence which, not without cause, is so often set before us in Scripture, and that special act of distributing kingdoms, and setting up as kings whomsoever he pleases. In Daniel it is said, “He changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings” (Dan. 2:21, 37). Again, “That the living may know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan. 4:17, 25). Similar sentiments occur throughout Scripture, but they abound particularly in the prophetical books. What kind of king Nebuchadnezzar, he who stormed Jerusalem, was, is well known. He was an active invader and devastator of other countries. Yet the Lord declares in Ezekiel that he had given him the land of Egypt as his hire for the devastation which he had committed. Daniel also said to him, “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all” (Dan. 2:37, 38). Again, he says to his son Belshazzar, “The most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: and for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him” (Dan. 5:18, 19). When we hear that the king was appointed by God, let us, at the same time, call to mind those heavenly edicts as to honouring and fearing the king, and we shall have no doubt that we are to view the most iniquitous tyrant as occupying the place with which the Lord has honoured him.
If we constantly keep before our eyes and minds the fact, that even the most iniquitous kings are appointed by the same decree which establishes all regal authority, we will never entertain the seditious thought, that a king is to be treated according to his deserts, and that we are not bound to act the part of good subjects to him who does not in his turn act the part of a king to us.
[T]he Apostle intended by this word [“higher powers”] to take away the frivolous curiosity of men, who are wont often to inquire by what right they who rule have obtained their authority; but it ought to be enough for us, that they do rule; for they have not ascended by their own power into this high station, but have been placed there by the Lord’s hand.
Calvin correctly understood the Old Testament example of Nebuchadnezzar as an example of God providentially empowering an individual to conquer and rule. But Rutherford was also correct that any conqueror who acts like Nebuchadnezzar has exceeded the office of magistrate. Rutherford correctly notes “I grant, often God’s decree revealed by the event, that a conqueror be on the throne, but this will is not our rule, and the people are to swear no oath of allegiance contrary to God’s Voluntas signi, which is his revealed will in his word regulating us.”
Romans 13: Which Will?
In his commentary on Romans 13, where Calvin must deal with Paul’s logic, he trips. On Romans 13:1 (“the powers that be are ordained of God.”) Calvin says
The reason why we ought to be subject to magistrates is, because they are constituted by God’s ordination… [T]yrannies and unjust exercise of power, as they are full of disorder, (ἀταξίας) are not an ordained government.
That is what Rutherford said (see Rutherford on Romans 13 and the Logic of Resistance). We must obey the ordinance of God. Tyranny and injustice is not the ordinance of God. “When the magistrate doth anything by violence, and without law, in so far doing against his office, he is not a magistrate. Then, say I, that power by which he doth, is not of God.”
On 13:3 (“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.”) Calvin says
He now commends to us obedience to princes on the ground of utility… that the Lord has designed in this way to provide for the tranquillity of the good, and to restrain the waywardness of the wicked… But he speaks here of the true, and, as it were, of the native duty of the magistrate, from which however they who hold power often degenerate;
How then are we to respond to false magistrates? “…[F]rom which however they who hold power often degenerate; yet the obedience due to princes ought to be rendered to them.”
Why? Calvin offers three reasons we must still obey false magistrates.
First, he says if a ruler becomes a tyrant, it’s only because the people deserve it as chastening from God, so they must submit to it. Please note very well: Paul never offers that as a reason. Calvin has to stray from the text and invent a reason for Paul’s command, a reason that Paul himself never gave.
Second, he claims that no matter how bad tyrants become, they always “retain in their tyranny some kind of just government.” Not only is this not necessarily true, it does not explain why a tyrant must be obeyed in their tyranny.
Third, commenting on 13:2 (“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God”) Calvin says “As no one can resist God but to his own ruin, he threatens, that they shall not be unpunished who in this respect oppose the providence of God.” But notice what he has just done. He has equivocated on the word “ordinance.” In 13:1 Calvin says “ordinance” means just government, not tyranny. But in 13:2 he says “ordinance” means “providence,” including tyranny. This is the heart of Calvin’s error. He simply jumps between God’s two wills as it suits him. Regretfully, Waldron follows him in this error.
Romans 13: Providential Empowerment
So we must remain consistent throughout verses 1-7. “Ordinance” must refer to either God’s providence, or to a divine institution/office. It cannot mean both. Calvin’s interpretation is not an option. Consistently reading the passage as referring to the office (not any particular person in that office), though more logical, in my opinion winds up saying precisely the opposite of Paul: that Christians may join in tax revolt against Rome.
The remaining possibility is that the passage refers not to an office, but to God’s providential empowering of men to rule over others. This does not necessarily have any regard to an office or an institution. It refers to power, not authority. This fits much better with the background of Nebuchadnezzar. Paul commanded Christians to remain subject to Rome’s injustices, to not revolt against Rome, but instead to wait patiently upon the Lord who will avenge every wrong. I believe that God does not want us to be distracted from the kingdom of heaven by the injustice of the kingdoms of men.
Here is a paraphrase of the passage as I understand it:
Let every soul be subject to the powers over them. For there is no power but from God and the powers that exist have been providentially placed there by God. Therefore whoever rebels against those powers is rebelling against what God has appointed, and those who rebel will bring judgment on themselves. (For rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you want to be free from fear of the one who has power? Then don’t resist him and you will receive his approval. For a powerful ruler is God’s instrument for your good (Rom 8:28). But if you disobey God and rebel, be afraid, for God has not empowered him with the strength of the sword in vain. He is God’s instrument to administer retribution on those who disobey (such as Jerusalem). Therefore you must not rebel, not only because of the wrath of the powers but also because of your conscience (because you know that God has providentially given them power for your good). For this reason you should also pay taxes, for they are God’s servants attending continually upon this very thing. Pay everyone what is due: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Finally, here is a chart showing the different views (PDF):
On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy
(Note: This post has been slightly revised from it’s original version to remove comments about the 6th commandment establishing a “regulative principle of violence” as I do not believe that is sufficiently nuanced. For more on this, please see my A Note on Reformed Libertarianism.)
In Part 2 we defined justice as giving someone what they are due. We distinguished between God-man justice and man-man justice. We argued that man-man (intra-human) justice is not simply loving each other as God commands. In this post we will look at what intra-human justice is, particularly for the poor & needy.
The 6th commandment limits our use of force. Calvin explains “The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one… [U]nder the word kill [murder] is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression.” Scripture clarifies that self-defense (Ex 22:2) as well as as retribution according to lex talionis (Gen 9:6; Lev 24:17-21; Ex 21:22-25; Deut 19:18-21; Num 35:9-34) are not violations of the 6th commandment.
The 8th commandment establishes the concept of private property. In his Themelios essay, Wayne Grudem notes “[T]he command, ‘You shall not steal,’ assumes private ownership of property.” In contrast, he quotes Marx. “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Mankind is given dominion over the earth and is told to subdue it. Insofar as the earth belongs to the Lord (Ps. 24:1), this dominion is relative, not absolute. We are made stewards of creation. What distinguishes one man’s stewardship from another’s is their work of subduing the earth. Men may then voluntarily trade their stewardship between each other as they see fit. The 8th commandment forbids anyone from taking someone else’s stewardship (property) without their consent.
When theft (8th commandment) is combined with violence (6th commandment), the crime of robbery has been committed.
God has instructed us how to deal with violations of the 6th and 8th commandments. Genesis 9:6 clarifies that retributive justice demands vengeance upon the wrongdoer for crimes between men. If someone is murdered, the murderer is to be put to death. The wrongdoer is “due” the wrong that he did. Lev 24:17-20 elaborates on Gen 9:6 “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.” This is an application on the intra-human level of the same standard of justice that applies between God and men (Obad. 15; Jer. 50:29; Hab. 2:8; Joel 3:4, 7; Rom 1:32; Rev 18:6-7). (The Mosaic Covenant also cursed men with death for violations of God’s law beyond murder. These were instances of God-man justice in the typological holy land of Canaan per Leviticus 18:5.)
Likewise, if someone steals property they must restore the property but justice demands that they are also due what they have done. So they must additionally give the same amount they stole to the victim (Ex. 22:4). Vern Poythress explains “The repayment of the first ox is simple restoration, while the repayment of the second ox is punishment for the criminal intent.” (While I do not agree with every point, Poythress’ book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses is essential reading for anyone interested in biblical justice.) He notes a very important consequence of this understanding of intra-human justice: “[W]e can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured. Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being.”
God has left men with some liberty to determine the best way to administer justice, but the above principle (proportionally rendering what is due) must be followed in every instance. Furthermore, judgment must be impartial (Deut 1:16-17) and honest (Lev. 19:35-36). Sadly, in this fallen world that is often not the case. Some physically strong men resort to outright thuggery by holding people at gunpoint and taking their wallet. They live their life in the shadows as outlaws. But powerful men living life in the limelight often engage in judicial thuggery by relying on their power in the courts to rob and oppress others (essentially by bribing the judges). Franz Oppenheimer referred to this as “the political means” of prosperity.
In defending his innocence, Job cries “[I]f I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.” (Job 31:21-22). Micah denounces “the political means” of fraudulently obtaining land.
Woe to those who devise iniquity, And work out evil on their beds! At morning light they practice it, Because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, Also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, A man and his inheritance. (2:1-2)
Isaiah cries against wickedness in Jerusalem.
Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them (1:23; cf Luke 18:1-5).
Commenting on Prov. 22:22, Gill explains “[W]hen he comes into a court of judicature, which was usually held in the gates of a city, 4:1; and applies for redress of any grievance, do not crush him in the gate, or oppress him in judgment; nor wrest his cause, and do him wrong; but let him have justice done him, though poor.”
Jeremiah chastises the rulers in Jerusalem: “[T]hey have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (5:28). Isaiah prophesies of a coming king: “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (11:4).
The issue here is impartiality before the law. The rights of the poor are constantly violated because wicked judges take bribes that the poor cannot afford.
Employers oppress and exploit day laborers by not paying them what was previously agreed upon for their work. Kevin DeYoung explains
Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work in the fields for the day, and at the end of the day the landowner stiffed them of their wages. This was a serious offense to your neighbor and before God, not least of all because the day’s payment was often literally you daily bread. People depended on this payment to survive.
It was all to[o] easy to cheat workers out of their wages. You could say you didn’t have anything to give. Or you could argue that the work done was shabbily. Or you could simply refuse to pay today, or ever. If the matter was simply one man’s word against another’s, there was little a worker could do to get justice, especially on that day when what the worker needed was to eat, not a legal process.
Amos warns of the coming judgment upon Israel for their wickedness. “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” (2:6). They are willing to give up the rights of the poor for a bribe of silver or even just a pair of sandals.
You who turn justice to wormwood, And lay righteousness to rest in the earth!… For I know your manifold transgressions And your mighty sins: Afflicting the just and taking bribes; Diverting the poor from justice at the gate. (5:7, 12)
Amos instructs them to “Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate [the courtroom].” (5:15). Jeremiah likewise declares
Thus says the Lord: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (22:3)
See also Ps. 72:1-4; 82:3; 140:12; Prov. 22:22; Job 29:7-17. Commenting on Ps. 72:4, Calvin said
God is indeed no respecter of persons; but it is not without cause that God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence. Let laws and the administration of justice be taken away, and the consequence will be, that the more powerful a man is, he will be the more able to oppress his poor brethren.
Note that David called himself poor and needy because of the false accusations brought against him by people trying to kill him (Ps. 109:22, 31). E. Calvin Beisner notes that “the many Hebrew words translated ‘poor’ in these contexts often emphasize not material destitution but vulnerability to oppression.” The Bible often mentions the poor particularly as being in need of justice not because their relative lack of wealth is itself an injustice but because they are more often recipients of injustice. The poor are not victims of injustice by virtue of being poor, but in being poor they are more often passed over in societies which fail to employ justice without partiality.
[O]ften the way in which this message [in Amos 5] is described is as a call to social justice… I can’t think of too many concepts that are more misleading in our contemporary culture than this idea of social justice. Social justice in the prophets, social justice in Israel had to do with the rule of law and of righteousness in the culture. It had nothing to do with socialism and since Marx’s understanding of law there’s been a tremendous influence in our culture today that equates social justice with social equality or economic equality – the idea being that you don’t have social justice unless everybody in the society has equal possessions and equal finances and so on. An equal distribution of wealth is considered in socialistic countries as the supreme manifestation of social justice and the complaint is if there are inequalities in a culture where there can be a division between the wealthy and the poor that that would necessarily reveal a structure of social injustice that needs to be rectified. Now again that’s the common way in which you’ll read the concept in the newspaper and in the media today. That’s not the classic understanding of social justice because classically both philosophers and theologians distinguished between equality and equity. Equity meant that everybody received what was their due not that everybody received things in terms of material possessions equally… Everybody was to be treated equally under the law so that the poor man should not have the law tilted against him or the rich man having the law tilted for him so social injustice takes place in the first instance when the rule of the land is not just because it shows favoritism to people not on the basis of righteousness but on the basis of political power.
Keller acknowledges “The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.” (1). Note that, Biblically speaking, equity does not simply mean that once an issue reaches the courtroom, the verdict must be rendered impartially. Equity means equal standing under the law and – very importantly – “the law” here does not just mean “the law of the land.” “The law” means “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal.” No one, no matter how powerful, may murder or steal – even if they manage to pass a law that says they can. Laws themselves can be unjust violations of negative rights (Is. 10:1). Sometimes a powerful individual can keep their crimes out of the courtroom through suppression of the matter. Other times individuals can keep their crimes out of the courtroom by passing laws that legalize their violation of the 6th and 8th commandments (i.e. the legal protection of man-stealing in the slave trade or the Monsanto Protection Act), preventing them from ever having to face a trial in the first place.
We will not, however, be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who believe justice entails not only the protection of life and property, but also the provision of daily bread, housing, education, a living wage, equal starting points in life, and more.
All of this leads to the understanding of our rights as “negative.” Beisner notes “Properly understood, rights are not guarantees that something will be provided for us but guarantees that what is ours will not be unjustly taken from us. That is, properly speaking, rights are not positive but negative.”
We have a right to not have things taken away from us: our life and our property. If we are left alone then our rights have not been violated. If someone commits violence against us or steals our property, our rights have been violated.
Compare this “negative” formulation to the “positive” one used by proponents of social justice
In a post at TGC, Jonathan Leeman calls Sproul’s understanding of Scripture “autistic.”
Some contemporary political ideologies claim justice requires an equality of fair process, so that the same rules apply to everyone. Others say it requires an equality of outcome or at least opportunity, such that no one’s too poor and no one’s too rich. What does the Bible say?
Certainly Scripture calls for fair processes (Exod. 23:2, 6; Deut. 16:19–20). But justice in Scripture isn’t only concerned with fair process. According to passages like Psalm 140, it’s concerned with “the cause” of the weak and disadvantaged (Ps. 140:12; cf. Deut. 24:17–18; Pss. 10:18; 82:3; Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:1–2; Jer. 5:28; 22:13–16). Psalm 72’s perfect king, for instance, possesses this concern:
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (v. 2)
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! (v. 4)
For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (vv. 12–14)…
The problem with affirming justice merely as fair process is that it views people as isolated units. It depends on a shallow and almost autistic anthropology that’s low on empathy and fails to conceive of humans as relational beings with structurally-formed identities.
By “the cause [misphat],” Leeman means eliminating life disparities between the poor and the rest of society: giving them their daily bread, providing them with a better education, etc. These are known as “positive rights” because if someone leaves you alone they have violated your rights. If you do not have food or shelter and an individual who does have food and shelter does not step in to provide for you, they have violated your rights. In this particular article he specifically has in mind equal starting points in life. There is much wisdom in Leeman’s careful essay, but on this specific point regarding the nature of justice, we believe he errs. If he had left the issue as a matter of love and mercy towards the poor and needy, we would find little to disagree with and a great deal to affirm. As Beisner notes “My right to life means I have a right not to be murdered or assaulted, but it doesn’t mean I have a right to have someone else ensure that all the conditions of my survival are met.”
Note the texts Leeman appeals to are the same ones we discussed above. The difference is he assumes “the cause” (“the rights”) of the poor refers to everything they may want or need in life that those better off than them have. But there is no reason to understand these texts as anything other than insuring that the poor get their day in court and the matter is judged impartially (see Luke 18:3). Leeman largely tracks with Keller on this point and also appeals to Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice.”
In Generous Justice, Keller seeks to defend the concept of positive rights (our term, not his) first of all by appeal to God’s command to care for the poor. However, as we saw in the previous post, the fact that God commands us to love our neighbor does not entail that every act of love towards our neighbor is a matter of justice. Oftentimes it is a matter of mercy (as Jesus says the Good Samaritan’s actions were), which R.C. Sproul explains is a matter of “non-justice.” Again, as we discussed in the previous post, God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the unjust (those who do not deserve God’s rain or sun) as a matter of grace. As we imitate God, we are to graciously give to others who do not earn our gift, especially to those who need it.
Keller appeals to several Mosaic laws to argue that the poor have a right to the property of others.
But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. (1)
Deuteronomy 18 gives two reasons why these provisions are due to the Levites. First, because they did not receive any portion of the promised land that was divided between the other tribes (from which they derived their livelihood). Their legal inheritance was not the land, rather, their legal inheritance was to receive their livelihood from the other tribes for their work as priests. That was entirely unique to Israel’s special relationship to the holy land. Note well this second point: They were being paid for their labor. God said it was due to them because God commanded that they must do this work on behalf of the people. As Jesus said, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7). So it was the priests’ right – what they were due.
Is there any basis to then interpret Proverbs 31:9 as teaching that the poor have a right to the property of others simply because they are poor? No, not at all. Proverbs 31:9 simply refers to the administration of justice to the poor and needy for violations of their negative right to life and property, as we saw above. Keller simply builds upon this foundational misinterpretation throughout the rest of his book.
[I]f you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”… Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. (1-2)
That’s not what the texts say. They say that neglect of fair trial for the poor and needy is a violation of justice. They do not say that failure to provide them with others’ property in order to make their prosperity equal to others is a violation of justice.
Keller appeals to the numerous laws in Deuteronomy 15 to argue the poor and needy had a right to their brothers’ property. Verses 7-11 command that if an Israelite falls in to poverty then his fellow Israelite should lend him what he needs to get out of poverty. Note that this was a loan (8-9). It was not like payment to the Levites. The poor man did not have a legal right, a legal claim to his brothers’ property. Yes, he could cry out to God for his brothers’ disobedience to God if he refused to loan the money (9), but he cannot take him to court. The loan also had to be paid back (until the year of release).
Every 7 years was a year of release wherein Israelites were commanded not to exact a debt from their brother. They were allowed to continue extracting it from any foreigners they had loaned to. Furthermore, they were commanded not to charge interest on loans made to poor Israelites (Ex. 22:25). Likewise, if a fellow Hebrew became their slave, they were to release them after 6 years. These were not matters of justice for the poor of the world, they were commands from a gracious God that had redeemed a people from slavery and established a unique covenant arrangement with them, calling them to imitate his character and care for one another as a family. Keller admits
It is true that the social legislation of the Old Testament is largely about caring for the needy inside the believing [or rather just “covenant”] community. Also most examples of generosity in the New Testament are of care for the poor within the church, such as the support for widows (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Even Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats uses the test of caring for those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers,” probably referring to poor believers. (57-58)
Surveying the texts he calls upon, we see that Keller’s opinion that mishpat means the poor have a right to the property of others, because they are poor, is not derived from Scripture. He strings various texts together to try to weave a quilt of social justice at the cost of properly understanding each passage. He has imported an unbiblical understanding of “justice” into the text. As we have seen in the last 2 posts, Keller is quite open about the fact that he first held to a Neo-Marxist understanding of justice and only later found the same “justice” in Scripture. We believe his prior sympathies have led him to misread Scripture.
The 6th and 8th commandments govern our use of force and our treatment of others’ property. We have a right to the value that accrues from our work in subduing the earth. However, the fall has cursed all of creation (Gen. 3:17-19). There is no guarantee that our sweat will be productive. If we fall into poverty, we do not therefore have the right to the property of others. We must cast ourselves upon the love and mercy of God and the love and mercy of others. If, however, in that vulnerable state someone commits violence against us, defrauds us of our wages, steals our property, or in other creative ways oppresses us by violating our negative rights, we have a just complaint before the judges and the judges have an obligation to hear our case (our cause) and administer justice according to lex talionis. That is justice for the poor and needy and it is needed today just as much as it was in the days of apostate Judah – and at every point in history since the fall.
I had hoped to develop this further but I simply have not had time. But I do want to say something.
Libertarianism is the legal theory (with political ramifications) that the initiation of aggression (or the threat to initiate aggression) against the property of another human being, is a crime. This is commonly known as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” Notably, this applies to all men, including the government. Thus no government may initiate aggression against a citizen. The logical result of this is that taxation is theft and a monopolization of the enforcement of justice (i.e. “the state”) is immoral. Instead, a moral governing order consists of multiple, competing private justice enforcement companies who insure private individuals. (For more on this, please read Stephen Kinsella’s What Libertarianism Is.) For the libertarian, that which is illegal is determined by private property ownership and therefore not all things that may be categorized as immoral, unethical, or sinful are necessarily criminal.
I was exposed somewhat to libertarianism by my high school economics teacher. I learned more about it in college. I also learned reformed theology in college. I spent time trying to develop a biblical political philosophy but found myself reaching dead-ends. I focused instead on developing my overall theology, and covenant theology in particular, setting aside political philosophy. I considered myself a libertarian and owned Mises’ Human Action and Rothboard’s Man, Economy, and State. But I never got around to reading through them.
A few years later, C.Jay Engel stumbled upon my blog and reached out, seeing that we were of very like mind on many things. He invited me to blog at his site ReformedLibertarian.com. Around the same time I had other friends ask me to respond to a new, growing group of Facebook Theonomists. So I once again ventured into the realm of biblical political philosophy (but this time with a more robust biblical & covenant theology). The study was fruitful (at least to me) and I focused on exegetical and historical theology. My libertarianism was under-developed and I leaned heavily on C.Jay for working out the specifics and the applications (I managed to read a couple chapters from Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State but I never got around to reading any Hoppe).
The primary, underlying question for me has always been the justification of the use of violence. Put another way: the just origin of civil government. The more I studied the issue, the more convinced I became of libertarianism because all of the other justifications failed, in my opinion. Obviously might does not make right, so conquest is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Neither can rulers claim special, divine anointing from God, so divine right is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Some early reformed, such as Calvin, argued that the just origin of civil government/rulers is simply God’s providence. But this is a confusion of God’s two wills and merely side-steps the question.
After Calvin, most reformed argued that the only possible just origin of civil government is the consent of the governed. They argued that the office of ruler is established by God and given a monopoly on violence. The people cannot exercise that use of force so they must choose someone to do so. The problem with this view is that Gen 9:6 grants all image bearers the authority (and duty) to wield the sword in the administration of justice. Thus in the nation of Israel we see that the next of kin has the authority and duty to avenge the death of a relative (a practice found throughout tribal societies ancient and modern).
Furthermore, the “social contract” variation on the consent theory would require ongoing consent of every individual in order to remain valid (a point made by Kuyper, and Filmer before him), not to mention the fact that a majority cannot exercise authority over a non-consenting minority just because they are the majority.
And thus by processes of elimination I came to find the Non-Aggression Principle (libertarianism) to be biblical. Civil government does not possess any divine authority above and beyond divine authority given to all image bearers. Thus any claim by a ruler to have special authority over individuals must be fraudulent. Therefore “the state” (a monopoly on violence in any given region) is fraudulent. Furthermore it must therefore be immoral for any individual or institution to use force for anything other than self-defense and retributive justice according to lex talionis.
However, there remained an undeveloped aspect in my mind. I did not believe the concept of a king or prince was inherently unjust and immoral. I did not believe there was anything unjust about Abraham amassing a great deal of wealth and servants. Someone could likewise become wealthy enough to own extensive property and have people living under his authority without injustice. Such a king could place any number of requirements upon those living on his land. It’s private property after all.
Now what happens when that king/prince/landowner dies? Does all his property simply revert back to being unowned property that can be claimed by anyone? No. His property is passed on to someone of his choosing. This is often his son, but it could be anyone. If the king had an agreement/contract with his tenants, then his son would have to honor that contract. Thus various rules governing living in a particular land could be passed down through generations without losing their legal force (and without violating the 6th or 8th commandments).
In like manner, any group of landowners could come together to pool their resources for self-defense and also establish some common rules for living in any of their lands (this coming together would have to be 100% consensual – not simply a majority). This too could retain its legal force after any or all of these original owners died or even sold their land. This is more or less what a Homeowner’s Association or CC&R is. When I purchased land to build a home, it came attached with certain conditions put in place by the original owner of the land. If I violate those conditions, I am legally liable to the other homeowners under the same CC&R for violating that agreement.
Thus it begins to appear that there is a just, biblical basis for a civil government monopoly to exist and to enforce laws beyond the Non-Aggression Principle. Taxation could be one such law. This is a conclusion that C.Jay arrived at, leading him to question whether he could rightly be called a libertarian any longer. He has written about it here, here, and here.
Of course, this is all theoretical and abstract. It does not itself tell us anything about any particular, existing civil government. Any particular government could have a just basis for their authority, but they might just as well have no legitimate basis. The history of the world does not present us with a nice, tidy chain of custody (Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote against Rutherford in defense of royal absolutism, argued that 17th century kings had absolute property rights to their land that originally derived from Noah dividing the world between his sons). Rather, history is full of war, conquest, murder, and theft of people and property (i.e. lots of broken, disregarded, and illegally imposed CC&Rs). So assessing whether any particular government’s authority is de jure or merely de facto requires a great deal of wisdom (which is why, in my opinion, our command to be subject to rulers is not contingent upon their claim to authority being just).
There remain many further avenues for me to explore. Is a property owner’s authority absolute (as James Ussher argued a king’s was)? Can they prohibit an image bearer from exercising retributive justice on their property? If so, would they simply be banished, or can they justly be killed for violating the king’s law? The latter would be contingent upon a tenant making a self-maledictory oath, promising to obey the law of the land upon pain of death. Would such an oath be binding upon his children? Would they have opportunity to depart from the land if they don’t agree? What if there is nowhere else to go on earth? Are they bound by their father’s oath? Are there any restrictions on what a property owner may justly require or impose upon such tenants as an agreed condition for living in his land? Can natural law (the moral law written on the heart of all men) restrict property rights in the sense that it limits said conditions? Or would it only affect the landowner’s standing before God, but not men? In the event of conquest, is it possible to re-establish just property rights? What do we do if a chain of custody for any given land (along with any attached conditions or covenant/constitution) cannot be determined?
So much more noodling remains, but I wanted to share where I am at because I don’t anticipate having very much time to develop these thoughts further, and these thoughts do affect how we view current events around us. I don’t think there is much from my writings at ReformedLibertarian.com that I would drastically change or disagree with (for example, I still disagree with 2LBCF 24.1). As I migrate them over to this blog, I’ll note at the beginning of any post if I have changed any part of it.
8:4 is saying that because Christ is a member of the superior priesthood, His work cannot be done on earth. To engage in priestly ministry on earth is the province of the inferior Levitical priesthood, which is exercised according to the Mosaic law, the law that cannot perfect anyone.
John Owen says these better promises are the new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31:33–34 that God will write His law on the hearts of His people and remember their sin no more, that is, finally and fully forgive them. These promises were not fulfilled by the old covenant mediated by Moses. After all, the repeated sacrifices of the Mosaic law mean that the old covenant could not provide full and final forgiveness. They, and the old covenant of which they were a part, could only remind people of sin, not remove it (Heb. 10:1–18). Furthermore, the law demonstrates that the old covenant cannot be the means by which God writes His commandments on the hearts of His people. Deuteronomy 31:14–29 foresees that Israel as a nation would be so corrupt as to break the old covenant. The people would need a new heart, a heart that would come only after the nation of Israel broke the old covenant and suffered the curse of exile (30:1–10).
Nevertheless, the reality of the new covenant promises belonged to the old covenant saints. After all, David, an old covenant believer, enjoyed the complete and final forgiveness of sins in his justification (Rom. 4:5–8). No one is saved except through Christ and His new covenant, which is the ultimate expression of the one covenant of grace between God and His people (John 14:6). The old covenant saints belonged also to the one covenant of grace, though they lived prior to the inauguration of the new covenant. They, no less than us, were redeemed by Jesus alone, though their understanding of this was less full than is ours as new covenant believers.
The new covenant is necessary, Hebrews 8:8 tells us, because God found fault with the people. Our Creator never intended the old covenant to bring the blessings we have under the new covenant, though the old covenant saints possessed the benefits of the new covenant, albeit to a lesser degree than we do…
In and through the new covenant, we get what the subcovenants of the covenant of grace hoped for. The new covenant, Hebrews 8:10 reveals, is the means by which God’s promise to be God to Abraham is accomplished (see Gen. 17:7).
While disagreeing with the author’s interpretation of Gen 17:7 (see here), he correctly notes that Abraham was saved by the new covenant. Abraham, and all other Old Testament saints, received the promises/blessings of the new covenant in advance of its formal establishment.