Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.
Commentators lament that Galatians 3:16 is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the Bible. Pink says “this passage has occasioned the commentators much trouble, no two of them agreeing in its interpretation. It is commonly regarded as one of the most abstruse passages in all the Pauline Epistles.” Morris notes “At first glance, Gal 3.16 seems to be an example of careful grammatical exegesis; Paul observes and interprets the minutia of the text, stopping to parse a single word in the Biblical text.” I’ve seen the verse used to defend the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture: “Paul rests his argument of Galatians 3:16 upon a doctrine of verbal inspiration. Here the difference between a singular (“seed”) and plural (“seeds”) in Genesis 12:7; 13:15; and 17:7 is the basis of Paul’s argument.” But upon closer inspection one realizes that there is no such minutia in the text. There simply is no “seeds” vs “seed” in the text of Genesis. The word ולזרעך/σπέρμα itself can refer to plural or singular seed. In Genesis 13:15 and 17:8 (the two verses commentators believe Paul is quoting), it is clearly plural (“like the dust of the earth”). Furthermore, Paul uses the word in the plural sense in Romans 4:18; 9:7, and Galatians 3:29. Thus there simply is no appeal to the text to make Paul’s argument.
A common interpretation is that Paul is simply arguing typologically. Yes, Israel were Abraham’s descendants (plural), but Christ is Abraham’s true descendant. He is true Israel. Lightfoot notes “the people of Israel is the type of Christ: and in the New Testament parallels are sought in the career of the one to the life of the other. (See especially the application of Hosea xi. 1 to our Lord in Matt. ii. 15.)” While this may be true and in line with Paul and other NT writing elsewhere, it doesn’t explain his “seeds” vs “seed” comment. Typology involves analogy and does not deny the type when explaining the anti-type. Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 does not deny that God also called the nation of Israel out of Egypt, but Paul here denies the plural was ever intended by the promise and argues only for the singular. Lightfoot says “Doubtless by the seed of Abraham was meant in the first instance the Jewish people, as by the inheritance was meant the land of Canaan; but in accordance with the analogy of Old Testament types and symbols, the term involves two secondary meanings…” But Paul is not arguing for a “secondary meaning” of the seed. He is arguing for the only meaning.
Corporate Solidarity Interpretation
Some try to evade this dilemma by taking the typological interpretation one step further, arguing that Paul is referring to the body of Christ – all believers united to Christ, the head. Therefore Paul does have in mind a plurality and there is no need to get hung up on the singular vs plural. Pink argues “‘to Abraham and his seed’ must mean ‘to Abraham and his spiritual seed were the promises made.'” Summarizing this view, Morris says “then there is no reason for the individual sense to war against the corporate, because the two are so closely tied to one another.” But this simply ignores the fact that Paul’s argument rests precisely upon making the individual sense war against the corporate, plural sense.
Another step is taken down this line of interpretation by arguing that although the promises were originally made in the plural, over the course of history the line in which the promise was fulfilled was narrowed. First Isaac, not Ishmael, then Jacob, not Esau, and on down the line until it is narrowed down to one individual, Jesus. Pink “The promises were limited originally, and that limitation was evidenced more clearly by successive revelations, until it was shown that none but Christ (and those united to Him) were included: “And to thy seed, which is Christ” (mystical)!… The promises of God were never made to all the descendants of Abraham, like so many different kinds of “seed,” but were limited to the spiritual line, that is, to “Christ” mystical.” Calvin argues in this manner.
Among Abraham’s own sons a division began, for one of the sons was cut off from the family… Since the ten tribes were carried away, (Hosa 9:17,) how many thousands have so degenerated that they no longer hold a name among the seed of Abraham? Lastly, a trial was made of the tribe of Judah, that the real succession to the blessing might be transmitted among a small people… The uninterrupted succession to this privilege must have been in force until Christ; for, in the person of David, the Lord afterwards brought back by recovery, as we might say, the promise which had been made to Abraham. In proving, therefore, that this prediction applies to a single individual, Paul does not make his argument rest on the use of the singular number. He merely shews that the word seed must denote one who was not only descended from Abraham according to the flesh, but had been likewise appointed for this purpose by the calling of God.
What Calvin says is true. God’s sovereign election determined which of Abraham’s physical seed were recipients of the promise. That is precisely what Paul argues in Romans 9. But that is not the argument Paul makes here. Rather Paul does “make his argument rest on the use of the singular number.” Furthermore, it ignores that Genesis 13:15 and 17:7 promise that a plurality of seed will inherit the land of Canaan – a promise that was fulfilled (Deut 34:4; 2 Chron 20:7; Num 23:10; 1 Kings 3:8) many years prior to Christ.
Sensus Plenior Interpretation
Looking at these interpretive challenges, Morris concludes that Galatians 3:16 demonstrates the validity and necessity of Roman Catholicism’s sensus plenior, which sees multiple meanings in the texts of Scripture, over against Protestantism’s singular meaning – because Paul could not have arrived at his conclusion from the text of Genesis.
Regardless of the text cited, whether Gen 13.15, ff. or 17.5-8, the Old Testament interpreter would almost certainly read these references to the seed (σπέρμα/ זֶרַע ) as a collective singular; plural in meaning with no indication that the original human author intended a truly singular sense. As demonstrated in the preceding examination of Rom 4 and Gal 3, Paul reads them as both plural and singular, without any evidence from the original context to signal singularity other than a form that he himself uses as collective (cf. Gal 3.29)…
Is it possible to see an original/ literal sense and at the same time read a present, ecclesiological sense in a single passage. As Hays so ably argues this seems to be Paul’s use of the Abrahamic seed in Gal 3.39 The two seem to be in parallel portions of a hermeneutical chiasm that converges at Christ and his advent. In this scheme Christ and the Christological meaning in the text would be the most inclusive and fullest sense (a sensus plenior) flanked by the two lesser (temporally bound) meanings, the original and the “ecclesiological.”
Setting aside the problems with the sensus plenior view (see also here), if we admit its validity for argument’s sake, it still does not resolve the problem in Galatians 3:16! As we saw above, Paul does not claim to be merely drawing out the “fullest sense” of the Abrahamic promises in Genesis 13 and 17, while acknowleding a separate original meaning. Paul is aruging that his interpretation is the original and only meaning! His argument against the Judaizers rests upon it.
Alternate Source Interpretation
Most commentators believe Paul is quoting/referencing Genesis 13:15 and/or 17:7. Lightfoot notes ““(1) The words must be spoken to Abraham himself, and not to one of the later patriarchs; (2) That καὶ must be part of the quotation. These considerations restrict the reference to Gen. xiii. 15, xvii. 8, either of which passages satisfies these conditions.” But as we have seen, Paul cannot be appealing to these verses for his argument about the seed. Are there any other verses in Genesis that Paul could be referring to? Some commentators argue that Paul has Genesis 22:18 in mind. Collins argues that “The best criterion for whether this is Paul’s source is whether it allows us to make sense of his argument.”
Collins helpfully starts this inquiry where many commentators do not: Galatians 3:8. He notes that Paul could potentially be quoting Gen 12:3; 18:18; or 22:18 [he also notes 26:4; 28:14; Ps. 72:17 contain the “blessing”], concluding that “Paul’s source in Galatians 3:8 is a composite, mixing terms from… these LXX passages.” Turning to Galatians 3:16, Collins lists the verses in Genesis where σπέρμα (‘seed, offspring’) occur with a bearing on Abraham:
[W]e have 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8, 19; 22:18; 24:7. Of these, most deal with the giving of the land to Abraham’s offspring: 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7… In my judgment, the land promise texts (such as Gn. 13:15; 17:8) are not an encouraging line for investigation, because (1) the local nature of the promised land would not easily serve Paul’s argumentative purpose for the Gentiles; and (2) none of these is in the list of ‘blessing’ texts [that Paul quotes in Gal. 3:8]. The comment of F.F. Bruce is telling: ‘The reference to the land, however, plays no part in the argument of Galatians.’
Let that sink in. Paul has already told us which promise he is referring to. Why would we then assume he is arguing from a verse (Gen 13:15 or 17:8) that does not refer to that promise? That leaves Gen. 17:19 and 22:18. 17:19 is actually about the offspring of Isaac, so it does not apply. Thus we have 22:18.
Collins notes “Desmond Alexander has offered grammatical reasons for taking the ‘offspring’ in this text as a specific descendant.” Alexander concludes
The blessing of ‘all the nations of the earth’ is thus associated with a particular descendant of Abraham, rather than with all those descended from him. When we look outside of Genesis for allusions to 22:17b-18a, only one appears to exist. This
comes in Psalm 72:17 where we find the expression, (‘and may all nations be blessed through him’). From the content of Psalm 72 it is clear that the individual
mentioned here, through whom all nations shall be blessed, is a royal figure… The similarity between Genesis 22:18a and Psalm 72:17b is striking and supports the idea that the ‘seed’ mentioned in Genesis 22:17b-18a does not refer to all Abraham’s descendants, but rather to a single individual.
Morris summarizes this view:
Most references to Abraham’s seed in Genesis are immediately preceded or followed by plural pronouns or other referents for which the seed serves as antecedent, seeming to make plain the term’s collective sense in the context. Gen 22.18 emerges from the promises in Genesis fitting for a singular referent and works well theologically as looking forward to Christ’s redeeming the Gentiles. In the context of Gen 22, it is much easier to find an individual referent in verse 18. Verses 16 and 17 still deal with the multiplication of Abraham’s seed, but in verse 18, the seed is named as the agent of blessing for the nations, a unique statement among YHWH’s promises concerning Abraham’s seed. It parallels the original promises of Gen 12.2, 3, in which Abraham is said to be a blessing for others and it is in him that all the families of the earth will be blessed…
In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, YHWH’s promise to Abraham differs from His previous covenantal pronouncements. He has tended to promise Abraham and his unidentified seed blessings and land (cf. Gen 13.15, 17.8) whereas in Gen 22, YHWH emphasizes the blessing that will come through or “in” Abraham’s seed. In other pronouncements of the Abrahamic promises, the “seed” serves as the antecedent for plural pronouns in the following verses, as is noted above. However, in 22.18, even though there have been references to plurality (cf. 17a) there is a sudden shift to the singular in v. 17b. Often translated with a plural gloss to smooth out the reading, the text literally reads, “your seed will possess the gate of his enemies.” This would seem to be a legitimate textual clue within the original context to see a sudden shift in referent, probably signaling some messianic or prophetic significance.
Problems with Genesis 22:18
Thus it appears quite clear that Paul is referring to Genesis 22:18 when he argues that the seed is singular. This would resolve a lot of problems and bring significant clarity to Galatians 3 as a whole. However, some have raised objections. Pink argues
J. N. Darby seeks to cut the knot by changing the apostle’s “promises” to “the promise,” restricting the reference to Genesis 22. Yet not only is the Greek in the plural number, but such an idea is plainly refuted by the “four hundred and thirty years after,” which necessarily carries us back to Genesis 12.
Morris likewise objects “It is striking that “the promises made to Abraham and to his seed” are most definitely plural (αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι), and therefore almost certainly cannot come from Genesis 22.18 alone, if at all, as there is only one promise made to the seed in that passage (cf. 22.17).”
First, even commentators that do not hold to the “22:18 view” recognize that the plural “promises” refers to repetitions of God’s promise, not to multiple promises. Lightfoot notes that promises is in “The plural, for the promise was several times repeated to Abraham.” Burton likewise notes “the basis for which is the repeated occasions on which the promise was made to Abraham, and the various forms in which it was expressed.” This makes complete sense when we recall Collins’ observation that “Paul’s source in Galatians 3:8 is a composite, mixing terms from… these LXX passages.” Thus Paul’s primary appeal to 22:18 is inclusive of the other repitions of the same promise.
Second, Pink objects to the timing, noting that Genesis 12 must be in view. Coxe agrees regarding the timing “From the giving of the first promise to Abraham, which we have recorded in Genesis 12:2, 3, to that very night in which the children of Israel were brought out of their Egyptian bondage, is the computation of these years made. This will be evident to anyone who will diligently compare the chronology of those times with the express testimony of Moses (Exodus 12:41).” But this is no problem at all if we recognize that the promise in 22:18 is inclusive of Genesis 12:3.
Next, Morris raises a grammatical objection.
Isolated from the original Hebrew text this option appears to have great potential as a resolution for Paul’s seemingly deviant contention in Gal 3. Unfortunately, this view encounters more difficulties in the phrasing and syntax of Gal 3.16. As noted above, Paul makes his citation (whether allusion or quotation) using the dative (τῷ σπέρματι). And while the Greek dative allows for some ambiguity (in either the NT or LXX), the Hebrew constructions used are syntactically exclusive. The two semantic functions have the possibility of sharing a form in Greek, but in Hebrew there is a formal difference: either a prefixed בְּ or לְ preposition.
Perhaps Paul was merely alluding to the text, rather than quoting it? Morris objects.
Paul’s attention to the exact forms within the text coupled with his using an exact match forGen 13.15 or 17.8 makes too compelling a case for direct quotation. It does not feel loose or divergent enough for a conceptual allusion. The presence of the otherwise rogue καί is even more compelling. In the context of Gal 3.16, the use of καί is too awkward to be anything other than a portion of the quote…
Paul’s language here is not generic enough to include promises from Gen 12.2, 3; 15.5; or 22.18. His phrasing is an exact match for Gen 13.15 and 17.8… So, Paul has quoted directly, and he has done so in a way that excludes Gen 22.18, the only text that seems to have a singular seed clearly in view.
So we have quite the dilemma. There is a text in Genesis that perfectly fits the logic of Paul’s argument, but Paul is specifically quoting a text that does not fit the logic of his argument at all, and in fact refutes it.
Two Promises Made to Abraham?
What if Paul is specifically quoting Gen. 13:15 and 17:8, but making an argument about 22:18? Paul is addressing Judaizers, which were made up of the physical descendants of Abraham who possessed the land of Canaan – that is, the people referred to in Gen. 13:15 and 17:8. And he is arguing with them about a different promise concerning blessing the nations, found in 22:18. The Judaizers did not distinguish those promises, but conflated them. They argued that all of the promises God made to Abraham were made to them. Paul responds by pointing out the difference between the promises. There was, in fact, a promise made to or about them, as we find in 13:15 and 17:8 “and to your offspring (plural).” But this other promise was different. In Genesis 22:18 “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” In other words, Paul’s point is that the promise in 22:18 is different from the promise in 13:15 and 17:8.
Abraham’s Two Seeds
One chapter later in Galatians 4:21-31, Paul distinguishes between two sons of Abraham. Commenting on this passage, Augustine notes
This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants—the old and the new… In the earthly city, then, we find two things—its own obvious presence, and its symbolic presentation of the heavenly city. And this was typified in the two sons of Abraham,—Ishmael, the son of Agar the handmaid, being born according to the flesh, while Isaac was born of the free woman Sarah, according to the promise. Both, indeed, were of Abraham’s seed; but the one was begotten by natural law, the other was given by gracious promise. In the one birth, human action is revealed; in the other, a divine kindness comes to light.
Commenting on the parallel passage Romans 9:6-8, Augustine said
And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise
Augustine traced this back to the Abrahamic Covenant.
Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”…
“And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7) Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed…
[T]he people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.
This is precisely Paul’s point.
In the 17th century, Presbyterians argued for their ecclesiology from the structure of the Jewish church. It was divided geographically and functioned with varying levels of authority (presbytery, general assembly, etc). Gillespie said “it is plain from Scripture that there was at least a two-fold ecclesiastical court among the Jews, the synagogue and the sanhedrim, the latter having authority above the former.” An important part of this argument was distinguishing between the church and the state in Israel. “That there was an high ecclesiastical sanhedrim, distinct from the civil sanhedrim, is observed by Pelargus, on Deut. 17., and Sopingius, ad Bonam Fidem Sibrandi, p. 261, et seq., beside many others cited before, part 1, chapter 11. And that it was so we prove from three places of the Old Testament… We find Deut. 17, a distinction of two supreme judicatories, to be set in the place which the Lord should choose to put his name there,—the one of the priests and Levites, the other of the judges.” Both the Episcopalians and the Separatists/Congregationalists argued that appeal cannot be made to Israel. In response, Gillespie argued
Is it right dealing now to forbid us to reason from the form of the Jews? I will not use any further expostulation, but let the reader judge. The truth is this: Even as that which is in a child, as he is a child, agreeth not to a man, yet that which is in a child, as he is animal rationale, agreeth also to a man; so what we find in the Jewish church, as it was Jewish, or in infancy, and under the pedagogy of the law, agreeth not indeed to the Christian church. But whatsoever the Jewish church had, as it was a political church, or ecclesiastical republic (of which sort of things the diversity and subordination of ecclesiastical courts was one), doth belong by the same reason to the Christian church. I say further, though the commonwealth and civil policy of the Jews be not in all points a pattern to our civil policy, yet I am sure it is no error to imitate the civil policy of the Jews in such things as they had, not for any special reason proper to them, but are common to all well constituted commonwealths; and so we may argue from their commonwealth, that it is a good policy to have divers civil courts, and the higher to receive appellations from the inferior, as it was among them. Shall we not, by the very like reason, fetch from their ecclesiastical republic diversity of spiritual courts, and the supreme to receive appellations from the inferior, because so was the constitution of the Jewish church, and that under the common respect and account of a political church, and not for any special reason which doth not concern us?
The Church of England should derive it’s ecclesiastical polity from the Jewish church, and the commonwealth of England should derive its civil polity from the commonwealth of Israel.
In an essay titled Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity, Jonathan Brack summarizes a debate that took place in the Westminster Assembly between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.
Mr. Calamy argues for a Gillespie-like understanding of a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical courts from Deuteronomy 17:12:
Here is a distinctive that hints 2 courts. By ‘priests’ is not meant one priest but many. By “Judge” cannot be meant the high priest, for he is contradistinct from the priest. 2. Cron. 19:8–11 ther is the resistution of them by Jehosaphat. This text showes the distinction of the Judicatories. The words in the 8 v. read with a reduplication.
Goodwin, a Congregationalist, objected.
In questioning the often-used Deut. 17: 8–9 and 2 Chron. 35:8 texts posed by Gillespie, where Gillespie demonstrated a distinction between church and state in the Old Testament, Goodwin showed himself to be functioning from a different hermeneutical angle. An angle that disagreed on the status and nature of the Jewish church in the Old Testament,
That which belonged to this Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, it was either matters Judiciall, therefore called ‘matters of the Lord’ because God had given expresse … Or matters of the king, the things of his revenew, or perhaps matters of warre and peace, yet soe as they did not … The church & state ware involved in one. Their lawes ware the lawes of God. Their judicialls had spirituals in them. 
Goodwin along with Phillip Nye challenged the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical.
Phillip Nye launched into a long speech attempting to disprove the civil and ecclesiastical distinction made from Deuteronomy 17:8–9.
The matter before us is about the validity of this place of scripture to prove that besides the priests an addition of elders. My concievements are that the totum totalum of the common wealth ware of a mixt nature … Ther is no such a perpetuall intermixture throughout all as in the Jewish church.
Goodwin’s point was that everything given in Deuteronomy was “ecclesiastical” in a certain sense. This was because, for Goodwin, ecclesiastical and civil are one and the same in the Old Testament. To this, Lord Say added that on these grounds,
It ware much better to find out those places that established a ground for this ruling elder in the New Testament wher this constitution was.
So the Congregationlists argued that Israel was a unique entity of a “mixt nature” that cannot be appealed to in order to establish church government under the New Covenant.
Brack goes on to highlight how the Presbyterians pointed out inconsistencies in the Congregationalists on this point.
After Calamy represents the basic Presbyterian position of Old Testament roots for elder-rule, Gillespie strengthens the argument by arguing for hermeneutical implications,
Something to strengthen what is spoken. The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also.
…How can the Assembly agree to pedo-baptism by appealing to the Old Testament, without also functioning the same way for the debate on church polity?… If one were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for elder rule, then one were to cut loose the very ground for Presbyterianism, not to mention baptism…
To this Mr. Vines pressed Goodwin and Lord Say on the exact same hermeneutical point made by Gillespie two days earlier,
For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism?
Richard Vines saw the inconsistency in hermeneutical method being deployed by the Congregationalists. If we were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for church polity, then what is to stop us from the Anabaptist tenet of cutting loose our progeny as well?
In 1953, in an essay titled The Relevance of the Theocracy, Kline wrote a short essay arguing against appeal to Israel for matters of civil government and ecclesiology. He said any such appeal is unwarranted because Israel was a unique theocratic entity unlike any other. It was a type of heaven. As a result, “church” and “state” were of a “mixt nature.”
If we do listen we will not try to segment the Theocracy into the usual three discrete institutions. We will not then say: “Here (e.g. in Aaron) is the church, and here (e.g. in Moses or David) is the state, and there the family.” Not even roughly speaking. For all that can be said accurately is, “Here are theocratic priests, here are theocratic kings, here are theocratic prophets and there are the theocratic people from whose ranks all these have come. (Cf. Ex. 28:1; Dt. 17:5; 18:5.)…
That the horns of the dilemma are vaporous is evident, for the argument rests on an utterly false equation of the theocratic monarchy with the ordinary state. As observed above, neither church nor state is isolable within the Theocracy. It is therefore impossible to identify one theocratic institution such as the kingship with the ordinary concept of the state…
Our chief criticism again, in terms of the thesis of this article, is that to label the priests and/or the prophets as the church within the Theocracy [as the Presbyterians did] is unwarranted… God was in the midst of the covenant people and, therefore, all was church, as also all was family and all state – the church of God, the family of God, the Kingdom of God – all in one and one in all, and such was the Theocracy. However, if all is church and all is family and all is state, then nothing is church and nothing is family and nothing is state in the usual sense of those words. Strictly speaking all is Theocracy and nothing but Theocracy.
Like many modern Presbyterians, Kline has neglected the roots of Presbyterianism and is unaware that he has adopted the Congregationalist hermeneutic (see my post on Congregationalist covenant theology).
I will close with these words from Brack:
In recent church polity debates among Presbyterians and Particularists… appealing to Old Testament ecclesiastical polity in order to gain support for the purported theories of New Testament polity assumes a presupposed debated hermeneutical method. In other words, a foul is committed in the debate, since a disagreement over how one uses the Old Testament is not properly neutral. This truth, in the mind of many Presbyterians, is a strange inconsistency in the pattern of basic Reformed hermeneutic strategies.
Recognizing that Israel in the land of Canaan was a type of heaven necessarily leads to congregtaionalism and the rejection of paedobaptism, as Presbyterians warned from the beginning.
Did the subservient covenant view (which is brought to its logical conclusion and fullest expression in 1689 Federalism) have anything to do with the shift in theology that resulted in the 1788 American revision of the Westminster Confession and the founding of the United States? It would appear so.
William Findley (c. 1741 – April 4, 1821) was an Irish-born farmer and politician from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. He served in both houses of the state legislature and represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House from 1791 until 1799 and from 1803 to 1817. By the end of his career, he was the longest serving member of the House, and was the first to hold the honorary title “Father of the House”. He was an anti-federalist (arguing that the proposed constitution established a general government and destroyed the individual governments, which turned out to be true) and opposed the first central bank. He was also at one point a Presbyterian ruling elder.
He was born into a strict Covenanter family in Ireland (both his father and grandfather were Covenanters). He educated himself from a young age on his father’s large library. However, Findley eventually came to reject the Covenanter beliefs and was influential in altering American views.
[M]y great esteem for, and confidence in, those who prescribed these rules, and testified even to the death for them, made it long before I durst trust my own judgment in calling them in question. My early prepossessions against other denominations, as unsound and unfaithful, also discouraged my enquiry… On this subject I conversed with the minister, and gave my reasons in writing… I was equally averse to withdrawing from the communion of brethren, in whose piety I had great confidence, without giving such reasons as I judged, on due deliberation, might probably have equal weight with them. The subject was held under deliberation, while I withheld my child from baptism. Finally, it was discussed in full presbytery, accompanied by extra-judicial conference, in which I bore a part. The result was an agreement… [that] was unanimously adopted.
-Observations on Two Sons of Oil, p. 211-217
In 1803 a Covenanter pastor in Philadelphia named Samuel B. Wylie wrote The Two Sons of Oil; or, The Faithful Witness for Magistracy and Ministry Upon a Scriptural Basis in which he argued that the United States was an illegitimate government because it allowed liberty of conscience and therefore did not have to be obeyed. Here is a :90 overview
In 1812 Findley responded with Observations on “The Two Sons of Oil”. I stumbled upon Findley after reading Steven Wedgeworth’s helpful essay “THE TWO SONS OF OIL” AND THE LIMITS OF AMERICAN RELIGIOUS DISSENT.
Findley’s work is really helpful because it shows the thinking of American Presbyterians at the founding of the United States. How did they go from the 1646 establishmentarianism of the Westminster Confession (the Covenanter view) to the 1788 American revision? I’ll make another post in the future summarizing Findley’s political philosophy, but here I just want to highlight the surprising similarities between Findley’s arguments against the Covenanter position and the arguments that I and others have made against the Covenanter position.
1. Moral law = natural law written
“the law of the ten commandments, which is a compend of the moral law of nature” (3)
“the ten commandments, viz. a transcript of the moral law of their nature;” (17)
“The law of the ten commandments was an abstract of the moral law of nature” (18)
“It is evident, from the context [of Romans 2:14-15], that by law here is meant the written law revealed by the prophets; and that by nature, is meant the remains of the law of nature in man, by which their moral conduct is governed; which shews that the office of conscience is the same in all men, whether they have the written word or not.” (79)
- Compare Why PR2K?
2. After the fall, revealed moral law is necessary to properly understand natural law
“That many have exalted human reason above the revealed manifestations of God and his law, I well know… Deists substitute human reason and their knowledge of the law of nature, in the place of supernatural revelation; and thus, like the Jews of old, reject the counsel of God against themselves” (80)
- Compare Why PR2K? and God the Benevolent Scientist and Two Kingdoms Debate Analysis and Spectacles Prescribed: A Review of VanDrunen’s “A Biblical Case for Natural Law”
3. All other Mosaic law is positive law
“Every thing in the law of Moses, superadded to the moral law of nature, is positive or voluntary; and, therefore, changeable, according to circumstances and the will of the supreme legislator” (7)
“There is an evident distinction between moral precepts, and positive or voluntary appointments… Of this kind were all the additions made to the moral law, by the Mosaic institutions.” (8)
4. The general equity of Mosaic judicial laws (WCF 19.4) is the moral law
“The general equity of this, or any system, is in so far, the moral law; which, in the next section, those divines declare binds all men for ever.” (26)
“I have stated before, that what of the moral law is incorporated in the judicial law, is binding on all men.” (162)
- Compare The Theonomy Debate: Analysis
5. The moral law itself does not prescribe punishment by the sword
“The moral law… prescribes no penalties to be executed by man for the breaches of it… This being the case, it follows of course, that human penalties for breaches of the moral law, are no part of that law itself, as it relates to God” (10)
Remember that Covenanters like Rutherford argued that some form of punishment was part of moral law on the basis of the common law of nations. In the below article, I pointed out there was no Scriptural basis for that claim and that we may not appeal to the common law of nations to determine the matter. What is very worth noting here is that Findley appeals to Scripture to argue that Rutherford and the Covenanters are wrong on this point. I happen to disagree with his argument (that penal laws changed from Cain to Noah to Moses), but the important point is that he sought to establish the point from Scripture, not the common law of nations.
“The penalties of the judicial law were not of moral and universal obligation, because they were not from the beginning. Sixteen hundred and fifty six years had passed away, before the precepts were given to Noah that were equally applicable to all mankind; and 2513 years, before the Israelitish Theocracy was instituted; which only continued to operate in a small territory, during 1491 years; and never was applied to, or intended for, other nations. It could not be administered, but at the place, and by the judges, appointed by God, as the peculiar king of Israel. The moral law of nature was the same before man revolted from God, that it was afterwards; and will continue to be the same for ever. There was no place or use for temporal penalties to be inflicted by man on his fellow men, before that revolt: consequently, they are not the moral law, but were necessarily introduced because of transgression, for the protection of civil society, that men might be enabled to live peaceable lives, in godliness and honesty.” (15)
- Compare 1 Cor 5:13 is the general equity of Deut 22:21 (“the stipulation “that some punishment by the sword be inflicted” is positive law, not natural/moral law.)
[Note, I would revise my articulation of this point. Rather than arguing that all punishment by the sword is positive law instituted after the fall I am more inclined to argue that punishment by the sword is an exercise of man’s innate knowledge of lex talionis and its just use is therefore limited to defense and punishment for acts of violence against men.]
6. The Mosaic law is a unit and is thus abolished as a unit
“I find the law of Moses above fifty times expressly named or alluded to in the Old Testament, and as often, at least, in the New Testament, always as one law, and in no place with the distinction of judicial and ceremonial laws. The distinction, however, between moral and positive laws, is easily traced” (24)
Quoting Locke “the law of Moses is not obligatory upon christians. There is nothing more frivolous than that common distinction of moral, judicial and ceremonial law. No positive law can oblige any but those on whom it was enjoined. ‘Hear, O Israel,’ &c. restrains the obligation of the law to that people.—By a mistake of both Christians and Mahometans, it has been applied to other nations. The Israelitish nation themselves never did so, nor do the dispersed Israelites yet do so.” (25)
“the Sinai covenant is abolished; not in part, but wholly abrogated, disannulled, &c… no part of it remains obligatory on christians” (19)
“Having perfect confidence in the prophets and apostles, I do not suspect them of deceit—of saying a thing is vanished away, while it is only separated into two parts:—that instead of the Sinai covenant being abolished, it is divided into two Sinai covenants, the one of which is abolished, and the other remains in full force. If this had been the case, the prophets and apostles, being honest and inspired men, would have told us what was taken away, and what remained. I agree with the apostle Paul, that the whole of the Sinai covenant is abolished,” (94)
“Mr. Wylie, page 23, states, that ‘it is the magistrate’s duty to execute such penalties of the divine law, (meaning the peculiar law of Israel) as are not repealed or mitigated;’ [and another author says] ‘all the laws and precepts contained in the Old Testament, that are not repealed in the New, either by express precept, approven example, or by necessary consequence, are still binding—a law being once given, until it is repealed by the same authority, is still binding.’… Where either of them got the idea of repealing or mitigating divine laws, they have not informed us; certainly, however, they did not get it in their bible… I never read of a law for the mitigation of a law, but in the Sons of Oil. Positive laws have frequently been passed for special and local purposes, that ceased when the purposes were accomplished for which the legislature intended them… so did the whole additions to the moral law, contained in the Sinai covenant of peculiarity, when their object was accomplished, and the intention of the legislator fulfilled. They ceased, or were abrogated, but not repealed or mitigated… Divines have very commonly, for the sake of illustration, spoken of the peculiar law of Israel, under two distinct views, viz. as ceremonial, enjoining and regulating religious rites, and as judicial, regulating the courts of justice, &c. This distinction is often made without any injury to the subject; but having no foundation in the law itself, a precise line of distinction cannot be drawn… Divine wisdom has so intimately connected those precepts together, that they could not be separated. They, as a system, being the symbol or type of the New Testament church, were, like it, one body with many members… I find the law of Moses above fifty times expressly named or alluded to in the Old Testament, and as often, at least, in the New Testament, always as one law, and in no place with the distinction of judicial and ceremonial laws. The distinction, how- ever, between moral and positive laws, is easily traced” (21-24)
“On the freedom from the law of Moses, that great reformer, and emi- nently evangelical divine, Martin Luther, on Galatians iii. 19. shews at large, from the design and circumstances of giving that law, that it was to endure but for a short time, and on the well known allegory of the bond woman and the free—chap. iv. 21, &c. he shews the difference between the Jerusalem that then was, and was in bondage with her children, viz. the Jewish church, and the Jerusalem that is above, viz. the gospel church, which is the mother of all true believers. He agrees with the school doctors in the abolishment of the judicial and ceremonial law—but condemns the different senses they assign to scripture, and particularly their maintaining obedience even to the moral law, as a condition of acceptance with God, and that the unbelieving Jews erred in this respect, as much as in teaching obedience to the law of Moses, as a condition of justification with God. After proving this at large, he says: “There is also another abolish- ment of the law, which is outward, to wit, that the politic laws of Moses do nothing belong unto us.” That is to say, the parts of this law which belong to the civil administration of the Jewish government, have no relation to christians.” (180-181)
- Compare 1689 Federalism & Theonomy and How Christians Should Regard Moses (Luther) and Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist (on the Jersualem above vs the Jerusalem below) and They Are Not All Israel Who Are of Israel
7. The Old Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace
“It is presumed that no christian believes that eternal salvation was promised in the Sinai covenant; or, in other words, that it was the covenant of grace… The Sinai covenant, as has been shown be- fore, was symbolical or typical of the kingdom of Christ, through which, as through a glass darkly, true believers saw Christ’s day and rejoiced. The author, however, takes no notice of the divine antitype, who ful- filled every law that man had broken, and made atonement for trans- gressions, nor of the spiritual kingdom which he had instituted, and of which he had expressly declared that it was not of this world” (51)
“The learned [Thomas] Scott, on Exodus xxiv. 3, 4. says, ‘the covenant of grace is not made with whole nations, or collective bodies of divers characters, but only representatively with Christ, as the surety of the elect, and personally with true believers. But whilst this covenant was made with the nation of Israel, in respect to their outward blessings, it was a shadow of good things to come’… This covenant was distinct, both from the covenant of works, of which Adam was the surety, and under which, every unbeliever, in every age and nation, is bound; and from the covenant of grace, mediated by Christ, of which every believing Israelite received the blessing… See the same learned author on Heb. viii.” (19)
- This is known as the “subservient covenant” view. Compare 1689Federalism.com and An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ by Abraham Booth and Calvin vs 1689 Federalism on Old vs New and Thomas Scott on the Mosaic Covenant and all of the “Old Covenant” posts here.
8. The Old Covenant was made only with Israel and tied to the land
“the peculiar national covenant” (3)
“the national, commonly called the Sinai covenant, or law of peculiarity, because it originated at Sinai, and was only applicable to Israel.” (18)
“Now the intention of the Sinai covenant does not appear to have extended beyond the Israelites themselves” (9)
“The penalties enacted by the national law could only be executed within the bounds prescribed—Numbers, chap. xxxiv. Within these bounds, idolatry was not only a sin, as in other places, but it was, if committed by an apostate Israelite, treason against Jehovah, as their peculiar king. The iniquity of the devoted nations being full, they were to be destroyed; but no authority was given to punish idolatry out of those limits, nor even to carry their own worship out of the typically holy land.” (10)
“That this covenant, or national constitution, was local, viz. confined to a particular country, is evident through the whole transaction. The devoted nations are expressly described in different places, and the geo- graphical boundaries defined with precision, Num. xxxiv. 1–15. and the administration of the national law expressly limited to the land within those boundaries. Deut. iv. 14. “And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might do them in the land whither you go over to possess it.”… Those statutes and judgments were not to be administered in other lands.” (20)
“If the scripture foundation of the legislative authority, and infallibility of the church of Rome is unsound, where will the authors and other advocates of human legislatures, in and over protestant churches, find a scripture foundation to rest upon? Not on the law of Moses, because the operation and administration was intended for, and applied only to a peculiar people and precisely described territory, and the immediate superintendance of God, as before stated; and with relation to that pe- culiar people and territory, it waxed old and vanished away, agreeably to divine appointment. This is abundantly testified, both by the prophets and apostles. If this covenant and its laws were of general application, as plead by the authors, I demand proof of it, from the authority of the prophets and apostles. This they have not given, and cannot give. They make a general application of it on their own authority only, contrary to the testimony of the prophets and apostles themselves, on whose testi- mony, under Christ himself, the christian church is built.” (118)
“The law of Pennsylvania defines and provides for the punishment of both blasphemy and prophaneness, not because it is forbidden in the peculiar law of Moses, but because it is contrary to the moral law, and a corruption of manners. The law may yet provide for punishing idolatry on the same principles, but surely the law of Moses did not authorise it but in the symbolically holy land, where priests and Levites set as judges; nor to execute it on any but the devoted nations and apostate Israelites, and in defined cases.” (125)
“The Jews were not authorised to punish any idolatry but such as was expressly defined, and committed by persons expressly described, and within a territory expressly limited by divine authority.” (165)
- Compare 1 Cor 5:13 is the general equity of Deut 22:21 and An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ by Abraham Booth and Increase Mather’s Principles of Toleration
9. God was uniquely the immediate king of Israel
“Within these bounds, idolatry was not only a sin, as in other places, but it was, if committed by an apostate Israelite, treason against Jehovah, as their peculiar king.” (10)
“Under the peculiar constitution of Israel, as a nation, Jehovah was not only their God, in the same relation in which he stood to all the families of the earth, but he was also the immediate and peculiar king of Israel, as a nation. In that character, every offence committed against the peculiar laws of the national covenant, or constitution, was not only an offence, or crime against these laws, but a sin against Jehovah, their king. This na- tional law did not forbid all offences against the moral law, nor authorise the courts to punish all the infractions of those laws, which were forbid- den in the Jewish law; very many of them have no penalty annexed, to be executed by man. All transgressions of, or want of conformity to the moral law, even though not prohibited in the national law, were sins, for which sinners must account to God at the final judgment. In that solemn and general decision, there will be no respect of persons or nations—no difference between Jew and Gentile.” (100)
“Criminal laws must be applied and executed agreeable to the express letter and plain meaning of the law in Israel; and where the case was doubtful, recourse was had to God, as their peculiar king. This was done in several instances by Moses in the wilderness, by Joshua, in the case of Achan, &c. In other cases, with respect to which God, as king of Israel, did not think proper to entrust man to execute his judgments for disobeying his laws, he reserved the execution in his own hand, and applied it as he thought proper.” (117)
“One government, indeed, was immediately instituted by God, of which he became the immediate king or supreme magistrate. In this government, certain offences against the moral law were subjected to the decision of those who acted as civil judges under Jehovah, as the im- mediate sovereign of that theocracy, or immediate government of God. But other offences against the moral law were tolerated, so far as to be withheld from the cognizance or punishment of the civil courts.” (164)
“God in the wilderness constituted Israel a peculiar nation, and condescended to become their immediate king, and instituted offi- cers to administer the government, under himself, who was always present in his sanctuary, to give them answers “in all things that they called upon him for.”—Deut. iv. 7. The government was put in operation in the wilderness, and disobedience to its authority was severely punished im- mediately by God, their king, and provision made for its administration when they would be settled in the promised land; and also the case fore- seen, of their rejecting God as their immediate king, and choosing a king, like the nations around them. Provision was made for tolerating this departure from the national law; provided, however, that the person should be designated by God, and exercise no legislative authority, but obey, and administer the law of Moses, agreeable to the copy thereof deposited with the priests and Levites.” (200)
- Compare An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ by Abraham Booth “Now an external king, is a political sovereign : but such is not our Lord Jesus Christ, nor yet the divine Father. Once, indeed, it was otherwise : for, concerning the Israelitish nation, it is written : ” I,” Jehovah, ” will be thy king. Gideon said unto them, I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: Jehovah shall rule over you. Jehovah your God, was your king.”… Yes, Jehovah, as a temporal monarch, stood related to the ancient Israelites, and entered into a federal transaction with them at Sinai, not only as the Object of their worship, but as their King. Their judicial and civil institutes, their laws of war and of peace, various orders respecting the land they occupied, and the annual acknowledgments to the great Proprietor of it, were all from God, as their political sovereign.” and John Erskine’s “The Nature of the Sinai Covenant”
10. Old Covenant required outward obedience
“a fulfilling of the letter of the law satisfied the national covenant—it only required circumcision of the flesh; the moral law required circumcision of the heart.” (9-10)
Neither Pharisees nor Sadducees “could be excluded from communion, under that law” (10)
“The moral law not only reaches to overt acts, but to the thoughts and intents of the heart; the Sinai covenant only reached the outward man” (91)
“The moral law not only reaches to overt acts, but to the thoughts and intents of the heart; the Sinai covenant only reached the outward man; therefore the moral law of the authors is imperfect. It was never intended to be the moral law. To use the Saviour’s words, ‘It was not so from the beginning.'” (91)
“On the freedom from the law of Moses, that great reformer, and eminently evangelical divine, Martin Luther,… says… ‘There is also another abolishment of the law, which is outward, to wit, that the politic laws of Moses do nothing belong unto us.'” (181)
“Indeed, the moral and judicial law were enacted by the same Lawgiver, and coincided, as far as infinite wisdom saw it to be conducive to the grand ends in view: but as they were intended for such distinct purposes, they must in many things vary. The moral law commanded every thing spiritually good in its utmost perfection, and tolerated nothing wrong in the smallest degree: but the sentence of it is reserved ‘to that day, when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.’ The judicial law commanded nothing morally bad, and forbade nothing morally good; but as sentence according to it would be pronounced by the civil magistrate, it did not insist on the same perfection” (165-166)
- Compare An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ by Abraham Booth and John Erskine’s “The Nature of the Sinai Covenant” and A.W. Pink on Moses & Republication
11. Gen 9:6 refers to the practice of private individuals administering vengeance
“In this second infant state of the human race, too few in number to form a civil society, capable of enacting and executing penal laws, it pleased God himself, among other precepts, to prescribe death to be inflicted by man, as the penalty for murder; and as there were not, at that period, civil courts, or officers for public prosecution, he enjoined the brothers (explained to include others near of kin) of the deceased, to execute the sentence, under the penalty of God himself requiring his brother’s blood at his hands, as he had formerly done the blood of Abel at the hand of Cain. This precept, given to the family of Noah, then containing the whole human race, is still in substance equally applicable to all nations, and at all times. It is the only punishment adequate to the offence; but the appointment of the brother, or near of kin, to be the avenger of blood, arose from the then state of society, and pointed out the expediency of civil government, when men became sufficiently numerous for that purpose.” (11-12)
I disagree with the very last statement, but Findley recognized that Genesis 9:6 authorized private individuals to administer justice according to lex talionis.
- Compare The Avenger of Blood
12. Wheat and the Tares
“In every instance, in which hu- man uniformity has been enforced by the sword of the civil magistrate, many of the servants of Christ have suffered persecution. It is not in the wisdom of man to make a clean riddance of the tares from the wheat; and the Saviour has forbidden the attempt.” (67)
13. National Churches are unbiblical
“National churches, as such, being founded on human fallible authority, are not, in their national character, churches of Christ. I agree, however, with the learned Bishop Hoadly, (himself a dignitary of a national church) that they may be schools of instruction, and may, as well as several other denominations, contain Christ’s disciples within them.” (40)
“I agree with Dr. Owen, and other learned Puritan divines, that no such ecclesiastic authority (or branch, as the author is pleased to call it) as has been instituted by national churches, or even by churchmen in the third century, when they assumed a law making power over Christ’s house, and the falling away foretold by the apostle commenced, was instituted by Christ or his apostles. It was an addition to the laws of Christ, and God added to them all the plagues which the church underwent, through the long and dark night of the grand apostacy.” (43)
“I recommend the perusal of the histories of both church and state during the fourth and fifth centuries… The church of Christ had, before this period, fallen from her first love, and, like Israel of old, played the harlot; the shepherds of his flock had usurped a lordship over it; but in his standard period, the fourth century, they had transferred that lordship to the kingdoms of this world, or rather parted it between them, and to this day have never fully agreed what share of it each should possess. In proof of this, such ex- tracts from national and church history might be given, as would fill a volume; for the professed kingdom of Christ having become a kingdom of this world, the civil history of every nation, where christianity prevailed, is also a history of the church.” (52)
“the term toleration, in religious matters, among christians, originated from political religious establishments, introduced with other conceptions of chris- tianity, and too soon adopted, and too eagerly pursued after the refor- mation by protestant states, while they worshipped an idol of their own making, viz. uniformity, in obedience to rules of worship prescribed by human authority.” (113)
“Consequently, Europe produced at one period above twenty Popes, including the free and sovereign cantons and cities, as well as the sovereign kings, princes and dukes, who acted equal to the Pope of Rome in deciding definitively on religious truth… they gradually became convinced, that the establishment of the worship of their idol of uniformity, could not be supported; that it either made hypocrites, or excited their subjects to oppose it; and, in short, that they were not God’s vicegerents to judge of, or punish sin against himself. ” (114)
“I believe, with the apostles, the reformers, and the most celebrated modern divines, among whom I name the great Dr. Owen, that scripture is always sufficient to overturn error. That divine demonstrates, that those arms were always successful, until the church, and afterwards church and state, usurped a legislative authority in the church of Christ. That the spiritual armour would still have been so, if other armour had not been resorted to.” (117)
“There were, indeed, numerous martyrs in the seventeenth century. In France, Piedmont, and other popish countries belonging to Babylon the great, the mother of harlots—drunken with the blood of the saints; and there was also the blood of martyrs shed, and other grievous oppressions inflicted, both on the spiritual and temporal interests of christians, by the little Babylons, viz. the antichristian, political, protestant establishments in Britain and elsewhere, who, after the example of the author’s standard authority of emperors and councils, usurped Christ’s legislative author- ity over his body, the church; but he has not told us to which of these martyrs he appeals. I am still more at a loss to know what reformers he means. I know of no reformation which took place in the seventeenth century. There were, indeed, many great and pious divines who endeavoured to promote reformation, but without success. In Britain there was a successful struggle to overturn the prelatical hierarchy, and the superstitions ac- companying it; but the prevailing party in church and state substituted another tyranny in its place. Those, since called independents, consisting of such learned and godly divines as Goodwin, Burroughs, Nye, Simpson,9 &c. who had contributed largely to prepare the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, first opposed the political establishment, and then plead an exemption from the civil penalties of it, so far as to enjoy the right of ordination, &c. It was refused. They plead for toleration; it was refused. These men, who had been among the ornaments of the assembly, dissented from necessity.” (175-176)
“Here the historian admits, that the reformation was not perfect; that purity was only restored in a considerable degree; and that the church was delivered only from many, not from all the superstitions under which she lay disguised. This indeed was a fair and a blessed beginning of re- formation, but alas! its progress was stopped too soon; princes stepped into the throne of Christ, and made laws for his house; and they made it the temporal interest of the clergy to acquiesce with this usurped au- thority. Thus church and state combined to stop the progress of refor- mation, and said unto it, hitherto shalt thou come, and no further. Hence it came to pass, that, instead of a reformed church of Christ in Europe, we have a church of England, of Scotland, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, &c. each of them modelled by the authority, and agreeable to the policy or caprice of the respective civil governments. Hence arose a number of little Babylons, separated indeed by various shades of difference from the great Babylon, but, like her, in a greater or lesser degree, stained with the blood of the saints, and trading in the souls, i.e. the minds or con- sciences of men, and agreeing with her in the foundation on which she has erected her throne, viz. on a human legislative authority in Christ’s spiritual kingdom, paramount to the laws of Christ himself.” (180)
“I sincerely believe, that all the superstition and will-worship introduced in the primitive church, before it became united to, and governed by, the kingdoms of this world, were introduced with the purest intentions; and that the promoters of them believed that they were reformers. I have the same opinion of those, who, with ill-informed zeal, put a stop to advances in reformation at the threshold, by promoting anew the great footstep of antichrist to his throne, viz. the union of the church of Christ, which is not of this world, with the kingdoms and politics of this world, and thereby erecting a barrier against advances in reformation. From that time reformation, not only in theory, but in practice, has declined.” (228)
“It is well known, that, with exception of occasional revivings, the protestant churches have been losing ground, both in purity and power, ever since they were connected with, and governed by political influence. I will appeal to every true protestant acquainted with church history, for the truth of the following fact, viz. that no political church has ever reformed itself, further than contributed to its own temporal aggrandizement, including the civil government with it, to whose tyranny the clergy of such churches almost always became subservient.” (229)
“To the advocates of persecution I wish to address a few thoughts. All the arguments of Bellarmin20 and Bossuet, assisted by all their army of popish doctors; all the sophistry of Bolingbroke,21 Hume, Voltaire,22 Gibbon, and the whole phalanx of deists, even with the assistance of the Socinians, cannot injure the cause of christianity so much, as one instance of persecution by real protestants, in support of their divine religion. Pure christianity depends on other authority than the gallows, or the faggot, fines or forfeitures. Having recourse to these in its sup- port is, in fact, giving up the cause. It is an open acknowledgment, that it cannot be supported by scripture and reason. If so, it is not of God, and ought to be given up. The first reformers, except Zuinglius, were opposed to civil govern- ment making laws for the church. Calvin contended against it; so did the reformers of Scotland—but unhappily, that church called on the state to support its censures by civil penalties; this soon after turned against their successors with severity. The doing so was inconsistent with the doctrine on which the reformation was built, which was the scrip- tures, addressed to the consciences of individuals. The division of presbyterians into numerous sects, especially in Brit- ain, and from thence carried into this country, all of them holding the same faith, and, at the same time, as far as in them lies, unchurching each other, originated, as I have said, with political tests, enforced by civil authority; every new test became a new snare, and source of endless division and animosity. I speak here of those sects who profess to adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Presbyterian Church Government.” (237-238)
- Compare Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea and Horton’s “Contrived Empire” and a forthcoming post on 1 Corinthians 5:12
14. Liberty of Conscience
“The constitution, in this instance only, reserved what they had no moral power to take away. The master has not the power of taking the right from his slave of worshipping God agreeable to his own knowledge of his perfections and his will. Worship offered in obedience to the mas- ter’s knowledge and judgment of the will of God, that is, the master’s conscience, would indeed be a mockery; it would be insulting to the all-seeing God, who knows our thoughts before we utter them. If the slave has this right, it must be unalienable. The representatives of Penn- sylvania in convention, could have no greater claims on the obedience of their constituents, than masters have over their slaves. They could not oblige them to worship agreeable to their own reason and judgment, on an implicit faith. All acceptable worship is a reasonable service rendered in faith, agreeable to the discoveries of the will of God, as revealed to the worshippers. If he is ignorant, or ill-informed of it, his sin, if information is attainable, is but worship rendered agreeable to the judgment of another man, contrary to his own, is a presumptuous sin, nearly approaching to that which has no forgiveness.” (78)
“I believe the hearts of all men are depraved, viz. have a corrupted nature, but that many in- crease their own depravity by habits of wickedness; but I ask the author whether he thinks that compelling them by civil penalties to profess or practice what they believe not to be true, or to be sinful, will remove that depravity, or increase it? He thinks it will remove it, or else he would not recommend the practice. I think directly the contrary, and have scrip- ture and the experience of all ages on my side. Dealing deceitfully or in guile with the heart-searching God, and obeying man in preference to him, is, in scripture, branded as a sin of the deepest dye.” (82)
“Our governments are necessarily imperfect, being the work of imperfect men; but I sincerely bless God for it, that they have not usurped God’s sovereignty over the conscience, and are not stained with having or exercising the dreadful power of persecuting for obeying God, rather than man. In this, the United States have set a laudable example to other nations, and the ministers of Christ are not entangled in the affairs of state. If, in the constitution, instead of reserving to every man the right of wor- shipping almighty God agreeably to the dictates of his own conscience, it had been expressed, that no man should be compelled to worship God agreeably to the dictates of the consciences of any other man or body of men, it would have an- swered precisely the same purpose, and probably have been less liable to the cavils of those that are skilful to find fault.” (85)
“the question at issue is, whether we shall worship God with our own, or with another man’s conscience. The apostle served God with his own conscience, so do all acceptable worshippers; this I advocate.” (86)
“[Wylie’s] observations of the importance of real religion to the happiness of a nation, are very just, agreeing with Proverbs xiii. 34. “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is the reproach of any people.” For this reason I am opposed to laws calculated to promote hypocricy, viz. prevarication with God and man. Against such the Saviour pronounces the most tremendous woes… Civil government, using its power and influence to increase that guilt, is contributing to increase national guilt, and call down desolating judgments.”
“The author, p. 24. quotes from the Larger Catechism the duties required in the second commandment, which are there described to be “the detesting, disapproving, opposing all false worship, and, according to every one’s place and calling, removing all monuments of idolatry.” Though I do not substitute the Westminster, nor any other human fallible authority, or creed of any church, for scripture, yet with the above I most heartily agree. I hereby declare that I detest, disapprove, and oppose all false worship, and, according to my place and calling, endeavour to remove all monuments of idolatry. As a proof of the truth of this, I offer my present endeavours to remove the idolatry of the ratifying and sanctioning power of the laws of the most high God, by the civil magistrate, as he does civil laws, and, consequently, of setting human authority above the divine, and other errors which this idolatry brings in its baleful train.”
15. Nurse Father = physical protection
“Civil governments, appointed by the people in pursuit of their own happiness, are under a moral obligation to protect all men who lead quiet and peaceable lives, and punish such as do not; they are, in so doing, nursing fathers to the church, which few of them have ever been.” (77)
“The author himself quotes the authority of the prophet Isaiah, xlix. 23. “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers,” &c… The worship of God is completely protected by the government of the United States. The magistrates, indeed, have not turned preachers, to feed believers with the sincere milk of the word. It is believed this was not intended by the prophet, nor meant by the author. The prophecy is, therefore, in part fulfilled by the government of the United States, as a prelude to its more full accomplishment in the millennium, which I believe is certainly approaching; but not such as many expect, not a worldly kingdom.” (122)
In the clearest articulation I have found of the theology behind the American changes to the Westminster Confession and its political philosophy we see also a clear rejection of Westminster’s Covenant Theology. An established, national, parochial visible church is foundational to Presbyterianism, rooted in Israel’s ecclessiology. A rejection of a national church and all it entails requires a rejection of Presbyterianism’s covenant theology as well.
How Christians Should Regard Moses is an interesting sermon from Luther responding to the theonomists of his day. What is noteworthy is that Luther responds the way that 1689 Federalism has responded (which is not surprising given that Luther largely followed Augustine). The Mosaic law as a unit (including the 10 commandments as they were delivered to Israel) is abrogated. It does not continue into the New Covenant. However, part of Mosaic law overlapped with natural law, which binds all men. And Moses clarifies natural law by putting it in writing, so we can look for clarification in Moses. Furthermore, Moses contains promises of the gospel, by which men were saved through believing.
They desire to govern people according to the letter of the law of Moses, as if no one had ever read it before.
But we will not have this sort of thing… It is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel…
Moses was an intermediary solely for the Jewish people. It was to them that he gave the law. We must therefore silence the mouths of those factious spirits who say, “Thus says Moses,” etc. Here you simply reply: Moses has nothing to do with us. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses. Thus the consequence would be that if I accept Moses as master, then I must have myself circumcised, wash my clothes in the Jewish way, eat and drink and dress thus and so, and observe all that stuff…
That Moses does not bind the Gentiles can be proved from Exodus 20:1, where God himself speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews. The sectarian spirits want to saddle us with Moses and all the commandments. We will just skip that. We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law…
When these factious spirits come, however, and say, “Moses has commanded it,” then simply drop Moses and reply, “I am not concerned about what Moses commands.” “Yes,” they say, “he has commanded that we should have one God, that we should trust and believe in him, that we should not swear by his name; that we should honor father and mother; not kill, steal, commit adultery; not bear false witness, and not covet [Exod. 20:3-17]; should we not keep these commandments?” You reply: Nature also has these laws. Nature provides that we should call upon God. The Gentiles attest to this fact. For there never was a Gentile who did not call upon his idols, even though these were not the true God. This also happened among the Jews, for they had their idols as did the Gentiles; only the Jews have received the law. The Gentiles have it written in their heart, and there is no distinction [Rom. 3:22]. As St. Paul also shows in Romans 2:14-15, the Gentiles, who have no law, have the law written in their heart.
But just as the Jews fail, so also do the Gentiles. Therefore it is natural to honor God, not steal, not commit adultery, not bear false witness, not murder; and what Moses commands is nothing new. For what God has given the Jews from heaven, he has also written in the hearts of all men. Thus I keep the commandments which Moses has given, not because Moses gave the commandment, but because they have been implanted in me by nature, and Moses agrees exactly with nature, etc.
But the other commandments of Moses, which are not [implanted in all men] by nature, the Gentiles do not hold. Nor do these pertain to the Gentiles, such as the tithe and others equally fine which I wish we had too. Now this is the first thing that I ought to see in Moses, namely, the commandments to which I am not bound except insofar as they are by nature…
Thus we read Moses not because he applies to us, that we must obey him, but because he agrees with the natural law and is conceived better than the Gentiles would ever have been able to do. Thus the Ten Commandments are a mirror of our life, in which we can see wherein we are lacking, etc…
In the second place I find something in Moses that I do not have from nature: the promises and pledges of God about Christ.
This is the best thing. It is something that is not written naturally into the heart, but comes from heaven… in Moses there are the promises of God which sustain faith. As it is written of Eve in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head,” etc. Again Abraham was given this promise by God, speaking thus in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants shall all the nations be blessed”; that is, through Christ the gospel is to arise.
The Aquila Report, an independent web magazine containing content of interest primarily for and about those in the evangelical and confessional wings of the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches, has been publishing excerpts over the last few months from Dewey Roberts’ (PCA) […]
Without endorsing Frame or his covenant theology as a whole (see here for example regarding his “universal covenant”), note Frame’s comments about the New Covenant.
[T]he work of Christ is the source of all human salvation from sin: the salvation of Adam and Eve, of Noah, of Abraham, of Moses, of David, and of all of Godâ’s people in every age, past, present, or future. Everyone who has ever been saved has been saved through the new covenant in Christ. Everyone who is saved receives a new heart, a heart of obedience, through the new covenant work of Christ. So though it is a new covenant, it is also the oldest, the temporal expression of the pactum salutis…
Of the covenants we have discussed, most are time-specific. The Noachic Covenant begins at a specific time, when Noah builds an altar to the Lord after the flood (Gen. 8:20-9:17). Before that there was no Noachic Covenant, though we all benefit from its provisions until the final judgment. Similarly for the Covenant of Grace (Gen. 3:14-19), the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3, 15:1-21, 17:1-21), the Mosaic Covenant (Ex. 19:1-9, 20:21), and the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:4-17).
But three of the covenants I have described above are not time-specific in this way: the Eternal Covenant of Redemption (the pactum salutis), the Universal Covenant, and the New Covenant. All believers partake equally in the benefits of these three covenants, regardless of when in time they live.
The Eternal Covenant of Redemption is entirely supra-temporal, so it has no beginning in time, no datable ratification ceremony. Its benefits come to all of those of all times who are elect in Christ. The Universal Covenant also has no temporal restriction. God is always creator and lord, so this covenant is always in effect.
The New Covenant does have a temporal inauguration. Covenants are typically inaugurated by the shedding of blood, and that is certainly the case with the New Covenant, by the blood of Christ, the blood that fulfills all the blood of bulls and goats in the other covenants.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:11-14)
This passage follows the writer’s quotation from the New Covenant passage in Jeremiah (Heb. 8:8-12). So the shedding of Jesus’ blood, a datable historical event, is the substance of the New Covenant, the Covenant that purifies, not only the flesh, but the conscience, the heart.
Nevertheless, as we saw earlier, the efficacy of the New Covenant, unlike that of previous covenants, extends to God’s elect prior to Jesus’ atonement. When believers in the Old Testament experienced “circumcision of the heart,” or when they were Jews “inwardly,” they were partaking of the power of the New Covenant.
Lane Keister, at the Green Baggins blog, offers some comments on Vos’ explanation of the visible-invisible church distinction. His point is that there are visible and invisible aspects of the church, noting that Anabaptists and some baptists are therefore in error in holding that the true church is entirely invisible. Keister apparently didn’t put much thought into that point, since I don’t know any Anabaptists or baptists who deny there is a visible aspect of the true church. Interestingly, a commenter picked up on a very important point. He objected to Keister’s insistence that visible and invisible refer to two aspects of the same church because he felt that would lead to the Federal Vision error. I offered some comments. Read more…