The phrase “natural law” itself is capable of so many interpretations that anyone who advocates natural law must expend a great deal of effort explaining what he means.1 In his excellent essay Perspective on Natural Law, Gordon H. Clark argues […]
One of the things that got me going a little bit was the idea that we need to interpret natural law or general revelation through the lends of Scripture, the spectacles of Scripture. That would also seem to fit with the idea of the importance of regeneration because not everyone would interpret Scripture well apart from regeneration. So its the regenerate that need to interpret or understand general revelation or natural law.
And in my mind, I am just struck by how much, I think I said this in the first round, there are authors who are remarkably gifted at interpreting natural law or general revelation. And so much wiser than most Christians whom I read. And part of that has to do with how much time they spend thinking about general revelation and its structures, its categories, its givenness, in a way that oftentimes Christians don’t. And I think Christians don’t for good reasons because oftentimes they’re more inclined to read the Scripture than nature.
Now, there would be Christian scientists who would read nature more than the average Christian, or artists who might read parts of nature more than the average Christian. But still, when it comes down to on average, it seems more Christians are inclined to interpret Scripture or go to Scripture as their norm for their lives, and not look at general revelation. But that means that the people that don’t go to Scripture and are looking at general revelation all the time kinda have a leg up on Christians in their capacity to understand, at least how general revelation works, and if they’re theists, how that, in some ways, reflects God, or the creator.
If your doctrine of general revelation leads you to say what Hart just said, you need to go back to square one and re-assess what general revelation is. No unregenerate pagan has a “leg up” on the Christian reading Scripture, in terms of understanding God’s revelation.
First, general revelation does not contain anything that is not more clearly revealed in Scripture. That’s why Calvin said:
For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly…
Let the reader then remember, that I am not now treating of the covenant by which God adopted the children of Abraham, or of that branch of doctrine by which, as founded in Christ, believers have, properly speaking, been in all ages separated from the profane heathen. I am only showing that it is necessary to apply to Scripture, in order to learn the sure marks which distinguish God, as the Creator of the world, from the whole herd of fictitious gods. We shall afterward, in due course, consider the work of Redemption. In the meantime, though we shall adduce many passages from the New Testament, and some also from the Law and the Prophets, in which express mention is made of Christ, the only object will be to show that God, the Maker of the world, is manifested to us in Scripture, and his true character expounded, so as to save us from wandering up and down, as in a labyrinth, in search of some doubtful deity…
Therefore, while it becomes man seriously to employ his eyes in considering the works of God, since a place has been assigned him in this most glorious theatre that he may be a spectator of them, his special duty is to give ear to the Word, that he may the better profit.69 Hence it is not strange that those who are born in darkness become more and more hardened in their stupidity; because the vast majority instead of confining themselves within due bounds by listening with docility to the Word, exult in their own vanity. If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture. Hence, the first step in true knowledge is taken, when we reverently embrace the testimony which God has been pleased therein to give of himself. For not only does faith, full and perfect faith, but all correct knowledge of God, originate in obedience…
For if we reflect how prone the human mind is to lapse into forgetfulness of God, how readily inclined to every kind of error, how bent every now and then on devising new and fictitious religions, it will be easy to understand how necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing by the neglect, vanishing away amid the errors, or being corrupted by the presumptuous audacity of men. It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the inefficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we, too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God;—we must go, I say, to the Word, where the character of God, drawn from his works is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved Judgment, but by the standard of eternal truth. If, as I lately said, we turn aside from it, how great soever the speed with which we move, we shall never reach the goal, because we are off the course.
Second, the scientific process is not, in any way, general revelation. John Byl explains:
In the traditional evangelical view general revelation consists of God’s self-revelation: the invisible character of God is made known through His works of creation and providence (e.g., Rom. 1:20). Thus general revelation is considered to be quite distinct from nature, which is merely one of the means by which general revelation is mediated…
The term “revelation” carries the connotation that the knowledge which is revealed goes beyond our mere observations of nature. It implies that through the visible workings of nature certain invisible characteristics of nature are made manifest. We must then ask precisely what the contents of such revealed knowledge are and how it may be acquired.
In the case of God’s self-revelation, the step from the visible creation to the invisible God is made largely via the rudimentary knowledge of God that has been naturally implanted in the human mind…
The notion that God has revealed truth in two books, Scripture and nature, has been advocated as a means of reconciling science and Scripture from the beginning of the scientific revolution. And from the beginning it has been abused… Historically, the doctrine of the two books has frequently led to a demise in biblical authority.
Finally, general revelation does not consist of trees and ants and stars. General revelation is propositional revelation of God and what He requires of man revealed innately within man. Prior to the fall, it was as readily present in man’s mind as the words you are reading now are in your mind. Starting with this innate knowledge of God, man could look out upon creation and see His creator reflected in it. But he does not start with creation. He starts with God already revealed within his mind.
Natural or general revelation is self-authenticating because it is the revelation of the Creator to the creature made in his image… Romans 1:18-32… asserts that such revelation leaves men without excuse because it actually imparts to them a certain knowledge of God. By it that which is known about God is made evident in them and to them. His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen and understood by men… Let it be clear what the force of the testimony of Scripture is. It is not that men may know God; nor that they potentially know God and will come to know him if they will use their reason aright. It is not that men by natural revelation have a certain vague notion of some undefined deity. It is rather that men are immediately confronted with a clear and unavoidable revelation of the true and living God.
Samuel Waldron, Exposition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith, p. 38-42
That this opposition is wicked because inexcusable on the plea of ignorance, is proved in this and the following verses. They wickedly oppose the truth, because the knowledge of God is manifest among them. Agreeably to this explanation, this verse is connected with the immediately preceding clause. It may however refer to the general sentiment of Romans 1:18. God will punish the impiety and unrighteousness of men, because he has made himself known to them. The former method is to be preferred as more in accordance with the apostle’s manner and more consistent with the context, inasmuch as he goes on to prove that the impiety of the heathen is inexcusable.
Since that which may be known of God, is manifest in them.
This version is not in accordance with the meaning of γνωστόν which always in the Bible means, what is known, not what may be known. Besides, the English version seems to imply too much; for the apostle does not mean to say that everything that may be known concerning God was revealed to the heathen, but simply that they had such a knowledge of him as rendered their impiety inexcusable. We findγνωστός used the sense of γνωτός, known, Acts 1:19; Acts 2:14; Acts 15:18; γνωστὰ ἀπ ̓ αἰῶνός ἐστι τῷ θεῷ πάντα τὰ ἔργα αὺτοῦ; and often elsewhere. Hence τὸ γνωστόν is = γνῶσις, as in Genesis 2:9, γνωστὸν τοῦ καλοῦ καὶ τοῦ πονηροῦ.
The knowledge of God does not mean simply a knowledge that there is a God, but, as appears from what follows, a knowledge of his nature and attributes, his eternal power and Godhead, Romans 1:20, and his justice, Romans 1:32.
φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς, may be rendered, either is manifest among them, or in them. If the former translation be adopted, it is not to be understood as declaring that certain men, the Pythagoreans, Platonists, and Stoics, as Grotius says, had this knowledge; but that it was a common revelation, accessible, manifest to all. In them, however, here more properly means, in their minds. “In ipsorum animis,” says Beza, “quia haec Dei notitia recondita est in intimis mentis penetralibus, ut, velint nolint idololatriae, quoties sese adhibent in consilium, toties a seipsis redarguantur.” It is not of a mere external revelation of which the apostle is speaking, but of that evidence of the being and perfections of God which every man has in the constitution of his own nature, and in virtue of which he is competent to apprehend the manifestations of God in his works. For God hath revealed to them, viz., the knowledge of himself. This knowledge is a revelation; it is the manifestation of God in his works, and in the constitution of our nature. “Quod dicit,” says Calvin, “Deum manifestasse, sensus est, ideo conditum esse hominem, ut spectator sit fabriae mundi; ideo datos ei oculos, ut intuitu tam pulchrae imaginis, ad auctorem ipsum feratur.” God therefore has never left himself without a witness. His existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship him as the true and only God.
This correct understanding of general revelation explains how all men, even if they are not scientists or philosophers engaging in complicated supposed theistic proofs, are inexcusable before God. Infants, those who are blind, and those who are mentally impaired – that is, those whose interaction with nature is hindered – are just as equally inexcusable because their knowledge of God is implanted in their heart at conception. It is not derived from nature.
Gordon Clark sums it up “[O]ne may note that nobody can recognize a flower as God’s handiwork, unless he has a prior knowledge of God. As Calvin said, the knowledge of God is the first knowledge a person has. It is innate; not derived from experience.”
And therefore, no, the unregenerate pagan does not have a “leg up” on the Christian in understanding God’s revelation because that revelation starts in his heart, and because of the fall “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” So we need the spectacles of Scripture, and regeneration to properly use the spectacles, if we are to know anything of God’s revelation.
Why is this good news for Darryl Hart? Well, because Darryl Hart believes very strongly that the Bible should never be used in determining public policy and state laws. It should never even influence people who make those laws. The problem is, it’s really, really difficult to find a society that is completely ignorant of and unaffected by the Bible – in other words, a society who relies only upon general revelation (which Hart says they must).
But now we finally have the solution! All we need to do is send someone into the jungle to observe how this tribe’s government functions, and then implement the same form of government here. That way we will finally be free of the Bible’s influence and we can finally have the type of government God wants us to have!
Modern Two Kingdoms theology has never, ever made sense to me. In very short summary, the position of Two Kingdom advocates (spearheaded by David VanDrunen) is that there is no such thing as a Christian worldview. They are emphatic that the Bible is only supposed to be used in the church and that it must not be used in issues of civil government, work, or even family.
The most absurd part is that they argue everything that is not governed by the Bible, which is everything except church, is to be governed my natural law. It does not matter if you point out to them that natural law is simply the law of God written on the hearts of all men, the same law that has been clarified for us in the Bible.
When I attempted to point this out to a Two Kingdoms advocate recently at Darryl Hart’s blog, they insisted that natural law provides us with all kinds of information necessary to live life. Because this person was a plumber, his example was plumbing:
Anyway, Christian plumbing is my turf here, your talking to a 4th generation plumber (I worked on the business end mostly though). I would argue that observation and natural revelation and all true domains of human knowledge are inextricably linked. General revelation functions to point to a Creator who sets up a functional cosmos; it also informs us on how the cosmos functions. All cosmic functions necessarily operate within the laws of nature whether they are moral or amoral. Plumbing is entirely dependent on natural revelation/natural law even though it is amoral. Let me explain…
There are many laws of nature that have to me navigated in even the most simple plumbing process such as soldering copper pipe which has taken mankind a few thousand years to master. It takes a understanding of the metallurgical properties of copper that make it desirable as a potable water delivery system: copper is malleable and resistant to corrosion and relatively abundant and easy to extract (which makes it inexpensive in relation to other non corrosive metals). Soldering itself requires an understanding of welding, which in this case requires the binding of two different metals to form a seal sufficiently tight so as to be impenetrable by water molecules, which again is governed by fundamental laws of chemistry. I could go on to explain how hydro-mechanical principles govern waterflow, but I won’t bore you with more details. I am sure though that nearly every vocational discipline, including the justice system interact so much with natural law that it would be staggering to draw out the processes in entirety.
When I pointed out that the “law” of gravity is something completely different than the law of God, and advised not to confuse the two, I received the following reply:
We must be using different dictionaries. I am really not sure how you can maintain that functionally physical laws and moral laws operate on different planes. They can be violated, but there are consequences. Yes, I do agree that natural law includes the moral code written on the human heart, but that is simply because these exist in a larger cosmic system where God created a good universe that worked just as he designed it to. It is precisely because of this that governments operate off of general revelation even if imperfectly and/or unknowingly. Why else would we have similarities in Hammurabi and Moses, Roman law and American law. Discontinuities are a given, but the commonality of law, and prevasively political nature of human history even in the absence of special revelation testifies to the sufficiency of natural law in the political arena.
I’m not making this stuff up. I suggested we go ahead and look at the dictionary, naively thinking it would help clarify things with this man:
law: 1a: a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe
synonyms law, rule, regulation, precept, statute, ordinance, canon mean a principle governing action or procedure. law implies imposition by a sovereign authority and the obligation of obedience on the part of all subject to that authority
Precept: 1 : a command or principle intended especially as a general rule of action
2 : an order issued by legally constituted authority to a subordinate official
That is what law means when we talk about the law of God and natural law. Way down in definition 6 is a different definition for things like the “law” of gravity:
6 a : a statement of an order or relation of phenomena that so far as is known is invariable under the given conditions
synonyms: see in addition hypothesis
God’s law is not God’s law because God saw what would naturally occur if we committed adultery and he wanted to protect us from those natural consequences. It is God’s law because He sovereignly imposed it on those bearing His image as a rule for what ought and ought not to be done.
Furthermore, are you suggesting that the “law” of gravity is just a statement of what ought to be done? Are you suggesting that we should all obey the law of gravity, meaning we should not violate it by floating around? I didn’t think so.
one definition is prescriptive, the other is descriptive.
The prescriptive nature of moral law is something that I believe flows from the descriptive nature of natural law…
…The prescriptive command: “Don’t jump off of a cliff” presupposes (the is) gravity. Assuming a person values his life, the moral implication of the isness of gravity is that one ought not act out in a way where gravity becomes a life-threatening reality. I would argue that the Decalogue extrapolates its prescriptions from the ises of God’s character and from the world he creates.
How else can the psalmist claim that the heavens tell of the glory of God if there is no revelatory value in nature itself that cannot be extracted from even cursory observation?
So the Decalogue is really just a hypothesis about nature. Maybe God should have submitted it to a peer review journal?
See related: Karl Popper and the Emperor’s Clothes
In my last post, I mentioned how properly understanding the Mosaic covenant will help to resolve a number of current debates. I think Pink has done a great job of articulating some crucial, and almost completely disregarded points about the Mosaic covenant and in this post I will be applying his thoughts to the issue of New Covenant Theology. If you are unfamiliar with NCT, it is very briefly summed up in the belief that only the New Testament is normative today. They are sympathetic to dispensationalism and covenant theology, but depart from both. The crux of the disagreement between NCT and Covenantal Baptists has to do with the law of God.
Law of Christ
NCT argues that Christ abolished the 10 commandments and replaced them with “the law of Christ” (which happens to be 9 of the 10 commandments). They argue that the 10 commandments were only for Israel and they were only concerned with outward obedience. Christ’s law is more spiritual and is concerned with the inward. Therefore, we should only obey the commands that are explicitly commanded in the NT.
Problems with Reformed Baptist Responses
While there are a number of problems with NCT (imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the law written on the hearts of all men, Matt 5, Rom 7:22, knowledge of the inward, spiritual law in the OT, distinction between Decalogue and rest of the laws of Moses from the beginning, etc, etc), I do not feel that Covenantal Baptists have done the best possible job in refuting NCT. Many of them have done a tremendous job of showing the new covenant spiritual understanding of the Decalogue, but in my opinion, they have not done a tremendous job of showing the Mosaic understanding of the Decalogue. I feel that too many Covenantal Baptists are content to rest on the shoulders of paedobaptist covenant theologians and allow them to do the heavy lifting. I do not think this is good for the baptist cause, or for critiquing NCT.
The paedobaptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant is completely at odds with the baptist understanding of the Mosaic covenant. While the WCF sees the Mosaic covenant as simply an administration of the covenant of grace, the (most likely) editors of the LBC denied the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace and instead believed it was an entirely separate covenant. They agreed with John Owen:
This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was ?the ministry of condemnation,? 2 Cor. iii. 9; for ?by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.? And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.
Owen, Works, 22:85-86. (Commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13)
(Richard Barcellos does an excellent job of explaining Owen’s view and refuting the NCT claim to Owen http://www.rbtr.org/RBTR I.2 John Owen and NCT.htm )
That the Mosaic covenant was not part of the CoG, and that it was “confined unto things temporal” is essential to understand. It was a covenant of works (mixed with some ceremonial grace), the reward of which was healthy living in the promised land, the curse of which was war, plague, and exile.
One of the important contributions that Pink makes (Owen rejects it, or at least a Roman Catholic version of it), is that not only did the Decalogue in the Mosaic covenant serve a different end, the required obedience to it was also different. As part of their national covenant of works, God required an outward obedience to the letter of the Decalogue.
Here, finally, is how A. W. Pink expressed it (I apologize for the length, but it’s worth it):
“The national covenant with Israel was here (Ex. 19:5) meant; the charter upon which they were incorporated, as a people, under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession of Canaan, and to protect them in it: to render the land fruitful, and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate His oracles and ordinances among them; so long as they did not, as a people, reject His authority, apostatize to idolatry, and tolerate open wickedness. These things constitute a forfeiture of the covenant; as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers among them were personally dealt with according to the Covenant of Grace, even as true Christians now are; and unbelievers were under the Covenant of Works, and liable to condemnation by it, as at present: yet, the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other, but had something in it of the nature of each.
“The national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals: nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by public authority. It was indeed a type of the covenant made with true believers in Christ Jesus, as were all the transactions with Israel; but, like other types, it ‘had not the very image,’ but only ‘a shadow of good things to come.’ When, therefore, as a nation, they had broken this covenant, the Lord declared that He would make ‘a new covenant with Israel, putting His law,’ not only in their hands, but ‘in their inward parts’; and ‘writing it,’ not upon tables of stone, ‘but in their hearts; forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:32-34; Heb. 8:7-12; 10:16, 17). The Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation: yet, like professing Christians, the most of them rested in these, and looked no further. The outward covenant was made with the Nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience; and the covenant of Grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the Divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised that they should be to Him ‘a peculiar treasure.’ ‘All the earth’ (Ex. 19:5) being the Lord’s, He might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that, as His choice of them was gratuitous, so if they rejected His covenant, He would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others; as indeed He hath done, since the introduction of the Christian dispensation” (Thomas Scott).
The above quotation contains the most lucid, comprehensive, and yet simple analysis of the Sinaitic covenant which we have met with in all our reading. It draws a clear line of distinction between God’s dealings with Israel as a nation, and with individuals in it. It shows the correct position of the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works in relation to the Mosaic dispensation. All were born under the condemnation of their federal head (Adam), and while they continued unregenerate and in unbelief, were under the wrath of God; whereas God’s elect, upon believing, were treated by Him then, as individuals, in precisely the same way as they are now. Scott brings out clearly the character, the scope, the design, and the limitation of the Sinaitic covenant: its character was a supplementary combination of law and mercy; its scope was national; its design was to regulate the temporal affairs of Israel under the divine government; its limitation was determined by Israel’s obedience or disobedience. The typical nature of it—the hardest point to elucidate—is also allowed. We advise the interested student to reread the last four paragraphs.
Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.
The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: “Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee” (Deut. 7:12-16).
In connection with the above passage notice, first, the definite reference made to God’s “mercy,” which proves that He did not deal with Israel on the bare ground of exacting and relentless law, as some have erroneously supposed. Second, observe the reference which the Lord here made unto His oath to their fathers, that is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which shows that the Sinaitic covenant was based upon, and not divorced from, the Abrahamic—Israel’s occupation of Canaan being the “letter” fulfillment of it. Third, if, as a nation, Israel rendered unto their God the obedience to which He was entitled as their King and Governor, then He would love and bless them—under the Christian economy there is no promise that He will love and bless any who live in defiance of His claims upon them! Fourth, the specific blessings here enumerated were all of a temporal and material kind. In other passages God threatened to bring upon them plagues and judgments (Deut. 28:15-65) for disobedience. The whole was a compact promising to Israel certain outward and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general outward obedience to His law.
The tenor of the covenant made with them was, “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5, 6). “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries” (Ex. 23:20-22). Nevertheless, a provision of mercy was made where true repentance for failure was evidenced: “If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies: if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham. . . . These are the statutes and judgments and laws which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:40-42, 46).
The Sinaitic covenant in no way interfered with the divine administration of either the everlasting covenant of grace (toward the elect) nor the Adamic covenant of works (which all by nature lie under); it being in quite another region. Whether the individual Israelites were heirs of blessing under the former, or under the curse of the latter, in no wise hindered or affected Israel’s being as a people under this national regime, which respected not inward and eternal blessings, but only outward and temporal interests. Nor did God in entering into this arrangement with Israel mock their impotency or tantalize them with vain hopes, any more than He does so now, when it still holds good that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to nations” (Prov. 14:34). Though it be true that Israel miserably failed to keep their national engagements and brought down upon themselves the penalties which God had threatened, nevertheless, the obedience which He required of them was not obviously and hopelessly impracticable: nay, there were bright periods in their history when it was fairly rendered, and the fruits of it were manifestly enjoyed by them.
The Sinaitic covenant, then, was a compact promising to Israel as a people certain material and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His laws. But at this point it may be objected that God, who is infinitely holy and whose prerogative it is to search the heart, could never be satisfied with an outward and general obedience, which in the case of many would be hollow and insincere. The objection is pertinent and presents a real difficulty: how can we meet it? Very simply: this would be true of individuals as such, but not necessarily so where nations are concerned. And why not, it may be asked? For this reason: because nations as such have only a temporary existence; therefore they must be rewarded or punished in this present world, or not at all! This being so, the kind of obedience required from them is lower than from individuals, whose rewards and punishments shall be eternal.
But again it may be objected, Did not the Lord declare, “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Ex. 6:7)? Is there not something far more spiritual implied there than a national covenant, something in its terms which could not be exhausted by merely outward and temporal blessings? Once more we must insist upon drawing a broad line between what pertains to individuals and what is applicable to nations. This objection would be quite valid if that promise described the relation of God to the individual soul, but the case is quite different when we remember the relation in which God stands to a nation as such! To ascertain the exact purport and scope of the divine promises to Israel as a people we must take note of the actual engagements which we find He entered into with them as a nation. This is quite obvious, yet few theologians have followed it out consistently when dealing with what is now before us.
Running parallel with God’s suffering all nations (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways, was another experiment (speaking from the human side of things, for from the divine side “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world”: Acts 15:18), conducted on a smaller scale, yet quite as decisive in its outcome. The Jews were placed under a covenant of law to supply an answer to this further question, “Can fallen man, when placed in most favorable circumstances, win eternal life by any doings of his own? Can he, even when separated from the heathen, taken into outward covenant with God, supplied with a complete divine code for the regulation of his conduct, conquer indwelling sin and act so as to secure his acceptance with the thrice holy God?” The answer furnished by the history of Israel is an emphatic negative. The lesson supplied thereby for all succeeding generations of the human race is written in unmistakable language: If Israel failed under the national covenant of outward and general obedience, how impossible it is for any member of Adam’s depraved offspring to render spiritual and perfect obedience!
In the spirit of it, the Sinaitic covenant contained the same moral law as the law of nature under which Adam was created and placed in Eden—the tenth commandment giving warning that something more than outward things were required by God. Yet only those who were divinely illumined could perceive this—it was not until the Holy Spirit applied that tenth commandment in power to the conscience of Saul of Tarsus that he first realized that he was an inward transgressor of the law (Rom. 7:7, etc.). The great bulk of the nation, blinded by their self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, turned the Sinaitic compact into the covenant of works, elevating the handmaid into the position of the married wife—as Abraham did with Hagar. Galatians 4 reveals that, while the Sinaitic covenant was regarded as subservient to the covenant of grace, it served important practical ends; but when Israel perversely elevated it to the place which the better covenant was designed to hold, it became a hindrance and the fruitful mother of bondage.
The Decalogue written in stone contained the most extreme outward violations of the law of God, which is a spiritual law written on the hearts of all men from the beginning of creation. As a national covenant, Israelites were required to refrain from these most extreme outward violations of the Decalogue.
Israelites and Image Bearers
However, it’s important to understand that Israelites, under a national covenant with God, were also still descendants of Adam. Thus God did not only relate to them as Israelites, but also as image bearers. As such, they were all by birth under the Adamic Covenant. As Israelites, their required obedience to the Decalogue was outward. But as image bearers, their required obedience was inward. One obedience determined their temporal blessing and cursing as part of the Mosaic covenant, the other obedience determined their eternal blessing or cursing as part of the Adamic Covenant.
This best fits Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5. There Jesus contrasts not just the outward and inward obedience to the law, but also the temporal and eternal cursings of the law. “Liable to judgment” at the hands of the courts of Israel, vs “liable to the hell of fire.” This also makes the best sense of 5:38-42. The contrast here is between a legitimate use of the law by a national ruler and the illegitimate application of that law to the individual.
Christ came to fulfill, not abolish, the law as an individual. And yet He also corrected and seemed to have changed that law for individuals. Properly understanding the Mosaic covenant helps us to clearly see that Jesus was correcting their misunderstanding of both the Mosaic covenant and the Adamic covenant.
A proper understanding of the Mosaic covenant, as Jesus shows, is crucial!
Writing “The Kingdom of Christ” in 1788 against the idea of National Churches, Abraham Booth notes:
Now, as the immunities, grants, and honours, bestowed by the King Messiah, are all of a spiritual nature, his faithful subjects have no reason to wonder, or to be discouraged, at any persecutions, afflictions, or poverty which may befall them. Were his empire “of this world” then indeed it might be expected, from the goodness of his heart and the power of his arm, that those who are submissive to his authority, zealous for his honour, and eon- formed to his image, would commonly find themselves easy and prosperous in their temporal circumstances. Yes, were his dominion of a secular kind, it might be supposed that an habitually conscientious regard to his laws would secure from the oppression of ungodly men, and from the distresses of temporal want. Thus it was with Israel under their Theocracy. When the rulers and the people in general were punctual in observing Jehovah’s appointments, the stipulations of the Sinai Covenant secured them from being op pressed by their enemies, and from any re markable affliction by the immediate hand of God. Performing the conditions of their National Confederation, they were, as a people, warranted to expect every species of temporal prosperity. Health and long life, riches, honours, and victory over their enemies, were prom ised by Jehovah to their external obedience. (Ex 25:25,26; 28:25-28; Lev 26:3-14; Deut 7:12-24; 8:7-9; 11:13-17; 28:3-13) The punishments also, that were denounced against flagrant breaches of the Covenant made at Horeb, were of a temporal kind.*
In this respect, however, as well as in other tilings, there is a vast difference between the Jewish and the Christian Economy. This disparity was plainly in timated, if I mistake not, by the opposite modes of divine proceeding, in establishing Jehovah’s kingdom among the Jews, and in founding the empire of Jesus Christ.
*Lev. xxvi. 14—39. Deut. iv. 25, 26, 27* xi. 9.7. xxviii. 15— 68. xxix. 22— 28, See Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissert. p. 22– 29. External obedience. — Punishments of a temporal kind. These and similar expressions in this essay are to be underwood, as referring to the Sinai Covenant strictly considered, and to Jehovah’s requisitions as the king of Israel. They are quite consistent, therefore, with its being the duly of Abraham’s natural seed to perform internal obedience to that sublime Sovereign, considered as the God of the whole earth; and with everlasting punishment being inflicted by him, as the righteous desert of sin.
Note specifically Booth’s reference to Dr. Erskine’s Theological Dissertation “External obedience”. That is precisely the paper that New Covenant Theology (I think maybe John Reisinger) has referenced to demonstrate there was an external obedience even for the 10th commandment.
I have spent the last week down at Westminster Seminary California auditing the “Baptist Symbolics” class at IRBS. This weekend they are having a conference on Two Kingdoms theology and I saw that David VanDrunen’s long anticipated book on natural law and two kingdoms was just published. In honor of that, I wanted to post an essay that I wrote critiquing VanDrunen’s previous work on the topic. The essay was written for the 2008 Trinity Foundation Christian Worldview Essay Contest, the topic of which was John W. Robbins’ book Freedom and Capitalism: Essays in Christian Politics and Economics, and has been slightly revised for this post.
Truth is God thinking.
History is God acting.
Law is God commanding.
Against these propositions, secular philosophers muster all the forces at their command.
So begins Robbins chapter on natural law in his book “Freedom and Capitalism”, though it might just as well have introduced the work as a whole. John Robbins did not see economics and politics as simply a practical matter. He recognized that all thought, including economic and political, is a reflection of one’s submission to God. If one fails to bring every thought captive to Christ, one fails to obey Christ’s command and ultimately, to glorify God.
I believe the most effective way to show the value of Robbins’ book is to apply its principles and example to current challenges facing us today. In his forward, Robbins mentions the threat posed by David VanDrunen’s attempt, as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary California, to revive natural law theory in Reformed theology. However, due to the fact that “Freedom and Capitalism” is a collection of previously written work, VanDrunen’s work was not specifically mentioned or critiqued beyond the forward. Thus I will endeavor to apply what I have learned from Robbins to the case of David VanDrunen’s book “A Biblical Case for Natural Law.”
In his introduction, VanDrunen notes several objections against natural law that he intends to address in the book. Two of these are: (1) that natural law detracts from the authority and priority of Scripture, and (2) that the use of natural law does not take seriously the fact of human sin and its dire impact on moral reasoning. He does this by arguing that God has established two separate kingdoms, that the image of God was not lost in the Fall, and that natural law is to govern the civil kingdom.
VanDrunen argues that God has established two different kingdoms through two different covenants with two different purposes. He argues that God established the civil kingdom through His covenant with Noah and the spiritual kingdom through His covenant with Moses (The nation of Israel was not a spiritual kingdom. See links at end). He states: “According to the principle of the Noahic covenant of common grace, the cultural task is to be pursued by the human race as a whole… [Christians] must pursue a common cultural task with the world at large.”ii He claims that special revelation’s supremacy over the nation of Israel was temporary, while the natural law that governed pagan nations throughout the Old Testament is to be the standard used today by members of the New Covenant, in matters of civil rule. (VanDrunen ignores the fact that the Noahic Covenant contained special revelation, not natural, and that the special revelation was directed specifically at civil law: Gen 9:5-6 – ironically a command the majority of civil rulers relying on “natural law” reject today). In support of this claim, VanDrunen cites Jeremiah 29:1-9, in which Jeremiah commands exiled Israelites to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” From this passage, VanDrunen derives a common purpose, a common cultural task to achieve peace and prosperity.
He rightly notes that “such a command must have been bracing for these Israelites who had been told that they were not to seek the peace and prosperity of the Moabites and Ammonites who sought fellowship in the Promised Land (Deut. 23:3-6) and who would later be told, upon returning to the Promised Land after exile, not to seek the peace and prosperity of the pagans then inhabiting that land (Ezra 9:12).”iii However, contrarty to VanDrunen’s assertion, Jeremiah 29 does not teach that Israelites are to pursue a common task with the Babylonians because of a common covenant made with Noah. Jeremiah instructs Israelites to seek the welfare of Babylon, not for Babylon’s sake, but for their own. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Quite contrary to VanDrunen’s belief that “all human beings, of whatever religious commitment, are to intermingle and cooperate in pursuit of cultural progress,” distinct from God’s redemptive purpose, this passage teaches that civil peace is to be sought for the benefit of God’s people.
VanDrunen argues that the image of God is righteous dominion. Because man was created in the image of God, a righteous ruler, he was created to righteously rule over creation. In “Freedom and Capitalism” Robbins briefly shows Gary North’s error in believing that the image of God is dominioniv. He has elsewherev argued that dominion is not the image of God, rather, dominion is given to man because man is the image of God.
On the other hand, there is much to affirm in VanDrunen’s argument that the image of God is man’s innate knowledge of what is righteous. He musters Romans 1:18-32 and Romans 2:14-15 to his defense, noting that “Paul teaches that there is a natural law that continues to bind all people and that people actually know something of this law.”vi However, VanDrunen’s conclusions from this argument are not to be commended. VanDrunen attempts to overcome the problem of sinful suppression of knowledge of God’s law by citing Romans 1:32. He emphasizes that all sinful men know God’s law. However, unlike VanDrunen, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that though all men know this law, all ignore it and insist they do not know it.
Romans 1 cannot be used to defend the claim that a theory of political philosophy can be derived through fallen man’s unaided reason precisely because such men will ignore any such knowledge. Robbins notes: “Paul says that men suppress the truth in unrighteousness; they refuse to glorify God; they are ingrates, fools, and do not like to retain God in their knowledge… Men cannot construct theories upon this innate information, for their intellects are depraved (Romans 8:7).”vii
The result of VanDrunen’s understanding of natural law is that we are to look to fallen man to determine what is right and what is wrong. Robbins shows how this has worked out historically by quoting the Marquis de Sade:
“Nature teaches us both vice and virtue in our constitution… we shall examine by the torch of reason, for it is by this light alone that we can conduct our inquiry.”… de Sade concludes that, “there is just as much harm in killing an animal as a man, or just as little, and the difference arises solely from the prejudices of our vanity.” Since it is nature that prompts us to murder, steal, slander, and fornicate, and since we have a “natural inclination to such actions and ends as are fitting” – to quote Thomas Aquinas – none of these things can be wrong, for Nature is normative. The logic is commendable; the conclusion, reprehensible.”viii
Even more problematic is what VanDrunen claims is the content of this natural law that has been written on the hearts of all men. The Westminster Confession of Faith (which I assume VanDrunen professes to hold to as a faculty member of Westminster Seminary California), states: “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”ix Among the Scriptural support offered by the Confession is Romans 2:14-15. The Confession continues: “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments…”x Thus the Confession identifies natural law with the Ten Commandments.
However, VanDrunen argues that special revelation “is not meant to serve as the moral standard for the civil kingdom.”xi He claims, “Biblical moral instructions are given to people who are redeemed and are given as a consequence of their redemption.xii The Ten Commandments, for example, provide not an abstract set of principles but define the life of God’s redeemed covenant people… The point is that the moral instruction given in Scripture cannot be taken simply as the moral standard for the world at large.”xiii With this statement, VanDrunen is in direct opposition to his Confession: “The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof.”xiv
What is amazing is that VanDrunen calls upon this very same Confession in support of his argument. He cites WCF 19.4, which states that Israel’s judicial laws have expired, and claims it supports his assertion that “Christians cannot rightly appeal to the moral lifestyle set forth in Scripture as directly applicable to non-Christians.” (p. 40) I agree with VanDrunen that we must not simply apply every command in Scripture to all people of all times. We must be sensitive to the context. But VanDrunen is not arguing simply that we shouldn’t apply all commands in Scripture to all men. He is arguing that we should not apply any commands in Scripture to all men, and he uses 19.4 to support that assertion. Yet, 19.3 prefaces 19.4 by explaining that it is not referring to the moral law, which remains binding on all men. That VanDrunen accidentally skipped 19.3 in his reading of the Confession is not likely.
VanDrunen’s denial that the natural law written on the hearts of all men is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments may perhaps be motivated by a desire to appease the minds of fallen men. If he believes we are to work with unregenerate sinners in a common task, he must set aside Scripture, for Scripture is foolishness to the world and “the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).
He acknowledges that any attempt to define natural law apart from Scripture “demands limited and sober expectations.”xv VanDrunen then proceeds to use Scripture in an attempt to show how a common, natural moral standard was used to govern the civil kingdom during the time of the Old Testament patriarchs. He cites Genesis 20 as evidence that Abimelech knew “what ought not to be done” in regard to taking someone else’s wife. Rather than simply acknowledging that the 7th commandment was written on Abimelech’s heart, and that this was just as much a spiritual issue as it was a “civil” issue (Gen 20:6 “sinning against me”), VanDrunen prefers to develop a shadowy form of a possible natural law consisting of the protection of marriage as well as a prohibition against sexual violence (referring to an additional example in Gen. 34:7). Such a view is so incredibly forced that it boggles my mind why so many people appeal to it.
VanDrunen ends his book with the bold and absurd conclusion that “natural law and unbelieving interpretation of natural law become an important part of biblical ethics in the spiritual kingdom.”xvi In support of this claim, VanDrunen references the pagan phrases found in Proverbs and the fact that Hammurabi’s laws predated the Ten Commandments (the reason for which is blatantly obvious to anyone who has read WCF 19.1, 2, 5). He concludes by commending Christians to learn what is righteous from their neighbors who are in rebellion against God’s righteousness. So much for trying to retain the authority and priority of Scripture. Robbins’ conclusion provides a much more biblical answer: “Natural law theory is, in the final analysis, a form of idolatry. What has nature to do with law? Nothing. Law is God commanding.”xvii
In striking contrast to VanDrunen’s work is Robbins’ “Freedom and Capitalism.” Robbins’ collection of essays is clear, powerful, and most of all, built upon the foundation of God’s Word. I rejoice that John W. Robbins has entered God’s rest and has ceased from his works, yet I pray that the Lord has not left us without a servant to continue his work. The radically biblical worldview presented in “Freedom and Capitalism” needs to be proclaimed and applied throughout the land.
i “For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.vi.1.
Freedom and Capitalism (Robbins’ essay on natural law is incredibly good and it’s not available online)
I am not a theonomist (and neither is Robbins). For some reasons why I am not a theonomist, and to elaborate on my comment that the nation of Israel was not a spiritual kingdom, please review these posts:
The Mosaic Covenant is Typological
Mixing Types and Antitypes in the Blender
The Westminster Confession of Faith is Dispensational
Obedience in the Covenants
For some more of my thoughts in regards to the pagan literature in the Proverbs, see my response to Greg Koukl’s essay:
The Cure of the Psyche
To see some of the arguments in my essay fleshed out against some living, breathing 2K advocates (including Jason Stellman) see the comment sections of these two posts:
Is Transformationism Postmillenial?
Two Kingdoms: Natural Law
(and the posts that preceded that discussion):
The Two Kingdoms, Part One: Theocracy
The Two Kingdoms, Part Two: Exile
Two Kingdoms, Part III: Exile, Cont’d