Written by Ben C. Dunson |
Wednesday, November 8, 2023
Both biblical law and natural law serve as our guides, though we must determine what aspects of biblical law were unique to Israel’s existence under the Mosaic covenant. Put differently: the basis of contemporary human law consists in the moral core of biblical law that is perpetually binding, whether that be determined through the general equity of OT law or through natural law.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to beseech God: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). God’s will is always done in heaven. What, then, about the earth? Christians have been pondering this question since the beginning of the church. In this article, I will set out the classic Protestant answer to this question, an answer that I hope to show is biblical as well.
Although there are some Christians who do not believe that God’s law should have much (if any) impact on anything outside of the individual believer’s soul, this has not been the majority view in the church historically. Christians have long argued, in fact, that when Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth he meant that we should in some sense seek for this to be manifest in families, communities, and even the civil magistrates and legal codes of a people or nation. How precisely that is to be done has been widely debated.
Some, for example, would argue that the concrete particulars of the Mosaic law should be applied in comprehensive detail today, even those aspects of the law we would today call “civil” (including specific punishments for infractions). This is called Theonomy.
Others would argue for a very minimalistic use of divine law, limiting such exclusively to the components of law found in the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9: mainly preventing and punishing violence and theft and ensuring that society does not completely degenerate into anarchy. This is usually called a Reformed Two Kingdoms (R2K) approach, although some Baptists have also been significantly influenced by this view.
For those new to this discussion the label for a third view can be confusing at first, since it has come to be called the Classic Two Kingdoms view (sometimes the Magisterial Two Kingdoms view, since it is argued to originate among the magisterial Protestant Reformers, both Lutheran and Reformed). This view is distinguished from the R2K view in that it has a much more comprehensive place for God’s moral law in its approach to the civil magistrate, but is also distinguished from Theonomy in that it argues that the specifics of the “civil” legislation for Old Testament Israel do not remain in force today, even though there is often much that can be gleaned from the moral dimension of those laws.
A final approach would be that of Anabaptism, which in its most extreme form argues that God’s law can have nothing to do with earthly government, and thus that Christians must avoid politics and government altogether. Many Evangelicals today tend toward Anabaptism, though not usually in its most extreme form (the form found in the time of the Reformation). There are of course many approaches in non-Protestant traditions, though I will not focus on these.
By What Standard?
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told those listening: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). On the surface this would seem like a pretty straightforward statement on how Christians should apply God’s law to life in this world, including to politics. They should simply obey it as it comes to them in the Old Testament. If a law forbade the eating of any “living creature” from the ocean or a river that did not have “fins and scales” (Lev 11:10) then the Christian must not eat such a thing either. If a law prescribes stoning to death a “man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer” (Lev 20:27) then such (astrologers and the like) should be stoned to death today as well.
It is not, however, quite so simple. Jesus also says he came to “fulfill” (v. 17) and “accomplish” (v. 18) the law. Jesus is certainly not contradicting himself in Matt 5:17, but we must explain how it can be simultaneously true that he both fulfills the law and does not abolish it. Other texts in the New Testament use similar language of fulfillment. In Rom 13:10, for example, the apostle Paul writes that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” And Paul writes elsewhere that at the heart of being a Christian is “keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Jesus’ brother James calls God’s law “perfect” (James 1:25) and says that “if you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).
The questions confronting us can be formulated simply: in what sense (if any) is God’s law binding today, and in what sense (if any) is it not? To answer these questions we must provide a more systematic treatment of God’s law in the Bible.
The Threefold Division of the Law
Probably the most historically significant way of explaining the role of God’s law in his providential plan is what is known as the threefold division of the law. In this approach, God’s law is divided into three categories, or aspects: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Put briefly, the moral aspect is that which is timelessly true, that which God always requires of all people at all times, and which is not restricted to OT Israel. Murder, for example, is always wrong for all people, no matter what. That is the moral aspect of the law. The ceremonial aspect would include all laws regulating sacrifices, priesthood, and the temple, as well as those that create a physical differentiation between Israel and her pagan neighbors such as food laws, clothing laws, agricultural laws, and the like. Finally, the civil aspect covers laws defining and regulating Israel’s existence as a nation or state in the Old Testament, including judicial laws pertaining to crimes and punishments. The threefold division in its classic form goes back to at least Aquinas, though there are many precursors (Philip Ross’s From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law provides an excellent summary of the history). But is it faithful to the Scriptures?
The threefold division has been heavily criticized among evangelical scholars. Contemporary New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, for example, in his commentary on Matthew (p. 143), states that “although the tripartite distinction is old, its use as a basis for explaining the relationship between the testaments is not demonstrably derived from the NT and probably does not antedate Aquinas.”
The threefold division is said to be unbiblical because no text of Scripture divides the law in this way. It is often added that no Israelite would have felt free to divide the law, only adhering to certain parts of it. Both of these claims are true, though only superficially. They are superficial because doctrines such as the threefold division of the law are built upon an examination of the totality of Scripture and the various ways in which it treats God’s laws, not merely on the basis of single sentences or isolated proof-texts. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) helpfully states that a doctrine is biblical either if it is “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” This is vitally important. Doctrinal propositions are sometimes stated expressly (that is: explicitly): “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16), etc. But sometimes they are deduced from “good and necessary consequence,” which is to say that they are necessary conclusions that follow from something we see in Scripture (possibly in one passage, but also possibly as a conclusion derived from many passages taken together). The Trinity (a word not found anywhere in the Bible) is a perfect example. There is only one God (Deut 6:4; 1 Tim 2:5); the Father is fully God (John 6:27; Rom 1:7); the Son is fully God (Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13); and the Holy Spirit is fully God (Matt 28:19; Luke 1:35; Acts 5:3). The doctrine of the Trinity follows from these facts as a good and necessary consequence. Such conclusions must be both good (not contradicting anything else in the Bible) and necessary (it is an inescapable conclusion). The threefold division of the law, like the Trinity, is a good and necessary consequence of the totality of biblical teaching.
First, consider the ceremonial aspect of OT law. It is absolutely true that no Israelite in the OT could decide to keep only some aspects of the law. The law was an indivisible whole for him, though even in the OT it is clear that some aspects of the law are more important than others. The very structure of the Mosaic law displays this hierarchy of importance: as a unit the Ten Commandments, or “all of these words” (Exod 20:1), constitute the covenant made between God and Israel (Exod 34:28). These ten commandments in Exodus are set apart from all the rest of God’s laws, which are grouped together as “the rules” (Exod 21:1; see also Exod 24:3; Lev 27:34; Num 19:1; Deut 4:13–14; and Paul’s similar phrase “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” in Eph 2:14-15).
This hierarchy is seen elsewhere in the OT as well. God could say to Israel through the prophet Amos, for example: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). These feasts were commanded in God’s own law, and yet they are seen to be relatively less important than other laws, laws, for example, that have to do with basic matters of justice, which is what Amos contrasts the feasts with a few verses later: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). God relativizes one part of his own law in Amos 5. This could only be true if certain laws (such as sacrifices and feasts) are not in fact timeless, universal principles of right and wrong. That said, Israel was not meant actually to cease their feasts, but simply to combine outward observance with an inward sincerity of heart.
It is with the coming of Christ, however, that a unique and divisible ceremonial dimension of the law becomes clear. OT food laws (Acts 10:9–16, 28–29; Mark 7:19) and other laws of outward separation (Gal 2:11–14; Eph 2:14–16) are done away with because they served their temporary purpose in God’s history of redemption. This temporary purpose was to set Israel physically apart from her pagan neighbors in order to teach a spiritual principle of set-apartness from moral defilement. With Christ’s coming only the inward demand for holiness remains (1 Pet 1:14–16). The letter to the Hebrews shows in a fairly comprehensive way that the laws pertaining to the tabernacle/temple (Heb 9:1–11), priesthood (Heb 7:23–28; 10:11–14), and sacrifices (Heb 9:12–14, 23–28; 10:1–10)–in short, the whole system of OT worship–have also ceased with Christ’s coming, since the reality those laws foreshadowed has now arrived (Heb 7:11–12; 8:5–6, 13; 10:1). In short, the ceremonial laws of the OT–that is, the laws of outward holiness and worship–have served their temporary purpose in God’s plan and now are no longer binding on the Christian believer.