The following was prompted by a discussion with a friend regarding the Westminster Confession of Faith’s treatment of the judicial/civil division of the Law, as well as the 1788 American revisions to WCF 23:3. Despite the digression at the end to focus on these specific issues, I hope it might serve as a general introduction to the continuing and general applicability of God’s Law in the modern world. ~ Mickey Henry
In order for a worldview to be a worldview, it must possess some conception of metaphysics (nature of reality: origins, mind/matter, time, causation, etc.), teleology (purpose/ultimate ends), and epistemology (how we know what we know), as well as a system of ethics; that is, a code of right behavior. The source of a worldview’s code of right behavior, its ethics/morals/law, is the ultimate authority of that worldview (i.e., its “god”). For example, if man or one of man’s institutions determines right behavior, then man is the ultimate authority of that worldview. Within any worldview, there are multiple spheres of authority: individual, family, church, civil government, association, business, etc. The nature of sphere authority, its source, order of precedence, degree of autonomy, and so forth, may be different from one worldview to the next, but these basic categories are inescapable for man (attempts by communists and other egalitarian revolutionaries to annihilate any one of these spheres has always ultimately resulted in failure). In a non-syncretic worldview, that is, one that is self-consistent, homogeneous, and stable, all authority spheres operate within the same ethical framework. While there is variability between authority spheres in emphasis as well as permissible penal sanctions, in a self-consistent worldview there is one law system for all. Since all ethical/legal systems, by nature, distinguish between should and should not, neutrality is a metaphysical impossibility.
In the Christian worldview, the Lord is our ultimate authority and He gave, by revelation, a code of right behavior to Adam. Ignoring the prelapsarian era, as well as how that code may have been “packaged”, the moral content of the law given to Adam was the same as the moral content of the law given to Moses (see WCF 19:1-2). God being both immutable and sovereign, that same code of right behavior continues today and will continue to the end of history.
The Law of God is an unchanging coherent unity with peculiar contextual applications. Remove the Law’s coherence, and it becomes a collection of unconnected fragments without comprehensive animating principles. Remove the Law’s unique application to peculiar contexts, and it becomes anachronistic, irrelevant, arbitrary, and ultimately contradictory. The Law is principle-absolute and context-relative. Ethical principles do not change. The context of applying an ethical principle can and certainly does change, giving rise to differences as to how those principles are actualized in the realm of human experience, but the moral oughtness of the underlying principle is constant. The Resurrection of Christ and the supersession of national Israel by the Church has profoundly changed our context. The curse of the Law has been made of no effect to the elect, and the present reality of the true Passover Lamb has transformed our religious expression, but not one ethical principle has changed.
God’s Law is revealed to us in summaries of broad moral principles. The First Table is summarized in “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”, and the Second Table is summarized in “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. In turn, the Commandments, while more specific than these summaries, are summaries themselves. The remaining commandments are simply case law decisions, showing how to correctly apply these broad moral summaries to specific circumstances. When Christians, parroting Talmudists, claim that there are “613 commandments” in the Law of Moses, they are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the Law. The Bible does not explicitly answer every possible moral question, but it nevertheless authoritatively speaks to every possible moral question by means of the necessary and logical consequence of what it does explicitly reveal (i.e., the Law summarized and the Law applied). There are no loopholes in God’s Law; violate its spirit and you have sinned. While the case laws often applied to specific contexts (Old Covenant era national Israel) that do not exist today (New Covenant era spiritual Israel), the underlying principles that animated those case laws are still very much in effect.
As an example, “you shall not murder” is a broad moral principle with many specific applications in all spheres of authority. In the most direct sense, murder is obviously forbidden, as man bears the Image of God. In the sphere of individual government, the individual must internally restrain himself from murder. In the family sphere, parents must train their children to value life and abhor murder. In the sphere of church government, murder of all sorts must be denounced and unrepentant murderers must be excommunicated. In the sphere of civil government, murderers must be put to death. In the sphere of associations and businesses, murderers should be shunned, and no business done with those exhibiting murderous intent (for example, weapons should not be knowingly sold to sanguinary men). Every sphere of authority implements the same basic principle in a peculiar way. And this broad principle of the wickedness of murder isn’t just limited to a forbiddance of murder in the most obvious sense. It prohibits abortion, it requires men to defend the innocent from harm, it requires married couples to beget offspring, it forbids reckless hatred of others, it requires immigration restraints so that Christian life and community may flourish, it requires fall protection harnesses for roofers, safety devices for table saws, fences around swimming pools, and many more.
As to divisions in the Law, the validity of such a concept is entirely dependent upon how such divisions are drawn and defined. The three traditional divisions are moral (perpetual duties to God and our fellow man), ceremonial (laws of rites that foreshadowed and were fulfilled in Christ), and judicial/civil (those laws peculiar to the civil government of national Israel). Concerning the moral division, there is little controversy in Reformed churches regarding its continuity, only its content and the appropriate context of its modern applicability. Moral laws which are contrary to the spirit of the age are often dismissed by “sweeping them under the rug” of the other two categories. As regards the scope of the moral law’s applicability, modern nominal “Christianity” is often actually a syncretic combination of multiple worldviews, where an artificial ethical division is applied between the authority spheres, with different spheres implementing the ethical systems of different worldviews (for example, the radical two kingdoms heresy which promotes an anti-Christian civil government).
Concerning the ceremonial division, it only confounds proper understanding to speak of these as “abrogated”. Those things that foreshadowed Christ (types), found their fulfillment in Him, but the underlying principles very much remain. Blood atonement for sin is as much required today as it ever was, only now Christians possess this as a present reality in Christ, rather than picturing it in the blood of animals. Similarly, the Temple symbolized that which we enjoy as a present reality in Christ and the Church in union to Him, which are the Temple of Ezekiel’s Messianic vision fulfilled. These are the foreshadows of the Old Covenant made manifest, not “abrogated”.
Regarding the judicial/civil division, there is much confusion. As elucidated above, the authority sphere of a self-consistent society’s civil government implements the system of ethics of that society’s prevailing worldview. In Old Covenant national Israel, much of what is often considered to be judicial/civil law was simply the application of either the moral or ceremonial divisions to the realm of civil government. Such laws do not truly represent a separate division, and have a continuing applicability as described above. There are, however, within this division of the Law, precepts that were peculiar to the time, place, and people of national Israel, as the Lord’s witness nation prior to their covenantal divorce in 70 AD when the Second Temple was destroyed. For example, the laws regarding tribal boundaries, cities of refuge, Levitical cities, temple taxes, etc., were peculiar to Old Covenant national Israel. What was not exclusive to that time, place, and people, however, are the animating principles of those laws. The norms, patterns, and fundamental sociological organization of national Israel have a modern equity for Christendom that, even if one is too timid to raise to the level of moral imperative, at bare minimum have the standing of moral permissibility. To rail against them is to impugn the character of God, as He explicitly required these things in at least that prior context.
To avoid the accusation of Pharisee or Judaizer, it is important to reiterate that certain forms have changed, while the principles remain constant. The New Testament specifically mentions:
1. Priestly System (Hebrews 10, 1 Peter 2:4-10, 1 Timothy 2:5)
Old Form: Levitical priesthood
Principle: Christ our Truth, our Savior, our Mediator
New Form: priesthood of all believers
2. Circumcision (Acts 15 and others)
Old Form: circumcision
Principle: mark of the covenant, cutting/washing off of sin in a holy heart and life
New Form: covenant baptism
3. The Feasts (Colossians 2:16)
Old Form: Passover and others
Principle: the Lord our Protector, Provider, Deliverer, and Savior
New Form: Communion and the weekly assembly on the Lord’s Day
4. Sabbath (Colossians 2:16, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10)
Old Form: seventh day Sabbath
Principle: Christ our Sabbath rest
New Form: the Lord’s Day
5. Food Laws (Mark 7:19)
Old Form: dietary laws
New Form: be not conformed to the world (at minimum, dietary laws regarding blood remain in effect – see Acts 15)
6. Special Garments/Ceremonial Cleanliness (Acts 15)
Old Forms: tassels, phylacteries, ritual purity laws, etc.
New Form: be not conformed to the world (and Christians must still dress modestly and maintain high standards of hygiene)
Regarding specifically the WCF, I will first preface my remarks by saying that the Reformation was principally concerned with dismantling the sacerdotal system of Rome. There was a much greater focus on soteriology and the Five Solas than on Christian ethics. We can forgive the Reformers, and the Westminster Divines in the century after them, if they failed to give as much attention or systematic precision to ethics as we would have liked. They lived in an era of tithe barns and criminal heresy trials, not ten year-old drag queens and publicly funded infanticide. Even the libertine Genevans of Calvin’s era clearly recognized Servetus’ anti-Trinitarian heresy as an existential threat to society, and burned him to death for it (ironically over Calvin’s protestations for a more merciful death). The common law of that era was an uneven mixture of God’s Law and old Roman law (witness, for example, the monarchomach treatise Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, which hinges its arguments on both).
That said, and admittedly only having read lightly on the topic, I am confident that a number of the Divines held a position on the continuing and general applicability of God’s Law that was not meaningfully dissimilar from that of many modern theonomists (see Theonomy and the Westminster Confession by Martin A. Foulner). Some of the phrasing used in Chapter 19 of the WCF is, frankly, regrettable. But given the fact that it embraces the moral law in totality, explicitly incorporates the general equity of the judicial, and that the theonomic intent of some of its authors is known, unless a variance is held on an unrelated point it should not violate a theonomist’s conscience to claim at least good faith or even strict subscription to this portion of the confession. (Full disclosure: I bristle at the notion of a Covenant of Works, though some of the definitions I’ve read of it leave only the name offensive. I also believe the confession’s view of authority is a bit too popish.)
Regarding the 1788 American revisions to the WCF, specifically 23:3, this alteration could be concisely described as a refusal to criminalize violations of the First Table. Many heathen law codes contain provisions similar if not identical to the Second Table, as these things consider the duties of men to other men. While it is true that all worldviews in some manner punish those who advocate for rival worldviews or “blaspheme” their ultimate authority (sedition), the Christian worldview is obviously unique in defending the name and ultimacy of the One True and Living God.
The truth of the “average” American man of that era is not a simple matter but requires a degree of subtlety and finesse. While I am certainly no expert, my impression is that many were sincere Christians who’d come under the influence of Enlightenment egalitarian thinking, with all its hostility to hierarchy (“sacred order”). The Christian cultural “overhang” inherited from their past was considerable, but there was also a growing revolutionary view of America as some new Israel of God where all the rules of historic Christendom were being rewritten to fully support the freedom of individual choice. There are few things more damnable and destructive than freedom of religion, but the disciples of the American civil religion will defend it to the death. In defense of the men of America’s founding era, I will say that many were justifiably fed up with the upheavals, indignities, and bloody slaughters endemic to the Old World when a region shifted from a Protestant ruler to Catholic one. But it seems they could have found a solution that would not give legal protection to Talmudists, Mohammedans, Hindus, etc., or lead to the rise of new nutcase religions like Mormonism, Campbellism, Millerism, Jehovah’s Witness, etc.