One of the reasons I appreciate the Reformed faith above others has to do with the idea of balance. The answer to most every question is usually a “yes” and a “no.” The relevance of the Mosaic law today is not an EITHER/OR issue as if we must recognize the law as valid without reference to the context in which it was written. I was asked about whether I agreed or not with R.C. Sproul, Jr’s post commenting on theonomy and reconstructionism. So, here are some of my thoughts after reading his post and mixing it up with certain reconstructionists on Facebook in recent weeks.
Simply put, what remains authoritative for us and what has always been authoritative is the moral law as we have received it in nature and through the Scriptures. In fact, seen through the proper lens, natural law is actually identical to the moral law we have in the Scriptures because both came from God. Natural law, however, suffers from the fact that it has been implemented by fallen man and only relatively represents the perfect moral law of God. But, overall, the relevance of God’s moral law has been seen in different ways in differing covenant administrations as we have them in Scripture. Similarly, the notion that the Mosaic judicial law has permanent and abiding authority without any sort of qualification over the nations either today or in the future is simply not given to us in the pages of Scripture. Such a fact is not meant to denigrate or downplay the importance of the Mosaic covenant administration but rather helps to establish a more important principle.
The real authority at work here is the moral law of God as it exists through who he is and what it is he has decreed. This means that God has put in place a law that is both reflective of his character and subject to the conditions he positively placed upon it, particularly in the Scriptures. We know from the Scriptures that the law given to the Israelites through Moses was limited in nature and function. We also know that it continues to serve as a moral bellwether for much of the rest of Scripture.
However, the law was never anything apart from Christ and so we must understand it with the whole of Scripture in mind–and really, with Christ and his work in the forefront. The Sermon on the Mount can’t be understood without reference to the Torah and yet Jesus makes clear that even the Torah is limited compared to the legislative authority he personally carries as the incarnate Son. The lawgiver, not the law, is the paramount authority in place here. In essence, we can’t speak of morality and justice without first speaking of the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation he brought us.
This is where the notion of “general equity” comes in. Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t say that such an equity is only for today and not for tomorrow nor does it appear that the Confession saw a temporary abrogation of the judicial law of the Torah only to go back to it later once Christ’s Kingdom was in full effect.
The point of Chapter 19 in Paragraph 5 is that the moral law of God binds everyone and is authoritative over all–this remains true and has always been the case regardless of the covenant administration in which mankind lived. In reality, this is a stronger defense of the entirety of God’s moral law than the notion that we must have the judicial laws of the Torah in exacting and wooden detail as the reigning ideal guide for society as some reconstructionists might propose. If the judicial laws of Israel were the standard for all times, how could Jesus have said “You have heard it said…but I say to you”?
The judicial law is still authoritative in one sense but remains relative to the actual moral principles of the gospel behind them. And, it’s the moral principles that we are really after anyway. We simply can’t reproduce the sort of ancient agricultural environment in our own day to literally fulfill the law’s demands like helping your neighbor’s animal out of the ditch or allow gleaning laws when most all of us do no farming at all. But, the moral principles behind the laws remain ultimate and can still be used profitably.
We see a similar hermeneutic at work with the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul tells the church to ‘purge the evil’ (ESV) out of their community invoking the common refrain for capital punishment in Deuteronomy. Yet, the death sentence Paul has in mind is something other than the literal rendering of the statement in the Torah even though the synagogue was a place where justice was decreed locally. This is especially true when we have examples in the NT where the local Jewish community did not hesitate to pick up stones and try to kill people whether the Empire allowed it or not.
Here for Paul, “purge” means expel from the community and not expire. We need to take a long hard look at why that’s the case. We can of course pretend that Christians didn’t have the right under the Roman Empire to exercise capital punishment otherwise he would have called for it, but such a supposition if true only demonstrates that the Torah’s original judgement is now completely unworkable in the face of a new universal setting for the faithful.
Paul also has the Corinthians look at oxen in 1 Cor. 9:9 and we learn that the moral principle behind the command is the important thing “for our sake.” In fact, Paul denies that the command was even really written for oxen as far as it pertains to us and instead endorses a different understanding that seemingly has nothing to do with the original context of the passage.
Last, look at 2 Cor. 13:1 where Paul invokes himself as a witness three times sufficient to call Deut. 19:15 as proof that the Corinthians had better repent. Originally, the law clearly requires two or three different people as witnesses yet here Paul calls himself a witness three times. This also has echoes of Matthew 18:15-18 in it (also an example of three scenarios as witnesses rather than just two or three witnesses)–apparently for Paul it is enough that the truth be said three times rather than having two or three actual or different witnesses. Paul again becomes innovative with the Torah in putting forward the moral essence of the law rather than valuing a literal obedience when it simply isn’t called for in the specific New Covenant situation.
So, I say all that to say this — God’s judicial law for Israel was perfect for Israel but was never meant to work for all nations, for all time, or for the end of time. That does not mean, however, that it was unjust or that we cannot use it to help us understand and guide the church and society in better implementing God’s moral law. The judicial laws inform our opinion and are relevant when their use is in line with the full import of God’s moral law. But, the moral law of God found both in nature and in Scripture is what God has placed as the universal standard by which we all are to live. This is so much the case that even Turretin said there were times that the natural laws exhibited by the Roman empire were preferable to the judicial law of the Torah (v. 2, 11.26.10). To me, this spiritual understanding of the import of God’s moral law is much more true to that which God ordained from the beginning–to glorify him and enjoy him forever.
It is also fair to make a further claim here — what I’ve just outlined is generally the received opinion of Reformed orthodoxy found in sources like Calvin, Turretin, the Reformed confessions (such as WCF 19), and elsewhere. I realize there is some divergence and appropriate disagreement regarding the exact rendering of the importance of the law in Reformed circles today but overall what I’ve outlined remains true to the historical identity of what it means to be Reformed.