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The Enduring Relevance of Biblical Law

HISTORY, CONTINUITY, AND RELEVANCE

In the ninth century AD, King Alfred the Great began to codify English law with the Ten Commandments. In 1540 AD, King Henry VIII established seven cities of refuge based upon the biblical model of Numbers 27:1-11. The Puritan settlers of New England self-consciously planned their commonwealth after the pattern of biblical law, as can be seen from the Order of General Court of Massachusetts 1636 and the General Lawes of Plymouth Colony 1658. [1] English canon law was so substantially drawn from biblical law that, in reference to biblical regulations regarding inheritance and English inheritance law, the 19th century jurist, Sir Frederick Pollock, said of Numbers 27:1-11 that it was "the earliest recorded case which is still of authority." [2] When the civil government of Israel was first established, God addressed the seventy elders of the people and poured out his Spirit upon them ─ the first 'Pentecost' was a civic event, at the ordination of civil authorities (Num. 11:16-17). A similar 'Pentecost' event occurred later at the anointing of Saul, which marked the beginning of a second form of civil government in Israel: a transition from a commonwealth to a monarchy (1 Sam. 10:1-7). The early church continued such rites of coronation or anointing.

The form of the rite which highlights the role of God's law in our history remains with us. When Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne on June 1953, the Oath required of her stated:
Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? ... [3]
After this Oath, the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland brought to the Queen the Bible, announcing:
Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God. [4]
Image result for coronation of Queen Elizabeth IIThis anointing rite is a conspicuous reference to the anointing of Solomon. Following this, the Archbishop of York presented the Queen with the Sword of State, during which presentation she is charged to wield the sword of justice in God's authority by stopping the growth of iniquity, protecting the church, defending orphans and widows, and restoring, punishing, and reforming where required ─ in service of the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Orb with the Cross was then given to Elizabeth II, the archbishop declared, "Receive this Orb, set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer." [5] Though the faith was perhaps absent, the entire service bore testament to the ancient coronation service in Israel, and to the abiding relevance and authority of biblical law to the socio-cultural and political spheres. It declared that the civil order is directly under and accountable to God, being established by his decree as part of his kingdom reign.

Formerly, when the incoming President of the United States took the oath of office, it was done ─ not on a closed Bible ─ but on a Bible opened to Deuteronomy 28, invoking the blessings and curses of the law for obedience or disobedience. These oaths were taken with great solemnity because God's law was seen as a weighty matter.

All this reveals the fact that biblical law has had an unabating history as an object of relevance and study that makes it unique among ancient legal systems, truly "a claim to historical influence unmatched by any other legal system of antiquity." [6] This heritage can be traced all the way back to Moses in the late second millennium BC. [7] However, its relevance is by no means limited to a historical study of Israel and the West. Biblical law has not only shaped the Western world, it remains appurtenant to solving legal dilemmas today, and "will continue to be a source of inspiration and debate when modern legal empires have long been forgotten." [8] Jonathan Burnside, professor at the School of Law, University of Bristol, and reader in Biblical Law, notes:
Biblical law continues to exert a hold over popular culture at a basic level, including the structure of the working week and the idea of a day of rest, the constraints placed upon political authority, the use of everyday language (such as references to a "scapegoat"), the idea of mercy, employee rights, and the special significance historically attached to marriage and the monogamous family unit. The word covenant, which is prominent in biblical law, used to be the standard word for a contract in English law and is still used in the law of property today ... biblical law is also remarkable for its revolutionary breadth and depth of vision. It has the imaginative power to disturb the world ... a great deal of modern law is an indirect engagement with biblical law (for example, the abolition of the English laws of blasphemy in 2008), but often it is so implicit that we are not aware of it. We have taken our understanding of biblical law for granted for so long that it has become unfamiliar. This is the immanence of biblical law: it is part of our culture - but it is alien ... biblical law does not function in relation to English law or U.S. law as an external or parallel body of law (cf. Islamic religious law or sharia). This is because, unlike sharia law, biblical law is nascent in the history of English law and so continues to be an influence on many citizens. It is simply unrealistic to suggest that we live in a wholly secular legal system ... nor have politicians been successful in finding a dominant alternative discourse to the ethical language of the Bible. [9]
The alien yet immanent character of biblical law is not only true for the politico-legal spheres; it is true in the churches, which are largely responsible for our present cultural amnesia. In many church congregations today, the law of God has been driven to the periphery. Formerly, most Protestant liturgies involved the weekly reciting of the law and many churches displayed the Ten Commandments in a prominent position, keeping the relevance and validity of God's law at the forefront of people's minds and contributing to a God-fearing society. This is implicit in the idea of law, because "law is a form of command whose validity is derived from social facts ─ chiefly, the fact of sovereign power and the fact of habitual obedience on the part of most of the citizens." [10] Law is thus a value-processing system that is bound up with the character and goals of a society. If the divine goals for the world remain those of the kingdom of God expounded in Scripture, then the Bible gives us God's value-processing system based on his sovereign authority, and we are called to obedience to it for human flourishing. Indeed, the doctrine of the covenant is basic to Scripture. The Bible is a covenant document, and therefore a legal document ─ covenant includes law ─ and the blessings and curses described for keeping or breaking God's law are indicators of God's covenant faithfulness.

A JOURNEY INTO WISDOM

We find the requirement of obedience to ancient law difficult in our day due to the inane notion that what is new is to be valued more than what is old, as though laws were like cars. Antiquity is not a disqualification for the truth or relevance of moral precept and law. Just because we have been born in a century of legal revolution against the Bible does not mean that we have made "progress." Just because things are a certain way in society at present does not mean that they should be that way, or that they cannot be otherwise. Repealing laws against blasphemy, sodomy, abortion, and the like may be modern ideas and developments, but this neither makes them right, true, nor beneficial to society.
The Christian must always regard biblical law as far superior to all other systems, since it is from God who does not change. Burnside acknowledges: We find in biblical rules and judgements a level of insight that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed. Nor do we find in any other legal system a more positive vision for humanity and the world than that found in biblical legal collections ... we should not assume that what is, is inevitable ─ especially when what is, is wrong. Biblical law reminds us that the world can be other than it is ─ and that the actual is merely the possible. [11]
This does not mean that there can be no novel applications of the law to new situations; it is not static in the sense of being wooden and unable to be appropriately applied to changing circumstances. As R.J. Rushdoony identifies:
The law is given as principles (the Ten Commandments) and as cases (the detailed commandments), and its meaning is to be hammered out in experience and in trial. This does not mean that law is a developing thing, but that man's awareness of its implications develop as new situations bring fresh light on the possible applications of the law. The Psalmist in Psalm 119 clearly saw the law as a positive force in his growth and in his ability to stand up to the adversities of history. [12]
Biblical law, then, presents itself as a journey into wisdom, in which we are introduced to the essentials of justice and righteousness in a variety of literary forms. As Burnside explains, "Biblical law [is] an integration of different instructional genres of the Bible which together express a vision of society ultimately answerable to God." [13] This is God's vision of all societies of men, that they are accountable to God and his law. The apostle Paul states, "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:19-20). Here, Paul cites the law as a collection of God's commandments and wisdom from all over the older Testament; his quotations from the Scriptures are from Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. He makes plain that the knowledge of sin comes by the law and that the whole world stands accountable to God in terms of it.

In his important study, the Mission of God, Christopher Wright makes some significant observations concerning the law of God and its timely relevance. Amongst the most important is that the biblical claim for Israel's social uniqueness was made on a world-stage with many other claimants to admirable systems of law, including the famous law code of Hammurabi in the ancient near East. [14] Wright observes concerning Deuteronomy 4:5-9:
Old Testament law explicitly invites, even welcomes, public inspection and comparison. But the expected result of such comparison is that Israel's law will be found superior in wisdom and justice. This is a monumental claim. ... And indeed, the humaneness and justice of Israel's overall social and legal system have been favourably commented on by many scholars who have done the most meticulous studies of comparative ancient law, and its social relevance can still be profitably mined today. From our missiological perspective, these verses articulate a motivation for obedience to the law that is easily overlooked but highly significant. The point is that, if Israel would live as God intended, then the nations would notice ... here we find that at least one aspect of that blessing of the nations would be by providing such a model of social justice that the nations would observe and ask questions. [15]
The church's failure to understand the relevance of this clear biblical vision to our present social crisis leaves many without critical tools for kingdom work and service, and leads to ethical confusion and arbitrary judgements. Biblical law is supremely relevant ─ for without it, moral judgements, indeed justice and injustice, are impossible to define.

AUTHORITY AND NATURE

Evidently, for any kind of law to exist, there must be a law-giving authority. At the heart of the question of law is the question of lordship. Who defines meaning, life, and law for people? Our answer must be: the God of Scripture, the God of the covenant.

All men are accountable to God, and for human society to flourish we must walk in the "old paths" in the "good way" if we would know life and rest (Jer. 6:16). The Torah and wisdom about which Paul speaks are written into the very structure of the physical universe and the reality of all that is (Ps. 19; Prov. 8:22ff). 

In spite of this, for many Christians today, either the law is never consulted and thus not understood, or it is dismissed as no longer relevant, or it is viewed as an embarrassment not to be discussed. To preach the law of God in much of the modern church is to be exposed to ridicule and charges of Pharisaism, legalism, dominionism, and even heresy. This is rooted in the loss of the centrepiece of old evangelical theology: the relationship between law and gospel; rightly discerning this relationship used to be regarded as the key to evangelical divinity. John Warwick Montgomery correctly identifies the problem: 
Confusion of law and gospel is possible in two directions. Law may be invested with the quality of gospel, thereby deceiving men into thinking that they can save themselves through personal or societal efforts. But gospel may also try to replace law, producing what Bonhoeffer has classically phrased "cheap grace." In the one case, law swallows up gospel, and the result is legalism; in the other, gospel absorbs law, yielding antinomianism. The gravity of dispensing with law for any reason ─ even on alleged ground that grace renders it no longer necessary ─ is suggested by the New Testament use of the Greek word anomos ("lawless one") for the Antichrist. In contemporary theology, the antinomian error is rife. [16]
This antinomian error has cost the church dearly in our day, as lawless and biblically illiterate Christians are left floundering without a guide or anchor in the hazy brume of contemporary Western culture. Without a concept of Christian law, and the clear teaching of God's law in churches, young folks find themselves adopting ethical theories and legal frameworks that are not only inferior to, but hostile towards, biblical law. Moral progressivism in education leads many professing Christians to the conclusion that God needs to be updated, or that what was morally true in the first, fifth, or seventeenth centuries can't possibly be true today, and that therefore God's word needs to be subject to radical revisionism or its authority is essentially denied. In the West, this loss of Christian consensus over the authority of God's law came in the wake of Darwinism and naturalistic evolution ─ how could an ethical ought arise from a self-generating cosmic and biological is? Without one transcendent law, all that remains are the vain crumbs of judicial pluralism.

THE ORIGIN OF LAW

In Christian thought, the main rival to biblical law has been variations of natural law theory. Natural law is not an identifiable body of laws, but an abstraction. The concept was first developed by the Stoic philosophers of the late classical Greek period. After the death of Alexander the Great in 322 BC, his empire fragmented into four realms and Greek culture became state-worshipping. Maintaining classical culture necessitated a coherent and cohesive political order ─ the Stoics provided the glue, namely the doctrine of natural law:
They argued that there is a universal law structure, and that all rational men can apprehend it. This universal law was said to be the basis of universal humanity, and therefore the basis of universal culture. The only trouble was (and is), they could provide no evidence that such a universal legal order exists, or that rational minds will universally agree about what this legal order is. In fact, self-proclaimed rational men have argued ever since about reason, 'right' reason, and natural law 'properly understood.' [17]
For the Stoic, reason itself was inherent in the universe as an impersonal principle (god) and so the rational state became the locus of divinity. The philosopher Epictetus, a student of Seneca, wrote that: "When a man has learnt to understand the government of the universe and has realised that there is nothing so great or sovereign or all-inclusive as this frame of things wherein man and God are united ... why should he not call himself a citizen of the universe and a son of God?" [18] 

This error should be familiar as the illusory claim of autonomy and neutrality in knowledge, which lies at the root of paganism and the modern revival of monism. If creator and creature are not absolutely distinct in terms of the transcendent triune God of Scripture, reality collapses into a continuity of being ─ the essential 'sameness' (or monism) of all things; this is the essence of paganism. In such a universe, human beings will deify creation, their reason, and themselves as an aspect of this self-generating, self-explanatory order, and the human mind will furnish reality with truth and law and call that an expression of nature. This Stoic paganism which Paul confronted on Mars Hill in Acts 17 has experienced an enormous revival in the twentieth century in the modified form of post-secularism, having been influenced by Romanticism and its 'nature worship.' This type of doctrine is the impetus for contemporary human rights theory, based on the monistic obliteration of all distinctions (from creator/creation to gender and sexuality distinctions). Such movements are an expression of resurgent paganism. The ideas of international law and this formulation of human rights are modern expressions of Stoicism and Romanticism. These laws and rights that express the oneness of all things are allegedly inherent in nature or humanity, and thus should be recognised by all nations as 'citizens of the universe' and 'sons of god' (gods). This vision can only be understood and embraced when we transcend the distinctions articulated by Christian theism and realise the synthesis of religion and ethics in a new oneness.

In the ancient world, the Roman Empire collapsed as consensus eroded over classical religion and philosophy, and the door was opened for a biblical and Hebraic understanding of the creator-creature distinction, revealed law, and freedom from the tyranny of 'oneness' to take root. This worldview spread freedom under God wherever it went. As a result, for Christians to try to save modern civilisation by an appeal to natural law (disconnected from the God of Scripture and his revealed law) is to appeal to classical philosophy; this is tantamount to a death wish. Paul the apostle certainly does teach that all human beings know the work of God's law, albeit they may not be consistently conscious of all its precepts ─ they recognise by created instinct the work of God's law on their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to this reality (Rom. 2:14-15). However, though people know the work of God's law, in rebellion they do not desire to obey it. Just as they see God's attributes and power in creation but refuse to honour God and worship creation instead, so they know God's requirement and sanctions in their conscience but rebel against it. As a consequence, God hands them over to a depraved mind (Rom. 1:24) and they then live in terms of it (Rom. 1:29-32). Thus the work of God's law known by common grace (not by natural law) serves only to condemn individuals in their sinful rebellion, and does not proffer an alternative law structure to biblical law (Rom. 2).

Contrary to the dogmas of classical philosophy, Scripture teaches that the human problem is essentially ethical, not a lack of information. Sinful humanity, in the face of our better knowledge, chooses iniquity ─ the Fall radically affecting human reasoning, not just a person's soul and body. As such, reason, with its self-generated moral and political order, cannot save. Natural law has its appeal because it pretends to neutrality between worldviews and so is perceived by many Christians as a 'non-religious' paradigm and, therefore, a useful tool for engagement with the 'secular' sphere. But the veritable reality is that "natural law theory serves temporarily as a believable political philosophy only when there is a common religious agreement beforehand. Shatter that religious agreement, and natural law theory becomes useless." [19] As soon as religious consensus is lost, people's vision of what 'natural law' is becomes totally disparate or is abandoned altogether.

Without a Christian vision of God and the human person, political life is doomed to be a mere exercise of brute power, indifference, and selfishness ─ the inevitable upshot of liberal secularism. "With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy. But with its deeds, it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy" (Marcello Pera).

If you want to read more about the abiding relevance of biblical law and its pertinently comprehensive application today, see my forthcoming work: Seek First the Kingdom: Dominion, the State, and Education.

───

FOOTNOTES

[1] Burnside, Jonathan. God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (2010). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. xxv-xxvi
[2] Frederick Pollock, quoted in ibid., p. xxvi
[3] The Music with the Form and Order of the Service to be Performed at the Coronation of Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the Abbey Church of Westminster on Tuesday the 2nd Day of June, 1953 (1953). London: Novello and Company, p. 14
[4] Ibid., p. 15
[5] Ibid., p. 67
[6] Burnside op. cit., p. xxv
[7] Ibid., p. xxv
[8] Ibid., p. xl
[9] Ibid., p. xxvi-xxix
[10] Ibid., p. xxxvi
[11] Ibid., p. xxxviii
[12] Rushdoony, Rousas John. Institutes of Biblical Law: Volume One (1973). Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, p. 242
[13] Burnside op. cit., p. xxxii
[14] Wright, Christopher. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (2006). Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, p. 379
[15] Ibid., p. 380
[16] Montgomery, John Warwick. Law and Gospel: A Study Integrating Faith and Practice (1994). Edmonton: Christian Legal Fellowship, p. 9
[17] Sutton, Ray. That You May Prosper (1987). Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, p. 182
[18] Epictetus. Discourses, I, ix (trans. P.E. Matheson) cited in ibid., p. 182
[19] Sutton op. cit., p. 183

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