Friday, March 11, 2011

Understanding the Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 19.4, on the Judicial Law and General Equity: Part 1

"[T]hose judicial laws of Moses, which
are merely politic, and without all mixture
of Ceremonies, must remain; [such] as
those which hinder not the atonement of
Jews and Gentiles with God, or of one of
them with another. Beside that, it being
manifest that our Savior Christ came not
to dissolve any Good government of
commonwealth, he can least of all be
thought to come to destroy that which
himself had established." Thomas
Cartwright, The Second Replie of
Thomas Cartwright
... (1575), 97.
By Vindiciae Legis

[Editor’s note: this series is highly recommended. It rigorously addresses the historical context of WCF 19.4, clearing up the confusion that has for so long plagued many in understanding its theonomic implications. In addition, the quotes from the Westminster divines about law categories are very instructive.]
Preliminary Explanation

This article began as and D.V. may be recast, perhaps in abbreviated form, as an appendix to a forthcoming critique of Matthew Winzer’s section on The nature of general equity in his deeply flawed article: “The Westminster Assembly & the Judicial Law: A Chronological Compilation and Analysis.” Part Two: Analysis, Appearing in The Confessional Presbyterian, volume 5 (2009), 67-70.

It was considered worthwhile to release this separately because it serves both as a stand-alone article on the widely misunderstood WCF 19.4, and also because it forms a bridge between my earlier analysis, The Westminster Confession and Judicial Law: The Anti-Theonomic Misrepresentations of Matthew Winzer and the forthcoming critique dealing with Winzer on The Nature of General Equity.

In dealing with Winzer on the judicial law I omitted any discussion of his peremptory treatment of Dr. Francis Nigel Lee’s interpretation of the expression “sundry judicial laws” in WCF 19.4.[1] Lee sees this expression as applying only to the strictly Jewish component of the judicial law and not to the entire judicial law. One would have expected Winzer to spend a little more time studying the historical justification for the learned Dr. Lee’s view before dismissing it offhandedly.[2]
Daniel Ritchie takes the same approach as Lee in his recent work, The Law is Good.[3] I am persuaded that Lee and Ritchie are correct in their interpretation of “sundry judicial laws.” In my view WCF 19.4 is widely misunderstood and so the purpose of this article is to explore its original intent and the reasoning behind it.

There was a wide diversity of opinion amongst the Westminster divines on many issues, especially on church government. And I am far from claiming that the divines were in complete lockstep on all the issues discussed below. Anyone reading the divines will become aware of usually minor differences regarding the judicial law, differences which were often either merely terminological, or about which particular laws had expired and which had not. It is all too easy to inflate these differences and falsely claim that one party or another were not really theonomic.

What I am claiming is that the divines quoted represent the mainstream of puritan thinking, especially of Presbyterians, from Thomas Cartwright through Perkins and Ames[4] to the majority in the Westminster Assembly and beyond. I do not believe that WCF 19.4 was a compromise, worded so as to accommodate both theonomic and nontheonomic positions. Rather it was and remains an integral part of an unequivocally theonomic affirmation of the principles of Divine law.

Three prerequisites for a correct understanding of WCF 19.4 are first introduced because, without the necessary background information, it is all too easy for modern day readers to misinterpret this section of the Confession. Without these prerequisites the divines can appear to disagree among themselves or even contradict themselves, when in reality there is remarkable agreement and self-consistency on the issues of the judicial law and general equity.

Note: Most of the books cited are freely available online at Google Books or at, in pdf format. Still Waters Revival also provides many puritan works which may be downloaded for a nominal charge at If I am not mistaken, only Thomas Cartwright’s Second Replie will be completely unavailable to the average reader.

Three Important Prerequisites

First Prerequisite

An important prerequisite for understanding WCF 19.4 is to recognize that the puritans, including the Westminster Divines and their predecessors, divided the judicial law into two basic categories. In the first category were sundry laws special to the “body politic” of Israel and which expired with it. Often these fenced the ceremonial law, some related to health and others to inheritance, etc. The second category was perpetual, part and parcel of the moral law and had application to all nations at all times. Laws in this category never expired and were variously referred to as laws of common equity, general equity or moral equity.[5]

Thomas Cartwright stressed the specifically Jewish nature of the first category: 
“Nowe albeit those lawes gyven unto the Jewes for that land doo not binde the Gentils in other landes, for somuche as the diversitie off the disposition of the people, and state off that country gave occasion off some lawes there, which would not have bene in other places, and peoples…”[6] 
For Cartwright such laws were in direct contrast with unchangeable second category laws, applicable to all nations: 
“there are certein Judiciall lawes which can not be changed, as that a blasphemer, contemptuous, and stubborne Idolater etc. ought to be put to death.”[7] 
On other pages Cartwright also includes murder, adultery, incest, etc. as capital offenses.

William Perkins wrote explicitly of the distinction between the two categories of judicial law: 
“Therefore the judiciall lawes of Moses according to the substance and scope thereof must be distinguished; in which respect they are of two sorts. Some of them are lawes of particular equity, some of common equity.”[8] 
Perkins continues by providing definitions of each of the categories.[9] These might be summarized as: 
1. Laws of particular equity are laws which were only equitable and binding under the special circumstances of the Jewish commonwealth.

2. Laws of common (or general) equity are laws which are equitable for Jew and Gentile alike. These laws are grounded in the moral law and therefore universally binding on the consciences of all men everywhere. 

Puritan Thomas Hall (1610-1665) in his commentary on the third and fourth chapters of II Timothy, the title page of which bears the imprimatur of Westminster divine Edmund Calamy, provides similar definitions.[10]

It will be shown later that these categories are somewhat idealized. The Westminster divines and others recognized that the actual laws of Scripture, to a limited extent, often overlap them.

(posts in this series: part 1part 2, part 3part 4)

     [1] Matthew Winzer, “The Westminster Assembly & the Judicial Law: II. Analysis,” The Confessional Presbyterian, 5 (2009): 68.
     [2] Francis Nigel Lee, Are the Mosaic Laws for Today? 3rd Revised Edition, 2004. (10 Mar. 2011). 
     Winzer quotes Lee thus: “the Confession then also goes on to declare that only ‘sundry [or several] judicial laws ... expired together with the State [or Politeia]’ of the people of Israel” and “that even those ‘sundry judicial laws’ still oblige all people to obey them—as far as ‘the general equity thereof may require.” (Winzer, 68; Lee, 39.) Brackets are part of the original quote. [Editor’s disclaimer: because of Nigel Lee’s theological similiarities to kinism (although we don’t believe Lee’s views to be as drastic), we do not endorse Lee’s writings and lectures about race.]
     [3] Daniel F. N. Ritchie, The Law is Good, A Defence of Judicial Calvinism (Reformed Worldview Books, 2010), 129n. Available from
     [4] Ames is generally classed as an Independent or Congregationalist. It should be noted, however, that he opposed separatism and advocated establishment, teaching and ruling elders, and synods and classes. See for example: William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. and ed. John D. Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 5, 205-210. AmesMedulla (Marrow) is cited in Jus Divinum in support of the authority of synods and classes: David W. Hall, ed., Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: or, the Divine Right of Church Government Asserted (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 1995), 239. This modern edition is a compilation of the first (1646) and third editions (1654).
     [5] Winzer ignores the fundamental division in the judicial law made by puritan divines, and reflected in the Confession. He writes: “The text [of WCF 19.4], however, will not permit such a reading. At no point does it partition the judicial law and speak of a subset of them. The pronoun, which, refers back to what was given to Israel―‘sundry judicial laws.’ It is therefore the whole set of judicial laws which are expired, and not merely a subset of them” (Winzer, 68). The reader will realize that Winzer’s argument about the use of the pronoun “which” is circular, assuming what it purports to prove.
     [6] Thomas Cartwright, The Second Replie of Thomas Cartwright: agaynst Maister Doctor Whitgiftes second answer touching the Churche Discipline (1575), 97. Selected material, including the extracts used in this article, from the Second Replie was later republished in, Thomas Cartwright, Helps for Discovery of the Truth in Point of Toleration (London: Printed for Thomas Banks, 1647).
     [7] Cartwright, Second Replie, 98.
     [8] William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience (Cambridge: John Legate, 1596), 17.
     [9] Perkins’ definitions are:
“Lawes of particular equity, are such as prescribe justice according to the particular estate and condition of the Jewes common-wealth & to the circumstances thereof: time, place, persons, things, actions. Of this kind was the law, that the brother should raise up seed to his brother, and many such like: & none of them bind us, because they were framed and tempered to a particular people. 
"Judicialls of common equity are such as are made according to the lawe or instinct of nature common to all men: and these in respect of their substance, bind the consciences not onely of the Jewes but also of the Gentiles: for they were not given to the Jewes as they are Jewes, that is, a people received into the Covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the land of Canaan, of whome the Messias according to the flesh was to come; but they were given to them as they were mortall men subject to the order and lawes of nature as all other nations are. Againe judiciall lawes, so farre forth as they have in them the generall or common equity of the law of nature are morall and therefore binding in conscience, as the morall lawe.” (Ibid., 17, 18)
     [10] “Some judicial precepts are Juris communis, of common equity, such as are agreeable to the instinct and law of nature, common to all men; and these for substance bind all persons, both Jews and Gentiles; as being Moral, and so agreeing with the Moral Law. These judicial precepts which were Juris particularis, of particular equity, such as pertained especially to the Jews common-wealth, and were fitted for them and their time, are now abolished. E.g. that a man should marry with none but his own stock; That the brother should raise up seed to his Brother, and that a Thief should restore four-fold, this was peculiar to the Jewish Common-wealth and not to ours.” Thomas Hall, A Practical and Polemical Commentary, Or Exposition upon the Third and Fourth Chapters of the Latter Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy (London: Printed by E. Tyler for John Starkey, 1658), 227.

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