Friday, March 25, 2011

Understanding the Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 19.4, on the Judicial Law and General Equity: Part 3

"But ever since, the corruption of our
nature, such is the blindness of our
understanding, the perverseness of our
will and disorder of our affections, that
there are only some Relics of that Law
remaining in our hearts like to some
dim aged picture. And therefore by the
voice and power of God it ought to be
renewed as with a fresh pencil. Therefore
is there nowhere to be found any true
right practical reason, pure and complete
in all parts, but in the written Law of
God, Psalm 119.66." William Ames,
Conscience with the Power and Cases
(1639; reprint, Puritan Reprints,
2010), 108.
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 Westminsterdivines about law categories are very instructive.]

Third Prerequisite

A third prerequisite for understanding WCF 19.4 is an appreciation that although the categories were ideally distinct, there was recognition by the divines that the actual laws of Scripture may overlap the idealized categories. Thus, many first category laws were, in the final analysis, grounded on moral or general equity, and this could not be ignored. Similarly, some second category laws prescribed capital punishment by stoning. Stoning was an accidental feature of the law, which seemingly savored of particular equity.[1] Additionally, because of the overlap, it was entirely possible that certain laws had been miscategorized.

Cawdrey and Palmer recognized the possibility that laws counted as merely Judaic may still be binding. 
“we must needs hold that all the Laws of the Old Testament are perpetuated to this day, if there be nothing in the New Testament by way of repealing them… And if anyone think, that by this assertion, sundry of the Laws which are usually counted judaical will prove to be in force still; we answer, that perhaps it may prove so indeed… So we are afraid, that many Divines (not to say some churches and states nowadays), have been a little to bold in rejecting sundry Laws as merely Judaical, which upon further advisement might perhaps be found Moral and Perpetual.” [2] 
Cartwright tells us that although the strictly Jewish first category laws were not as such binding on the Gentiles, the Christian magistrate is nevertheless bound to frame their [general] equity in the laws of his commonwealth. 
“Nowe albeit those lawes, gyven unto the Jewes for that land doo not binde the Gentils in other landes … yet for somuche as there ys in those lawes a constant, and everlasting equitie, whereuppon they were grounded… yt followeth, that even in making politike lawes, for the common wealth, Christian Magistrates owght to propound unto them selves those lawes, and in light of their equitie, by a just proportion off circunstances off person, place &c. frame them.”[3] 
Samuel Rutherford, one of the Scottish commissioners to the assembly sees an overlap between the strictly Mosaic “Judaical Laws” (first category) and laws of “perpetual obligation” (second category). He uses the law of destroying an idolatrous city, Deut. 13, as an example: 
Judiciall Lawes may be judiciall and Mosaicall, and so not obligatory to us, according to the degree and quality of punishment, such as is Deut. 13. the destroying the City, and devoting all therein to a curse; we may not do the like in the like degree of punishment, to all that receive and defend Idolaters and blasphemers in their City: and yet that some punishment by the sword, be inflicted upon such a City, is of perpetuall obligation…”[4] 
Rutherford, clearly views many or all first category laws as having underlying moral equity, “of perpetual obligation,” which it is the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce. 

Edwards also uses Deut. 13. in his refutation of John Goodwin’s Hagiomastix. In doing so he provides a simple, but useful summary of how to interpret and apply Biblical law: 
“If the command be pure and simple the thing is evident, where moral it binds, where ceremoniall or judiciall it binds not. But if it bee mixt of judicial, ceremoniall and morall, the morall remains in force… for whats morall in Deut. 13. abides, and yet whats properly judiciall and ceremonial is taken away.”[5] 
Our three prerequisites have shown us that there were two ideally distinct categories of what was called judicial law. One category, the judicial law proper, expired. The other category, strongly associated with the moral law, was common, moral and perpetual and therefore could not expire. However, even the expired category contained laws characterized by some degree of general or moral equity. Although written in the context of church government, the Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici sums up everything we have said so far on the mainstream puritan view of the law: 
“We answer, the laws of the Jewish church, whether Ceremonial[6] or Judicial, so far forth are in force, even at this day, as they were grounded upon common equity, the principles of reason and nature, and were serving to the maintenance of the Moral Law… The Jewish polity is only abrogated[7] in regard of what was in it of particular right [first category], not of common right [second category]: so far as there was in their Laws either a typology proper to their church, or a peculiarity respecting their state in that land of promise given unto them. Whatsoever was in their laws of Moral concern or general equity, is still obliging…”[8]

The Original Intent of WCF 19.4

Armed with our three prerequisites we are now in a better position to establish the original intent of WCF 19.4. This is not quite the same as looking for the best theological, or most biblical construction, although we would expect it to lead to the same conclusions. We simply wish to understand WCF 19.4 as the Westminster divines themselves understood it. 
WCF 19.4: “To them [Israel] also, as a body politic, He [God] gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”[9] 
According to the most relevant definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary[10] (OED) a “body politic” is an “organized society” or a “nation in its corporate character.” Both definitions were current at the time of the Westminster Assembly. The first clause is therefore relatively straightforward and little, if any, disagreement is expected as to its meaning.

The second clause has been the source of some difficulty, most of it needless, because the prerequisites have been ignored and because little attention has been given to the precise wording. The clause is generally read as if the word “sundry” was redundant or omitted altogether and as if “judicial laws” meant the whole judicial law in both its categories.

Referring again to the OED, “sundry” is defined as “various,”[11] “a number of” and “several.” None of these meanings imply that the entire judicial law is intended. Whether or not the whole judicial law is in view cannot be determined from the use of the word “sundry” alone. It has to be inferred from the context.

Again we are dealing with current usage at or near the time of the Assembly, an obvious example of which is on the title page of Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici. It bears the words: “by sundry Ministers of London” or “By sundry Ministers of Christ within the City of London,” depending on the edition. Obviously, not every minister in London was involved with or even approved of Jus Divinum!

There is little point in using the word “sundry” if the entire judicial law is intended. Using the expression “sundry judicial laws” rather than “the judicial law” is more consistent with a reference to a limited subset of judicial laws than a reference to the entire judicial law. If the entire judicial law was intended by WCF 19.4 then the second clause would have been better phrased as: “He gave the judicial law” instead of “He gave sundry judicial laws.”

The third and fourth clauses tell us that the “sundry judicial laws” of the second clause “expired together with” the Jewish nation state, and are “not obliging any other [people or nation] now.” The idea of expiry fits precisely with the first category laws, laws of particular equity, which were specific to the Jewish nation and people. All obligation to such laws has now ceased, except for the essential qualification given in the final clause.

However, we also know that the second category laws which were of common, general or moral equity were understood to be perpetual, and thus not subject to expiry. The expression “sundry judicial laws” refers only to laws which expired and therefore, it could not possibly refer to laws which the divines deemed to be perpetual and universal. 

Our third prerequisite enables us to understand the fifth and final clause of WCF 19.4. Taking the fourth and fifth clause together we have: “not obliging any other now, further than the general[12] equity thereof may require.” We saw earlier how many or all first category laws were taken as ultimately moral in character and thus possessed a degree of common or general equity. William Gouge illustrates this well in his comments on the law of the Levitical tithe: 
“By the judicial law the Levites had not their portion in Canaan for their inheritance, as other tribes had; therefore, in lieu thereof, by the said law, they had the tenth[13] of the rest of the people… The general equity, that they who communicate unto us spiritual matters, should partake of our temporals; and that they who are set apart wholly to attend God’s service, should live upon that service, is moral.”[14] 
Gouge makes it clear that concerning the law of the Levitical tithe, “The general equity… is moral.” He would surely say the same about all other first category laws, at least where general equity could be discerned. Notice also that Gouge does not restrict the moral law simply to the Decalogue.

Finally in this section we observe that the word thereof[15] in the general equity clause of WCF 19.4 points back specifically to the laws which expired. It follows, therefore, that the general equity clause itself, like the preceding clauses, applies only to the same expired laws. Its purpose is to make it clear that, notwithstanding their expiry, these laws may have underlying general and moral equity which still obliges and should not be ignored. The term general equity is used in opposition to the particular equity that chiefly characterizes the expired laws.

At this point it should be clear that the focus of WCF 19.4 is on the first category laws only, and that it is a mistake to apply it to second category laws. Second category laws and their continuing obligation are discussed in the next section.

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

     [1] This observation is based on the obvious willingness of the divines, as evidenced in their various writings, to substitute other forms of capital punishment in the N.T. era. For example, Paul Bayne was quoted above as saying, “the kind of death may be changed.” (Bayne, 162). We doubt that he thought such changes were permissible in the days of the Jewish commonwealth.
     [2] Coldwell, 29.
     [3] Cartwright, Second Replie, 97.
     [4] Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (London: Printed for R. I. by Andrew Crooke, 1649), 298.
     [5] Edwards, 87.
     [6] The equity of the ceremonial law is well explained by Lee, 31ff.
     [7] The divines rightly used the word “expired” as opposed to “abrogated” when dealing with the
judicial laws (first category only) in WCF 19.4. Note that Jus Divinum is also speaking of ceremonial laws which were indeed abrogated.
     [8] Hall, Jus Divinum, 240. (Also Coldwell, 46.)
     [9] The proof texts inserted at this point are: Exod. 21, Exod. 22:1-29, Gen. 49:10, 1 Pet. 2:13,14, Matt. 5:17,38,39, 1 Cor. 9:8-10. Bracketed words are added as in Ritchie, 130.
     [10] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989, OED Online, Oxford University Press
     [11] We suggest that “sundry” was originally intended in the sense of “various kinds of.” Some first category laws fenced the ceremonial law, some related to health and others to inheritance, etc.
     [12] The word general is introduced in the OED as having roots in Anglo-Norman, Old and Middle French with the meaning of “common or applicable to all people or nearly all people.” The first actual definition is probably the most pertinent: “Including, participated in by, involving, or affecting, all, or nearly all, the parts of a specified whole, or the persons or things to which there is an implied reference; completely or approximately universal within implied limits; opposed to partial or particular .”
     [13] A literal tithe or tenth of our increase is still obligatory. Gouge is not clear on this point and may have disagreed. Tithing long preceded the law of the Levitical tithe. Abraham paid a tenth of his spoils to Melchizedek, Heb. 7:2, 4.
     [14] Gouge, 2:108.
     [15] Note that the use of the word “thereof” means that the equity “of” the law is in view. This differs from the idea of equity “in” the law. A statement such as “these same laws may still possess a measure of general and moral equity” as used in this article, refers to the “general and moral equity” by which the laws in question are characterized and in which they are grounded.

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