Theocratic Case Laws and the New Covenant Era

The issue of theonomy and the application of theocratic case laws in the New Covenant era has recently come up in several discussions I have had, so I thought I would make some resources available to those interested in learning more about a redemptive-historical approach to understanding the role of the theocratic sanctions given to Old Covenant Israel.

The follow books give, what the authors understand to be, the apostolic principles of interpretation with regard to the case laws found throughout the Pentatuech:

Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses

Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim pp. 279-284 (especially pages 281-282)

Here is a post I wrote a while back with a link to George Knight’s outstanding article on apostolic hermenuetics.

Here is post I wrote with regard to Vos teaching in his article “The Mosaic Theocrasy” in The Eschatology of the Old Testament. This chapter has proved more beneficial than almost anything I have read with regard to the typical nature of the Mosaic sanctions.

The only thing I would add to these references is a brief note concerning the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement (ch. 19) regarding the “general equity” of these case laws. You will often hear proponents of the Theonomic movement trying to make a one-for-one application of the Old Covenant case laws to the governments of the world today (minus their distinctively cultural settings). They will appeal to the wording of the Confession that speaks of the obligation to obey the “general equity” of the case laws. The Dinives put it this way: “To them also (i.e. Israel), as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” Those who quote this section always seem to leave out the fact that the Puritans clearly state that God “gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people.

So this begs the question, “If the Purtians were clear that the civil laws expired with Old Covenant Israel, then what do they mean by general equity?” This is indeed a hard question to answer for several reasons. First, to the best of my knowledge, no member of the Assembly ever wrote an exposition of the phraseology, “general equity.” Again, while most theonomists will try to make a one-for-one application in the civil realm, the only thing you can conclude with certainty about the obligatory nature of the “general equity” of the case laws on those living on this side of the cross is that they were an expression of the moral law of God, and as such, always teach what is morally right and wrong–it is always wrong to commit adultery, it is always wrong to steal, it is always wrong to murder. The apostolic use of particular case laws, shows that it is not civil punishment that they have application to in the New Covenant. Rather, it is the spiritual government of the church. So, as the authors above note, verses that speak of stoning adulterers, false witnesses, and idolaters are used in the context of church discipline for the same actions in the New Covenant (1 Cor. 5). That is general equity. The particular civil cases and penal sanctions are not the general equity.

Second, we must remember that the case laws, given to Israel in redemptive-history, were given to a “body politic.” They were written to the church-state of the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, the church is an eschatologically realize spiritual nation.  As Vos says in “The Mosaic Theocracy,” the typical laws given to the typical church-state are eternalized in the New Covenant. Does this mean that physical nations do not need to govern with righteous laws and punishments? No, they certainly are responsible to do so. Where are they to learn what the ethical standards of righteous rule are? Well, according to the apostle Paul, they have the  law written on their hearts (Rom. 2) and, by common grace they get enough right to restrain evil in the world until Christ comes to execute perfect justice on the earth. This is the historic Protestant doctrine of “natural law.” It accords with the moral law given to Israel at Sinai. Someone might object, “But then you are saying that God has two standards of righteousness?” The only thing I can say here is that Paul (Rom. 13) and Peter (1 Pet. 4) told the Christians of the first Century, and every subsequent Century, to obey the governing authorities. If you took the time to consider what those authorities were like you would soon discover that they were tyrannical.This did not change the fact that Christians were to obey their rulers, insomuch as they executed enough justice in the society for it to function.  That is what makes a government a legitimate form of rule. We are not obliged to obey the government when they command Christians to disobey God or worship false gods.

We need to remember that one day, all the civil disobedience, chaos and rebellion will be dealt with. Heaven will be a world of perfectly righteous rule. Even if (though it is a non-reality) the civil law of God were instituted in nations around the world, you would have a wicked and rebellious people like Israel. As Habakkuk said, “the Law is powerless.” Implementing civil law in societies is not the mission the Lord has given His church until He comes again. Until He comes, we are called to live humble, obedient and Christ-exalting lives in the respective fields to which He has called us. The Lord has left us here to spread the glorious Gospel of His Son. This Gospel is the only thing that will change hearts and enable rulers and people alike to live righteously and honor the Lord and His law.

11 Responses

  1. Hi Nick,

    Thanks for this helpful post.

    Two additional resources will help:

    David VanDrunen, Natural and and the Two Kingdoms discusses this issue at some length from a historical pov. See e.g., pp. 166ff.

    Peter Wallace and Craig Troxel published a very helpful essay in WTJ 64 (2002) — “Men in Combat over the Civil Law: ‘General Equity’ in WCF 19.4,” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (Fall 2002): 307-18.

    Sinclair Ferguson’s essay, “An Assembly of Theonomists?” in Godfrey ed. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique.

    Not only does theonomy not account properly for the movement of redemptive history it is not the view of the Reformed tradition or confessions. Yes, prior to the 18th century we were theocrats but we weren’t theonomists and we were wrong about theocracy (so I guess I’m not a “repristinator” after all?) This is why the word “expired” is so important to this discussion. When the divines said “expired” they ended the theonomy debate for anyone with eyes to read a text in context. The theocracy debate is more difficult but not insoluble. Your account of redemptive history provides the basis for resolving it. Our hermeneutic always acknowledged that movement but our debt to Christendom held us back from working it out until it became clear that Christendom was a failure (post Thirty Years War).

  2. Scott,

    Thank you for the extra resources. I have not read Ferguson’s article, but have heard great things about it. The Godfrey ed. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique is hard to find, if I remember correctly. I wish someone would republish it. I did not know about the Wallace and Troxel piece. I will look for it right away. Any further thoughts would be appreciated.

  3. Jeff,

    I have been bothered by the lack of biblical theology in the theonomic camp since my days in seminary. All the proponents of theonomy claim to be Van Tillian, but none of them have the Vossian biblical theology of Van Til. Dr. Van Til was a good friend of our family, and, I know from having read him thoroughly, that he was Ammillennial and Vossian. He never taught that the civil law, given to Israel, was the law that was to be implemented into modern governments. He was dutch, and understood redemptive history and (though all Dutch do not agree with him on this) common grace. I am grieved that Dr. Van Til’s statement, “You are either autonomist or theonomist” has become the slogan for a movement that he himself did not approve of.

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  6. Isaac Halls

    Hi Nicholas,

    I have listened to some of your sermons and have really enjoyed them. I am currently attending RTS and am researching this issue with much interest. That said, a couple of things that you say above I think deserve some clarity:
    1.) Although no divine ever wrote an exposition of “general equity”, should we not look to their individual writings to see in practice what they meant? It seems to me that guys like Gillespie and Rutherford cite several of the OT case laws as still binding upon the New Covenant believer. Wouldn’t that mean that, according to them, “general equity” refers to the laws within the Mosaic covenant that were moral in character?

    2.) Since the Mosaic case law provides specific application of God’s moral law, which God says are “just and righteous” (Deut 4), would it not follow that laws with punishments that are either too harsh or too lenient are not “just and righteous”? Shouldn’t natural law comport with revealed law?

    3.) After reading some of Rushdoony and Bahnsen, I’ve am more convinced than ever that anyone can mine quotes that make them look like Judiazers. However, you can also mine quotes that make them look completely within the Reformed tradition. I’m wondering if this discussion really doesn’t belong in more of a theoretical realm. Both of those men admit that obedience and adoption of God’s law will only come as the Spirit regenerates hearts within culture…so for me it doesn’t follow that Theonomists want to adopt the Mosaic law system for American culture, but rather they are saying that we as Christians should hold that position and as society changes we should of course encourage such laws to be implemented.

    Let me know your thoughts, thanks!

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  8. Roberto

    Dear Nick, a little time ago I asked you for some help with the issue. And the same I do now. I have several questions on the issue. I’d really like a little help here.
    I read Scott Clark’s defense of natural law and 2k theology and read also Ligon Duncan’s refutation of Theonomy (and some other critiques of it all trough the Web) but I can’t still have the mind and conscious quiet. I’d be so thankful if you could take the time to respond me.

  9. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I would encourage you to read George Knight’s ETS article, “The Scriptures Were Written for Our Instruction” very carefully regarding this matter. I would especially point you to the very long paragraph starting at the beginning of page 10: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/39/39-1/39-1-pp003-013_JETS.pdf If you take the time to read what Knight says–and carefully study the exegesis of the passages to which he appeals–it should put your mind to rest as to the expiration of the civil law in the redemptive historical form of the cases God gave to Israel in the Old Covenant economy. I hope this help quiet your mind and conscience.

    1. Roberto

      I’ve read the paper as you said, and I got to say it’s been of real help to me. I’ve come to understand several things I hadn’t noticed yet.
      Now, precisely at page 9-10 where Knight takes on Paul’s appealing to Theocratic Law cases, I wanna be sure of having undestood right: Now that Christ has fulfilled the law and set aside the barriers, the theocratic law properly speaking have been abrogated in the sense that it is no longer necessary to observe them in the specific cultural applications they had during that age?
      If so, (knowing that we still have to obey the moral law) we are in no need to stone people nor to apply the punishment that Israel did in that time but to notice the moral principles and try to create good -modern- laws?

      And one more question: Israel theocratic state (and the necessity of observing Moses Covenant) is finished at 33 d.C. or at 70 d.C?

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