Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Judicial Laws, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession


The Westminster Assembly (1643-1652) addressed the judicial laws of the Old Testament in 19.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. To understand its statement, it is helpful to compare it to what the 39 Articles had said previously. The 39 Articles had served as the confession of faith for the Church of England since 1571. In its chapter on the Old Testament, the 39 Articles said, 
“Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth…”
In their initial revision of the 39 Articles (available in The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 5:326), the Westminster Assembly specified which judicial laws are no longer binding on nations: 
“Although the Law Given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christians, nor the civill precepts given by Moses, such as were peculiarly fitted to the commonwealth of the Jews, are of necessity to be received in any Commonwealth...”
This helps us understand the distinction made in it the final product of the assembly. In its confession of faith, the Westminster Assembly made the same distinction in a different way, noting which laws continued to be binding rather than noting which ones do not. 
"To them also, as a body politic, he 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." (WCF 19.4) 
This is to say that the judicial laws of the Old Testament are binding on states today as far as they are of universal equity and not peculiarly fitted to Israel, a distinction that was commonly made at the time. 

For example, Johannes Piscator’s appendix to his commentary on Exodus was quoted favorably in the writings of men at the Westminster Assembly (George Gillespie, Francis Cheynell, and Samuel Rutherford). In that appendix, Johannes Piscator (1546—1625) argued that
“the magistrate is obliged to those judicial laws which teach concerning matters which are immutable and universally applicable to all nations, but not to those which teach concerning matters which are mutable and peculiar to the Jewish or Israelite nations for the times when those governments remained in existence.” (Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses, Braselton, GA: American Vision, 2015 [1605], 4-5)
While a member of the Westminster Assembly, Samuel Bolton published The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (1645). In this book, he said “in respect of the ceremonial and the judicial law we find few dissenters.” Here is how he explained this common view of the judicial law:
“As for the judicial law, which was an appendix to the second table, it was an ordinance containing precepts concerning the government of the people in things civil, and it served three purposes: it gave the people a rule of common and public equity, it distinguished them from other peoples, and it gave them a type of the government of Christ. That part of the judicial law which was typical of Christ's government has ceased, but that part which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a common maxim: those judgements which are common and natural are moral and perpetual.” (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964 [1645], 56)
This concept and terminology was also found at this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Thomas Shepherd, minister in Massachusetts, cited and affirmed Piscator's view. The New Haven Colony affirmed in 1642, 
“that the judicial law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as it is a hedge and a fence to the moral law, and neither ceremonial nor typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity in it, and should be the rule of their proceedings.” (Charles Hoadly, ed. Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven from 1638 to 1649, Hartford: for the Editor, 1857, 69)
I believe that most "theonomists" who seek to be confessional are in agreement with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I would also encourage theonomists to benefit from the clear thinking and hard work that has been done in the Reformed tradition concerning the application of God's law to society. For more on this topic, you can listen to my lesson on this portion of the Westminster Confession, available at this link.

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