Politics and Law

Christianity and Politics IX: Divine and Human Law in the State

Note: This is Part 9 of an ongoing series. See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7, and Part 8.


In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to beseech God: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). God’s will is always done in heaven. What, then, about the earth? Christians have been pondering this question since the beginning of the church. In this article, I will set out the classic Protestant answer to this question, an answer that I hope to show is biblical as well.

Although there are some Christians who do not believe that God’s law should have much (if any) impact on anything outside of the individual believer’s soul, this has not been the majority view in the church historically. Christians have long argued, in fact, that when Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth he meant that we should in some sense seek for this to be manifest in families, communities, and even the civil magistrates and legal codes of a people or nation. How precisely that is to be done has been widely debated.

Some, for example, would argue that the concrete particulars of the Mosaic law should be applied in comprehensive detail today, even those aspects of the law we would today call “civil” (including specific punishments for infractions). This is called Theonomy.

Others would argue for a very minimalistic use of divine law, limiting such exclusively to the components of law found in the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9: mainly preventing and punishing violence and theft and ensuring that society does not completely degenerate into anarchy. This is usually called a Reformed Two Kingdoms (R2K) approach, although some Baptists have also been significantly influenced by this view.

For those new to this discussion the label for a third view can be confusing at first, since it has come to be called the Classic Two Kingdoms view (sometimes the Magisterial Two Kingdoms view, since it is argued to originate among the magisterial Protestant Reformers, both Lutheran and Reformed). This view is distinguished from the R2K view in that it has a much more comprehensive place for God’s moral law in its approach to the civil magistrate, but is also distinguished from Theonomy in that it argues that the specifics of the “civil” legislation for Old Testament Israel do not remain in force today, even though there is often much that can be gleaned from the moral dimension of those laws.

A final approach would be that of Anabaptism, which in its most extreme form argues that God’s law can have nothing to do with earthly government, and thus that Christians must avoid politics and government altogether. Many Evangelicals today tend toward Anabaptism, though not usually in its most extreme form (the form found in the time of the Reformation). There are of course many approaches in non-Protestant traditions, though I will not focus on these.

By What Standard?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told those listening: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). On the surface this would seem like a pretty straightforward statement on how Christians should apply God’s law to life in this world, including to politics. They should simply obey it as it comes to them in the Old Testament. If a law forbade the eating of any “living creature” from the ocean or a river that did not have “fins and scales” (Lev 11:10) then the Christian must not eat such a thing either. If a law prescribes stoning to death a “man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer” (Lev 20:27) then such (astrologers and the like) should be stoned to death today as well.

It is not, however, quite so simple. Jesus also says he came to “fulfill” (v. 17) and “accomplish” (v. 18) the law. Jesus is certainly not contradicting himself in Matt 5:17, but we must explain how it can be simultaneously true that he both fulfills the law and does not abolish it. Other texts in the New Testament use similar language of fulfillment. In Rom 13:10, for example, the apostle Paul writes that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” And Paul writes elsewhere that at the heart of being a Christian is “keeping the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). Jesus’ brother James calls God’s law “perfect” (James 1:25) and says that “if you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8).

The questions confronting us can be formulated simply: in what sense (if any) is God’s law binding today, and in what sense (if any) is it not? To answer these questions we must provide a more systematic treatment of God’s law in the Bible.

The Threefold Division of the Law

Probably the most historically significant way of explaining the role of God’s law in his providential plan is what is known as the threefold division of the law. In this approach, God’s law is divided into three categories, or aspects: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Put briefly, the moral aspect is that which is timelessly true, that which God always requires of all people at all times, and which is not restricted to OT Israel. Murder, for example, is always wrong for all people, no matter what. That is the moral aspect of the law. The ceremonial aspect would include all laws regulating sacrifices, priesthood, and the temple, as well as those that create a physical differentiation between Israel and her pagan neighbors such as food laws, clothing laws, agricultural laws, and the like. Finally, the civil aspect covers laws defining and regulating Israel’s existence as a nation or state in the Old Testament, including judicial laws pertaining to crimes and punishments. The threefold division in its classic form goes back to at least Aquinas, though there are many precursors (Philip Ross’s From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law provides an excellent summary of the history). But is it faithful to the Scriptures?

The threefold division has been heavily criticized among evangelical scholars. Contemporary New Testament scholar D.A. Carson, for example, in his commentary on Matthew (p. 143), states that “although the tripartite distinction is old, its use as a basis for explaining the relationship between the testaments is not demonstrably derived from the NT and probably does not antedate Aquinas.” 

The threefold division is said to be unbiblical because no text of Scripture divides the law in this way. It is often added that no Israelite would have felt free to divide the law, only adhering to certain parts of it. Both of these claims are true, though only superficially. They are superficial because doctrines such as the threefold division of the law are built upon an examination of the totality of Scripture and the various ways in which it treats God’s laws, not merely on the basis of single sentences or isolated proof-texts. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) helpfully states that a doctrine is biblical either if it is “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” This is vitally important. Doctrinal propositions are sometimes stated expressly (that is: explicitly): “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16), etc. But sometimes they are deduced from “good and necessary consequence,” which is to say that they are necessary conclusions that follow from something we see in Scripture (possibly in one passage, but also possibly as a conclusion derived from many passages taken together). The Trinity (a word not found anywhere in the Bible) is a perfect example. There is only one God (Deut 6:4; 1 Tim 2:5); the Father is fully God (John 6:27; Rom 1:7); the Son is fully God (Rom 9:5; Titus 2:13); and the Holy Spirit is fully God (Matt 28:19; Luke 1:35; Acts 5:3). The doctrine of the Trinity follows from these facts as a good and necessary consequence. Such conclusions must be both good (not contradicting anything else in the Bible) and necessary (it is an inescapable conclusion). The threefold division of the law, like the Trinity, is a good and necessary consequence of the totality of biblical teaching.

Ceremonial Law

First, consider the ceremonial aspect of OT law. It is absolutely true that no Israelite in the OT could decide to keep only some aspects of the law. The law was an indivisible whole for him, though even in the OT it is clear that some aspects of the law are more important than others. The very structure of the Mosaic law displays this hierarchy of importance: as a unit the Ten Commandments, or “all of these words” (Exod 20:1), constitute the covenant made between God and Israel (Exod 34:28). These ten commandments in Exodus are set apart from all the rest of God’s laws, which are grouped together as “the rules” (Exod 21:1; see also Exod 24:3; Lev 27:34; Num 19:1; Deut 4:13–14; and Paul’s similar phrase “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” in Eph 2:14-15).

This hierarchy is seen elsewhere in the OT as well. God could say to Israel through the prophet Amos, for example: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). These feasts were commanded in God’s own law, and yet they are seen to be relatively less important than other laws, laws, for example, that have to do with basic matters of justice, which is what Amos contrasts the feasts with a few verses later: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). God relativizes one part of his own law in Amos 5. This could only be true if certain laws (such as sacrifices and feasts) are not in fact timeless, universal principles of right and wrong. That said, Israel was not meant actually to cease their feasts, but simply to combine outward observance with an inward sincerity of heart.

It is with the coming of Christ, however, that a unique and divisible ceremonial dimension of the law becomes clear. OT food laws (Acts 10:9–16, 28–29; Mark 7:19) and other laws of outward separation (Gal 2:11–14; Eph 2:14–16) are done away with because they served their temporary purpose in God’s history of redemption. This temporary purpose was to set Israel physically apart from her pagan neighbors in order to teach a spiritual principle of set-apartness from moral defilement. With Christ’s coming only the inward demand for holiness remains (1 Pet 1:14–16). The letter to the Hebrews shows in a fairly comprehensive way that the laws pertaining to the tabernacle/temple (Heb 9:1–11), priesthood (Heb 7:23–28; 10:11–14), and sacrifices (Heb 9:12–14, 23–28; 10:1–10)–in short, the whole system of OT worship–have also ceased with Christ’s coming, since the reality those laws foreshadowed has now arrived (Heb 7:11–12; 8:5–6, 13; 10:1). In short, the ceremonial laws of the OT–that is, the laws of outward holiness and worship–have served their temporary purpose in God’s plan and now are no longer binding on the Christian believer.

Civil Law

Second, there are the civil laws of the Old Testament. Everything that defines Israel as a state falls under this heading: kingship, treaties with other nations, statutes pertaining to the punishment of crimes, and other similar laws. To use the language of “state” and “crime” is admittedly anachronistic. Old Testament Israel is not identical with a modern nation-state, nor can everything I would label crime be said to correspond exactly with that category today. In particular, it is not possible to radically separate “religious” offenses and “civil” offenses. But it is nonetheless the case that there are certain dimensions of OT law that roughly correspond with modern notions of judicial-civil sanctions, and which were only intended by God to be applied while Israel was constituted as a nation.

This is in contrast to the position of Theonomy, succinctly encapsulated by Greg Bahnsen (1948–95) in his book Theonomy in Christian Ethics as “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.” The difference, as we will see, is with regard to the word exhaustive. Old Testament “civil” law is still relevant for individuals and nations today, but some particular aspects of it have ceased.

This can be seen in the Old Testament itself in a variety of ways. First, we can compare the situation while Israel was a nation in the land with the situation of God’s people both before and after that time. For example, Abraham (himself a “political” ruler) was free to enter into political covenants with non-Israelite neighbors like Abimelech, even those who lived in the land of promise (​​Gen 21:32). This is forbidden Israel under the Mosaic covenant (law charter): “and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them” (Deut 7:2). In fact, Israel was commanded to destroy every nation living within the land of promise (Deut 20:16-17).

There was a distinction in the law itself, however, regarding nations inside and outside of the promised land. If they were outside the land of promise (see Deut 20:15) Israel was allowed to “offer terms of peace to it” (Deut 20:10), though they would become Israel’s servants (Deut 20:11). Israelite kings could also enter into peaceful relations with nations outside of the land of promise, as did Solomon on several occasions (1 Kings 5; 10:1–13, 22).

The point of mentioning all of this is simply to show how certain civil laws were clearly not timeless principles that had to be applied uniformly in every particular. What determined when and how such laws were or were not to be applied? Israel’s status as a geo-political entity, or to put it less anachronistically, Israel’s existence as a nation in the land: “These are the statutes and rules that you shall be careful to do in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, all the days that you live on the earth” (Deut 12:1). If Israel ceased to be a nation in the land certain particulars of the law would cease to be normative as well.

We can see a similar dynamic at work once Israel has gone into exile (either in Assyria with the 10 northern tribes, or in Babylon with Judah and Benjamin). God, through the prophet Jeremiah, for example, commands the people of Judah still living in the land under the nominal Judean leader Zedekiah to “bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live” (Jer 27:12). The vast bulk of Judeans had been sent to Babylon by this point and Judah had simply become a weak vassal state of Babylon (see 2 Kings 24–25). To the exiles living in Babylon God (through Jeremiah) said:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Seeking the welfare of a non-Israelite city in the land was strictly forbidden while Israel was a nation in the land: “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever” (Deut 23:6). The point is not to suggest that the nations were not accountable to God’s moral law, but simply to note that laws that applied to Israel as a nation did not necessarily apply to Israelites outside of the land. Such laws were clearly not universal principles of right and wrong that must be applied at all times and in all places (as a system like Theonomy requires).

Daniel also prophesied to the exiles in Babylon, though he (unlike Jeremiah) was also one of their number. His specific situation is instructive. He by no means urged that there should be an attempt to apply the details of the judicial, or civil, aspects of the Mosaic law while in Babylon. In fact, Daniel and his companions were able to operate within the administrative and legal system of Babylon, though certainly not without difficulties at times because of their faithfulness in the face of pagan idolatry (see, for example, 1:3–4, 17, 19).

But Daniel also calls Nebuchadnezzar to pursue righteous rule in his kingdom (Dan 4:27):

Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.

Elsewhere we see Nebuchadnezzar condemned for his ungodly pride (Dan 4:30-35; 5:20-23), just as nearly every other OT prophet speaks strong words of condemnation against the nations and their rulers for their wickedness and rebellion against God’s moral law (see the extensive list in Keith Mathison’s excellent review of David VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms). Mathison further notes that this “same phenomenon continues in Revelation, the one New Testament book identified as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Revelation [also] contains numerous oracles of judgment against Rome.”

In short, the nations did not exist free from God’s moral law, but at the same time, they were not regulated by all of the particulars of the Mosaic laws pertaining to Israel as a nation in the land. This is just as true of nations today. Israel, as a covenantal/political entity in the land, defined by the Mosaic legislation, no longer exists (which is not a comment on the modern state of Israel). Put differently, the Mosaic covenant, as a national covenant, has served its purpose and is now obsolete as such. As Hebrew 8:13 puts it: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

Moral Law

Finally, we can address the moral aspect of the law. If certain aspects of the Mosaic law have become obsolete along with the Mosaic covenant itself, does that mean that there is no continuing sense in which God’s law is binding today? Far from it. Obedience to God in the NT is still defined in terms of God’s law. Jesus, when asked by an expert in the law, “[W]hich is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt 22:36) answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:37–40). Loving God and loving one’s neighbor is a summary of the moral heart of the whole OT law. Jesus indicated the same approach to OT law in Matt 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Many laws in the OT taught basic principles of right and wrong that are always binding, even though these could be separated from their outward, Israel-specific form.

Two examples from the NT show how this works in practice. In Ephesians 6:2 Paul quotes the fifth commandment about honoring one’s parents (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). Originally the fifth commandment attached a blessing “that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut 5:16). Paul retains the blessing, but leaves off “that the Lord your God is giving you.” The blessing is now simply that things will go well in the land, that is, wherever a child honors his parents. In 1 Corinthians 9:8-12, Paul quotes the commandment in Deut 25:4 about not muzzling an ox while it is treading grain in order to justify paying pastors. Paul derives a general moral principle from this law, as he (and we) could do for nearly all OT laws. 

Paul makes clear the fundamental NT approach to OT law in 1 Corinthians 7:19 (cf. Gal 5:6) when he writes that “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” What is so striking about this is that Paul has said that circumcision is totally irrelevant to obedience to God’s law, but that obedience to that law (“keeping the commandments of God”) is essential for Christians. Paul elsewhere echoes Christ in insisting that obedience to the Ten Commandments in loving one’s neighbor is a fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:8–10). In several places, James writes similarly about the law as an expression of the moral standard of believers, in one place also echoing Christ’s own words about the continuing validity of the law (James 1:25; 2:8–12; 4:11).

To sum up we could say two things: First, there are laws in the OT that foreshadow the future redemptive work of Christ (his priesthood, sacrifice, his being the true temple of God, etc.). Second, there are laws that either spoke to the necessary separateness of the people of Israel from the nations (holiness laws) or commanded obedience in more straightforwardly moral terms (laws against sexual immorality, against murder, against theft, etc.). The first category of laws was fulfilled by Christ’s work of redemption. The second category of laws remains normative in one sense (the moral core of the law), and not in another (the Israel-specific, outward holiness dimension).

General Equity

One might wonder why there are very few, if any, instances in the NT of specific applications of OT law to issues of government and the state. While there are a few passages that reveal the divine mandate for governing authorities to rule justly (Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 213–17), there is not much else. This should not be surprising: the New Testament is not a manual of politics or statecraft. That is not its purpose. It is a divinely inspired record of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the saving significance of those events for the church and the world.

That said, Protestants have insisted historically that the moral core that remains binding on believers today is not merely personal, but also relevant to society and political order. Johannes Althusius (1563–1638) captured mainstream Reformed Protestant thinking on this in 1614 (Politica 22.3):

From these things it follows that the magistrate is obligated in the administration of the commonwealth to the proper law of Moses so far as moral equity or common law are expressed therein. This is to say, he is required to conform to everything therein that is in harmony with common law. But he is by no means required to conform in those things in which the proper law of Moses, in order to be accommodated to the polity of the Jews, differs from common law.

The Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 (1647) has similar language: “To [Israel] also, as a body politic, [God] gave sundry [i.e. various] judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” General equity is simply another way of talking about the moral core of the law. What general principles of right and wrong does it inculcate, even regarding the state? The nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian Robert Shaw (1795–1863) explained the Westminster Confession’s teaching on general equity by stating that the Mosaic law “as far as the Jewish polity was peculiar, has also been entirely abolished; but as it contains any statute founded in the law of nature common to all nations, it is still obligatory” (The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 19). The laws of Moses convey timeless moral truths, but some aspects of those laws were for Israel alone.

An example will make clear how this could work in practice. Deuteronomy 22:8 states that “when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” Must all peoples, everywhere, at all points in history build protective barriers on their roofs to prevent people from accidentally falling off and injuring themselves? No. There was an element in this law that was Israel-specific: their houses had flat roofs and thus barriers around the roof served as a basic safety precaution. However, there is a principle of general equity that is obvious in this law. Homeowners have a basic moral responsibility to ensure that they have done what they can (within reason) to protect visitors from physical harm. An analog today would be putting a fence around one’s swimming pool to prevent young children from inadvertently falling in.

In the end, we don’t need, nor would we expect, the NT to spend much (if any) time explaining how God’s law is still obligatory regarding the state. The principle of general equity, derived from NT teaching showing that the moral heart of God’s law is binding at all times and in all places, allows us to do the work of applying the moral principles of OT law ourselves. However, the principle of general equity is not the only, and perhaps not even the primary, way in which Christians have historically (and rightly so, as we will see) determined how modern laws should be articulated. Natural law is, and to this we now turn.

Natural Law

A commonplace teaching throughout the history of the church is that God has revealed truths about himself and the world in two ways: in creation (general revelation) and in his word (special revelation). This teaching is derived from a variety of biblical texts. One of the most important is Psalm 19, which begins with the wonderful ways in which God has revealed himself in the created order (vv. 1–6) before moving to God’s revelation in his written word, or law (vv. 7–11). For our purposes the opening verses on God’s revelation in nature are the most important (vv. 1–4):

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

“The whole world is like a looking glass,” Stephen Charnock (1628–80) wrote, “which whole and entire represents the image of God, and every broken piece of it, every little shred of a creature, does the like.” All men can simply observe the world and they will be confronted with the inescapable reality that there is a God. The Apostle Paul writes about this knowledge of God in Romans 1 (vv. 19–21):

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 

The reason that all men know that there is a God is because God has made it blindingly obvious; he has “shown it to them” (v. 19). This knowledge includes God’s “eternal power and divine nature,” which is to say, the fact that he is the creator of all things and that he is a divine being exalted in his transcendence, distinct from the created order. They perceive these facts about God from observation of creation, from “the things that have been made” (v. 20). This knowledge is clear, and is therefore sufficient to leave them “without excuse” (v. 20), although in their sinful rebellion, their thinking becomes twisted, so that it can be said that they both know God (v. 21) and simultaneously do “not see fit to acknowledge God” (v. 28).

It is not simply the case that the bare fact of God being the creator can be known from creation. He has also revealed his moral will to the world. This is seen in a variety of ways. One of the most prominent is through the voice of the human conscience. All men “know God’s righteous decree that those who” rebel against him in sin “deserve to die” (v. 1:32); “The work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom 2:15).

The true knowledge of God derived from creation and from the conscience (however distorted by sin it may be) is central to understanding the role of natural law in shaping human laws. Men throughout history have known that it is wrong to murder, to steal, to commit adultery, even to refuse to give God the honor due his name. That is why nearly every culture across time has prohibited such things, even if “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.” Charnock was right to insist that “all good laws are founded upon the dictates of conscience and reason, upon common sentiments in human nature, which spring from a sense of God.”

One could also simply observe the way things work in the world (or don’t) in order to arrive at true knowledge that should inform human laws. Paul’s foregrounding of homosexuality in Romans 1 is a good example. He begins here in his lengthy list of acts of human sinfulness because homosexuality is such an obvious and outward manifestation of rebellion against the divine (“natural”) ordering of the world. You don’t even need the Bible to see this: the complementarity of male and female bodies, the impossibility of homosexuals having children, and even the damage to the body caused by homosexual sex (“receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” [Rom 1:27]) all reveal the wrongness of homosexuality. Human laws must be in harmony with God’s design, a design that can be known from observation of the world. The same approach could be taken with laws pertaining to the family, to crime and punishment, to abortion, to “transgender” surgeries, and many more issues.

The Reformers and their heirs firmly believed that mankind could know enough about what God requires of his creatures that this could serve (and has served throughout history) as a stable basis for human laws. In fact, while they certainly placed it in an overarching Christian framework, they were so convinced of the value of the moral teaching of ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero, that they frequently included it at the heart of their own works on Christian living. They believed that these men had derived true, and important, knowledge about how to live (as individuals and nations) from natural revelation.

The Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) in his work On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method captures this emphasis among the Reformers well: “Many—both poets (such as Pythagoras, Theognis, Phocylides, Cato, and several others) and philosophers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cicero)—have handed down the commandments of morals.” Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) delivered an entire course of lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, believing its moral teaching to be eminently worthy of Christian reflection and practice. Similar teaching can be found in nearly all Reformational treatments of ethics and Christian virtue. In short, natural law–the principles of order and of right and wrong that God built into the fabric of the universe–provides a knowable foundation for human laws that can serve as the bedrock of a well-ordered contemporary state. Neglecting or ignoring natural law will inevitably lead to destructive relativism, moral anarchy, and societal chaos. Without acknowledging eternal truths that transcend the laws a legislature might pass, we are left with nothing more than might equals right; laws are to be obeyed simply because they exist (the doctrine of legal positivism). Many such transcendent truths were central in the Declaration of Independence (“endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”) and the U.S. Constitution (what are the rights enumerated in The Bill of Rights, but transcendent truths that no subsequent law may nullify?). Ultimately, true justice is impossible without a governmental polity grounded in the transcendent truths that natural law highlights.


How should states frame their laws today? That is the question this article has set out to answer. In short, both biblical law and natural law serve as our guides, though we must determine what aspects of biblical law were unique to Israel’s existence under the Mosaic covenant. Put differently: the basis of contemporary human law consists in the moral core of biblical law that is perpetually binding, whether that be determined through the general equity of OT law or through natural law. John Calvin (1509–64) puts it well in his Institutes (4.20.14) when he says that “we must attend to the well-known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us.”

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

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