General Equity & the Mosaic Penalties

General Moral Principles of The Law in Modern Societies

“I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad.” 

– Psalm 119:96, KJV

In Gary North’s foreword to Covenant Enforced, a collection of Calvin’s sermons on Deuteronomy 27 and 28, he writes, “‘Was Calvin a theonomist?’ These sermons reveal clearly that the answer is yes.” In one sense, he was right. Calvin certainly believed in the applicability of the principles of the Mosaic law to his own political context, even down to particular punishments and the threat of divine curses for failure to implement them. But the theonomy of Calvin and the broader Reformed tradition is not the capital-T Theonomy of Rushdoony or Bahnsen.

Central to classical reformed political theory is natural law or “the common law of nations,” which Rushdoony describes as “heretical nonsense” that constitutes an abandonment of divine law and leads inevitably to “moral and legal relativism.” In fact, when Calvin does advocate for the punishments of the Mosaic law, and warns of the same covenantal curses that Israel faced under the Mosaic administration, his appeal was not to the abiding validity of the Mosaic law but to natural law.1 Further, few in the Reformed tradition would have agreed that the civil magistrate has no ability to bind consciences in civil matters without a Mosaic proof text. Therefore, the rejection of natural law and the biblicist approach of modern Theonomy can make the identification of the Reformed tradition as “theonomic” somewhat misleading. 

Despite its differences from Theonomy, the Reformed tradition is no help to those seeking an alternative that better suits their modern liberal sensibilities. What is most offensive about Theonomy is its insistence on the institution of Mosaic penalties, and on that matter, there is a great deal of agreement. While the Reformers certainly did far better math to solve the equation, they still arrived at a quite similar answer.

The standard classical Reformed position maintains that while the Mosaic Law is not binding in exhaustive detail, insofar as it concerns the particular circumstances of the nation of Israel, its “general equity” is still binding. By “general equity” is meant the aspects of the Mosaic Law that are not rooted in circumstance but in “the principles of reason and nature,” i.e. “natural” or “common” law.2 Junius explains it in this way:

As we have established before, it is clear, from the law of Moses and from other related laws, there are two bases for the law – common law and singular law.  Common law is the law given by God through Moses to the Jews as members of a larger community – humankind.  Singular law or particular law given by God to the Jews as members of a more restricted community – their religious community…

…and the principles underlining the common and civil law of Moses still apply today, because the underlining basis for justice and law is one and immutable; but the circumstances, which are subject to change, imply that analogy, with respect to the law, may allow certain changes.

The common law is the moral law, expressed in the Ten Commandments. Thus, because the civil magistrate is bound to the common law, he is required to “suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God.”3 It might be supposed that this only entails the general principles that these things are immoral and should be suppressed, not the degree of their immorality or how they should be suppressed. But the general equity of the Law includes both the fact of their immorality as well as the particulars of their implementation.

Not only do the Ten Commandments tell us what ought to be suppressed by the civil magistrate according to the natural law, but also any law “which pertains to the kinds of punishments sanctioned to protect the authority of the Ten Commandments of God” is binding “today no less than… in the past.”4 As Alting writes, “But insofar as [the Judicial Law] concerned common right, enacted according to the law of nature for all men together, of which sort are the laws concerning the punishments of crimes, these same all remain.”5

This does not mean that the same mode of punishment must be prescribed in all human laws; It is not a grave injustice, for instance, if a firing squad is chosen where Moses prescribes stones. Rather, they are only binding “insofar as the substance and proper end” are concerned. Therefore, while a ruler is at liberty to modify the law as is fitting to the circumstances of his people, he is to do so without disregarding the cause and end of the punishment prescribed in the Old Testament. As Owen states, “The modification of punishment respects either its appointment or infliction… But not even in a human court can any such modification be admitted as would render the punishment useless in respect of its end…”

In discussions of this principle, special emphasis is placed upon the abiding validity of the Mosaic Law’s capital punishments in particular. For instance, Vermigli laments that “it is not well ordered, that the punishment of death is not in use” as prescribed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Bucer likewise argues, in De Regno Christi, that a Christian ruler who does not “follow most studiously [God’s] own method of punishing evildoers… is certainly not attributing to God either supreme wisdom or a righteous care for our salvation,” and thereafter provides an extensive list of Mosaic capital punishments, claiming they must be ordered in “every state sanctified to God.”

In The Mosaic Polity, Junius devotes a chapter to discussing the relevance of Mosaic capital punishments, and his discussion is worth quoting more extensively:

Therefore, we say that whoever by the common law is civilly liable to the death penalty according to the law of Moses must be likewise held liable to death now. That is, the one sentenced to death according to the rationale prescribed by God must also be sentenced to death by the judges…

But in the law of the circumstances, as in the deeds, a distinction must be made according to the analogy of the deeds. For it could happen that circumstances are added to this or that wicked deed that aggravate or alleviate the mode of that crime with respect to the judgments. From this it happens that those who have been sentenced to death civilly by the common law should be simply bound to the death penalty, but this punishment is carried out more heavily or lightly by the just sentence of the judge. First, those whom the law sentences to death by fire can be punished by the choice of the judge, according to the circumstances of the deeds, by hanging, sword, stoning, or other such means. Next, in fact that punishment by fire can itself be set up as a heavier or lighter punishment. So a judge shall have satisfied the common law by sentencing a guilty man to death, but he shall have satisfied the circumstances according to a certain particular law in the judgment of a good man if he determines to inflict a harsher or lighter death on a guilty person. Finally, it also frequently happens that what is a capital crime by the common law simply, may be punished more lightly according to the circumstance attending the deeds, which practice only a Tenedian person or a strict Draco is able to condemn in this way.

In other words, those worthy of death according to the Mosaic Law are also to be put to death now, but not without discernment of God’s rationale for prescribing that punishment and the analogy of the crime committed to the relevant crime described in the Law. It is at the discretion of the magistrate to determine, based on how closely the circumstances of the crime fit those described in the Mosaic Law, the degree of severity in the method of execution.

While there certainly are variations in how the relationship of the Mosaic Law to natural law has been articulated in the Reformed tradition, this particular articulation is certainly prominent, being present in Bucer, Bullinger, Junius, Piscator, Alting, Cartwright, Gillespie, and Owen, among others. Consequently, it cannot be said by the Theonomist that the Reformed understanding of natural law constitutes an abandonment of divine law, nor will the one who fears Theonomy for its “archaic” harshness and illiberalism find it any less concerning. It contains all the same offensive rough edges, just without the 20th-century innovations.

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Show 5 footnotes
  1. Calvin, for instance, explains in his comments on Leviticus 20 that God “pronounces it to be a capital crime, if any had sinned against the law of nature.”
  2. Jus Divinum, XIV.2.
  3. Gallic Confession, XXXIX.
  4. Johannes Piscator. Aphorismi Doctrinae Christianae, 17–18.
  5. Alting. ‘7th Place: of the Law of God’ in Common Places in The Scriptural Theology of Heidelberg, vol. 1, p. 112, trans. Adam Brink & Travis Fentiman.
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Aaron Viland

Aaron Viland is a ministerial student at Christ Covenant Church of Chicago (CREC) in Rolling Meadows, IL. He is a graduate from Spurgeon College with an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, and is currently studying at Reformed Theological Seminary. He writes occasionally at and more frequently thinks out loud on X at @aaronviland.

7 thoughts on “General Equity & the Mosaic Penalties

  1. The above article gives basically the same argument that many other articles posted here do. That argument says because the Reformed Tradition advocate this or that, we are bound to practice this or that.

    The problem when it comes to the Law of Moses is that starting with Peter’s dream and then the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and going through the epistles, especially those of Paul, there is a relaxation of the Law of Moses for Gentile believers. In fact, Paul was accused of teaching people that they don’t have to follow the Law of Moses in Act 21 and there was plenty of evidence in his epistles to legitimately make that charge. Paul emphasized forgiveness rather than following the Law of Moses in order to reflect how we have been treated by God. Or he told the Corinthians to let some wrongdoings be overlooked for the sake of the reputation of the Gospel. And so if there are times when he is not requiring that Christians not be punished according to the Law of Moses, what justification do we Christians have in demanding that the civil authorities punish unbelievers according to the Laws of Moses.

    Some feel that for the Law of Moses to be considered the Word of God that it must be relevant today. And so they reason that for it to be relevant today, it must still be enforced in some way, shape, or form. They don’t realize that any role that the Law of Moses played in Redemptive History, the Law of Moses does not have to be enforced today for it to be relevant. That is because if it played a role in Redemptive History, then it will forever be relevant.

    Finally, to quote Christian leaders who talk about the law without acknowledging how Christendom could have influenced their views on the law is not honest. It’s like covering up a part of a contract that is already in fine print to make it difficult to read. But if you want to return to the Law of Moses, then be consistent. To be consistent you must follow the whole law. But such an approach to the law could be hazardous to your spiritual health according to the New Testament.

  2. I think there are a few definitions of “natural law” that deserve clarifying.

    Natural Law #1: God’s will and justice applied to the created order and especially to mankind.

    That seems to be the Reformer’s definition. If you take that definition, add in an assumption of biblical inspiration and innerancy, then the Mosaic law is a subset of natural law #1 perfectly applied to the time and circumstances by the Creator Himself.

    In other words, the Mosaic law is a part of natural law #1. It is revealed so that God’s people would understand natural law 1, and the One who created it.

    Natural law 2: A system of law that can be derived from nature by human reason without help from the divine (which divine may not even exist).

    This is more the enlightenment conception of natural law. Of course individual philosophers would have variations.

    In practice, I suppose that since the light of nature leaves men without excuse, there is some capability to deduce natural law 1 from nature using reason. But we know that light of nature only goes so far, and men are given over to depraved minds, so natural law 2 becomes an unreliable guide. It becomes the unknown law just as the new testament Athenians had an altar to the Unknown God and needed a preacher of God’s word to come to them and explain the Unknown God to them.

    As I understand Rushdoony, he’s usually railing against natural law 2. I am far from an expert though, so I would be curious if anyone can point to a more detailed study of what definition(s) he used.

    1. Jack,
      The first purpose of the Law of Moses, let’s just make that the 10 Commandments for argument’s sake, is to make us aware of our sins. How can it be then that the Law of Moses be counted as Natural Law and then expected to be the law enforced by the civil authorities? Wouldn’t we all then be in jail?

      1. Natural law 1 (and the mosaic law) have provisions that are proper (lawful) for the civil magistrate to enforce, and others that are moral and binding on the individual before God but are not enforceable by the civil magistrate. Not everyone in ancient Israel wound up in jail, not even in Moses’ time. One instance: divorce. Jesus makes clear arguing from Genesis & commandment 7 that it was against the moral law to divorce a wife for anything but marital unfaithfulness, yet moses also set up a civil law that allowed a man discretion (with some exceptions) to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away. So the law itself limits to what extent the civil magistrate was to enforce the moral law. Note Jesus did not say Moses was wrong, but instead interprets scripture with scripture to explain that they were misunderstanding Moses. They could follow the civilly enforceable part of the law while still having sinful hearts hardened against God and the morality that God requires. Also not that this is a major family and community disrupting sin that was not punished by the civil magistrate – those who are enthusiastic about applying natural law 1 in the civil realm need to keep in mind that it also limits the civil magistrate’s scope of action.

        So when I say Moses’ law was given so that we (with the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment) could understand natural law 1, I mean both the entire law which shows us our sinfulness, the subset of the law that makes for a well-governed body politick, the subset that makes for a well governed family, a sanctified individual, and any other useful grouping.

        1. Jack,
          Thank you for clarifying things for me. I asked because of the high number of times in which I have read Reformed people saying that the Civil Magistrate should enforce one or both tables of the 10 Commandments.

          So now the question becomes how do you think that government officials should decide on which laws should be laws that should be enforced enforced by government and which laws should not be enforced by government?

          1. Curt, Books have been written on lesser questions. But it should start from the cases and rules of practice laid out in the books of Moses and elsewhere (Proverbs, Nehemiah, Jesus Himself…). There is a lot of what the civil magistrate should and should not do laid out there, interspersed with what is binding on individuals, families, priests, and prophets. Much of the biblical civil law found its way over the centuries into the English common law & the Justinian code. My home state of Texas has dangerous animal laws pretty similar to Moses’s dangerous ox laws. In Texas it is applied more often to pitbulls than bulls, but I think that’s a reasonable extrapolation of the general equity (aka natural law) adapted by judges and an elected legislature to a time and place where pitbulls are a bigger problem than oxen.

            On some matters, there will be more reasoning from general principles necessary than others. For instance business contract law is going to rely a lot on the eighth & ninth commandments applied to a modern business context.

            I think reasoning from the Bible would result in a smaller government than what we have, but the results would be different. For instance you wouldn’t have equal opportunity commissions & perverts suing a cake baker for discrimination, instead the wicked would be in fear of the law.

            More than that would take a book, and I doubt anyone would read it from a no-name layman like me. Not to mention Jack is a pseudonym because there are EEOC’s and such out there looking for people with my opinions to persecute.

          2. Jack,
            One problem is that we natural laws, not natural law. Not all that Christians say belongs to natural law is recognized by others. In addition, what is observed in nature is sometimes recognized as part of natural law. For example, same-sex behavior (SSB) has been observed in over 1,000 species of animals. So some will point to that in their definition of natural law. Now I point that out because it provides evidence that there are physical or natural causes for same-sex attraction (SSA). That is for some, nature is giving them mixed signals regarding sexual orientation. God’s design is telling them that it is wrong while their own their own physical nature is giving them a different message. In fact, Paul speaks of homosexuality in Romans 1 as something that should not be considered to be an unexpected result in unbelievers and he warns us in Romans 2 against judging others, including homosexuals. Contrast with the heterosexual sin mentioned in I Cor 5. Paul states that such sin is not even known among unbelievers.

            Another problem is using the laws of Moses, which were relaxed for Gentile believers in the New Testament because the Apostles recognized that they could not keep the law. So how is it that we should use the Mosaic law to understand the Christian view of natural law and use that as the only basis for laws that govern a pluralistic nation?

            History provides another problem. Many atrocities were committed in Christendom which, if memory serves, relied on the then Christian understanding of Natural Law. According to some Christians from the past, Natural Law dictated that blacks were inferior to whites and women were to be dependent on men in society. So what other errors are there in the Christian understanding of Natural Law?

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