The debate over Biblical law — especially Old Testament law — is not new. It has a long history, just like the centuries-old debate over Arianism. And just as Trinitarianism conquered Arianism historically, the advocates of Biblical law won over their anti-law opponents.
The emperor Julian the Apostate [Ed. reigned 361-363 AD] used Christian ambivalence to Biblical law as an excuse to deny the faith. He challenged antinomian Christians with their inconsistency, "Why do you not accept the Law which God gave the Jews? ... You assert that the earlier Law … was limited in time and place. But, I could quote to you from the books of Moses not merely ten but ten thousand passages where he says that the Law is for all time.”1
Soon after, the early church repented and set about reforming life with Biblical law — Old and New Testament — as the foundation. It changed Europe from Roman to Christian. The results have been remarkable and remain one of the great stumbling blocks, even today, for those who oppose Christianity. The early and medieval church influenced the surrounding culture to solve problems in society Biblically.
We know that in England by the time of Alfred the Great [Ed. reigned 871-899] — the only king the English have ever called great — the Bible had become the foundation of what we now call common law. Alfred himself translated parts of the Scriptures into the common language, and employed scholars from the Continent to give his people the whole Bible in their native tongue. Alfred thus predates Wycliffe by several hundred years, and his work illustrates that the movement to provide the Bible in the vernacular tongue has a very long history. If Wycliffe was the morning star of the Reformation, then Alfred the Great was an even earlier bright light who provided the Bible for the common people.
Alfred the Great was a reformer in the best tradition. Not only did he provide the Scriptures for the people to understand, but he also reformed the legal structure of England. To do this he wrote the Ten Commandments and case-law examples from Exodus chapters 21-23 into the laws of England. While the Bible may not have been the only source of his laws, as he borrowed from other sources when it suited him, Alfred at least indicated that Biblical law — Old Testament law — was a very significant source for English law.
In countries that have inherited English common law, it is common to speak of the Christian origins of the common law that still governs so much of the legal framework. The legacy that Alfred the Great left is … well, great, and remains with us in many respects. Unfortunately, those principles of Biblical law are gradually being undermined and lost.
One of the chief aspects of Biblical law is the status of the church. Today, most churches are more intent on making people feel good than telling them what their duties and obligations are. But at one time the church advised both king and subject on duty and obligation. The church not only advised rulers, but had also secured a unique position in society. In the battle between church and state, property has always been central. Property meant wealth, and wealth provided the means to mount an effective opposition to the state. So the church, after much difficulty, secured a position that protected its property, its money, and its people. For example, tax exemption declares that the church is not under state control, but takes its orders directly from above.
The church’s influence in matters of the law thus affected the surrounding culture. The church’s insistence on its kingdom-like status put all the kings of earth on notice that any power they desired was strictly limited by the church’s teaching — and the church’s teaching was, if nothing else, Biblical in origin. However faulty its application of the Bible might have been, the fact that the church successfully limited the powers of the secular courts is a remarkable testimony.
Chief among the church’s triumphs has been her influence in the area of the family. Monogamous marriage in the Western world today is the result of the church’s successful counter to pagan practices. It considered women equal in the marriage partnership, though this did not affect the duties and obligations that husband and wife owed to each other. It officially protected women and attempted to give them equal or near equal rights in property inheritance.
In order to administer justice, however, a body of law was needed, and the canonists turned to the Bible for their source. The church ’s view on marriage thus reflected Biblical law. Marriage, said the church, was a contract, and therefore required free choice of the individuals concerned. Coercion in the marriage contract was grounds for annulment. And the contract itself, between the groom and bride’s father, reflected again the Biblical account of Moses securing a wife for himself. The payment of dowry for the bride was again an application of Old Testament ideals.
The church’s views on property were also a development of Biblical law, and the protection it provided families was clearly drawn from the Biblical concept of private or family property. Under pagan laws, property had always been up for grabs. The church modified the idea that possession was nine-tenths of the law to allow the original titleholder to claim ownership, no matter who had possession. The idea of being a receiver of stolen goods, intentionally or otherwise, is an application of the concept of individual or family ownership, a practice still evident in our courts today.
Similarly, in our legislative chambers we find another carryover of Christian law, and that is the idea of equity and good faith. These are the underlying principles of the legislative processes still with us today.
The canonists in the medieval church were influential in establishing the concept of obligations and duty in terms of contracts. A man’s word was to be honored and kept. Attached to this was the idea of oaths, an implied obligation to God. Under Roman law, agreements were not mutually binding, but the church’s influence left a legacy that has lasted to the present age. When we sign a contract we are expected to fulfill its obligations and, if need arise, we can insist through the courts that the other party maintain his part of the agreement.
The church was also instrumental in establishing the practice of making a will. It not only encouraged this, but also secured for itself the administration of deceased estates, a practice that continued until 1887.
In areas such as the prohibition of usury,and the creation of the just price, the church continued its influence. And while it is possible to disagree with some of the church ’s position,it is easy to agree with the source of the ideas:the Bible.
In so doing,the church moved society from arbitrary law to fixed law, from the whim of the monarch to the fixed laws of the King of kings. That the church no longer administers wills or contributes much in the way of policy debate over legislation illustrates the decline of the church. I deliberately speak of the church rather than Christianity, because while there are many who speak in the name of Christianity today, not many speak on the basis of formal ecclesiastical authority.
At one time in Western countries, a person was free to move around without fear of intrusive authorities. It was the police who had to show probable cause in apprehending a suspect, and they needed to get before a judge, usually within 24 hours, to prove their point. Now, people can be apprehended and held without charge for much longer periods, a legacy of 9/11 and the attempt by authorities to provide protection for everyone in the country. Some erosion came earlier with the introduction of random breath testing when the police pull over a driver they assume to be under the influence of alcohol, and the driver must prove his innocence. Longer detention, the denial of counsel, the proposed lack of freedom in some areas to even hold private conversation with counsel, are all indications of a civilization that knows nothing about justice and equity, but instead panders to
“theories of absolutism and enlightened despotism.”2 These are the principles that now rule our culture, not the more Biblical system of a former era.
We could never see another Alfred the Great at the start of the 21st century in this current religious climate. Christians cannot even agree on whether Biblical law should be applied, let alone how it should be applied. Christians are divided and, therefore, cannot stand against the power of the absolute state.
One thing is certain: the issues surrounding Biblical law, property, life, and God Himself, cannot be resolved by making people feel good, either about themselves or their lot in life. It will take another Reformation — of gigantic proportions — to force Christians to accept the necessity of Biblical law, then work to change the surrounding culture.
This is the task ahead of us, and the writings of R.J. Rushdoony and other Chalcedon writers have shown us the road and taken the first step.
1. Julian, Against the Galileans, quoted in Will Durant, The History of Civilization: The Age of Faith (New York: MJF Books, 1950), p.16.
2. Gabriel Le Bras, “Canon Law," in C.G. Crump and E.F. Jacob, eds., The Legacy of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), p. 359.