Reviewed by Martin G. Selbrede
The Preface that the late Pierre Courthial wrote for Jean-Marc Berthoud’s book In Defense of God’s Law sets the tone for the entire work. The following section from that Preface bears repeating here for our purposes:
… The Word of God, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, is inseparably Law-Word and Gospel-Word. Like the Gospel, the Law reveals to us the holiness of God together with His mercy, and the grace of God together with His justice.
The Pharisees loved to esteem themselves servants of the Law—which they twisted to their own ends, and to which they added or substituted their human traditions—to the detriment of the Gospel which they destroyed. Similarly, [today’s] Antinomians push forward the Gospel—which they diminish and “superficialize” under pretext of exalting it—to the detriment of the Law which they obscure …
The Law of God is revealed as much in the New Testament as in the Old, and is pertinent to every sphere of life: personal, conjugal, familial, social, economic, scientific, political, etc. Yet, in our day, it is derided, ridiculed, and discarded even by that institution which God has set up to be the “pillar and buttress of the truth,” even by those whom God calls to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world!” In the following pages, Jean-Marc Berthoud equips us with Biblical, Christian principles for regaining, teaching, and putting into practice this Law, which God has given in order that we may walk in it.
Berthoud’s work is divided into two major sections, Foundations and Battles, and concludes with four helpful appendices, the most remarkable of which surveys J. Gresham Machen’s The Majesty of God’s Law. We’ll dive into the Foundations section first.
The first part of Berthoud’s book is divided into nineteen chapters, the bulk of which address common criticisms and misunderstandings concerning the law of God from a Biblical perspective. All major objections to anchoring Christian ethics upon the law of God are dealt with in considerable depth. While the chapters putting forth an apologetic for the law against various popular critiques dominate this section, they are interwoven with chapters setting forth a positive exposition of the law. The latter include compelling examinations of Psalm 119 (“a hymn to the Law of God”), the law of God as a figure of Christ, and the proper use of the law in the Christian life. Two of the Foundations chapters focus on practical considerations, the second of which is addressed to pastors.
“The simple fact that God enjoins us to love Him and to love our neighbor should cause us to understand the impossibility of separating love for God from His commandments, or of separating love for our neighbor from the divine law that requires it.” Of course, God’s law doesn’t put this love into our hearts, and Berthoud cites Romans 5:5 to dispel that misconception. In other words, the author takes pains to show the damage wrought in the Christian life by separating love from obedience to God’s law, while protecting against the opposite error of artificially erasing the distinction between them (which implicitly evicts the Holy Spirit from the sanctification process). Love and obedience go hand in hand in the same sense as righteousness and peace have kissed one another (Ps. 85:10).
In dealing with John 1:17, Berthoud points out the fallacy of pitting Christ against the law. The text in the ESV reads, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Berthoud’s comment is on the mark:
Nothing in this text implies opposition between Law and Truth, nor between Moses and Jesus Christ, and furthermore, not between law and grace. A development in revelation and in the efficacy of grace does not imply any contradiction or opposition. Moreover, this is admirably proved by Scripture when the apostle Paul affirms that the law is nothing else than “the embodiment of knowledge and truth” (Rom. 2:20).
The supposed opposition of the law to grace and truth is wholly manufactured by the antinomian critic. Some scholars have further pointed out that, grammatically considered, the contrast in John 1:17 isn’t even between law and grace and truth: John’s text is rather concerned with how these things came to us from God. The law of God was given through Moses while grace and truth came in the actual person of Christ. This is echoed in Hebrews 3:5–6 where Moses stands as a servant while Christ stands as a son.
Berthoud is concerned to set forth “the unity of God’s commandments and Word” by both positive exposition and by confrontation of time-worn objections that still persist into the present day. Perhaps some of his most potent contributions in this regard involve his analysis of Psalm 119, where he finds this unity repeatedly expressed throughout the longest member of the Psalter.
Modern abuse of the terms “legalism” and “spiritualism” (terms which “do not even appear in Scripture”) can be dangerous if we end up denigrating the law of God in the process or deprecating the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian’s life. What Scripture actually condemns are “the carnal thoughts and sinful actions of men who, in their weakness … cannot even begin to conform their lives to the requirements of God’s law.” The fact that obedience is never in our own strength is made explicit by Berthoud: “To try and accomplish the Law without the Spirit who has given us this Law is nothing but a vain, futile effort.” But Berthoud immediately heads off any antinomian implication: “To imagine that a spiritual life [can] dispense with conformity to God’s Law is nothing but a deadly illusion of the flesh.”
When time comes to deal with John Calvin’s apparent disdain for applying God’s law, Jean-Marc Berthoud spares no words:
It is remarkable that, contrary to his habit, Calvin did not bring any Biblical proof to a very important declaration. Upon this exact point, the comparably eminent reformers Martin Bucer and Pierre Viret, do not share this opinion of their Genevan colleague. For them, the whole law, properly understood, constitutes the foundation not only of that which we call “morality,” but also of judicial law itself. This is, likewise, the opinion of the Puritan founders of New England.
The source documentation behind these specific claims, which the author presents in his footnotes, is well thought-out and to the point. If Calvin is on this point not a suitable guide, Berthoud is not afraid to speak plainly and align himself with the Reformers on the other side of the question.
Particularly valuable is the author’s articulation of thirteen key practical points regarding contemporary application of God’s law, a tabulation that is comprehensive and morally satisfying. He appends to his list an important caveat: “It must be added here that judicial power cannot judge any but public infractions of the law.” He explains why this is the case, setting forth in detail a powerful antidote to modern humanistic law’s tendency of late to aspire to the punishment of thought crimes.
An exploration of the psychological aspects of God’s law, even as it pertains to the unbeliever, opens up vistas normally not explored by theologians. This discussion occupies the eleventh section of Berthoud’s Foundations under the title “God’s Law and Man’s Conscience.” The soteriological limitations of God’s law are laid bare lest any be tempted to use the law unlawfully, since by works of the law shall no flesh be justified, for “consciousness of the law of God … is in itself entirely incapable of leading [any] to salvation.” Man must be regenerated: legislation isn’t sufficient, supernatural power is required.
The next three sections of Foundations deal with important aspects of the Ten Commandments, while the final five sections (where the meat of the book resides) go into depth articulating the place of works in the Christian life, the proper use of the law of God, etc., ending with an address delivered to a group of pastors concerning practical questions relating to Christian ethics. (I’ve essentially reproduced Berthoud’s section titles in the foregoing description. What this pencil-sketch summary fails to convey is the victory orientation in these chapters that emerges when God’s law is put back on the table and properly applied, so that we again can see how Christ “leads justice to victory,” (Matt. 12:20).
Now that we’ve laid suitably robust foundations, we’re ready to ride into battle armed with the truth … and this is precisely what Berthoud does in the next section of his book.
In the second part of Berthoud’s book, he deals directly with polemics: the debate over God’s law. Two of the six chapters in this section delve deeply into the question of bioethics, an area in which Berthoud is a particularly reliable guide. The others deal with the historic contours of the debate over theonomic ethics, what is at stake Biblically when this debate veers in the wrong direction, and chapters dealing with individual opponents of God’s law. One can already smell the heat of battle in the name of some of these chapters: “A theological fraud: La morale selon Calvin (Morality According to Calvin) by Eric Fuchs” and “Jacques Ellul and the irreconcilable clash of ideas between Marx and Calvin.”
We enter the battlefield with section twenty of the book, “Ancient and modern opposition against the Law of God” and then on to the consequences thereof in section twenty-one, “The imperiled Biblical foundations of morality and law.” Once opposition to God’s law gains a foothold, alien law structures and moral frameworks (so-called) rush in to fill the vacuum created when God is dethroned as Lawgiver (Isa. 33:22), and it is right to draw attention to “imperiled foundations,” because great will be the fall of the house when the foundations give way. As the psalmist cries out, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3).
If Battles occupies half the length of Berthoud’s book, it is because we have been thrust into a battle, one occasioned by wholesale forfeit and default by Christians over the ages. We have richly earned our “public insignificance” by way of capitulation, which is one of the “distinguishing characteristics in our age,” to use Berthoud’s language. So we must eject the giants from the land, who will not easily give up ground in the name of the antinomianism they’ve labored to justify from their tendentious readings of Scripture. We must wrestle with the Word of God, and Berthoud does not disappoint as a first-rank polemicist and apologist for the divine statutes and ordinances.
The author pulls no punches. In the very first paragraph of Battles, he declares antinomianism to be “just another form of liberal theology,” whose defenders “are actually neo-modernists” (whether consciously so or not). “The royal sovereignty of God has largely been done away with in today’s church, for His Law is trampled upon, and viewed with contempt.”
The supposed prooftexts in support of antinomian teaching are walked through systematically, each receiving due attention, often leading to unexpected insights (e.g., Berthoud’s understanding of “shadow” is actually more defensible than modern misconceptions of the idea, to cite just one instance). He poses Biblical liberty against the false liberty proclaimed in the name of those who pit grace against law. The logic in his expositions is solid, forming a bulwark against the disputer of this age.
That we’re facing a rebirth of Marcion’s views of the Old Testament (or even parts of the New Testament that smell too much like the Old Testament) is a fact that Berthoud examines closely. The reader is better able to understand the strategy behind Marcion’s positions, a strategy that is laid bare to make it easier to grasp. Today’s modern Marcions sing a very similar tune, differing in details but motivated by the same impulse: to open the door for man to become his own legislator.
After surveying Agricola, Freud, and Marx, this study turns to antinomian thinking that wears the robes of Christianity (which the author holds is a pretense, pure and simple). In considering Emil Brunner, Berthoud exposes the underlying motive driving such thinking:
Under orthodox and evangelical appearances and auspices, one comes to give a teaching completely different from that really contained in the Scriptures. An existentialist spiritualism replaces the objective, moral teaching of the Scripture.
How heated (and arguably irrational) antinomians can become is exemplified in the September 1984 issue of La Vie spirituelle where the various streams of argument coalesce into a Babel of confusion.
For it turns out that antinomianism doesn’t just oppose the law of God, it substitutes something else for the law. The offense of the law is its “exact and conceptually intelligible norms.” The proffered substitutes open wide the door to a stunning range of conduct on the slimmest of exegetical bases.
Dispensationalism, not surprisingly, comes in for sustained examination (here Berthoud quotes Lewis Sperry Chafer, Rene Pache, and H.E. Alexander; he is in process of preparing a massive analysis of Darby’s contribution to the systematic undercutting of Christendom, which will be published separately from this volume). Berthoud identifies R. J. Rushdoony as one whose response to dispensationalism set the proper Biblical orientation to the matter, not to mention his citations of J. Gresham Machen, O. T. Allis, and Philip Mauro.
At bottom, Berthoud attributes the “weakness of God’s church” to such antinomian thinking, and establishes this point by way of an extended historical analysis that is as broad as it is deep. Why was the church so culturally significant prior to the advent of systematic antinomianism? The author helps us sift through the complexities of that issue. How was the church stronger under the teaching of, say, a Pierre Viret than under our current slate of guides? These are questions that are plumbed to their depths in this volume.
Diagnosis of an illness is the prelude to curing it, so the author comes to ask, “How has it come to this?” in respect to the “continual withering” that has marked Christian influence since “the end of the 17th century.” The causes are several, which are unpacked in detail under the headings of philosophical errors (particularly Cartesianism) and moral errors. All such dualistic thinking saps the faith of her strength and moral foundations.
The American reader is then allowed to gain a deeper appreciation for currents of thoughts on the Continent as Berthoud walks through significant figures in the French-speaking world. Among these are Jacques Ellul, Erich Fuchs (whom Berthoud accuses of theological fraud), Olivier Abel, and Jean-Marc Thévoz. These battles are “close to home” for Berthoud and it is thus proper that they occupy his attention as he depicts the contours of the controversial issues being fought over. We must come to recognize that not every fight is centered on a specific American seminary, for our built-in provincialism fails to account for the worldwide aspects of Christendom’s war for the nations. Awareness of how such debates were conducted in Europe can only be of value when it comes time for us to pursue copycat enemies on this side of the Atlantic.
The final section (before the appendices) goes into additional detail on bioethical issues (first broached at length in the previous section’s detailed examination of Abel and Thévoz) and is something of a tour de force in respect to how bioethics is to be shaped by the application of God’s law. Laid out as a series of numbered theses, this section amounts to a stand-alone manifesto premised on the Biblical doctrine of creation and the abiding validity of the law of God. While brief, its ten key points summarize the issues at stake with exceptional clarity.
Three of the four appendices that conclude Berthoud’s work deal with specific individuals who bring a positive orientation to the question of God’s law for today: J. Gresham Machen’s “The Majesty of God’s Law” from 1937, Philip Mauro’s “The Law and the Gospel,” and Robert L. Dabney on “The Law.” Regarding the latter (extracted from Dabney’s Lectures in Systematic Theology), Berthoud observes that earlier systematic treatises were marked by the presence of a section concerning God’s law (e.g., Calvin and Viret in 1564, Turretin in 1679) whereas this locus is absent in modern systematics (e.g., John Owen, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, Herman Hoeksema, or Gordon Spykman). Dabney did cover the question of God’s law, however, as did twentieth-century theologian R. J. Rushdoony in his Systematic Theology. The consequences of the studied omission of God’s law from the work of systematic theologians have been serious ones: these are omissions for which we’ve paid a very high price in the loss of both spiritual and cultural capital. If “the entering in of Thy word bringeth light,” then the modern church has for several centuries been purveying considerable darkness in forgetfulness of her true calling.
Berthoud’s book concludes with an extensive bibliography concerning the law of God, a listing which amounts to an important resource in its own right by covering works unfamiliar to English speaking audiences.
We heartily commend this new work by Jean-Marc Berthoud to the serious student of God’s Word. It is timely, well-written, thoroughly-documented, and compelling. It is always a joy to make acquaintance with a skilled theologian with a large base of Biblical and cultural knowledge and deep historical roots going back to the Swiss Reformation itself. Dr. Harold O. J. Brown’s assessment of Berthoud confirms as much: “That man [Jean-Marc] knows more than the two of us [Harold O. J. Brown and Dr. Douglas Kelly] put together.” Small wonder that Christians are taking notice of Berthoud’s work as more of it appears in English.
While the issues being covered in this volume may seem familiar to the seasoned reader, the approach taken by the author is often unique and insightful. The exhortation to appropriate action, geared toward recovering the glorious foundations that had been left to rot under the influence of antinomian deprecation of much of Scripture, is one that all Christians need to give ear to and to heed. This volume upholds a bright burning torch, one that sheds Biblical light upon our full calling under God, for which all of us shall be held accountable before His throne, for to whom much is given, much shall be required.
1. Review based on copy of the English translation of Jean-Marc Berthoud, Apologie pour la Loi de Dieu, provided in advance of publication by Zurich Publishing in 2018 or 2019. The translation has yet to be typeset and paginated, which is why citations lack page numbers.