All men live in terms of some principle of law. Some men believe they are laws unto themselves, and range from the unpleasantly self-centered to the dangerously anarchistic. Yet most are willing to pragmatically submit, in most instances, to statutory civil law.
While individuals may have a personal preference and need for some principle for law, societies need more than just a personal preference. A society must defend its laws with reference to someone or something that gives it moral authority. Law is always religious; it is an enacted moral code. Law says something is bad, so it is forbidden, or something is good, so it is allowed to flourish. Even tyrannical societies must appeal to a frame of reference that makes their laws, their enforced morality, transcendent, rather than arbitrary.
In the ancient world the ruler was often, as in Egypt, said to be a deity. In other cultures the ruler was a priest-king with access to the will of the gods. Both beliefs gave transcendence to the civil law order, for rebellion against the state was then sacrilege as well as treason. Freedom was unheard of, as the will of the state was the will of the gods.
Modern tyrannies have also attempted to achieve a transcendent authority. The most obvious examples are the Islamic and the Marxist regimes the 20th century. Marxist economic theories absolutized the state as the instrument of justice, making the state itself the transcendent authority. Islamic law had earlier absolutized the state in a similar way, in that it provided a moral defense of forced conformity. Islamic cultures are more explicitly religious, and thus have always been statist. Islam itself professes to be a religion largely of essentially external duties which can be imposed, unlike Christianity which must be embraced by personal faith.
Christianity’s rejection of any transcendency by men or institutions was clear at the Council of Chalcedon of A.D.451. Christ was declared to be fully God and fully man and thus the only Mediator between heaven and earth. By denying any transcendency to man, his laws, or his institutions, Chalcedon laid the foundation for Western liberty. Chalcedon saw all men under the transcendent God and His Mediator. All human authority was thus limited. This represented the first attempt in history to reign in the power of men over others. The effects of Chalcedon slowly shaped medieval society, imperfectly, and with fits and starts. Even the church rebelled against the implications of Chalcedon by making itself transcendent partway through the medieval period. Late in the medieval period monarchs challenged the church’s authority with the “divine right of kings ” in an attempt to import the ancient priest-king pattern into Christendom.
In the West,a social order developed concurrently with the spread of Christendom with Biblical ethics replacing, imperfectly, the pagan law of the Roman Empire. English common law was an advanced development of this trend, which was imported to colonial America. Human law was seen as a methodology by which a transcendent moral law, understood in Biblical terms, was applied. The Puritans were the most self-consciously Biblical in their laws, but not unique in their understanding of law and justice within a distinctly Biblical frame of reference. Many have correctly noted that the establishment of the United States and its Constitution was the direct result and perhaps the high water mark of the influence of the Protestant Reformation.
Man’s Law and the Retreat of the Church
The Enlightenment was an 18th century European movement that self-consciously criticized the Biblical emphasis of the Protestant Reformation in favor of a secular humanism. America was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment’s humanistic rationalism somewhat later, as it was insulated by an ocean and its firmly entrenched Protestant Christianity. When that influence did arrive, however, it met a church already in retreat.
Puritanism had long since died out and Pietism, an emphasis on personal, subjective experience, was firmly entrenched in American religion. Enlightenment thinking operated on the premise that there was no supernatural in a purely naturalistic world. Truth, ethics, and law were to be determined by man's reason; theistic reasoning was an imposition on man’s freedom. Faced with such a challenge to Biblical interpretation, the church retreated and further redefined Christianity as a religion concerned only with the personal and spiritual. Increasingly, the church failed to stand for the transcendent nature of the truth it professed. The church allowed itself to be irrelevant in a humanistic, naturalistic society. It represented the irrational in a rationalistic world, the supernatural in a naturalistic universe.
The Enlightenment’s view of the world in naturalistic terms continued to gain ascendancy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such thinking continued to affect the church. It drifted into the narrowed confines of the pietistic spiritualized corner into which it had painted itself. Gone was the full-orbed claims of the Protestant Reformation or invocations of “Thus saith the Lord.”
Antinomianism in the Church
At the heart of most doctrinal error one often finds a defective view of God. In the 19th century, dispensationalism began to enter the church, even before C.I. Scofield popularized it after the turn of the 20th century. Dispensationalism posits a God who has changed His dealings with man repeatedly over time. Scofield reduced the binding Word to part of the New Testament. Some reduced it even further. Conveniently, the church was developing a Biblical theology that served as an apologetic for its withdrawal from the world. Biblical law and even the words of Jesus Christ were relegated to other dispensations far, far away. Not only was the church in retreat from the Word of God, it was defending such retreat as the only Biblical Christianity.
An aspect of dispensationalism is its antinomian (“against law") position. Antinomianism was not new to theology with dispensationalism, but virtually all antinomianism today owes its theological justification to some form of dispensational theology. According to dispensational antinomianism, God deals differently with man in different dispensations or eras. The church age, which is said to begin after the ascension of Christ, supposedly frees believers from the requirements of the previous dispensations. Christians are thus said to be freed from the law by grace, as though the law was ever the source of man’s bondage. Grace and law are said to be opposed, and the law is viewed with disdain by the antinomian church.
The Christian and God’s Law
The opposite of grace is not law, but deserved punishment. The opposite of the law is man's self-willed, lawlessness. The Bible does say we are dead to the law by the body of Christ (Rom. 7: 4, Gal. 2:19), but this is because we are dead to sin in Jesus Christ. Before God, the Supreme Judge, our death penalty has been paid by Christ’s atonement; in His eyes we are dead to the law’s indictment. We are freed from the law's indictment of our sins and its condemnation to death (Rom. 8:1-2) and are saved for a purpose, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4).
Christ came to reverse the curse, to restore us to our created purpose. After the Fall, God promised redemption and defeat of Satan (Gen. 3:15). To this end, He called His covenanted people, gave them His law, and sent prophets to call them to obedience. Jesus Christ became the New Adam, the head of a new humanity. He makes us to be “born again" as new creatures by the power of His Spirit. Jesus Christ restores us to a legal standing of righteousness (justification) and empowers us by His Spirit to serve God. Christ reestablished Himself as the foundation of His new creation. Thus, He said that if we love Him, we keep His commandments, which include all of God’s Word (Mt. 5:17-20).
Jesus Christ is the only Mediator of God’s grace. We love God only by His gift of grace. If we love God and claim His grace as new creatures, we will seek to obey His Word.
Viewing God and His Law
Anything God gives to undeserving man is grace. The promise in Eden and accomplishment of salvation at Calvary were acts of grace, but so is God's revelation of His will in His Word. God’s law was, and still is, His revelation by grace of His will, which does not change. While we were rebels, God’s law hung over us as a death sentence over a man on death row. The law represented indictment and death sentence. To the man saved from death, whose penalty God now judges as paid-in-full, the same law represents freedom, and the context of life as new creatures in Christ. As yet another act of grace, God puts His Spirit within us to empower us to love righteousness and resist sin. We are empowered to live under the “law of the Spirit of life ” (Rom. 8:2).
The “law of the Spirit" has unfortunately been used by antinomians as an alternative to Biblical law as revealed in the Scriptures. This often leads to a belief that the Spirit of God might lead in a way other than that revealed in God's Word (some even falsely assume the Bible is the work of the Father alone). But such thinking imports our theological schizophrenia into the godhead. Because God is one, His Spirit will not lead any man in any way contrary to His revealed Word. Man is a sinner who, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tends to believe lies and then rationalize them to prove himself right. This is the very basis of the Enlightenment’s rationalism as a basis for knowing truth. Quite simply, Satan is a better liar than man is a discerner. If man rejects God’s law he will believe in some other form of transcendent law. He may call it “spiritual," but the use of God’s Spirit to challenge God’s revealed Word is blasphemous, for it lays the responsibility for our disobedience on the assumed changeableness of God. Rather, we must see the triune God and His Word as unchangeable. We can and must judge what we perceive as the work of God’s Spirit in terms of its conformity to God’s Word. Too much of the modern church’s “leading of the Spirit ” is, in reality, the sinful self-will of lawless churchmen.
Errors Regarding the Law
It is foolish to reject the binding nature of Biblical law simply because it has been the subject of error in the history of the church. The book of James dealt with the separation of works and grace yet held to the necessity of both, properly understood. Paul’s letter to the Galatians dealt with the heresy of justification by the works of the law. Errors regarding the law, however, do not invalidate the law, or we would be without any Scripture or theology. Creation, incarnation, marriage, and the nature of the church have all been the subject of various false teachings, but we do not abandon Creationism, the doctrine of the incarnation, marriage, or the church to spite false teachings. Concern about false uses of God’s law are valid, but contempt for the law is not.
God has been gracious in redeeming us by Christ’s atonement. God has been gracious to us in sending the Spirit of life. God’s Spirit will never lead us contrary to God’s Word as contained in the Old and New Testaments. God's law was given to us as an act of God’s grace, so that covenant man might know His will. It is time for the church to return to the psalmists exclamation, “Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day ” (Ps. 119:97).
Suggested Reading List:
- The Impulse of Power: Formative Ideals of Western Civilization by Michael Kelley
- The Death of Meaning by R. J. Rushdoony
- The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy by R. J. Rushdoony
- The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church by R. J.Rushdoony
- The Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J.Rushdoony
- The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume II: Law and Society by R. J.Rushdoony