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Christian Economics: A Foundation in Law (Part IV)

In this four-part series of economics from a Christian perspective, I have been using the Westminster Larger Catechism's explanation of the Eighth Commandment to illustrate an older view of how the Ten Commandments were interpreted and understood.

  • Ian Hodge
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In this four-part series of economics from a Christian perspective, I have been using the Westminster Larger Catechism's explanation of the Eighth Commandment to illustrate an older view of how the Ten Commandments were interpreted and understood. We saw broad-ranging implications for economics in the Catechism's explanation of both the positive and negative sides of the requirement, "Thou shalt not steal." Our contemporary political systems would undergo significant change if they took even just a small part of the Eighth Commandment and applied it to government policy. We would see, for example, dramatic changes to taxation laws, monetary policy, and social welfare, among other things.

The Case Laws
By using the Larger Catechism to explain the Commandments of God, it is evident that R.J. Rushdoony's important study, The Institutes of Biblical Law, follows, in principle, an older view of Christianity. The framers of the Larger Catechism had no hesitation in drawing their detailed analysis from what are described as the "case laws" of the Old Testament. The requirement to keep just weights and measures is drawn from Leviticus 19:35-36, and readily seen as an explanation of the commandment prohibiting theft. We can steal by failing to keep accurate weights and measures. Also, it is clear that the framers of the Larger Catechism understood that restitution was a part of the Eighth Commandment. Thus, in Q. 141, it is listed as a duty of the commandment to return goods to their proper owners. Restitution, however, carried with it not just the requirement to return goods to their rightful owners, but the way in which such restitution should take place was prescribed. Exodus 22:1-7 provides several example of how restitution is to be made, in some instances up to 500% value of the stolen goods.

In some circles, today there is an argument based on the Westminster Confession that is used to deny the judicial aspects of the law in contemporary legislation. Some readers of Chapter XIX of the Confession believe that the framers of the Westminster documents believed that all the judicial laws of the Old Testament are put aside in the New Testament era. Such a reading of the Confession makes a contradiction of the Larger Catechism, where it is plain that when it suited, the members of the Westminster Assembly took liberally from the judicial laws of the Old Testament and said they apply even today. In Chapter XIX the writers say that only the "sundry judicial laws" have expired, yet their concept of "expired" is qualified by the inclusion that the general equity of the laws remain. What does this mean, say, in the case of Exodux 22:1-7?

General Equity
First of all we must ask ourselves, "What is the 'general equity' of these requirements?" Does "general equity" include the idea of restitution? Yes, because the framers of the Catechism were prepared to include this in their exposition of the Eighth Commandment. Does the general equity idea include the idea of making restitution at up to 500%? Yes, because it is evident that the Catechism is not there to provide a new interpretation of the Commandments. It is also important to ask whether the principle of restitution can be isolated from the more specific principle of "restitution at 500%." There is no evidence to suggest that the Westminster Assembly was attempting to use the phrase "general equity" to water down, minimalize, or abolish the judicial laws.

Unfortunately, we are not left with a clear statement on what is meant by the word "sundry," as in "sundry judicial laws." Does sundry mean all judicial laws, or does sundry mean some judicial laws? Our reading of the Larger Catechism indicates that the Westminster Assembly was attempting to indicate some judicial laws, those they designated "sundry." What these are, we have to guess to some extent. But it certainly does not mean all judicial laws. In fact, the word "sundry" does not lend itself to this kind of interpretation. Sundries are various different small items grouped together because they are not important enough to be considered separately.

What the framers of the Westminster documents were attempting to do was to provide relevance to the Commandments by saying that an application of the principles of the case laws is mandatory. Thus, it may no longer be necessary for a thief to repay five oxen for the one he stole. But if the "general equity" provision remains, then it can be argued that in Israel an ox was an important instrument in generating a livelihood for farmers and this is the "general equity" provision. To steal an ox would be the equivalent in the seventeenth century (the time when the Westminster documents were prepared) of stealing a horse (which had replaced the ox as the preferred farming animal). In the twentieth century it would equate to stealing a farmer's tractor. The "general equity" provision of restitution at 500% remains, but is no longer applied to oxen.

Natural Law
Is there a "natural" law that enables men and women in the New Testament era to understand how right laws are to be developed and applied? Not if we keep the first three chapters of Genesis in view. Here it is specifically indicated that God the Creator makes the rules, and that the essence of sin is for man to be his own law-maker (Gen. 3:5). Natural law theorists, including those in Christian circles who advocate this idea, are merely perpetuating the serpent's challenge to Eve: eat of the fruit and you will be "like God", knowing (i.e., determining) good and evil, making up the rules of life for yourself.

We have come a long way since the seventeenth century when the Westminster Assembly met and formulated its understanding of the Ten Commandments. Contemporary Christianity is not enamoured by the Catechism's understanding of the Eighth Commandment. Even Reformed Christians who proclaim allegiance to the Westminster Confession of Faith do not necessarily endorse the Catechism's explanation of the Eighth Commandment; and they attempt to use Chapter XIX as their rationale for doing so. If words have any meaning, then the "sundry judicial laws" are a small group of the judicial laws of which only the "general equity" remains. The Assembly either used the word "sundry" in an attempt to be a little vague, or else it expected readers to understand the phrase because of some common understanding.

It is evident from the Assembly's own use of the case laws in its development of the Larger Catechism that it believes many of the judicial laws of Israel are applicable today. The Westminster Divines made no commitment to natural law theory or to the notion that somehow mankind could discover, without the aid of divine revelation, the way God wants us to live.

In the realm of economics, much of which today is tied up with contemporary politics, this leaves us with a secure basis in the Bible for developing a godly economic system that also allows us to critique contemporary culture in the light of God's revelation. There is evidence to suggest that such a critique, in every nation in the world, is long overdue. Argentina's recent economic malaise, the untold financial damage to countless thousands whose wealth was dissipated by government policy, is just one example. Another example is Japan's use of debt to expand its economic fortunes. Proudly offering 100-year mortgages to home buyers (according to one report) eventually brought the nation to its present state where, after a dozen years, its stock market remains in the doldrums.

The necessity for Christian economics based squarely on the Ten Commandments as the moral foundation for economic theory remains. This includes relying on the case laws of the Old Testament to inform us of how God wants us to be economists (literally, house managers). The laborers are few, but God, in His own time, will raise godly men and women who will stand for economic reform that creates justice and equity for all.

See Part 1

See Part 2

See Part 3

  • Ian Hodge

Ian Hodge, Ph.D. (1947–2016) was a long-term supporter of Chalcedon and an occasional contributor to Faith for All of Life. He was also a business consultant in Australia, USA, Canada, and New Zealand, and a prominent piano teacher in Australia.

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