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The Authority of the Old Testament in the State

The question of the authority of the Old Testament in the state is tied inexorably to the issue of the authority of the Old Testament in general.

  • William O. Einwechter,
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The question of the authority of the Old Testament in the state is tied inexorably to the issue of the authority of the Old Testament in general. 1 Those both within and without the church who reject the authority of the Old Testament as canonical Scripture will, of course, consider the topic of this article to be superfluous. But those who consider the Old Testament to be the inspired word of God cannot dismiss the question of the authority of the Old Testament in the state with a mere wave of the hand. If God has spoken his infallible word in the Old Testament, and if that word specifically speaks to matters that directly concern the state, then does it not follow that the Old Testament teaching on the subject of civil government is authoritative today?

We believe it does; and we also believe that the Old Testament provides the state with the only full, objective, and reliable standard for civil justice and civil law.

The Authority of the Old Testament
The testimony of the creeds and confessions of the church have always affirmed that the Old Testament stands with the New Testament as the inspired, authoritative word of the living God. The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these: ...[all sixty-six books of the Bible are listed by name]. All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life (Chap. I, Art. II.). This confession of the church concerning the canonicity of the entire Old Testament and its consequent status of being, along with the New Testament, the rule of faith and life is based on the testimony of Christ and his Apostles (cf. Matt. 5:17-19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; Heb. 1:1-2; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11). The law, the prophets, and the writings 2 are considered the word of God written throughout the whole New Testament, and their authority is unquestioned. 3

The authority of the Old Testament was considered comprehensive by the Apostle Paul, i.e., its teaching applied to all spheres of life, and, therefore, the man of God will be thoroughly equipped for every good work by giving heed to its doctrines (2 Tim. 3:16-17), including his work in the sphere of civil government. In other words, Paul taught the church that the Old Testament is authoritative on matters relating to the family, the church, and the state; hence, by searching its pages, the man of God could discern God's will for him in his duties as a family man, church member, and citizen. The idea that the Old Testament retained its authority in certain select areas (e.g., family, and church) in this age, but not in others (e.g., the state) is foreign to the New Testament. The canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament contain extensive instruction in righteousness for both magistrates and citizens; and the teaching of Christ and the apostles and the statements of the confessions of the church affirm that this instruction continues as part of the rule of faith and life.

Therefore, the doctrine of full inspiration and authority of both Testaments provides a potent argument for the authority of the Old Testament in the state. If God has spoken to the issues of civil government in the Old Testament (e.g., the duty of magistrates to judge justly, [Dt. 16:18-19]), then we must grant that word the same divine authority to instruct us in righteousness for that sphere as we grant it, say, for the sphere of family (e.g., parental instruction in discipline, Pr. 23:13). The authority of God's revelation in the Bible is seamless. The Christian view of Scripture is: the Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything.4

The Nature of the State and the Role of the Magistrate
God, the Creator of all things, has established three governing institutions for man's good and the ordering of human society: the family, the church, and the state. Each has been given specific duties by God and has received authority from God to carry out their respective commissions. The state, therefore, is a divine institution (Rom. 13:1-2). The state, consequently, is not autonomous, does not owe its legitimacy to man, and does not derive its authority to rule from man. God is sovereign over the state (Dan. 4:25, 32, 34-37). The state is subject to him and it is there to serve him by carrying out his will for it.

God's will for the state is that it establish justice and restrain evil in society by the punishment of evildoers (Dt. 1:16-17; 16:18-20; Rom. 13:3-4; 2 Pet.2:14). The state is not the agent of mercy or charity, but is the instrument of God's vengeance against those who disturb the public peace through theft, violence, or negligence. To the state belongs the power of the sword, which consists of the right to execute those who are worthy of death, to inflict corporal punishment, and to require restitution to the victims of theft and bodily injury.

Since the state is a divine institution, it definitely follows that the civil magistrate is God's servant. This is the specific teaching of Scripture (Rom. 13:2-4). The Bible indicates that God is the one who puts men into civil authority, that they serve as his ministers and representatives (2 Chr. 19:5-7), and that all kings and rulers should serve in the fear of God (2 Sam. 23:3), recognizing that God rules in the kingdom of men (Dan. 4:25). As God's servant, the magistrate is required to rule according to God's will and carry out the divine purpose for the state. The civil magistrate is charged with the duty of judging righteously and punishing evil doers.

But if the magistrate is to carry out his role as God's minister executing God's vengeance on evildoers, there must be a standard by which the magistrate discerns God's will for him. For those who accept the authority of Scripture and its definition of the state and the role of the magistrate, this is an inescapable question: To what standard of justice does God hold the magistrate accountable when he commands him to rule justly? Where should the magistrate look to determine what evil he should punish and how he should punish it as the minister of God's vengeance? All who believe that the state is a divine institution and the civil magistrate is a servant of God must face this question and provide a definitive answer.

The Standard of Biblical Law
The answer proposed by most Christians to the question of by what standard the state discerns God's will is clearly God's law. But, this answer is not precise because there are two basic conceptions among Christians (evangelical and Reformed) on how God's law is revealed to magistrates. The first is natural law, and the second is Biblical law.

Those Christians who adhere to a natural law view on the standard of civil government believe that God reveals his moral law to magistrates and citizens through creation and conscience. According to this view, the law of God written in the hearts of men (Rom. 2:14-15) is the ideal standard by which the state discerns justice and carries out its divine commission. It is believed that through the right use of reason, all men are able to determine the moral law of God as it relates to all matters of civil government, including penology. Modern Christian natural law adherents reject the standard of Biblical law because they believe that the state should be based on a pluralistic secular compact, that natural law is the only proper and workable standard in such a context, and that Biblical civil law has no authority or application outside the confines of Old Testament Israel. 5

Those Christians who advocate the standard of Biblical law for civil government believe that God reveals his moral law to magistrates and citizens through the written revelation of Scripture. According to this view, the ideal standard of righteousness by which the magistrate carries out his divine commission is Biblical civil law. The Bible provides explicit revelation on the matters of civil government, including penology, and this revelation applies to all men and nations. Modern Biblical law adherents (often called theonomists) reject natural law as the standard for civil government because they believe that it is wholly inadequate, while also rejecting the model of a pluralistic secular compact for an explicitly Christian covenantal view of the state.

Of these two views, the teaching of Scripture calls us to the Biblical law standard for civil government. Consider the following.

First, the doctrine of total depravity teaches us that it is folly to believe that man can adequately discern God's will for the state on the basis of natural law. The Bible declares that man is fallen and his reason is corrupted. By nature, man suppresses the truth of God revealed to him by creation and his conscience (Rom. 1:18-28). Van Til speaks eloquently on this point, and his words need to be applied to the moral questions concerning civil government:

This doctrine of the total depravity of man makes it plain that the moral consciousness of man as he is today cannot be the source of information about what is the ideal good or about what is the standard of the good.... It is this point particularly that makes it necessary for the Christian to maintain without any apology and without any concession that it is Scripture, and Scripture alone, in the light of which all moral questions must be answered. Scripture as an external revelation became necessary because of the sin of man. No man living can even put the moral problem as he ought to put it, or ask the moral questions as he ought to ask them, unless he does so in the light of Scripture. Man cannot of himself truly face the moral question, let alone answer it.6

Second, if the will of God is to actually be the true standard of justice for civil government, man must have an objective, detailed written revelation from God. This is exactly what we have in Biblical law (Ps. 19:7-10)! Natural law, based as it is in man's ability to discern it through reason, is not objective, written, or detailed. To make natural law the ethical standard of justice in the state is to make reason and conscience the standard of justice. In his discussion of the authority of the written text of the Bible to establish Christian doctrine and ethics, John Bright shows the folly of making reason and conscience the authority in determining such matters:

First, the fallibility of conscience. I do not trust the reader's conscience, nor does he trust mine. It is notorious that men have often in good conscience done horrible things. Nor does a desire to do the will of God or the conviction that God's will is indeed being done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, ensure that such is the case. How does one know that it is the Holy Spirit that speaks?... The conscience is a very subjective authority that speaks to each man with a different voice; and there are no tests for determining the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit, save the test of the biblical teaching itself. If the conscience and reason of the individual, however enlightened, be the final authority in matters of faith and practice, then let us face it: Each individual is his own authority, and the Christian faith is what each individual thinks it is. 7

We add, that if man's reason is the final authority in matters pertaining to civil government, then each state becomes its own authority (legal positivism 8), and justice in civil law is what each magistrate and citizen thinks it is. But if we take the written text of the Bible as our standard for civil law, then God himself is in theory and in fact given his rightful place as the sovereign King who alone determines for man what is just in civil law. Any retreat from the standard of God's written revelation to the standard of man's reason is a retreat into human autonomy, moral chaos, and tyranny.

Third, it is true that nations that have not received the written revelation of God in Scripture concerning civil government will be judged by the standard of natural law and can operate on no other standard (Rom. 2:14-15). 9 However, it is absurd to argue that nations that have received the bright light of God's written word should limit themselves to the dim light of natural law in determining God's will for the state. 10 To say that nations of today should be guided by natural law rather than Biblical law is to say that nations should continue to operate as they did during the times of this ignorance (Ac. 17:30). To advocate natural law as the standard of civil government where the Bible is known is to advocate ignorance of God's will for the state! "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them"(Isa. 8:20)!

Fourth, the Bible contains no commands or admonitions for the state to follow natural law. Rather, the Bible commands magistrates to obey Biblical law. There are the clear commands of God to the citizens and magistrates of Israel to follow the Biblical law for the matters of civil government. Then, through the book of Proverbs, these commands are transferred directly to the magistrates and citizens of all nations (Pr. 16:12; 28:4; 31:4-5). 11 God commands the standard of the fear of the Lord for all kings and rulers (Ps. 2:11; 2 Sam. 23:3); to fear God is to keep his commandments (Ec. 12:13-14); and to keep his commandments is to obey Biblical law. In Psalm 2 God enjoins all the kings and judges of the earth to serve the Lord with fear and to kiss the Son. This is strong language, calling for full obedience to God's law and covenantal submission to the Son who is King of all nations. Can these commands be understood in accord with modern Christian natural law theory? Only if you think Psalm 2 means that God is commanding rulers to establish pluralistic secular compacts in their nation where God and the authority of his word are not acknowledged; only if you think that in Psalm 2 God is commanding rulers to let your conscience be your guide; and only if you think that in Psalm 2 God is commanding rulers to stay clear of Biblical law because that law is only for Israel! To interpret and apply Psalm 2 according to the natural law paradigm is preposterous, if not downright blasphemous. Psalm 2 is a command to all kings and judges of today to obey Biblical law and honor Christ as their sovereign.

We conclude, therefore, that Biblical law is the standard for the state. In Biblical law, the unchanging standard of the moral law of God as it applies to the state is set forth with sufficient detail and clarity to enable the magistrate to carry out his duties as God's minister. If Biblical law is the standard, then the authority of the Old Testament in the state is established beyond question; for it is in the pages of the Old Testament (particularly the law of Moses) that God reveals the specifics of civil law, civil procedures, and penology. The New Testament itself does not speak to these matters in any comprehensive fashion; if we had only the New Testament to guide us, we would know only the barest outline of God's will for the state. But, of course, the New Testament does not need to address the subject of civil government in a detailed way because God has already spoken his mind on these matters in the Old Testament.

If the Old Testament is the word of God, and it is according to the teaching of Scripture and the confessions of the church, then we are led to conclude that the Old Testament is authoritative in the state because as inspired Scripture it is authoritative on all matters of which it speaks (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and it speaks extensively to the subject of civil government. We cannot be selective in our approach to the authority of the Old Testament. If we grant the Old Testament divine authority on some matters because it is the word of God, then we must grant it the same divine authority on every matter that it addresses. Bright states: "[L]et it be said as plainly as possible: We cannot rightly speak of the authority of the Old Testament if we allow ourselves to appeal to it selectively, as it pleases us. We must be willing to confront its witness as a whole, even those parts that offend us. . . . 12 Any who dismiss the witness of the Old Testament to the standards of civil law and civil justice, take a Marcionite approach to the Old Testament, 13 and not a Christian approach.

If the Old Testament is not authoritative for the state in determining God's will for the magistrate for carrying out his duties of judging righteously, then what is? In the end it is either the authority of the Old Testament in the state or the authority of reason and conscience.


1. For a helpful discussion on the authority and use of the Old Testament see, John Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, 1975 [1967]).

2. This is the classification used for the divisions of the Hebrew Bible today, and was even in use at the time of Christ (cf. Luke 24:44 where Christ uses the law, the prophets, and the psalms [which stands for the writings, since it is the most prominent book in that division] to designate the whole Old Testament; sometimes the Old Testament is simply designated by the law and the prophets or Moses and the prophets [Lk. 16:29]).

3. For a survey of the New Testament texts that affirm the full inspiration and infallibility of the Old Testament, and, hence, its authority, see Wayne A. Grudem, " Scripture's Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture in Scripture and Truth,"eds., D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids, 1983), 37-45.

4. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, N. J., 1967), 8.

5. Nevertheless, Christian natural law proponents sometimes use the Old Testament civil laws on a selective basis when it is convenient and when its supports the views on civil law that they have deduced through reason (so they say). For example, men such as Charles Colson are committed to natural law as the standard for civil government and reject the theonomic standard of Biblical law, yet they make use of the Biblical law requirement of restitution for theft in their advocacy of criminal justice reform. In other words, they use Old Testament law when that law appears reasonable to them.

6. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, 54.

7. Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 39-40 (emphasis supplied).

8. Legal positivism is the doctrine that there is no higher authority than the state, and law is whatever the state says it is. It is our contention that all natural law theories of law and justice lead, in practice, to a form of legal positivism.

9. The fact that Biblical revelation is far superior to natural revelation does not imply that there is any contradiction between the two. There is only one moral law, because there is only one true God who is the source of all things, including the moral law. The unity between Biblical law and natural law is clearly stated in the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689: the same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments. . . . The issue, therefore, is not which one is true, but which one is adequate for man in his fallen condition, and which one is superior as a means of revelation.

10. William Symington, Messiah the Prince (Edmonton, [1884] 1990), 234-235.

11. For the validation of this point see, William O. Einwechter, " Proverbs and Politics,"Chalcedon Report 376 (November 1996), 16-19.

12. Bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 142.

13. Marcion believed that there was total discontinuity between Israel and the church, and between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He therefore rejected the Old Testament as part of the canon of inspired Scripture for the church. Bright contends that all who believe that the Old Testament is not fully Christian, and cease to use it or regard it as canonical Scripture on the same level as the New Testament are implicitly Marcionite in their approach to the Old Testament (The Authority of the Old Testament, 73-76). To say that Old Testament civil law was intended only for Israel, and that it has no binding authority in this dispensation, is to follow the perspectives of Marcion, and not of Jesus Christ (Mt. 5:17-19) and his Apostles (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Pet. 1:23-25).

  • William O. Einwechter

William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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