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Theocratic Case Laws and the New Covenant Era

The issue of theonomy and the application of theocratic case laws in the New Covenant era has recently come up in several discussions I have had, so I thought I would make some resources available to those interested in learning more about a redemptive-historical approach to understanding the role of the theocratic sanctions given to Old Covenant Israel.

The follow books give, what the authors understand to be, the apostolic principles of interpretation with regard to the case laws found throughout the Pentatuech:

Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses

Dennis Johnson's Him We Proclaim pp. 279-284 (especially pages 281-282)

Here is a post I wrote a while back with a link to George Knight's outstanding article on apostolic hermenuetics.

Here is post I wrote with regard to Vos teaching in his article "The Mosaic Theocrasy" in The Eschatology of the Old Testament. This chapter has proved more beneficial than almost anything I have read with regard to the typical nature of the Mosaic sanctions.

The only thing I would add to these references is a brief note concerning the Westminster Confession of Faith's statement (ch. 19) regarding the "general equity" of these case laws. You will often hear proponents of the Theonomic movement trying to make a one-for-one application of the Old Covenant case laws to the governments of the world today (minus their distinctively cultural settings). They will appeal to the wording of the Confession that speaks of the obligation to obey the "general equity" of the case laws. The Dinives put it this way: "To them also (i.e. Israel), as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require." Those who quote this section always seem to leave out the fact that the Puritans clearly state that God "gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people."

So this begs the question, "If the Purtians were clear that the civil laws expired with Old Covenant Israel, then what do they mean by general equity?" This is indeed a hard question to answer for several reasons. First, to the best of my knowledge, no member of the Assembly ever wrote an exposition of the phraseology, "general equity." Again, while most theonomists will try to make a one-for-one application in the civil realm, the only thing you can conclude with certainty about the obligatory nature of the "general equity" of the case laws on those living on this side of the cross is that they were an expression of the moral law of God, and as such, always teach what is morally right and wrong--it is always wrong to commit adultery, it is always wrong to steal, it is always wrong to murder. The apostolic use of particular case laws, shows that it is not civil punishment that they have application to in the New Covenant. Rather, it is the spiritual government of the church. So, as the authors above note, verses that speak of stoning adulterers, false witnesses, and idolaters are used in the context of church discipline for the same actions in the New Covenant (1 Cor. 5). That is general equity. The particular civil cases and penal sanctions are not the general equity.

Second, we must remember that the case laws, given to Israel in redemptive-history, were given to a "body politic." They were written to the church-state of the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, the church is an eschatologically realize spiritual nation.  As Vos says in "The Mosaic Theocracy," the typical laws given to the typical church-state are eternalized in the New Covenant. Does this mean that physical nations do not need to govern with righteous laws and punishments? No, they certainly are responsible to do so. Where are they to learn what the ethical standards of righteous rule are? Well, according to the apostle Paul, they have the  law written on their hearts (Rom. 2) and, by common grace they get enough right to restrain evil in the world until Christ comes to execute perfect justice on the earth. This is the historic Protestant doctrine of "natural law." It accords with the moral law given to Israel at Sinai. Someone might object, "But then you are saying that God has two standards of righteousness?" The only thing I can say here is that Paul (Rom. 13) and Peter (1 Pet. 4) told the Christians of the first Century, and every subsequent Century, to obey the governing authorities. If you took the time to consider what those authorities were like you would soon discover that they were tyrannical.This did not change the fact that Christians were to obey their rulers, insomuch as they executed enough justice in the society for it to function.  That is what makes a government a legitimate form of rule. We are not obliged to obey the government when they command Christians to disobey God or worship false gods.

We need to remember that one day, all the civil disobedience, chaos and rebellion will be dealt with. Heaven will be a world of perfectly righteous rule. Even if (though it is a non-reality) the civil law of God were instituted in nations around the world, you would have a wicked and rebellious people like Israel. As Habakkuk said, "the Law is powerless." Implementing civil law in societies is not the mission the Lord has given His church until He comes again. Until He comes, we are called to live humble, obedient and Christ-exalting lives in the respective fields to which He has called us. The Lord has left us here to spread the glorious Gospel of His Son. This Gospel is the only thing that will change hearts and enable rulers and people alike to live righteously and honor the Lord and His law.

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