Right and Wrong
God, Law, and the Secular State
Paul F. Niehaus and Jeffrey J. Niehaus
may believe in the same God, but they do not agree about the proper
way to apply God’s standards
in the modern state. Another way of saying this might be that they
do not agree about politics. The phrase “religious right” has
achieved common usage in politics. There is also a religious, and
a Christian, “left.” Opinion
polls show significant heterogeneity of opinion on political views
among Christians in the United States. (1) The
labels “left” and “right” do
not adequately represent this heterogeneity, but their use at least
illustrates that diversity of opinion exists.
We are interested not in the fact that Christians disagree about politics,
but rather in the ways that they reason to their conclusions. How do we
judge what is right and what is wrong? What are the appropriate Biblical
foundations for political conclusions? Intuitively, one might think about
political issues by comparison to ethical ones. One Christian might notice
that prostitution is sinful and reason that it should be illegal. Another
Christian might notice that Christ commanded us to give generously to those
in need, and reason that the government should provide for the poor.
This example illustrates that
the same kind of thinking can lead to political positions on both the “right” and the “left.” We
want to reemphasize that our interest here is with the “kind of thinking” and
not with the positions. The thinking in this example centers on the
relationship between sin and the law. Prostitution is sinful, hence illegal.
it is sinful for a rich man not to help the poor, so the government
effectively requires that he do so. In both cases, sinfulness implies illegality.
this reasoning valid? Should a Christian who thinks this way extend
the reasoning to all sins? Should cursing be illegal? What about lustful
We have thus arrived at the following question: which sins should be legal,
and which sins should be illegal? This question matters because it follows
from a line of reasoning that is intuitively appealing. This question was
also a starting point for another influential Christian political commentator,
Thomas Aquinas (below). We propose to take up this question and to identify
Biblical foundations for answering it.
Thomas Aquinas takes up the
question of sin and the law in the Summa Theologica: “does
it belong to the human law to repress all vices?” Aquinas believes
that the purpose of human laws is to lead men gradually to virtuous
living. Since all men are sinful, human laws do not forbid all vices, “but
only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority
to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others.” Aquinas
draws an analogy between these criteria for lawmaking and the parable
of the wineskins. (Matt. 9:17) A sinful citizenry can be seen as
an old wineskin
which would burst under the pressure of strict laws – the new wine.
To give Aquinas his due would
require more space, but clearly he takes a pragmatic approach. Aquinas
would ban those vices that are grievous and
harm others. This seems practical, but Aquinas does not show that
it follows from an understanding of God’s nature. We do not discount pragmatic
considerations – surely God’s will is pragmatic in the strongest
sense of the word – but human pragmatism is not an accurate guide
to God’s will.
We want to address the question
of sin and the law with explicitly Biblical methods. In doing so,
we must avoid the pitfall of “proof-texting.” Such
an approach would look through the Bible for individual passages
which address the topic at hand, and use them as proofs. For example,
scholars Ronald Nash and Eric Beversluis debated economic policy
with repeated references to Old Testament passages about justice.
They disagreed sharply
on the interpretation of Exodus 22:26-27: “If you take your neighbor’s
cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak
is the only covering he has for his body...” Beversluis uses this
passage to argue for state provision of necessities. Nash accuses
proof-texting, and also argues that “if Exodus 22 contains a list
of duties for any just state, then one must conclude that the contemporary
state has a duty to execute witches, sex perverts, and idolaters.” (3) This is rhetorically effective, but hardly puts to rest the question
of economic entitlements. Instead, it opens a Pandora’s Box of other,
more daunting questions. Should the modern state execute idolaters?
If not, why?
Surely we need a broader understanding of the context in which these
given. It is precisely the lack of such a systematic framework that
limits the Nash-Beversluis debate.
What we want, then, is a way
of thinking about justice that is Biblical, not because it rests
on Bible verses, but because it rests on an understanding
of the Bible as a whole. Thus we will begin our argument by discussing
the authority of Scripture, and why understanding “the Bible as a
whole” is possible. (4) We will then present Biblical evidence showing
that in this modern age God is still concerned with the laws of nations,
even though the New Testament scarcely touches on legal matters.
This leads us naturally to an examination of the Old Testament law.
We will place
a special emphasis on the Law as a covenant, as one part of the covenant-history between God and man. From the covenantal form, we will infer that
Biblically just laws should respect the moral capabilities of a nation’s
We end our discussion of the
Old Testament law with a comment on the practical considerations involved
in “translating” ancient policies into
modern ones. We then turn forward to the New Testament for a brief consideration
of the Church – the new form of God’s kingdom which replaces
the political state of Israel. We see the Church taking responsibility
for some areas of sin which were the domain of the state under the
Also, for reasons that will become clear below, we provisionally define
justice to be that which is in accord with the will of God.
THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
Christians, we take the Old Testament as authoritative. We will discuss
reasons for taking this
view because it is basic to our study. But more
generally, we urge anyone reading about justice in the Old Testament
not to shy away from reading, understanding, and applying any portion
text. This view seems harmless enough until the text under consideration
says something unpleasant, and then it binds: “Anyone who curses
his father or mother must be put to death.” (Ex. 21:17) Indeed, as
Nash pointed out, the Mosaic law prescribes the death penalty for a broad
range of crimes. Some Christians find these passages anachronistic. How
could the “God of the New Testament” possibly give such instructions?
Could this be the revealed Word of the God who became incarnate in
Christ Jesus, the God who told us to love our enemies, and pray for
persecute us? And thus, could these texts have any authority over
From Scripture the resounding
answer to these questions is yes. Paul writes, “All
Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting
and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly
equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) The Scripture
which served as a common reference for Paul and Timothy was that of the
Jewish people, our Old Testament. And its quality of being God-breathed
implies not only usefulness for the stated purposes, but essential identity
with the breath, or Spirit, of God. So Jesus can say, “The words
I have spoken to you are Spirit, and they are life” (Jn 6:63), and,
consequently, He can say to His Father “Your word is truth” (Jn
The life and teaching of our
Lord confirm the authority of Scripture. As Millard Erickson points
out, Jesus’ repeated disputations with
the Pharisees contain criticism of their interpretation of Scripture,
but with underlying recognition of its authority. (5) He told his
tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest
letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear
from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:18) The
Christ who taught us to love our enemies is also the Christ who
held the Old Testament
law to be authoritative. The “God of the Old Testament” and
the “God of the New Testament” are identical and inseparable.
This would seem to leave no
room for a “pick-and-choose” reading
of Scripture. Such a reading selects and emphasizes passages that fit with
the reader’s preconceptions and desires, while excluding or de-emphasizing
passages which are a source of discomfort. Why might we be tempted to adopt
such an approach? First, because the Bible’s normative teaching may
conflict with our innate sense of right and wrong. Second, because
even though we accept the Biblical truth we may feel embarrassed to express
it or act on it publicly.
Both temptations must be resisted.
Quite simply, where the Bible explicitly contradicts our own views, we
are wrong and the Bible is right. To think
otherwise would deny God’s authority and reduce the study of Scripture
to an exercise in self-validation. Similarly for the opinions of our peers;
we know that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s
sight” (1 Cor. 3:19) and that “the foolishness of God is wiser
than man’s wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25) so that in faith we consider
Scripture the higher authority.
We will proceed with the understanding
that the Old Testament law is authoritative. If any part thereof seems
an embarrassment, we remember Christ’s
words: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous
and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes
in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38) We are looking
for a notion of justice of which the Father would approve, and so
we must rely on His words. As for those passages that give us pause, the
into moral capabilities which follows may help us understand them.
T HE GOD OF JUSTICE
the outset we posed the question, "Which sins should be legal,
and which should be illegal?" We now rephrase this question slightly,
to read, "Concerning which sins does God want us to make laws, and
concerning which sins does He not want us to make laws” (leaving
open the possibilities “all” and “none”). Although
this may seem a trivial rewording, it forces us to focus on Biblical
evidence about God's will rather than on human intuitions.
Jeremiah 18 makes it clear that God cares about the conduct of nations
and kingdoms that are only under common grace, that is, nations and kingdoms
not in a special redemptive covenant relationship with God. Jeremiah 18:1-10
reads as follows:
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Go
down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message.’ So
I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel.
But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the
potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then
the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do
with you as this potter does?’ declares the LORD. ‘Like clay
in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If
at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn
down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then
I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if
at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and
planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will
reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.’”
God’s word to his prophet
makes it clear that God judges all nations and kingdoms according
to their behavior. It is worth note that God speaks
in universal terms: “a (i.e., any) nation or kingdom,” not
Israel only. It is also worth note that God sets no temporal constraints
on this activity of divine judgment. Abraham called God “the Judge
of all the earth” just before He judged Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:25),
God was still “Judge of all the earth” in Jeremiah’s
day, and He is still so today. He judged Sodom and Gomorrah for their
behavior then, He judged nations and kingdoms in Jeremiah’s day,
and will continue to do so until the end of the age. Nothing in the
contradicts or supercedes this theodicy, for reasons which will appear
below. To sum up with regard to Jeremiah 18, however: God judges
nations in the flow of history, and He judges them for their behavior.
can encourage good behavior, of course, and had Israel obeyed God’s
laws, it would have been a testimony to the nations. (6) But, after
all, the way to avoid divine judgment as a nation is not simply to
craft good laws!
Rather, God considers the heart and soul of a nation, so to speak:
He weighs the hearts and souls of the people who make up the nation.
And God is no
fool. He can know the hearts and souls of people both because no
one can keep such things hidden from God (Heb 4:13), and also because
their hearts known by their words and deeds (Matt 12:33-37, 15:19-20).
So, on the basis of such manifest proofs, i.e., on the basis of behavior,
God judges the nations of the earth.
Anyone who carefully reads
the Old Testament and the New Testament will soon notice that the New
Testament does not have much to say about God’s
dealing with nations within history. The reason lies in the form of God’s
Kingdom in each Testament.
The New Covenant form of the
Kingdom is different from the Old Covenant form. The New Covenant form
of the Kingdom is the church, and so the New
Covenant has a more focused emphasis upon individuals in their relationship
to God and in the church, rather than upon kingdoms or nations. On
the other hand, the Old Testament, in which the form of the Kingdom is
state, has much more to do with nation states. God judges a nation
(Egypt) in order to liberate His people. He judges nations (“the Kenites,
Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites,
Girgashites and Jebusites” Gen 15:18-20) in order to establish His
Kingdom in Canaan, and throughout the history of Israel, from the Judges
period through the United Monarchy until the fall of the Northern Kingdom
to Assyria and the fall of the Southern Kingdom to Babylon, we find God
dealing with his Kingdom in terms of the nations and kingdoms round about,
and we find him judging those nations and kingdoms as well. The Old Testament
form of the Kingdom means that we see God dealing with that Kingdom, and
with other kingdoms in relation to it, as a matter of course. So we most
naturally turn to the Old Testament to learn what God has to say about
Himself and His standards vis-à-vis “a [any] nation or kingdom” (Jer
As we saw from Jeremiah 18, God judges nations according to their behavior.
So, it behooves a nation to behave well. That is, it is good for a nation
if its people have good values and, presumably, good laws that reflect
and maintain them. In a democracy, we have unusual freedom to make or change
our laws. So, in a democracy such as ours, laws may change considerably
as the character of the people changes and the people seek to frame laws
in keeping with their character. If the character of the people is improving,
this is good. If their character is growing worse, however, it is bad.
How can we know whether a people’s
character is good or bad? Since God has given us His word, which is truth
(John 17:17), we can determine
this from the Bible. We can apply that knowledge to what we observe
in the character of a people. Moreover, since God has given laws for
Testament form of the Kingdom (a nation state), we can study those
as prime examples of good laws.
Our purpose acknowledges God’s
aims in providing laws for His people. God gave laws in order to accomplish
(at least) two things: to supply a
body of legal standards and constraints, just as laws do in any state,
and to provide a lesson in justification, namely, that no one can
be justified by works of law. The history of Israel, which was one of
breaking and judgment, strongly suggested this latter truth. But
the Sermon on the Mount established it beyond all doubt. Now, as we acknowledge
facts, we also purpose to accomplish something different on the basis
of the Mosaic law.
We look to the Mosaic law as an example, or possible standard, of just
laws for a just secular state. This law was given in a covenant that constituted
a state (ancient Israel). But the Mosaic Covenant was one of a series of
five major covenants in the Old Testament. God used those covenants to
forward His plan of redemption, and also showed thereby that he is a God
God’s first covenant
was the Adamic Covenant, which God enters into with Adam and Eve,
making them rulers over earth (Gen 1:1-2:3). (7) When His
vassals break that covenant, God graciously reconfirms their ruler
status (part of the significance of clothing them, Gen 3:21), and
gives them the
promise of the "Protoevangelium" (Gen 3:15). He also carries
out the death penalty upon them, as He must in order to be true to
His covenant curse (Gen 2:17b) and consistent with His own holiness
As sin abounded on earth, God
pronounced judgment upon all humanity. He spared only Noah (who was righteous
and "walked with God," Gen
6:9) and his family. Once that judgment was over, God made a covenant
with Noah (Genesis 9). That Noahic Covenant was a re-creation covenant,
a reestablishment of the Adamic covenant, as the repeated terms indicate
(Gen 1:28-29 // Gen 9:1-3). The Noahic covenant thus gave humanity
a fresh start, as it were, with God as Suzerain over a humanity called
in obedience to him.
But humanity chose not to do so. That choice, of course, was a sum of
myriad individual choices made by increasing numbers of people over many
years. Through sin people lost the knowledge of God and degenerated into
polytheism with its invariably concomitant sexual sins (cf. Rom 1:20-32).
Out of such a polytheistic context God called Abram (Gen 12:1-3, cf. Josh
24:2). God made a covenant with him, and that covenant was the genesis
of the two great covenants that are most familiar to us.
The Abrahamic Covenant anticipates
both the Mosaic covenant and the New Covenant in Christ's blood, as Genesis
15 makes clear. It anticipates the
Mosaic covenant and the Exodus from Egypt by declaring that the Lord
would lead Abram's descendants out of the land that oppressed them (Gen
and back to the promised land to dispossess its inhabitants (Gen
15:18-21). It anticipates the New Covenant which would replace the Mosaic
because God Himself makes the passage between the sacrificed animals
(Gen 15:17). Normally in ancient near eastern treaties, the vassal would
that oath passage (cf. Jer 34:18), which symbolized the punishment
to befall the vassal should he break the covenant. In Gen 15:17, however,
theophany ("a smoking firepot with a blazing torch," Gen 15:17)
makes that passage. By doing so, He symbolically declares that He will
take the punishment for any covenant-breaking by Abram and his seed. And
Christians are Abraham's seed: "If you belong to Christ, then you
are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal 3:29).
So, the Abrahamic Covenant anticipates both the Mosaic Covenant and
the New Covenant which replaces it.
After the Mosaic covenant there is one final, major covenant in the OT:
the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:1-17). But the Davidic Covenant does not
replace the Mosaic; only the New Covenant does that. The Davidic Covenant,
rather, is a special covenant focused on the royal Davidic succession,
which eventuates in Christ. David himself did not mediate a new covenant
with new laws and a new form of the kingdom for all of God's people. Only
Jesus did that. Rather, David himself was still under the Mosaic Covenant,
and paid for violating it when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Now that we have embedded the Old Testament law in covenant-history, we
are prepared to assess the significance of the covenantal vehicle for law-giving.
The essence of a covenant is
mutual agreement. Before the covenant binds, everyone must consent to
the terms. Subsequently, the justice of a person’s
actions in the context of the covenant is a function of their conformity
to the standards of the covenant. Thus, as we saw above, David was judged
and punished under the Mosaic covenant; Israel’s repeated dalliances
with idolatry and sexual immorality were judged and punished under the
same covenant. God’s punishment was just because it was prescribed
by the covenant. We have taken great pains to cover all of covenant-history
because taken as a whole it illustrates this pattern consistently.
Humans agree, implicitly or explicitly, to terms. When they violate those
God punishes them either directly or through his agents. When they
fulfill those terms, God rewards them. God fulfills his promises, binding
to the terms of the covenant, faithfully executing everything he
committed to do. Neither punishment nor reward is arbitrary because both
by the covenant.
Thus, when we start to think
about laws established by covenants, we might hear echoes of the
secular contractarian tradition. Social contract theories
rest on an idea that is intuitively appealing: it is fair to hold
people accountable to terms to which they have already consented.
(8) But any secular
contract can at best be an imperfect reflection or partial embodiment
of the truth, which is God’s will. (9) Any merit attributable to
social contract theories is the result of their imperfect reflection
truths that God has revealed through the use of the covenantal
form. One of these
truths is that God’s historical interaction with us is on terms to
which we consent.
Since God is almighty, it might
seem that human consent to a covenant is a mere formality. Perhaps no
one would use the word “exploitation” due
to its negative connotations. But in the sense that exploitation involves
agreements that are formally voluntary but in reality coercive because
of an imbalance of power between the parties, the covenants seem strong
candidates for the label. Where does a greater power difference exist than
between God and man? Yet we have seen that in the Abrahamic covenant God
symbolically assumes the role of the vassal rather than the suzerain, playing
the weaker part. More generally, through the entire sequence of covenants,
evidence for coercion is entirely lacking. At the landmark events in God’s
historical work, the human parties involved were free to say “no”.
God’s covenant dealings
with His people through Moses and Joshua illustrate this truth.
Moses challenged Israel to choose God and His law: “This
day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have
set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose
life, so that you
and your children may live” (Dt 30:19; cf. Ex 19:8). Joshua likewise
challenged them, “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you,
then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether
the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of
the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my
the LORD" (Josh 24:15; cf. 1 Kgs 18:21). (10) The people in both cases
chose the LORD. Afterwards, when citizens were punished for their
individual crimes, and when Israel as a whole was punished for its
the punishment was not a response to their fallen, sinful condition
(in which all people participate, Rom 3:23), but a response to sins
to commit - sins that violated the covenant they had elected to enter.
As we observed, God did not
punish Israelites for their sinful condition, but for covenant-breaking
sins (which we might call crimes) under Mosaic
law. But even those specified sins (or “crimes”) implied the
deeper and more pervasive sinfulness of people. The New Testament affirms
the same. Christ repeatedly used the construction “you have heard
that it was said / but I tell you” to distinguish between the sin
(as defined by the Mosaic law), and the underlying sinful motivation (not
addressed by the Mosaic law). Moreover, the law of Moses judged covenant-breaking
sins during one’s lifetime. But all sin is ultimately judged at the
final judgment. The writer to the Hebrews observes that “anyone who
rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or
three witnesses.” (Heb. 10:28). This is legal punishment, within
time. He then says, “How much more severely do you think a man deserves
to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated
as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who
has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29) This is final punishment,
at the end of time.
In sum: the Old Testament law,
though one of its chief functions was to illustrate to humanity the unattainability
of God’s high standards,
still did not cover all sins. This justifies the question we posed: “concerning
which sins does God want us to make laws, and concerning which sins does
He not want us to make laws?” It also suggests that all sins is the
wrong answer; legal penalties should not be attached to sins simply because
they are sins. How then can we distinguish among sins? We have seen that
God’s actions with respect to law and punishment are uniformly consistent
with his will that human beings be capable of making meaningful moral choices – having
what we will call “moral capability.” Based on this observation,
we propose that the laws should be consistent with God’s general
pattern of giving human beings the capability to make meaningful
We need to be quite clear about what is expected from this principle.
We do not see it as a sufficient basis for lawmaking. We do see it as necessary to thinking about Biblical justice. It is founded on a very basic observation
about God in his role as lawgiver and as the final judge between right
and wrong. And the capability principle has strong implications for the
nature of just laws.
Take the case of murder. From
a Biblical standpoint, murder is sinful because God does not will it,
and this because we are each made in His
image. In addition, to allow murder would run against our principle
of moral capability. Murder is a willed choice made by the murderer,
robs the victim of significantly greater moral agency. Therefore,
the capability principle suggests that penalties attached to murder are
They restrict would-be murderers slightly in order to preserve the
capabilities of potential victims – the capabilities to choose
right and wrong, the capability to choose God.
We previously looked at a Mosaic
law proscribing the death penalty for those who curse their parents.
Cursing at parents is still sinful today.
But, setting aside the nature of the penalty, should cursing one’s
parents be illegal today? To ban such cursing would unambiguously
reduce the moral capabilities of children. Thus the presumption under the
principle is that legislation which penalized cursing would be unjust.
This does not contradict the fact that cursing was illegal in ancient
Israel; indeed nothing in the Old Testament law violates our criterion
because that law was explicitly and entirely accepted by Israel at
According to the traditional
Biblical interpretation, homosexual intercourse is sinful because it
contradicts God’s express intent that sexual
relations should be between married men and women. Is legal circumscription
in this case just? Again, prohibiting homosexual acts would unambiguously
reduce the moral capability of the citizens. The presumption under
the capability principle is therefore that legislation penalizing homosexual
acts would be unjust. For the reasons just discussed, this does not
the fact that homosexual intercourse was a mortal crime in the Old
The above examples suggest
that the legislative process matters for the justice of the outcomes.
We agree. A full treatment of process and moral
capability is beyond our present scope. We do observe in passing,
however, that the covenantal process sets a very high bar of unanimous
We want to emphasize that the
moral capability, “the capability
to make meaningful moral choices,” which we discuss is not a Christianized
notion of “freedom.” First, the secular concept of freedom
suffers from competing definitions, making it somewhat nebulous.
Second, freedom as the absence of coercion, which we might call a
diverges from the moral capabilities we are discussing in important
ways. Consider my handicapped neighbor; we live under the same state
the same legal freedoms, but I am far more capable. In particular,
imagine that we both witness an assault in progress. I must decide
whether or not
to put myself at risk and intervene. My handicapped neighbor is not
capable of intervening, and so is not put to the same test. I must
make a decision
which will be either right or wrong; my neighbor is not capable of
making this decision. In this sense I am more capable of right or
wrong than he
is, and this is the moral capability of which we speak. It is generally
true that the mere absence of coercion does not imply that a man
is capable of making significant moral decisions. (12)
The distinction between capability
and “freedom” also matters
on theological grounds.
Our emphasis on moral capabilities is based on the whole Biblical
evidence of God’s actions vis-à-vis mankind. This is not an
argument for Christian freedom based on the ontological concept of
free will. Free will is a controversial idea because of seemingly contrary
for predestination. Rather than engaging this higher theological
question, we want to stress the Biblical evidence that God always offers
a choice to obey him or to disobey.
We have explored the pertinence of covenant-history to a political question:
concerning which sins does God want us to make laws, and concerning which
sins does He not want us to make laws? We wish to close on a pragmatic
note. Identifying a sin as one that the law should proscribe is a first
step. There remains the question of how to proscribe a sin. What actual,
measurable behaviors should be legally required or prohibited? How should
the law be administered? What penalties should apply?
We saw earlier that the only
detailed discussion of laws in the Bible is the Old Testament law, and
that the reason for this has to do with the
form of God’s kingdom. Thus, we may wish to use the Old Testament
law as a guide to actual policies. The law does go far beyond listing
illegal sins; it states detailed policies to govern economic, social, and
life. Unfortunately, the Old Testament law is far removed from our
times. As a result there can be sharp disagreement between Christians about
to translate ancient policies into a modern ones.
An example should illustrate
the issue. Land policy was a cornerstone of economic policy in
Israel. When Israel first occupied the land of Canaan,
God divided the land between them, each family receiving an allotment.
Families were free to sell their land, but the sale was not to be
temporary – every
fiftieth year was to be a Year of Jubilee, when land would return
to its original owners. With Ron Sider, we note that “modern technological
society is vastly different from rural Palestine” (13) and
is the principle, not the details, that are important today.” (14) Modern
agriculture, which makes possible the support of large modern populations,
depends on efficiencies of scale that can be achieved on large farms
but not on small ones. If all the land in America were redistributed
all became small farmers, we would either starve or produce only
enough for a rather mean and miserable life. In fact, without concentrated
of land the world would probably look like what Thomas Malthus anticipated.
It is indeed the principle
and not the detail that is important today. In this example, Sider
argues that the principle at stake is that of “equality
of opportunity.” To us, such adoption of secular political language
seems distracting. (16) We can instead interpret the jubilee rule
in terms of capabilities. We have argued that God is concerned with
capability to make morally significant choices. Economic capabilities
matter precisely because their exercise requires moral decision-making.
Israel, control over land increased one’s moral capabilities, because
one could do good or bad things with land. On the other hand, when
a man refused to fulfill his charitable obligations to his destitute
neighbor, the neighbor’s capabilities would remain severely inhibited.
The jubilee rule ensures that each generation is capable of making
morally meaningful economic choices, choices with real consequences
attached, all without mortgaging the capabilities of future generations.
analogue to the jubilee rule should do likewise; it should increase
moral capabilities of the least well-off. But in a modern economy,
access to a good education might be more relevant than owning forty
is this sort of analogizing that we call “modernization.”
Policies have many aspects,
only some of which are functions of the times. In our example,
we established that Israel had a welfare policy, and that
the good which it provided – land – might not be the best choice
for a modern welfare policy. But the good provided is only one aspect
of Israel’s welfare policy. There were other important aspects that
must not be accidentally altered – or even worse, consciously manipulated – during “modernization.” As
Sider points out, “jubilee affirms not only the right but the importance
of private property managed by families who understand that they
are stewards responsible to God.” (17) We have developed a principle
of moral capabilities that emphasizes precisely these values: the
capability to make private
moral choices, and answerability to God for the actual choices made.
A welfare policy today should reflect these values regardless of
what good it happens to provide.
This means that one cannot
decide that welfare is “just” and
then treat the question of which kind of welfare is “best” as
secondary. Rather, arguments about the justice of modern welfare policies
must take the details into account from the outset. Another way of saying
this is that efforts to “modernize” Old Testament policies
cannot be separated from the application of the basic Biblical principles
already discussed. Without expressing an exact position on welfare,
we will affirm that policies that expand the choices of welfare recipients
are more just than those that restrict choice and encourage dependency.
This is the case not because the recipients of welfare are necessarily
sinners who must be cajoled into shaping up, but because their moral
matters as an end.
STATE AND CHURCH: AREAS OF RESPONSIBILITY
God punished David for his
adultery, but adultery is not a crime in our secular state. The reason
for this difference between ancient Israel and
the United States is not merely historical or cultural: it is more
fundamental than those categories would imply. Some matters now are,
province of the secular state, and some are not. Some are the province
of the form of God’s Kingdom on earth, which is the church, and some
are not. When the form of God’s Kingdom was the state of Israel,
then those things which were properly the business of a state and those
which were properly the business of God’s Kingdom coincided, for
the obvious reason that the form of God’s Kingdom was a state.
Since, now, God has seen fit to ordain His Kingdom in the form of the
church universal, which is a transnational entity, it is also true that
He has Himself ordained a separation of church and state. Some governments
may try to emulate a theocracy, but any such efforts are misguided. The
church, and only the church, is or can be the theocracy today.
God’s division of these kingdoms - His Kingdom on the one hand,
and the kingdoms of this world on the other - opens up the question: over
what does God’s Kingdom (the church) properly have jurisdiction,
and over what do the kingdoms of this world (the secular states)
properly have jurisdiction?
One fundamental division of jurisdiction appears to be as follows: the
secular state has jurisdiction over crimes, as crimes; the church has jurisdiction
over sins, as sins. So, the state must define what is criminal and determine
what punishments are appropriate for criminal actions, and the church possesses
the advantage that God has defined what is sinful and has prescribed how
the church should deal with cases of sin (e.g., Matt 18:25).
Another division of jurisdiction
has to do with contracts and contractual relations in civil life.
The state has jurisdiction over many kinds of
contracts within its own boundaries, from business agreements to
international treaties. The church, on the other hand, has no jurisdiction
in such matters.
Yet the church does have jurisdiction in some areas of contract.
The church can choose, for instance, to remove a minister from
office because of some
egregious sin (which could be viewed as a “breach of contract” with
God, serious enough to require his or her removal from office). Historically,
the church also had jurisdiction over marriage (biblically understood
as a covenant, or contract) and divorce, since marriage is based
created order for human beings (cf. Matt 19:8-9). We argue that marriage
and divorce should always be the domain of the church and not the
state. But today through civil unions, marriage licensing, etc.,
church and state
are very tightly intertwined. The ideal New Covenant division, in
which the church administers marriage while the state is restricted
legal partnerships, will be hard to attain. (18)
We began with the fact that
Christians may worship the same God, but do not agree about the proper
way to apply God’s standards in the modern
state. We raised for ourselves the question, "Which sins should be
legal, and which should be illegal?" Christian thinkers have offered
answers to such a question, but the answers have not been satisfactory.
That is so because they are based more on human reason and commonsense
than on the Bible (e.g., Aquinas), or have merely used the Bible
as a source of proof-texts in support of a certain view (e.g., Ronald Nash
We required an answer to the question that is Biblical, not merely in
that it cites Bible passages, but in that it is drawn from an understanding
of the covenant-history between God and man: in short, God's entire method
of working in history.
In pursuit of our answer, we
rephrased the question to read: "Concerning
which sins does God want us to make laws, and concerning which sins does
He not want us to make laws” (leaving open the possibilities “all” and “none”).
Although this was a trivial rewording of the original question, it
forced us to focus on Biblical evidence about God's will, rather than on
We saw, in light of Jeremiah 18, that God certainly has preferences about
laws in a secular state, although ultimately behavior is the basis for
His judgment of the nations. We also saw that good and bad, right and wrong,
just and unjust are ultimately only ways of describing things that accord
or do not accord with God's will.
We also saw that the Old Testament
has more to tell us about matters of law and the state than does the
New Testament, which is so because the
form of God’s Kingdom under the Mosaic Covenant was a nation-state.
We noted also that, although the form of God’s Kingdom differed in
the New Testament, Jesus still affirmed the fact that the Old Testament
is God’s revealed word - thus leaving no room for “pick and
We reviewed God’s covenant-making throughout the Bible, so that
the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant which replaced it could be understood
in their proper perspective. The Bible does not contain multiple examples
of lawgiving, but it does contain multiple examples of covenants. We established
a principle that applied in all of the covenants: that God’s requirements
(or “laws”) are given to people who are free to reject them.
That is, God always gives humans moral freedom. Such was the case
in the original, Adamic or Creation Covenant, and such has always been
The freedom to make moral choices is something God has built into us.
It is part of being made in his image. Laws in the state should reflect
that reality. Thus murder and theft should be illegal because they rob
the victim of capabilities to make morally significant choices. On the
other hand, viewing pornography or having homosexual intercourse should
not be illegal, because in these cases the laws would only further restrict
the capability of the individual to make meaningful moral decisions.
The form of God’s Kingdom is a further, important determining factor
when we consider laws and the state. God’s New Covenant has established
a new form of the Kingdom; namely, the church. The church is not
a state, and so it has no jurisdiction over crimes. So, for example, the
cannot impose religion or forms of worship on the state. On the other
hand, the church, not the state, should have the authority to declare a
married or divorced, since marriage is an institution founded by
God (although today, with the existence of such institutions as civil unions,
licenses, etc., church and state are very tightly intertwined).
Finally, we considered the
issue of the "modernization" of Old
Testament laws, and argued that we should look to understand and
apply the principles, rather than the letter, of the Mosaic laws.
Sin is sin and is abhorrent to God; the question we have tackled here
is which sins should be subject to legal penalties. God is the judge of
nations; whether a sin is legal or illegal, the church is called to work
to reduce it, to encourage the people of every nation to live in accord
with God's will. This matters because God will judge nations that transgress
egregiously (Jeremiah 18)
Accordingly, there is no need
to develop some secularly-inspired limit on the scope of Biblical truth,
e.g. restrict the Bible to our private
lives but in public promote a secular notion of "democratic liberalism." On
the other hand, there is also no ground for trying to make our nation
into a theocracy, as God has ordained that the form of his Kingdom now
church universal. What we can do is better understand how Old Testament
law can guide us in crafting laws for our nation that please God.
But that can probably only happen - and perhaps should only happen - when
arise out of the moral conviction of the people.
1. See, for example, ongoing polls by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Recent data are available at http://pewforum.org/publications/surveys/religion-politics.pdf.
2. See Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Prima Secundae Partis, Question 96,
2. Available online at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/.
3. Ronald H. Nash, A Reply to Beversluis, in Economic Justice and the State.
Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986. p. 61.
4. We reject several approaches to OT and biblical material which militate
against the possibility of biblical theology - against the possibility, that
is, of “understanding
the Bible as a whole.” Positions rejected include classic literary or “higher” criticism
(the “Documentary Hypothesis”), pentateuchal form-criticism (Gattungsgeschichte)
as practiced by Herman Gunkel and his followers, rhetorical criticism as practiced
by , e.g., Robert Polzin, and deconstructionism and reader-response criticism
as practiced by, e.g., David Clines. We consider that all of these approaches
are fundamentally antisupernatural in their philosophies, as is evidenced by
their consistent rejection of biblical miracles and biblical claims to revelatory
status. For further reading that adduces evidence and argument against some
of the above-mentioned approaches, cf. Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary
Hypothesis (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1941), R. K. Harrison, Introduction
to the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), and Duane Garrett, Rethinking
5. Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000.
6. E.g., Dt 4:6-8, where Moses says of God’s laws, “ Observe them
carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who
will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is
a wise and understanding people. What other nation is so great as to have their
gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?
And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws
body of laws I am setting before you today?”
7. For evidence of the covenant nature of Gen 1:1-2:3, see Jeffrey J. Niehaus
God at Sinai (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
8. Or in the theory of Rawls, to terms to which they would in principle consent,
were they deprived of information about their specific situation in life.
9. One salient difference between a social contract and a Biblical covenant is
as we next discuss, a covenant can in no sense be understood has an agreement
between equals who each individual seek their own ends.
10. The same invitation appears in Pr 8:7-11: “My mouth speaks what is
true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none
is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless
to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge
rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing
you desire can compare with her.”
11. A related passage is 1 Samuel 8:11-17, in which God warns Israel of the danger
of concentrated political power.
12. In making this distinction between freedoms and moral capabilities, we
to philosopher Amartya Sen, who argues forcefully for a similar distinction.
See, for example, Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Sen
suggests that the concept of “freedom” that is most relevant is that of “freedom
as capabilities.” The difference between his terms and ours is the following:
Sen refers to capabilities as “functionings” in general, while
we are interested only in a subset, in what we have called moral capabilities.
13. Sider, Ronald. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. : W Publishing Group,
1997. p. 75.
14. Ibid, p. 76.
15. Sider provides a second example of mistaken focus on the letter rather than
spirit of the law; see his discussion of interest rates, p. 76.
16. Equal opportunity is a highly-charged catch-phrase, and not well defined.
Rawls has argued forcefully for a distinction between “equality as careers
open to talents” and “equality as equality of fair opportunity,” and
says even of the latter that “offhand it is not clear what is meant, but
we might say that those with similar abilities and skills should have similar
life chances.” (A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press,
1999. p. 63.) Amartya Sen has criticized this notion as too tolerant of arbitrary
accidents of birth. Sider comes closest to providing a definition when he speaks
of “an equality of economic opportunity up to the point that [every family]
had the resources to earn a living that would enable them not only to meet minimal
needs of food, clothing, and housing but also to be respected participants in
the community.” (p. 69)
17. Sider, p. 71
18. This division bears directly on the current hot-topic issue of homosexual
marriage, but is important for thinking about the chronic issue of divorce
as well. C.S.
Lewis thought that the same division would be the just, Biblical response to
divorce. He argued that marriage as defined by the state should be quite separate
from Christian marriage, that everyone should be aware of the distinction,
and that the reason for this is that many citizens were not Christian and should
not be compelled to behave as Christians. See Mere Christianity. San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. p. 112.
J. Niehaus, Ph.D., is a Professor of Old Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological
Seminary. His son, Paul F. Niehaus‘ 04, is an Applied Math
and Economics concentrator in Dunster House.