Wednesday, May 22, 2013

General Equity of the "Civil" Law

    I find attending presbytery meetings to be very enjoyable. In the past, I have heard many pastors bemoan how it is "that time again" when they have to muddle through yet another boring presbytery meeting. Perhaps because they feel that they are so busy with their own local church stuff. For me, I like big picture stuff, I like top level interactions and the 30,000 ft view.. And this is what presbytery does (well, at least at the 30,000 ft regional view... GA would be the 100,000 ft view)... 

     About a year ago, I had attended two South Coast Presbytery (PCA) meetings in San Diego. The various sub-committees would stand up and give their updates on what happened since the last meeting etc... One of my favorites is the Candidates and Credentials sub-committee. This is the group that is responsible for licensure and ordination of licentiate and ministerial candidates, respectively. 

      During both meetings, there were licensure and ordination exams that were conducted. As expected, since the South Coast Presbytery is in San Diego, you get a lot of candidates that are from Westminster Seminary in Escondido. One licensure exam that was conducted on the floor was of particular interest. For most of the exam, the licensure candidate did reasonably well. When the questioning got to this candidate's exceptions to the Westminster standards, this is when things got to be a little controversial. He took the almost automatic exception of WCF XXI:VIII that nearly all candidates seem to be taking nowadays, concerning the prohibition of recreation on the Sabbath. 

     My observations have been that most people don't really understand this particular part of the confession and they take this exception without really understanding that the "recreation" that the candidates are thinking of (e.g. walking on the beach, admiring God's creation) is NOT what the confession is talking about. Or, it is that the candidate has the very bleeding edge and very novel Klinean view of the Sabbath in which "common" activities do not need to be ceased on the Sabbath since this is a "profane" activity that is not under "faith-norms." The former is a silly misunderstanding, the latter is just a very exegetically unwarranted view of what exactly the "common kingdom" and what "cultural activities" are. Another post for another time. 

     The second exception that he took is somewhat related to the recreation on the Sabbath exception in that he felt that (but wasn't quite sure) there was actually no such thing as an official Christian sabbath, therefore, taking exception to WCF XXI:VII. I could only imagine the alarm bells that were raging inside all of the ministers' heads as he said this. The digging and even harder digging began to ensue. It actually almost looked like he would not be passed based on this exception. As the candidate expressed this particular exception, they drilled him for about 20-30 min. He then had to step out of the room, and the entire presbytery discussed this for about 45 min. He was then called back in and they counseled him a little bit more on the implications of his exceptions. He then re-iterated that he hadn't studied this issue much and then withdrew his exception and then he passed his licensure exam. 

    To many, the WCF exception on the Sabbath may seem like a minor thing (it isn't by the way, it is a big deal), and it may have seemed rather extreme for the entire presbytery to discuss this for 45 min after the candidate was excused. However, it is a big deal, and the presbytery was focused on it like a laser. 

     As I reflected upon this incident, I think that an equally significant issue regarding the WCF involves XIX:IV, IV. To them also, 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.
     However, it is rather unfortunate that this issue is never addressed directly. More below.
     Especially with this whole Escondido theology (R2K) being pushed by WSCAL, many people have not taken the time to really see whether or not this R2K doctrine is even aligned with the confessions. I know many WSCAL grads who are hard advocates of R2K and they simply gloss over this particular part of the confession without ever giving it a second thought or seeing whether or not they need to take exceptions to this. 

     What exactly does "general equity" mean anyway? Pastor McAtee explains it deftly here, and it is copied below:
As I understand it, the General Equity answers the question as to how the Old Testament civil law is to be applied in the Nations today and perhaps the best analogy for understanding it is the metaphor of kernel and husk. The general equity advocates the idea that the husk of the Old Testament civil law is discarded but the kernel of the matter remains. So, in the classic example, the requirement of fences being built around roof tops in the OT finds the husk of the requirement expired while the kernel of protecting your neighbor remains in a law, for example, that insists on building a fence around your pool. So, “general equity” means to find valid and obligatory the principle articulated in the civil law, keeping in mind that the civil law was nothing but God incarnating His moral law into every day life.
Remember, the conviction is that the civil law was merely the case law of the moral law. Much as our Supreme Court makes decisions applying the Constitution to the cases that comes before it, God’s given civil law was God applying His Constitution (i.e.– The moral law — Decalogue), in concrete ways, to the society in which His people lived. Now, obviously we no longer live in an agrarian B.C. culture, and so much of the husk of the civil law remains behind, however, what the case law was aiming at in principle remains… and it remains only because it was a true flowering of God’s Moral Law. When we advocate for the general equity we are advocating for God’s own application of the moral law, as He revealed it in the OT Civil Law, for our era.
Just speaking from a confessional standpoint, R2K advocates really need to start thinking very hard as to what exactly general equity means. R2K folks are quick to say that the civil laws have "expired" and therefore, we CANNOT use the Mosaic law as a "pattern" for civil govt. But they never go past that word "expired" and never address what exactly "general equity" means. 

Additionally, the confession doesnt say abrogated (as it does with the "ceremonial" law), it says expired. And in WCF 20:1, "But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected."

Notice how there is no mention of the "civil" law in WCF 20:1, yet it is clear about the ceremonial law and how we are free from it.

R2K will say that it is exclusively natural law that governs the "common kingdom" and that Scriptural norms are inappropriate for use in the "common kingdom". And from this, they could possibly say that the general equity refers to natural law. 

Pastor McAtee also talks about natural law and moral law here

R2K will agree that for the Reformed Scholastics the natural law is synonymous with the moral law

The natural law is rooted in the being of God consistent with by His intellect and His will. It is not just naked authority but eternal moral truth. This natural moral law was written upon the heart of Adam at the creation and on every man's heart thereafter. (Rom 2).

They will agree that nature and grace are not in conflict. Therefore, the moral law given in nature and the moral law given Scripture are the same law (as to general equity, i.e. the Ten Commandments).

However, even though they affirm this, they want to say that the pagan, who is ruled by this Natural law, is not ruled by the imperatives of Scripture. Those very same imperatives of Scripture that they earlier insisted were consistently articulated in Natural law.
“Biblical morality is characterized by an indicative-imperative structure. That is, all of its imperatives (moral commands) are proceeded (sic) by and grounded in indicatives (statements of fact), either explicitly or implicitly. The most important indicative that grounds the imperatives in Scripture is that the recipients of Scripture are the covenant people, that is, members of the community of the covenant of grace. (39)
Since membership in the civil kingdom is not limited to believers, the imperatives of Scripture do not bind members of that kingdom. These imperatives are not ‘directly applicable to non-Christians’” (40). David Van Drunen
For R2K, the imperatives of Scripture are not directly applicable to non-Christians and yet, Natural law, which is perfectly consistent with God’s Moral law (and yes, the 10 Commandments are included in NL) would seem to force us to conclude that the imperatives of Scripture, as communicated via Natural Law, would be directly applicable to non Christians.

Natural law is the same as revealed law. Therefore, it is not only acceptable, but imperative that we use the Bible to help interpret natural law properly and also to understand its relation to revealed law. 
Through the Bible, we not only understand that they are the same, but also that natural revelation (and law) and supernatural revelation (and law) presuppose and complement each other. 

You cannot have one without the other.

(One wonders how you can expect people to understand NL correctly such as the 10 commandments, if you never give them the Bible to even tell them what the 10 commandments are.)

So, back to general equity. Because natural law and revealed law are the same, as I discussed above, we can make the case that general equity could refer to natural law (yet at the same time, we have to remember that it is the same as revealed law, something that R2K likes to not really emphasize). 

Therefore, how can natural man (unaided by Scripture) possibly know exactly what the general equity needs to be to order the government properly if he doesn't have Scripture? 

How can natural man possibly know what punishments to dish out for various crimes if he is prevented from using the Bible to understand what general equity actually requires? His own interpretation of natural law without any aid will never reveal to him the proper answers.

For instance, how will he know that executing murderers is morally correct and yet executing one who steals a loaf of bread is not OK? 

How can he know this if he is prevented from using the one standard that will clearly tell him?

R2K will say that the natural man can know because the law is in his heart. Yes, it is true that the law is in his heart, but just like his belief in God, natural man's knowledge is suppressed and he therefore, cannot properly account for his knowledge and cannot always properly understand "natural" law  without a proper guide. 

This is the entire reason why we have presuppositional apologetics in the first place! If natural man can account for things on his own, and also know things properly all the time, there is no need for presuppositional apologetics. How someone can account for something is very closely connected to how he can properly understand what exactly is correct in terms of civil laws and sanctions.

How can natural man possibly know what general equity must be used when governing the civil society if he is not allowed to even be introduced to the Bible (which tells him what is required in general equity) by the R2K doctrine?

How is natural man expected to use general equity when he doesn't even have a clear concept of what it is, where it comes from and by what authority general equity comes from? 

Biblically speaking, R2K cannot answer these questions at all. 

Francis Cheynell, a Westminster Divine, said says of the universal, moral nature of the civil law: “All divine laws which concern the punishment of Moral transgressions, are of perpetual obligation and therefore still remain in force according to their substance and general equity, abstracted from special circumstances, Typical Accessories, and the old form of Mosaicall Politie, For 1. These divine Laws are not expired in their own nature. 2. They are not repealed by God. 3. The authority of the Law-giver is the same under both administrations, old and new… 4. The matter of the Laws is Moral… 5. The reason of these divine Laws is immutable… 6. These divine Laws are Independent on the will of Man…”

From a confessional view point, R2K has some serious issues and is in direct conflict with how the Confessions understand the law of God, and also R2K's understanding and application of general equity (if the particular advocate believes in general equity at all) is severely deficient and is not consistent with the original theonomic intent of the confessions. (And I have not even begun to talk about the original 1646 version. This general equity is still in the 1789 revisions. Even through these revisions, it should be clear that the confessions should still be interpreted theonomically).

The Divines certainly didn't think at all the general equity meant that civil society was unaided in understanding how ethics in the public square or govt. are to be directed, and the above quote (there are many) should be proof enough that the original intent behind the Confessions was ultimately a theonomic one. 

This issue of what exactly general equity means needs to be discussed within the reformed church because this issue has largely been forgotten. And related to this, the reformed church needs to clearly examine and understand how R2K goes against the original intent of "general equity" and therefore this doctrine should not be considered confessional. 


  1. "One wonders how you can expect people to understand NL correctly such as the 10 commandments, if you never give them the Bible to even tell them what the 10 commandments are."

    Paul didn't wonder:

    "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus."

    "R2K will say that the natural man can know because the law is in his heart. Yes, it is true that the law is in his heart, but just like his belief in God, natural man's knowledge is suppressed and he therefore, cannot properly account for his knowledge and cannot always properly understand 'natural' law without a proper guide."

    It doesn't matter if he can account for his knowledge. It only matters if he has it and does it. I don't care if the unbelieving cashier can account for her knowledge and ability not to rip me off, only that she doesn't.

  2. Zrim,

    Thanks. Yes, I of course agree with the truth of Romans 2.

    However, if you also read in Romans 1, Paul said that God ***clearly*** revealed himself in nature and yet, those people in Rom 1 ended up turning away from him and decided to worship the creature and not the Creator.

    By your logic, if man can actually understand NL properly and all the time, Rom 1 should never have been written.

    In the particular discussion of ethics, how you account for something is closely related to understanding/believing it properly.
    The source of ethics is closely related to and is vital to a proper and consistent belief of those ethics.

    How is not understanding the source of ethics not essential to understanding ethics?
    Please provide me with an argument that proves my conclusion false.

    So then: How do you reconcile total depravity with Rom 1 and your usage of Rom 2?