Law and Religion – Reclaimed!
by Gerald R. Thompson
THE BIG PICTURE
What I here propose to do is explain the relationship between religion and law. Not as it has necessarily been understood modernly or historically, but as it ought to have been understood. And I mean to do it frankly.
I have elsewhere said that I would nowhere treat of redemptive law except in this portion of the Commentaries, so if you have no constitution for that sort of discussion, you have been forewarned. If you are expecting a discussion of the law of religious liberty, I refer you to the Constitutional Law portion of these Commentaries, as the present subject area will be quite different.
I will begin by looking at the over-arching principles of law and religion and the relationship between them. In other words, the fundamental principles that are absolutely essential for gaining a proper perspective of either law or religion.
The big picture is this: 1) God is a god of law and government; 2) the Bible is largely about God’s law and human government; and 3) the purpose for mankind is to obey God’s law and govern himself accordingly. Everything else is derivative from this starting point.
I. A GOD OF LAW AND GOVERNMENT
God Is Law
People often speak about the character of God, or his attributes. This is usually framed in definitional statements along the lines of “God is love,” “God is holy,” “God is faithful,” “God is spirit,” “God is light,” and so on. These are all true, but there is one more that should be on everyone’s list – God is law. Not just that God makes laws, or judges laws, but that he is law. There is nothing about God which is unlawful, no action he takes is done without regard for his law, and unless we know his law, we do not truly know who God is.
This ought to be self-evident from Isa. 33:22, among other scriptures, which states plainly that God is a judge, lawgiver and king. How he could be any of these things – but especially the Supreme Lawgiver – without law being part of the divine nature, is beyond me.
Or consider that we often speak of God as the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. Or of Jesus as prophet, priest and king. But what is the Creator, if not the Supreme Lawgiver – the one who made the universe and the laws by which it is governed? What is the Sustainer, except the one who causes the laws of the universe to be upheld, that is, continuously enforced? What is a prophet, but one who speaks the will of God, which is to be found chiefly in his laws? And what is a king, but one who executes the law of the kingdom? How could God not be a God of law and government?
People commonly speak of the kingdom of God as a spiritual concept without giving the least regard to the idea that no kingdom can exist without a king, and no king can rule without a government. People talk of ruling and reigning with Christ without the barest acknowledgment that the kingdom of Christ requires a government, and those who rule and reign in that government will of necessity be public (i.e., government) officials. So tell me, those of you who want to rule and reign – what have you done to prepare yourself for government service? Have you studied the scriptures to discern God’s principles of law and government? Have you even acknowledged that God is law?
God is as much a God of government as he is of law. The universe was created by God with order and rules for its government – nothing is truly haphazard or random. The concept of God as Sustainer chiefly identifies him as the great governor of the universe. And of Jesus, we are told that the government shall be upon his shoulder, and . . . of the increase of his government . . . there will be no end. [Isa. 9:6-7.] One almost gets the feeling that government is important to God.
The Divine Covenants
And then we have the ignored, but perfectly obvious, thread of the divine covenants as an aspect of law and government. Religious people are fond of saying that God is a covenanting God, but then the leap is instantly made that the thread which ties all the covenants together is a redemptive thread. But is such a conclusion supported by the evidence?
Of the divine covenants (agreements between God and man) in the Bible, there are principally six, being mediated through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. Each covenant functions as a delegation of authority from God to man – this is the essential purpose of all divine covenants. Let’s consider each in turn.
The Adamic covenant is to be found in Gen. 1:26-30 and 2:18-24, with the second set of verses essentially expanding on the first set. Here we are told that God authorized man to be fruitful and multiply, that is, to have children (within the authority structure of the family). Mankind is also given authority over the creation: to rule over all other living creatures, to subdue the earth and to eat certain kinds of plants for food.
At this point, many people jump in with broad statements about the Fall, the need for a blood sacrifice, the promise of a future redeemer, and the assertion that this begins the redemptive thread throughout history. [Gen. 3:14-21.]
This is all well and good, except for one thing: the Fall and the resulting curse, though they did happen and are important (I’m not saying they are unimportant), are not part of the terms of the Adamic covenant. The Fall of man and the resulting curse are a separate and independent set of events from the inauguration of the covenant. Further, the curse contains no additional terms of a delegation of authority.
In short, the Fall and the curse are part of the circumstances of history that occurred in close time proximity to the creation of the world (relative to everything that came later). But they are not part of any covenant. The curse is a judgment – a sentencing, if you will – following a brief trial, but a judgment is not an agreement, and an order specifying punishment is not a delegation of authority.
Further, neither the Fall nor the curse operate to modify the terms of the Adamic covenant. There is no amendment of the authorization to be fruitful and multiply, no modification of the terms of dominion authority, and no change in the foods given to man to eat. The Fall and the curse add nothing, and take nothing away, from what has already been delegated. Covenantally, the Fall and the curse are of no effect.
So why the need of commentators to cast the Adamic covenant in a redemptive light, as if God could not help himself? What God has announced in the covenant stands on its own terms without needing a redemptive thread to hold it together. It is what it is.
The express terms of the Adamic covenant, strictly speaking, only address matters of family government, and the government of the natural creation. There is no redemptive element in the covenant itself. If God did not put a redemptive element there, why should we?
The Noahic covenant is found in Gen. 9:1-17. Here we are told that God authorized mankind to eat animals, carry out capital punishment against murderers, and repopulate the earth. God’s promise not to flood the entire world is also made an express part of the covenant.
Granted, the circumstances surrounding this event suggests certain redemptive themes, such as God will redeem his people, he will provide the means of salvation, and the death of the world’s population may be construed as a form of blood sacrifice. But all of this is merely inference, or merely allegorical.
The redemption which is played out in the story of the flood is physical, not spiritual. Apart from statements to the effect that Noah found favor in God’s eyes, no statements about the spiritual condition of the other seven persons on the ark are made. There is no indication whatever that the other members of Noah’s family were righteous or had religious faith. They were saved from the physical circumstances of the flood and that is all.
The terms of the Noahic covenant itself have nothing overtly to do with redemption. Essentially we have an expansion of dominion authority (more things to eat than before), a reiteration to have children (despite the global death of people who were born in obedience to the original command), and an authorization to use capital means to punish wrongdoers (ostensibly the first grant of civil power.) Eat meat, have kids, and punish murderers – what is redemptive about any of these?
Even the promise not to flood the world, often viewed as having a redemptive aspect, is primarily a restraint on the form of future divine judgments. It is not a means of redemption, and offers no hope of salvation from other means of judgment or calamity. God simply promises that the next time he destroys the earth, it will not be by water. At root, the Noahic covenant by its terms is all about law and government, and not about redemption.
The Abrahamic covenant is found in Gen. 15:1-20 and 17:1-14. Here we find that Abraham receives a promise of future posterity (numerous descendants), a promise of future favor for those offspring with God, and an authorization to possess certain real estate forever. A blood sacrifice is part of the circumstances in which the covenant is given. God then prescribes circumcision as a sign of this covenant.
There are other notable events which occur in Abraham’s life, some of which have redemptive significance, such as when he almost sacrifices his son Isaac. Plus, the whole history of the Jews and Arabs, and the conflict between them, is bound up in the descendants of Abraham. But these are not a part of the covenant.
If we look at the express terms of the covenant with Abraham, we see that its primary focus is one of human government, namely, a promise of future descendants and a grant of property for them to possess. These promises are not merely familial in nature, but expressly relate to nations, to kings, and to national boundaries.
The favor which is promised to Abraham’s descendants comes chiefly in the form of an everlasting covenant, by which God promises to “be their God.” Is this a promise of future redemption, or a promise of future government? Could it be both?
Circumcision, as a sign of the covenant with Abraham, has its primary significance in identifying those nations and kingdoms which claim the benefit of the promises made concerning God’s favor and the promised land. Circumcision was never given as a sign of personal redemption. No promise was ever made that all those who were circumcised would be forgiven. It was a sign of covenant participation, and nothing more.
To the extent the Abrahamic covenant has a redemptive aspect, it is largely metaphorical as brought out in various New Testament texts, looking backwards and not contemporaneous with the covenant itself.
The Mosaic covenant is found in Exodus chapters 24 and 34, incorporating by reference the Ten Commandments of Ex. 20. I will not go into a lengthy exposition of that covenant here. Suffice it to say that for hundreds of years people have understood this covenant (in its entirety) to be comprised of three main parts: the moral law, the civil (or judicial) law, and the ceremonial law. I have stated elsewhere in these Commentaries that these may also be termed the eternal law of nature, the law of Israel’s national polity (i.e., the theocracy), and the law of the Levitical priesthood, respectively.
Let us candidly admit that the ceremonial law related chiefly to redemptive matters, and that the civil law related chiefly to matters of human government. The moral law undergirded and related to both of these. So in spite of the Mosaic covenant having three parts, it had two great purposes: 1) self-government of the Jewish nation; and 2) provision of a means for redemption, albeit a temporary and imperfect means.
There is a tendency to regard the Mosaic covenant unidimensionally, as though it related exclusively to redemptive matters. This is because much of the New Testament is devoted to showing how the ceremonial aspects of the covenant have been abolished and replaced, as it were, by a better means of redemption.
But when the scripture says that things happened to Israel as an example, and were written down for our instruction, this is not chiefly a reference to the ceremonial law, or the efforts of the Israelites to seek forgiveness. It is mainly a reference to a society governed by the laws of God, and its attempts to govern itself accordingly, which obviously were attended with many repeated failures.
The whole history of the Israelite people is recorded for us that we may learn from their mistakes in lawful self-government. The history of the judges, the institution of the monarchy, and the division and troubles of the kingdom are all directed with this purpose: to instruct us in the lawful regulation of conduct, and to warn us of the dangers of giving in to lawlessness. You can look for Jesus in these accounts if you want to, but he will only be there by inference, by allegory, and by extrapolation. Don’t look for Jesus to the exclusion of what is really there, in plain language.
And so we must regard the Mosaic covenant as being about national self-government, as much as the means of redemption which is now abolished.
The Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:1-17) chiefly relates to the throne of Israel. By its terms, David is promised to be made a great name, the nation is to be planted in a land and will enjoy peace with its neighbors, and the throne of the kingdom is promised to David’s descendants forever. Although the throne of David is associated with the coming Christ elsewhere in the Bible, this does not alter the fact that the covenant relates primarily to human government, and only indirectly (if at all) to redemption. In fact, is it not obvious that even the references linking Christ to David’s throne do so in regard to Christ as king only, and not as a redeemer or saviour? But I leave further discussion on this point to another time.
Let me concede that the new covenant in Christ Jesus is primarily, if not exclusively, redemptive in nature. I could make the case that even redemption is indirectly a form of self-government, but that is not the point. We are here to compare and contrast redemptive vs. non-redemptive aspects of the divine covenants, and nothing more. Besides which, admitting that the new covenant in Jesus is what it is costs me nothing, and it is something I will come back to in a few essays down the road.
I do not wish to claim too much at this point, nor do I wish to be misunderstood. The divine covenants, when looked at as a group, are viewed by many as a way to understand the nature of God and the nature of his relationship with mankind in totality, that is, in the big picture. I have not said, and do not claim, that the divine covenants have no bearing on redemption or God’s eternal plan of salvation. I have not said, and do not claim, that redemption is unimportant, or that it is not to be found in the Bible.
However, if the divine covenants are indicative of the nature of God at all, they indicate that God is a God of law and government. To the extent the divine covenants are indicative of the focus of the Bible – and they are – they indicate that the Bible is as much about law and government as anything else it may be about.
Of the six divine covenants, one has a metaphorical connection to redemption, and only two have any express terms directly relating to personal forgiveness. Only one covenant relates exclusively to redemption. However, of these same covenants, three exclusively pertain to self-government, one is primarily directed towards self-government, and a fifth relates to redemption and self-government equally.
What amazes me is how biblical commentators will look at these divine covenants and not only direct their comments towards a redemptive theme, but in fact see nothing other than a redemptive theme. They are not simply choosing to focus on one of several threads running through the covenants, but see only the red thread of redemption to the exclusion of all others. There is a self-absorbed tendency of religion a/k/a redemptive theology to see only what it wants to see, and acknowledge no other.
The law and government focus of the divine covenants isn’t just my imagination. The words are there for all to read. The thread of redemption is there, but it is often there by attending circumstances, through inference, and by analogy. The thread of self-government, however, is there by express terms, through direct statements, and a primary focus in every covenant other than the covenant in Christ Jesus. The two threads run together, but as between them, which is greater and which is lesser? But if you don’t open your eyes to the possibility, you will never see it.
II. THE BIBLE IS ABOUT LAW AND GOVERNMENT
Having attended churches all my life, I am used to hearing people say that “the Bible is all about Jesus,” “the Bible is a religious book,” “the theme of the Bible is God’s plan of salvation,” and similar sentiments. And what I keep thinking is, “Do these people know what they’re saying?” and “Are they reading the same book I’m reading?”
One of the interesting things you can do with an electronic version of the Bible is count word frequency, or count the number of verses containing a particular word. What I’ve found is that law and government form no small part of the Bible, just in terms of frequency. Now, I’m not going to draw much in the way of a conclusion from this, except for what I’ve pretty much already said: law and government related words account for a significant portion of the Bible. I know as much as the next guy that word usage will depend on context and so mere frequency doesn’t say a whole lot.
But if, for example, the word law* (meaning with any ending or extensions: laws, lawful, lawless, etc.) occurs more frequently than grace, mercy/mercies, redeem* and redem* combined, and that law* is more frequently used than save*, savior and salvation combined, how do we know that the central theme of Bible is redemption? And that doesn’t even take into account all the other legal words used in the Bible, such as: ordinance*, statute*, judg*, precept*, decree*, order*, rule*, govern*, etc.
What am I to make of the fact that right* (rights, righteous, righteousness) appears in the scriptures the same amount of times as the word Jesus? Or that law* is used almost as many times as spirit*, twice as often as soul*, and more often than Christ? Or that after God and Lord (the most frequent nouns I could find), the next most frequent noun was king*? There sure is a lot of law and government stuff being talked about in this religious book.
But let me press on to more significant arguments . . .
Chronologically, law both preceded and will succeed God’s plan of salvation. On the front end, law was created as part and parcel of the universe (this is the law of nature), without which the universe could have no order. We see this in the Adamic covenant, where Adam and Eve were authorized to have children and to take dominion, to rule over other creatures and to eat plants for food (all aspects of self-government within a legal context) on the day they were created. Man was placed in the garden and given tasks to do before the Fall. And the legal rule (“Do not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) preceded the Fall into sin and the resulting curse of the creation. Thus, before there was sin, or the need for redemption, there was law.
On the back end, following the destruction of the present creation, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, and the complete fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption, there will still be law. Did you think that eternity would be lawless? Only the capacity to disobey will be absent. But the universe will have order, and God will govern it according to his law.
Foundationally, without the Fall into sin, there would be no need for redemption. But without law, there would be no sin. In other words, logically, the existence of redemption presupposes the existence of sin, and the existence of sin presupposes the existence of law. If redemption => sin => law. If no law => no sin => no redemption. It’s that simple.
Thus, the whole redemptive purpose of God utterly depends upon the pre-existence of his laws. Redemption is meaningless apart from law.
However, the reverse is not true. In logical terms, if A => B is true, it is not necessarily true that the converse (if B => A) will also be true. It may or may not be true, depending. So on the one hand, if sin => law is true, there is no logical necessity that law presupposes the existence of sin (if law => sin). In other words, law may exist apart from sin. And indeed, as we see from the chronological argument above, law without sin preceded the existence of a redemptive plan, and law without sin will succeed the conclusion of the redemptive plan.
As between God’s law and his redemptive plan, which is greater? The redemptive plan, which utterly depends on the existence of law, or his law, which can (and has, and will) exist apart from sin and the redemptive plan?
Thematically, law undergirds, and in fact defines, the whole realm of what is right and what is wrong. The whole discussion of morality, and spirituality, including righteousness and good (or virtue) all are defined by what is lawful and what is not, according to God’s standards. It is pointless to discuss true religion without taking into account what is right and wrong according to God’s laws. Law also undergirds the solution to sin and lawlessness, that is, the gospel. Apart from the law, the means of salvation could not exist. But for now you will have to take my word for it. I will speak more of this in the next essay and explain it fully then.
Themes of the Bible
Let’s review. Law both preceded and will succeed God’s plan of salvation. Redemption is meaningless apart from law. Apart from the law, the means of salvation could not exist. So what are we to make of statements commonly uttered across Christendom, that the Bible is a (merely) religious book, or the Bible is all about the gospel, or the Bible is all about Jesus? I cannot help but feel there must be a profound ignorance which covers the earth when I hear statements like these.
As though the Bible were not directed towards every area of life equally, but is primarily (or exclusively) directed towards the religious aspects of life. Or, what is worse, that all of life is merely an aspect of religion, and we cannot understand any aspect of life until we understand it in a religious sense. This sentiment reaches its preposterous height in the Christian academic world, where theology is “the queen of the sciences,” and the matriarch of all other disciplines, as though all knowledge flows from religious studies.
If theology is queen of the sciences, then law is king. Lex Rex.
Even these other statements about the Bible, intended to glorify God no doubt, actually diminish him and have the opposite result. If in fact the Bible is all about the gospel, what this is really saying is that all of God’s revelation to date may be subsumed under the last part of it. Those poor people in the Old Testament didn’t know it, but they spent their whole lives anticipating a gospel they never knew, foreshadowing a message they never heard, and preparing for news they never benefitted from.
You mean to tell me God didn’t know how to deal with people before Christ in a way that would satisfy both him and them? Or that the only reason for their existence was to benefit people now (i.e., to make it possible for us to have a better redemptive plan)? Or that all of that prior stuff about dominion, family, self-government, and civil government didn’t contain enough of God’s revelation to give it meaning in its own right, but only had value in the anticipation of something that came along thousands of years later?
I suppose that is what bothers me the most. God created the individual and family, and they were good, but their real value is to be found in the gospel? God created the nations and civil powers, and they were good, but their real value is to be found in the gospel? God entered into various covenants with mankind relating to all aspects of this earthly life, and they were good, but their real value is to be found in the gospel? Where does the Bible say that?
I hesitate to do it, but I must also take issue even with the idea that the Bible is all about Jesus. Let us assume (and I do not dispute it), that the Bible is all about God. But for anyone who holds to a trinitarian view of God, how is it that everything about God is to be understood by reference to only one person of the godhead? We may talk ever so briefly about Jesus as the Creator and being God in the beginning, but what this line of thought inevitably leads to is that redemptive theology dominates the message of the Bible. This is supposed to glorify God?
Is it that hard to discern from reading scripture, that much of the Old Testament narrative concerning the patriarchs and the nation of Israel is primarily a description of their attempts (and failures) to govern themselves according to God’s laws? And that the primary purpose of this narrative is to provide an example we may learn from in governing ourselves according to God’s laws?
Godly = Lawful Self-Government
Do I really have to go through the Bible, book by book (I will not do it here), showing the many aspects of self-government (or non-government) illustrated by the patriarchs, then the judges, and the kings, and the people at large? You see the prophets as calling people to repentance, I see them judging the people for lawlessness. You see the narratives as allegory and gospel hyperbole, I see the narratives as real-world descriptions of social problems and actual fact. Don’t talk to me about biblical allegory – God isn’t that mystical.
You see the New Testament accounts of the apostles having squabbles and the council at Jerusalem as the proving grounds of theology. I see them as the trial and error application of self-government principles to a new institution – the church. As in all things, we all see what we want to see. And all ideas have consequences.
One of the consequences of viewing the Bible as merely religious, or being all about Jesus or the gospel, is that it marginalizes the usefulness and impact of the Bible in non-religious areas of life. In fact, the Bible was instrumental in a great number of scientific discoveries, such as ocean currents, understanding the solar system, and the like. It continues to be instrumental in addressing the question of the origin of the universe and of life, and the creation vs. evolution debate.
The Bible is a marvelous treasury of all kinds of knowledge. Are you a student of world history? If you don’t includes biblical history in your studies, you’ll never get the big picture. Do you want to study anthropology? Read Genesis, especially the first 11 chapters. We have divorced whole branches of thought from the Bible, such as sociology and psychology, and look where it has led – to ignorance, not knowledge.
The one subject above all subjects that the Bible has the most light to shed on, is law. Law is the study of what is right and wrong, and what people are authorized to do anything about it. Law includes the whole enterprise of government, in its private and public venues. Law includes the whole topic of morality, which is just a branch of law where enforcement is left up to God instead of people.
But all of these non-religious uses of the Bible are completely undercut – subverted, if you will – if the book is merely religious, or if it is read in a primarily allegorical fashion. In other words, if it is not necessary to your theology of redemption to view Adam and Eve as literal, historical people who parented the entire human race – if it is merely the idea they represent that is important – then you have undercut the literal, physical and genetic basis for the sin nature as a necessary condition of every person’s birth.
If Adam and Eve were real but not the only people on earth at the time, then it is possible that people alive today might not be their descendants, and therefore not everyone is under the curse. If the flood of Noah was not truly worldwide and other people survived it, you may preserve your theology, but you will have subverted the promise of the rainbow – which was given only to Noah’s descendants. Oh, that’s right, I keep forgetting. The flood and the rainbow are all allegorical, so it doesn’t matter. Which is the same as saying they aren’t that important. No wonder people today have such a dim view of capital punishment, and of eating meat.
No wonder people have no real understanding of the origin of nations and of languages – or genetics for that matter – they have never read Genesis. And no wonder the Bible is no longer welcome in the courtroom or in the classroom. Why should it be? If it is merely religious, then it cannot inform us about “secular” subjects like anthropology, history, natural science, social science, law or government. If the Bible is merely religious, it cannot be used as a basis for law and government in any non-theocratic nation (and all modern nations are non-theocratic).
Here is a great irony: There is a significant branch of Christianity which claims the gospel message as the supreme import of the Bible, and which seeks to use the gospel to transform culture. But the reality is that the more the value of the Bible is skewed towards this narrow perception of the gospel, the less able it is to transform culture. You cannot transform culture by subsuming it underneath religion. Culture can only be transformed by bringing it into obedience with God’s law, but recognizing that what is meant by this is God’s laws of self-government.
Religion, redemptive theology, or the gospel, by itself, can never transform culture. The gospel is important, and it can transform individual lives, but the gospel cannot transform social relationships, alter whole fields of knowledge and endeavor, and bring mankind into a right relationship with the creation. It takes more than the gospel to do these things. It takes the whole counsel of God, that is, his law.
All of the above considerations lead me to conclude that the Bible has not one, but two, major themes. These themes are: 1) human self-government; and 2) redemption or salvation. Further, I conclude that the self-government theme is at least as prominent and as important as the redemptive theme, if not more so. If you are with me so far, then let us press on . ..
Next: Knowing God’s Will