Book Review: DISPUTATIONS ON THE JUDICIAL LAWS OF MOSES


[image] Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses book cover by American Vision

The idea that the civil government should enforce the Ten Commandments and other Old Testament laws, like those that outlaw adultery and abortion, is repudiated by modern humanistic society. On this point, the Church and the atheists are in alliance.

The thought that Old Testament penalties should be enforced leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of most everyone alive today. Should we really punish adultery and abortion with execution? Doesn’t that seem overly harsh? After all, New Hampshire just recently (2014) passed a law that decriminalized adultery, a law which it had long since stopped enforcing but which was dealt a definitive, symbolic, and public defeat through the political process. New Hampshire was only following the leads of Vermont, Maine, and Colorado who acted similarly before it.

A quick read through Johannes Piscator’s Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses (1646) reveals something almost immediately: Piscator, a Reformed Calvinist theologian, was quite comfortable with the idea that the just penalty for adultery is execution:

And hence it is held that he is to punish those who offend against the Decalogue as God has prescribed in his own law: the thief, indeed, is to be punished by making restitution, even compensation for the thing he stole. To be sure, an adulterer is to receive capital punishment. Much less is he bound to turn the matter on its head, namely, by punishing a thief with capital punishment and an adulterer, verily, with monetary fines. [page 8, emphasis added]

These days, adultery is not punished at all, except insofar as it leads to a divorce settlement.

The book was recently translated into English for the first time, published in 2015 by American Vision, and edited by Dr. Joel McDurmon. McDurmon is a chief representative of the Theonomy movement, the idea that God’s Bible-revealed laws should be enforced in the Christian Era unless they have been specifically abrogated by Jesus’ redemptive work. As a movement, it is the object of much hostility from all comers. So, it becomes obvious why American Vision rescued from obscurity this little appendix that Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) wrote and originally published sometime around 1605.

The book silences the antinomian critic who insists that the historical Reformed Church believed that modern civil governments are not obligated to enforce the Mosaic judicial laws, meaning the penal sanctions attached to specific crimes as revealed in the Old Testament. It will be clear to most readers from Piscator’s words, combined with the ample examples of later Reformed theologians who cited them, that the Reformed Church was clear: certain judicial laws, such as the law of the kinsman redeemer, did expire with the coming of the New Testament, but there are others which remain binding even to this day. Prominent Reformed theologians believed that the civil government is obligated to enforce these even in the Christian Era.

This book will not make many modern Christians happy. That’s because most won’t ever read it, so they’ll never know one way or the other. They’ll continue suffering under the heavy burden of pessimism imposed by an expectation of the Church’s inevitable earthly defeat. Most of the tiny handful who do read this short book will reject its premises in favor of suffering under the heavy burden of pessimism imposed by an expectation of the Church’s inevitable earthly defeat. In both cases, they’ll continue to hang their head when pressed for biblical answers to modern social problems.

They will remain unprepared following the Great Default and the reality that Jesus may not, actually, be coming soon. For those Christians who have hope in the prophet’s words that “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14), they are prepared to accept the mantle of responsibility that will fall to them on the other side of the crisis. Piscator’s work provides them an accessible introduction to the abiding validity of their God-given tools of dominion: God’s law.

The book is a translation of only a portion of Piscator’s commentary on Exodus 21-23. It is an appendix he wrote to that work. As explained in the editor’s introduction, the original title that Piscator gave this appendix was “Observations on Chapters 21, 22, 23, namely, an explanation of controversial questions about the abrogation of the judicial laws of Moses.” The shortened title is taken from Piscator’s method of approaching this topic: by disputation.

As the Wikipedia entry for disputation reveals, it was a formal argument structure employed by scholastics during the Middle Ages. In fact, the modern “dissertation” and “thesis” come from the original process for defending an academic degree. Universities arose during the early Middle Ages, with the University of Bologna thought to be the first since it was founded in 1088 AD. The editor’s introduction gives a brief biography of Johannes Piscator, explaining that he was a faculty member at an influential Calvinist institution during the Reformation, the Herborn Academy. Piscator was a professor, both an heir to the scholastic tradition and an innovative theological entrepreneur who bequeathed a rich legacy to the Church. But by the early 1900s, that legacy had been squandered, a birthright sold for a bowl of Darwinian porridge as the Church lost confidence in God’s predestinating sovereignty and His law in favor of a gentler Arminianism and natural law theory thought to be accessible to both saint and sinner alike. When Darwin ripped the Newtonian universe asunder by finally providing a seemingly scientific reason for the appearance of an orderly and designed universe, the wolves could finally come out of their sheep’s covering and lay waste to the now-discouraged, long compromised, Church.

FOUR PARTS, TIGHTLY ARGUED

Piscator’s work is split into four sections. The first is the shortest, containing a brief description of the issue being examined:

“It is inquired whether the judicial laws of Moses should still endure or thrive, and therefore whether the Christian magistrate should be bound to such laws today no less than before, and may render judgment according to them with certainty, or, in other words, whether he should enforce their precepts as much as the Israelite magistrate was formerly obliged to do.” [page 4]

He explains the basis for his inquiry: to “display what foundation upon which the consciences of judges may firmly rest.” [page 3] He also makes a distinction up front: he admits that there are certain laws no longer binding, the ones “peculiar to the Jews for that time.” He doesn’t mean the entirety of the judicial laws as modern Christians are likely to do, simply because they were given specifically to the Jews under Moses. Such a perspective is based on a misunderstanding of “the law of Christ.” The following excerpt from a website exemplifies that misunderstanding:

In place of the Old Testament Law, Christians are to obey the law of Christ. Rather than trying to remember the over 600 individual commandments in the Old Testament Law, Christians are simply to focus on loving God and loving others.

This is the modern position, and it reveals a reluctance to engage in critical inquiry which the Christian reformers refused to succumb to. Without God’s law, a Christian has no guide that reveals sin in his life. Since we are to avoid sinning, we must obey the law. “For the mind that is set on the flesh,” Paul wrote, “is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” Christians are different, he argued, because we are in the Spirit. By implication, then, we should submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:5-9). Simply focusing on “loving God and loving others” without remembering God’s commandments decomposes into relativism and lawlessness. It may seem onerous to remember God’s commandments, though the Psalmist was happy to sing “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Ps. 119:97).

But there is good news for Christians who value quantity over quality: they are not under the same one-to-one obligation as the Jews because some of the laws have, in fact, been abrogated. (But, as Galatians and Hebrews explains, we are also no longer children under the need of a tutor, as the Jews were. Since Christ has come, our responsibility has only increased: Heb. 12:25).

Piscator explains that those laws which were required to preserve the tribal distinctions (like Levirate marriage, also known as the law of the kinsman redeemer) and certain other “ceremonial offenses” are abrogated, no longer to be enforced by the Christian magistrate. On the other hand, those which remain binding are ones he considers not to be given specifically to the Jews only, but which are rather “common to all nations.” As in, they may have been revealed specially at that time through Moses, but they are universally applicable. (The Assyrians discovered this under Jonah’s ministry.) They are “immutable with respect to their own nature and merits” because they are moral offenses “against the Decalogue, such as murder, adultery, theft, seduction from the true God, blasphemy, and smiting of parents.” [page 5]

A major proof Piscator uses to prove that the Mosaic punishments prescribed for civil crimes remain in force is the moral obligation of Christians to render righteous judgment that is pleasing to God. He spoke briefly of this in his introduction, and he revisits the topic in greater depth shortly afterward.

SEVEN PROOFS IN FAVOR

In the second part of the book, Piscator supplies seven proofs that demonstrate that his thesis is true. The seventh proof is titled “The Magistrate’s Conscience.” He quotes the words of the Apostle Paul: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). His argument is simple: Christian judges who render false judgments commit sin. To prevent sinning, they must render righteous judgments. Their judgments, then, must be founded “in faith.”

But how are they to do this? He argues that righteous judgements are pleasing to God, but a Christian can only make this decision “in faith” if he knows the judgment is pleasing to God. The only way he can surely know that the judgment is pleasing to God is by acting on the commands for judges God has revealed in his Word:

Therefore, that the Christian magistrate might avoid sin in judging, it is unavoidable that he should judge from faith, that is, from firm knowledge that his judgment pleases God. But he is not able to have this knowledge unless he should act from the command of God, and therefore from the judicial laws of Moses — that is, in what God has prescribed for the judges of his people, thereby demonstrating his will that certain offenses be punished by differing penalties. [page 15]

He says that any man who acts differently “will not be able to be certain of the justice of his own judgments, and hence he will neither be able to have a cheerful nor quiet conscience.”

This is an area where the modern Church has failed its members. It publishes no guidance for Christians who find themselves in the office of judge or legislator. Because of the dominance of pessimistic eschatologies gripping the Church today, it has abandoned this world and, unfortunately, the consciences of those poor Christian souls who find themselves occupying the office of God’s sword-bearing minister. They are called to execute God’s wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13:4). Tyrants pervert justice; God’s servants render righteous judgment. Without knowing where to find God’s prescriptive judgments, right-hearted Christians with noble intent risk becoming tyrants by issuing arbitrary judgment that is in conflict with God’s.

At this point, we should expect an objection to be raised. Maybe someone would argue that “since the judicial law was given to Israel, it cannot bind Christian nations.” If that were the case, then the conscience of the Christian judge is released from the threat of sin because he cannot issue false judgments.

In part 3 of the book, Piscator directly responds to this, as well as 21 other objections to his thesis. In his response to that particular objection, taken from Paul’s words in Romans 9:4, he says that, if such a thing were true, then “we would therefore have to conclude that Christians share absolutely nothing with the ancient people of God. By the same reasoning, it follows that the moral laws of God likewise retain nothing for Christians.”

Unfortunately, since the 400 or so years since he lived, certain sects of the Church have seen the truth in his words and devised doctrine that is consistent with them. Dispenationalism maintains that the Christian Church is a separate entity from Israel, a “parenthesis” inserted into the biblical chronology that the Bible knows nothing about. Some have even gone so far as to deny that the Christian is obligated to obey the Ten Commandments. What would have been considered an obvious absurdity in his day has become respectable doctrine in our own.

He addresses other important objections which have been raised against theonomy (“God’s law”) since the rise of the Christian Reconstruction movement in the late 1960’s, perhaps the most important being: the judicial law no longer binds unless it is repeated in the New Testament (Objection #6). Another: Galatians establishes the abrogation of both the judicial and ceremonial laws (Objection #18).

DEFENDING SPECIFIC PENALTIES AGAINST THEFT

Another way to show that the judicial penalties have been abrogated is to show elsewhere in the Bible where the penalty prescribed for particular crimes has changed. The fourth and final part of the book defends the application of the judicial laws to theft, showing that was was prescribed in the Torah (restitution) remains valid despite examples elsewhere which seem to contradict this analysis. If it can be shown that the penalty for a specific crime has become dubious, then this can be used to cast doubt on the entirety of the case laws.

The judicial penalty for theft prescribed in the Torah is restitution (Ex. 22:1, 6, 7, etc.). In some places, it seems as though the penalty for theft should, instead, be execution.

To dispel those shadows, Piscator first addresses the argument that increased crime demands increased punishment. He refutes the notion that penalties for crimes can change from non-capital into capital (e.g. requiring the death penalty for theft instead of restitution). As an editor’s footnote points out here, this is similar to Calvin’s own argument used in Book IV of his Institutes when disparaging the idea that Christian magistrates should uphold the judicial laws. In other words, Piscator refutes Calvin on this point.

He next addresses the charge that, because David thought it just for the rich man to be executed for stealing the poor man’s lamb (2 Sam. 12), then execution can be considered a just penalty for theft. He denies this by explaining that the actual crime committed against the poor man was robbery, and robbery has two components: simple theft (taking another’s property unlawfully) and violence. The fourfold restitution was ordered for the theft component, and execution for the violence component.

Finally, Piscator denies that execution is justifiable for theft for any who would cite Exodus 22:2 for their justification, which states that if “a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” This is really a case of self-defense against intruders who are threatening violence. As he says, it is a case of “theft which is attached to violence,” which breaks it out of the category of simple theft alone.

A BRIEF HISTORY REVIEW

The book contains an appendix that contains several citations from long-dead theologians. Each one is included because they specifically and favorably cite Piscator’s appendix as justification for their own analysis. The list of names is distinguished:

  • George Gillespie (WCF)
  • Thomas Edwards
  • Francis Cheynell (WCF)
  • Samuel Rutherford (WCF)
  • Thomas Shepard
  • John Gill

Three of those men were members of the Westminster Assembly that drew up the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. After reading Piscator’s work, and then knowing they agreed with him on the judicial laws, a new light is cast on the critical phrase in the Confession whose meaning is debated today. Chapter 19, part 4, reads:

To them [the people of Israel] 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.

The “general equity” spoken of are the laws “immutable with respect to their own nature and merits” on the principle that they violate the Ten Commandments.

AN IMPORTANT PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT

This is an important book in the history of the Church, primarily because of the great influence it exerted in the post-Reformation era in determining the Church’s concept of civil government. It is an important primary source document and modern testimony to the historical position held by the Reformed Church in the 16th and 17th centuries on the binding validity of the Old Testament judicial laws and the obligation of Christian civil governments to uphold them. The reason we so desperately needed this book published today is because of the battle engulfing the Church over its position in the world. Many Reformed churches, including modern Reformed Baptist churches, hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and that confession contains an important clause on this very topic, as we have just seen.

The modern Church denies that the Old Testament case laws remain binding on civil governments today, and they elicit support from this clause in the Westminster Confession. The clause “not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require” is interpreted to mean “Enforce the Ten Commandments only, but not the penalties for violating them.” But that is because they read back into the phrase “the general equity” their modern perspective without understanding the historical significance surrounding its use. Understanding the historical context is basic practice when interpreting the Bible correctly, but the modern Church fails to uphold this principle when it interprets the Westminster Confession’s words.

Reading Johannes Piscator should call any who hold to the position that the Westminster Confession of Faith endorsed the position that the judicial laws have expired in their entirety to seriously re-evaluate their understanding. They will be forced to admit that, though they themselves may believe this to be the case, the Westminster divines who came together to draft the Confession did not, and their view was thusly expressed in the so-called general equity clause.

The Church, up until the Reformation, had not developed a self-consciously biblical blueprint for civil government. It had always mixed pagan Greek thought with Christian theology, eventually resulting in natural law theory that posited that righteous principles for civil government could be extracted from nature by unbelievers hostile to Jesus Christ. Only with certain Reformed theologians and their Puritan legacy in America was this view rejected and replaced with a different theory: all civil government is under the authority of Jesus Christ, and it ought to be administered in accordance with his specific requirements specially revealed in Scripture.

At the heart of the formation of the United States as a beacon of Liberty throughout the world was its Puritan influence. The key factor that amplified the Puritan influence was their self-conscious adherence to Bible-revealed judicial laws as the sole authority guiding civil government legislation. More importantly, the Bible-revealed penalties to various civil crimes were enforced. One of the most famous is the account of Thomas Graunger, who was hanged after being convicted of beastiality. Wikipedia summarizes the account:

Graunger, at the age of 16 or 17, was convicted of “buggery with a mare, a cow, two goats, divers sheepe, two calves, and a turkey”, according to court records of 7 September 1642. Graunger confessed to his crimes in court privately to local magistrates, and upon indictment, publicly to ministers and the jury, being sentenced to “death by hanging until he was dead”. He was hanged on September 8, 1642.

The Bible prescribes execution for those convicted of beastiality in Leviticus 20:15, which reads: “And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.” In full compliance with the law, the Puritans also slaughtered the animals that Granger molested.

PROTESTANT SCHOLASTICISM

The medieval Catholic Church was under the influence of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval scholastics. Aquinas was a brilliant theologian who lived from 1225 to 1274. Not only the Catholic Church, but the Protestant Church also owes much of its modern theology to Aquinas as well.

The writings of Aristotle had been lost for some time, but they were rediscovered during the Arabic and Jewish enlightenment period. Because they had preserved Aristotle’s literature, he was re-introduced into the Western world through the Christian church.

The medieval Church fell into what is referred to today as scholasticism. It was an academic vocation focused on intense study of opposing theological ideas espoused by other scholars. It aimed to reconcile their opposing viewpoints by using highly technical argumentation in an on-going process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. It resulted from the attempted fusing of Aristotle’s recently rediscovered Greek logic (syllogisms, in particular) with Christian theology. Even after the Reformation, this tradition retained some influence in the Church. When reading Piscator’s work, you begin to see its expression almost immediately by way of his formal approach.

He tackles his arguments, in places, in a style that is likely to be foreign to most modern readers. He addresses arguments with a rigorous technical precision that, for the unacquainted reader, makes his writing difficult to read. It will help if the reader learns a few technical definitions up front:

  • syllogism
  • proposition
  • consequent

I do not know Latin, so I cannot hope to provide any sound assessment of the quality of the translation except so far as I can say that it is generally readable and approachable in modern English. There does appear to be some awkwardness to the translation in the way that Piscator has a peculiar way of beginning sentences with the word “but” in a sense that is no longer in fashion. For example: “The reason for this is that they are a part of the law and because the prophets exhorted the judges and governors of the people of God to observe them. But the first proposition is true; therefore the latter is also” [page 10].

It seems that the word “since” would be a better fit instead of “but.” Since I am not a Latin scholar, however, I cannot say whether the technical meaning would remain intact, even though the readability would be enhanced.

CONCLUSION

The world has moved on in the four centuries since Piscator’s words were first written. Darwinism destroyed the foundations of natural law which even the secular intellectuals, up to that point, subscribed to. Natural law was derived from a fusion of Christian theology with pagan Greek thought. It was justified on a misunderstanding of the biblical doctrine of common grace. Aquinas held that unbelievers could reason their way to God’s divine truth; in other words, they could attain salvation by critical and correct employment of their logic. This is evident in his famous five proofs of the existence of God. He did not distinguish believing thought from unbelieving thought. He did not fully understand that man’s reason is just as fallen and corrupted by sin as his heart is.

So, the Church gave away too much when it admitted the legitimate use of man’s unaided, fallen reason in examining the mysteries of the universe. The argument from design was powerful and logical, but when Darwin denied the existence of any final purpose by exchanging a creator God for random, unplanned biological change, then the stature of man’s intellect was raised up in glory for all to look upon. Revelation was finally ejected from the cool-kids club.

Many of the arguments levied against theonomy that Piscator dealt with are no longer advanced against the Church by unbelievers. That is because they deny the key presupposition from which Piscator argues: that the Bible should be a reference book for anything. Curiously enough, however, these arguments do still come from theologians inside the Church. This is appropriate since they have never gotten over the destruction of natural law theory. By insisting on its continued validity, they surmise they are using sharp tools. Their unbelieving rivals look upon their pathetic efforts as those of undeveloped creatures struggling with blunt instruments who were left behind by time.

There is a much more powerful weapon available to the Church today, however, if only they would first bend over to pick it up. Just as Darwin destroyed natural law theory and eliminated its use as a legitimate tool in the secular world, Cornelius Van Til obliterated natural law theory from the Christian world. This is a great gain for the Church, but her modern members are shaken by its implications. Consequently, very few have picked up these powerful, spiritual weapons of warfare that Van Til left behind.

His presuppositional apologetic declares, quite simply, that the proof of the Christian worldview is that, without it, you can’t prove anything. Only the Triune God revealed in the Bible provides the preconditions of intelligibility that enable us to make sense of the world. Because unbelievers are made in the image of God too, the natural world reveals God’s existence to them. But because they hate God, they suppress this truth in their unrighteousness. They will always run from God until they have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Their rebellion is made evident by the fact that their worldview is incoherent and contradictory. They believe one way in principle, but they act another in practice.

In terms of law, there is only either theonomy or autonomy. Man’s law has led the Western world into the brink of disaster because it has ignored God’s law: thou shalt not steal. The modern economy is founded upon systematic theft: the fractional reserve banking system and welfare state policies like Social Security and Medicare.

Let’s not forget warfare.

Together, these policies will bankrupt the Western governments of the world. Culture will change dramatically as people lose faith in the prevailing establishment. Who will be there to explain what happened, and why? Who will be there to offer solutions?

God’s law is the answer. Piscator’s work was a good starting point four hundred years ago, and it is a good introduction to Christians who are hearing this kind of thing for the first time. They can take comfort that great Christians have come before them to boldly proclaim the abiding righteousness of God’s judgments. But Piscator’s analysis is short on evaluations of the individual laws that remain binding versus those that do not. He also holds to the tripartite division of law which arose with Aquinas: moral, ceremonial, and judicial. Those categories are in need of revision. More concrete “sifting principles” can be found in Gary North’s economic commentary on Leviticus. See Section C of the Conclusion.

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