The Shadows and the Light of the Law
“The division used by modern theologians – Moral, Civil, Ceremonial – is not found in the Bible.”
– Leviticus: An Economic Commentary, Gary North
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Welcome to Episode 59 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will look at an old theological controversy from a different perspective and with a different terminology. We will see what terminology has been used to cover this particular controversy so far, and some of the errors which that terminology has led to; and we will try to look at the specific terminology the Bible uses on this particular topic, and then try to have a new discussion around that Biblical terminology.
The topic is the Law of God, and specifically the discontinuity and continuity of the Law of God. What in the Law of God as given through Moses remains valid today. And what has been abrogated on the Cross of Christ.
This topic has become quite hot in the last 40+ years, mainly because of the emergence of the teachings of Christian Reconstruction, and specifically of Theonomy. Theonomy, or the teaching that the Law of God as given in the Bible is the standard for righteousness and justice for all – whether private individuals or government entities. The Law of God, as summarized in the two greatest commandments, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor”; then expanded in the Ten Commandments; then explained as case laws in the rest of the Books of Moses; then applied as specific cases in the history of Israel and in the prophets; and eventually brought to its full light in the New Covenant. As we talked in the first episode of this podcast, covenantal thinking is centered on issues of justice and righteousness – the two pillars of God’s Throne – and the Law of God is the standard for justice and righteousness mean. The Law of God shows the way God would act if He was a Man . . . and guess what, He did become a Man, and He did perfectly obey the Law. The Law is His character.
Theonomy has had its opponents, of course. In the last 400 years, rival doctrines have arisen in the supposedly “Reformed” churches, doctrines that point to other sources of justice and righteousness but the law of God – whether some vague notion of “natural law,” or a not so vague obedience to the state. The opponents have their theological arguments, of course, and the main argument they use is that the Law of God has three parts: The Moral Law, which concerns individual righteousness; the Judicial Law, which concerns institutional justice; and the Ceremonial Law, which concerns the religious ceremonies which represented the Jewish religion. So the position of the anti-theonomists is that only the Moral Law is valid today; individuals are under obligation to model their individual behavior according to the moral rules of the Bible. For example, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, etc. The Judicial Law, however, which gives God’s standards for civil justice, is not valid for today; just as the Ceremonial Law is not valid. Thus, governments, firms, and other governmental entities – civil or not – are not under obligation to look to the Law of God for their standards for conduct. When it comes to judicial standards, the Law of God has been replaced by the laws of men, or “natural law” – a law that is supposedly equally accepted as valid by both believers and unbelievers. Such is the position of the recently revived rhetoric of the “two kingdoms,” coming out of modern so-called “Reformed” seminaries. Of course, no one has that holy book of “natural law” and therefore no one knows what it says about the specifics of justice, so, in the final account, all that is left is whatever the current rulers arbitrarily impose and enforce. “Natural law” is simply another name for “unlimited civil government.” Justice abhors vacuum: when the Judicial Law of God is abandoned, the judicial lawlessness of man takes over.
The theonomist’s answer to this is that the Judicial Law of God is not abrogated. It continues to be valid today, because the New Testament has not abrogated it. The rule of thumb for the theonomist is that unless a law has been explicitly abrogated in the New Testament, it continues to be valid. This is the case with the Ceremonial Law: a number of passages in the New Testament show that the Ceremonial Law is abrogated; in fact, more than that, it is now idolatry to go back to the Ceremonial Law and use it for the purposes of redemption and restitution. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore. But the Judicial Law still stands. The civil government is still bound by it, and a nation whose civil government doesn’t abide by the Law of God sins in the same way as an individual who doesn’t abide by the Law of God. A nation which establishes and maintains concentration camps, or legalizes abortion, is just as guilty of murder as is an individual who commits murder. The whole Law of God is still valid, except for those parts that are explicitly abrogated.
The objection of the anti-theonomists to this are that not all ceremonial laws are explicitly abrogated. Are they therefore valid today? And another objection – especially popular in Presbyterian circles – is based on the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19. The Confession apparently claims that the Judicial Law, quote, “expired with the State of these people,” that is, the Jews. Therefore, the argument goes, confessional Presbyterians can’t be theonomists because, you see, the Confession teaches that the Judicial Law has expired and therefore is not obliging. We can still use some of it, as the “general equity thereof may require,” and that general equity is just another name for “natural law.” But as far as the Judicial Law of the Bible is concerned, it should not be used as a source for what justice is supposed to look like.
Theonomists, on the other hand, point to the fact that all of the Westminster Divines were, in their sermons and writings and practices, theonomists, for they appealed to the Bible as a source of justice; and in fact, in many cases at the time, the law books had Biblical references attached to every single law in them. That may be a good argument, and it may not be a good argument. After all, the Confession says what it says, and if it says that the Judicial law has expired, then it has expired. So, the best we can say about this controversy is that it has led to a stalemate: The Confession says one thing in its plain text, the words and actions of its authors say the opposite. Looks like a serious confusion which would hardly resolve the issue in any definitive way.
My view is that neither of the sides reads the Westminster Confession for what it really says. A careful reading of the plain text of the Confession reveals that it doesn’t at all divide the Law of God into three parts, Moral, Judicial, and Ceremonial, as three separate, logically consistent bodies. It does speak of the Moral Law as one consistent body, singular, in articles 1 and 2 of chapter 19, and calls it a “perfect rule of righteousness,” and then sums it up in the Ten Commandments. When it moves to the next articles, however, where ceremonial and judicial are mentioned, these are not described as consolidated bodies of law, but only in plural. When it comes to the judicial portion of the Law of God, the Confession specifically speaks only of “sundry” laws, not of a body of Judicial Law:
[QUOTE]To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; [END OF QUOTE]
“Sundry,” which today means “various, miscellaneous,” had a completely different meaning in the 17th century English: it meant, “separate, disconnected.” (Hence the word “asunder,” meaning “into separate parts, apart.”) The Confession thus speaks of individual judicial laws that are sundry to the Law of God and are only related to the political body of Israel, not of a Judicial Law as part of the Law of God. What could these sundry judicial laws be? Well, those specifically related to the political body of Israel, duh. For example, the Jubilee Law, which was related specifically to the land of Canaan, given by God to Israel. The tribal divisions of the land. The specific judicial stipulations for the tribe of Levi and specifically about the Aaronic priesthood. For example, the death penalty for a priest’s daughter who has fornicated; for the rest of Israel, fornication – that is, sexual intercourse of unmarried persons – didn’t involve automatic death penalty. And many other such sundry laws explicitly related to the political system of Israel. What then about the general judicial laws, like the definitions of crimes and penalties for crimes like murder, theft, etc? Those were part of the Moral Law. Yes, for the Reformers and the writers of the Westminster Confession, the Moral Law included what today is considered “judicial law.” They did not have the modern dualism between moral and judicial. Without going into too much detail, read John Calvin’s Book 4, chapter 20 of his Institutes. It shows very clearly that Calvin considered government’s laws against crimes as part of the Moral Law and therefore valid today. The only thing he considered “judicial” was the specific mode and form of punishment. Now, I could argue with Calvin on whether the specific mode and form of punishment shouldn’t be part of the Moral Law (there are good reasons to believe that the specific forms of punishment in the Bible had their moral reasons), but what is relevant for this discussion is that Calvin thought government actions against crime are part of the Moral Law.
Thus, the Judicial Law that modern anti-theonomists claim to see in the Westminster Confession is simply not there. That Judicial Law is subsumed under the Moral Law, and the Moral Law continued to be, as the Confessions says, “obliging.”
Still, however, this is not a clear cut case for theonomy. Nor it is a case for anti-theonomy. Still, there is the question: if the law of God is all valid, as theonomists claim, what do we do with the ceremonial laws? Another important questions is: how do we distinguish between sundry judicial laws related to the body politic of Israel, and judicial laws that are part of the Moral Law? The deeper we go into these questions, the more difficult it becomes to sort things out. Why is it that this issue that is so important for the sanctification of the believer and of the modern societies, can’t seem to be open to resolution?
I think I have an answer to this. And the answer is that so far, the theological debate on these issues has been based on a fallacious terminology and a fallacious analysis of the Law of God. When I say “fallacious,” I mean un-Biblical. The division used by modern theologians – Moral, Civil, Ceremonial – is not found in the Bible. It is not mentioned anywhere, neither is there any hint at any differences between moral and judicial. The two words “justice and righteousness” are used, but neither is said to be more important than the other, and in fact, both are declared to be the foundations of the Throne of God (Ps. 89:14; 97:2, and multiple other verses). There is no difference in the moral requirements between an individual and a king: the king is commanded to obey the law just as much as an individual is commanded. Thus, the separation between moral and judicial is simply not there.
In addition, the separation between Moral, Judicial, and Ceremonial is a metaphysical separation between the laws, not covenantal. It separates the laws in terms of fictitious legal realms. Such separation doesn’t take in account the transcendent conflict between and evil, and it doesn’t take in account the immanent historical dynamics in the history of redemption – especially the concept of newer and better revelation after the Cross.
The true Biblical separation in the Law is given in the Bible in terms of “shadow” and “light.” Parts of the Law are shadows. Other parts of the Law are light. The central passage giving this description is Heb. 8:4-5:
[QUOTE] “since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle. . . . [END OF QUOTE]
The tabernacle, thus, and the gifts offered in it according to the Law were a shadow. Other verses confirm this concept. Heb. 10:1:
[QUOTE]For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.[END OF QUOTE]
[QUOTE]Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.[END OF QUOTE]
These shadows of the Law – the ceremonial sacrifices and the festivals and the foods – were meant, of course, to give a limited revelation of the light. It was the light that was to come in the New Covenant, as promised in Malachi 4:2: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” The New Covenant was to be a sunrise, when the sun was going to rise, and therefore the shadows of the night were not to be the rule of faith anymore. This was the difference between the Old and the New Covenants: in the Old Covenant, God spoke only in part, through shadows. In the New Covenant, the “radiance of His glory” has been revealed (Heb. 1:3). The shadows in the Old Covenant were to be the Gospel of the Old Covenant; not having revealed Jesus Christ yet, God only showed His people, and through His people, the world, only shadows. The ceremonies, the sacrifices, the judicial laws of the Jubilee and the levitical priesthood, etc., were meant to keep the eyes of the people focused on the future Messiah. The shadows themselves did not produce righteousness nor saved anyone (Heb 10:1). But they preached the Gospel of the Kingdom in the only way possible in a world, where very little of that Kingdom was revealed in the first place.
But if those were only shadows, why were there death penalties for the violation of some of the shadow laws? The answer should be obvious: In that system of shadows, the place of the nation of Israel was central and very important. Luke 12:48 applied here: Israel was given an enormous privilege as a nation under God, but her responsibility was also enormous: she was under the obligation to exemplify that Gospel in pictures and symbols and shadows in a perfect way. Just as today we expect a preacher of the Gospel to exemplify the Gospel, Israel, God’s preacher and priest to the nations, had to live out not only the Law but also the Gospel in all respects. The sacrifices were shadows of Christ; she was supposed to offer her sacrifices as an image of Christ (not because they saved her but because they taught the nations). The Sabbath day, the Sabbath year, and the Jubilee were an image of Christ’s redemption and deliverance; Israel was supposed to keep them as a teaching display to the nations of what Christ would bring when He comes. The festivals were – obviously – images of Christ’s ministry and offices; Israel, therefore, was under obligation to keep them. Again, none of this observing the shadows was meant to be a method of salvation. All of it was a special burden of preaching the Gospel through partial images; but before Israel was given that special burden, she was also endowed with a special blessing.
This duty to exemplify the Gospel in the shadows of the Temple and the ceremonies and the sundry judicial laws was peculiar to national Israel, just as her blessing among the nations was peculiar. “What advantage has the Jew?”, Paul asks in Rom. 3:1, and answers, “Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Being entrusted with them, they were obligated to preach the Gospel; but since they didn’t have the bright radiance of the Gospel as revealed in Christ, their preaching had to be in bits and pieces, symbols and shadows. That was the peculiar calling and function of national Israel. Once, however, Christ was revealed, that function and calling ceased. Christ now became Israel, and He became the Gospel, and the light of the Gospel. In this new economy, guided not by shadows but by the light, a return to the shadows would be a statement to the world that the light has not come. Such a statement, in the world after the cross, would be an idolatry. The Jewish leaders made that statement when they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and this was counted by God as an idolatry, and Israel was visited with destruction for it.
“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?”, Paul asks in Gal. 3:1. This is in answer to their seeking righteousness through the shadows of the Law. In the previous chapter, he tells his story of confronting the chief of the apostles for the same reason: by separating from the Gentile Christians, he was sending out a message that the shadows of the Law – the dividing wall between a Jew and a Gentile – were still operational. Paul says that Peter “stood condemned.” Condemned for what? Just a few years before that, while Jesus was still with them, it was mandatory for Jews to stay away from the Gentiles; the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7 admitted she was a “dog” and her place was not at the table with the sons. The centurion in Luke 7 didn’t allow Jesus to enter his house, knowing the Jewish law of separation. Jesus didn’t want to meet with the Greek worshipers at the Temple – this of course, doesn’t have to be related to the separation principle, but what is clear is that Jesus did promise in a way that He will go to them and make them His fruit after His resurrection (John 12:24). The disciples were amazed that Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan woman (John 4:27). Peter had grown up in a culture where associating with Gentiles was a no-no. It was no different than eating snakes and other crawling things (Acts 10:9-16). He was immersed in such a culture, and he never knew anything else in his life. And yet, Paul declares that he “stood condemned.” The Cross and Resurrection of Christ had changed things so abruptly, he had to learn now that what, just a few years ago, was an imperative for a Jew, now made the Jew condemned. This was an abrupt transformation in the nature of his religion, one that put an enormous amount of pressure on the believing Jews. It was like the difference between light and darkness . . . or at least, between light and shadow. Once he had the Light, Peter stood condemned if he continued to live in the darkness, as if the Jewish nation was still separated from the rest of the world. The Gospel preached through the shadows required separation; the Gospel preached in the light required the end of separation.
While part of the Law was shadows, the good news of the future Messiah told in pictures, another part of the Law was light. That light was the moral character of that future Messiah, a character that all believers are enjoined to imitate. The Old Covenant believers were not expected to only wait. They were also instructed to imitate God: “Be holy as God is holy” (Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26). The righteousness and the justice of the Law were supposed to be a light to the nations: Isaiah 51:4, “My justice will become a light to the nations.” Israel was supposed to preach the Gospel in its two aspects: the coming of Christ was to be preached through shadows, but the character of Christ (justice and righteousness) was to be preached in its fulness. Israel had to know what the Messiah’s moral character looked like in order to be able to recognize Him when He comes.
The Old Covenant, then, was just like Moses after he came down from the mountain a second time. He had seen Jesus as He is, and his face shone with the reflected radiance of Christ; but he put a veil on his face because the Israelites couldn’t stand the light. At the same time, while with the veil, he continued judging them and teaching them the Lord’s commandments. The coming of Christ was still to remain veiled; but His character in the Law was to be preached and taught and embodied in Israel. Be ye holy just as God is holy.
That light of the Law, the character of God, revealed how God would act in every situation if he was a man. How would God act if He was just an ordinary man with a family and a job? How would He act as a neighbor? Or as a member of the community? How would He act if he was an employer, or a banker, or a mortgage broker? How would he act if he was a ruler, or a king? Would He have different moral characters as an ordinary man and as a ruler? How would He act if he was an artist, a child, a merchant, a salesman? How would He act if he was a father and husband, or a wife and mother? (Don’t give me that offended patriarchal look, God does say that He cares for us like a nursing mother.)
That is, the light of Law taught Israel how God would act if He became a man. And guess what: He did become a Man, and His character was a full embodiment of the Law. It’s not because Jesus had reached the highest point of sanctification after a laborious process, and could now obey the Law. The Law was His very character, by nature, by birth, by conception. Jesus was the Light, and that Light was righteousness and justice, and the Law revealed that Light to the covenant people in the Old Covenant; and through them, to the nations around Israel. The nations were not commanded to abide by the shadows of the Law. But they were commanded to abide by the light of the Law.
This light, unlike the shadows, is to stay with us. It includes everything, from personal conduct, to family government, to church government, to civil government and business government and education and science and everything. The rise of the sun of righteousness, the manifestation of the Son of God, dispelled the shadows but it did not extinguish the light – it only made the light brighter. Now every one, Jew and Gentile alike, is obligated to abide by it.
Thus, in the New Covenant, the laws that describe the righteousness and justice of the Law of God continue to be valid. What is the standard for personal conduct of an individual who walks in the light? It is the light of the Law of God, the character of Christ. What is the standard for conduct of a family that walks in the light? It is the light of the Law of God. What is the standard for conduct for a businessman, church leader, civil government, courts, a scientist, a teacher, an explorer? It is the light of the Law of God. In every station of life, in every situation, in every position of power or submission, in every state of mind and action, man as an individual and men as collectives are to seek the instructions of the Law of God. None of these instructions have passed away. And there is no separation between moral and judicial – either in individual conduct or in corporate policies. What is evil as individual conduct, is evil as a corporate policy.
With this division of the Law into two categories, we can now analyze the two movements in the churches today that lead the church away from the Law of God into autonomy and ultimately antinomianism.
On one hand, we have modern pietism: a theological movement which views the validity of the Law of God as only limited to the personal piety of man. Man’s corporate conduct and therefore his institutions are to be regulated by a different set of laws, not found in the Bible. Man as an individual would have a different ethics than man as a ruler; and by default, since we are called to imitate Jesus Christ and be conformed to His image, Jesus Christ as an individual would have a different ethics than Jesus Christ as a ruler. This view basically states that the light of the Law is limited to only individual righteousness, and the justice of the Law was only a shadow. That justice has passed away. It is not valid anymore.
On the other hand, we have the modern liturgist movement which claims that the ceremonies of the Law have not passed away. That is, that what was used under the Old Covenant to teach about the future Messiah, should still be used in the churches as a teaching device. And therefore, a church service should borrow heavily from the Temple ceremonies under the Old Covenant. (There is an underlying conflict between two views about the church here, one holding that the Church is the modern Temple and should emulate the Temple, the other holding that the Church is the modern synagogue and the Lord’s Assembly; but we are going to talk about it in a future episode.) The liturgist movement, therefore, believes that liturgy – that is, a set of ceremonies that have a non-natural influence in the spiritual world – is a necessary part of the modern covenant.
Both of these movement, of course, lead people astray from the New Covenant. The New Covenant is Theonomic, that is, it takes the light of Law of God – all of its light – and applies it to our views and actions today; and it believes that the shadows – the images and the ceremonies which have depicted the person of Christ and His coming and ministry – have all passed away. Theonomy is simply the teaching that emphasizes this division between shadow and light, and builds a theology of action based on it.
The book I will assign this week is Gary North’s commentary on Leviticus part of his 31-volume economic commentary on the Bible. I know, you will say that Dr. North there is only looking at the economic truths in the most ceremonial book of the Bible. That is not true. Gary North stated in the very introduction to his first volume that the discipline of economics is impossible to learn in a value-free context. Biblical Economics is not simply a study of economic processes; it is a study of the moral and judicial actions of individuals and collectives in the context of the Covenant of God. That’s why the real field of study is not just economic, but law and economics. When you are reading North’s economic commentary on Leviticus, oay attention to that “law” part.
Finally, again, remember in your prayers and your giving Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a Reformed mission organization devoted to building the intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization in Eastern Europe, through translation and publishing of book for the application of the Gospel to every area of life. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.