God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity, to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
Besides this law, commonly called moral…1
That a Righteousness, an universal and immutable ethic and ethos of God exists, I have no doubt. However, to suggest that such a complete, universal and immutable moral law has been delivered to humanity in the Scriptures is neither Scriptural nor rational. Scriptures repudiates Mosaic Law as that universal, eternal and immutable moral law. “Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”2 But heaven and earth shall pass. ”Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”3 Therefore, the Mosaic Code cannot be that universal, eternal and immutable moral law; since its jurisdiction explicitly ends.
Neither is the Christian rendition of ethics, that universal, eternal and immutable moral law. There exist several injunctions and expositions by Christ and Paul concerning marriage. However, Christ notes that “At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven”.4 Because the Estate of Marriage ends at some future point in time, laws governing marriage and sexuality become obsolete and irrelevant. Although laws concerning such could theoretically remain on the books, a different environment in the next age nullifies their effective force and utility.
A complaint might arise that sophistries are being played out here. But of course, a common understanding of “universal, eternal and immutable moral law” is one whose shelf life is the End of History. In other words, it must be acknowledged that these renderings of the ‘Moral Law of God’ do not represent the universal, eternal and immutable ethic and ethos of God; the Righteousness of God. The Righteousness of God transcends anything literally written upon the earth; whether upon tablets of stone or papyrus manuscripts. Any Divine law code upon the earth will be a partial implementation and application of the transcendent Righteousness of God, which takes into account the physiological and psychological nature of humanity, including social dynamics, the physical environment in which humanity dwells and the purposes (telos)of that law code; amongst other considerations.
The nature of objective reality and everyday existence requires a corresponding body of laws to govern within such realities. The Mosaic regulations concerning menstruation would be inappropriate to apply against the male ‘subspecies’ of the human race. Social regulations concerning children must differ from those of spouses. Technological advances (i.e. genetics revolution à designer babies) pose moral quagmires, which existing ethical codes are strained to fashion a judgment, consistent within their existing paradigm.
A good universal, eternal and immutable moral code would have principles, equipped to deal with all such exigencies, along with the necessity of a faithful and competent interpreter to relate such principles to those particulars. Nevertheless, as noted, even Scriptures deny itself the status of constituting universal, eternal and immutable law. All covenantal codes are expressions of the transcendent, imposed upon particular objective realities with particular ends in mind.
If the purpose (telos) of the law changes, so must the law code, in order to reorient towards and optimize those purposes. If the same industrial robot switches the part that it is producing, the set of computer instructions required to produce that different part must change. A completely different code routine is selected if the part is radically different. It would be absurd to legislate and implement a body of law meant to fashion and optimize a capitalist society for use in a socialist society. It certainly is possible to construct a law code sufficiently generic to allow for the fostering of either a capitalist or socialist society. However, if the community and/or the powers-that-be that rule that community are deliberately aiming toward encouraging one economic framework with hostility toward the other, the body of laws will reflect that.
Similarly, as the purposes of the Mosaic Covenant and the New Testament Covenant differ, so must the orientation and set of commandments change and alter. This understanding is confirmed by Scriptures, particularly in the Book of Hebrews, noting the need for different blood to seal the covenant, a different priesthood to mediate it, different regulations of worship and different participants that are party to the covenant.5
A primary purpose of the Mosaic Code was to fashion an earthly society, conquered by force, implemented by coercion, emphasizing necessary justice for the common good, bounded in a geographical location, largely for one particular human tribe. The primary purpose of the New Testament Covenant is to recruit foreign aliens for immigration into a “kingdom [which] is not of this world”6, conquered by persuasion, implemented by consent, emphasizing mercy and grace (founded upon and not repudiating justice), for a virtual nation dispersed throughout the earth and including every human tribe. How is it plausible that even the contents of the written component of New Testament law could remain the same as the Mosaic code?
However, Reformed Covenantal Theology, as reflected in The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), which founds the basis of other Protestant confessions (i.e. Baptist Confession of Faith – 1689), expresses that a ‘moral’ “law of God”, ”a perfect rule of righteousness” was delivered unto Adam and Eve, “as a covenant of works”, “written in their hearts” and in the hearts of every soul of man. Furthermore, it is proposed that Christ and the Gospel does not in “any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation” of the Christian to this Mosaic code.7 That is, Christ did not initiate a new covenant, with a new and altered set of commandments to reflect the different purposes (telos) of God. Rather, the Reformed tradition suggests that Christ merely expounded upon existing Mosaic provisions in regard to the ‘moral’ division of the Law. New Testament principles are merely interpretative extensions of the supposedly universal and perfect moral law of God, best represented by the Ten Commandments (Decalogue).
Catholicism has a parallel rendition of this paradigm; whereby through human reason, “the natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man”. “The natural law is immutable, permanent [and universal] throughout history”. “Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue.” “The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues.”8
Because of the assumption that this universal natural law or ‘moral’ law of God is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, it gives rational justification and psychological sustenance for the imposition of such moral laws upon society by civil authorities. It encourages a Theonomic impulse in many that purport to Christian sentiments; even if they do not fully subscribe to the theonomy of Christian Reconstructionism. It gives impetus to the transformation of Christ into cultural warrior and to political Christianity. It lays the ideological basis of the religious form of social conservatism. These dynamics provoke the heart basis behind critics of this theology.
Though not denying similar grave concerns, I observe other detrimental consequences of a psychological, social, pastoral, evangelistic and theological/philosophical nature. Because of the assumption that this universal ‘moral’ law of God exists in the heart of every man, Christians and social conservatives perceive their ethical and social adversaries as willfully violating their own consciences. This lends toward self-righteous indignation; often reflected in the mean-spiritedness by which many Christians interact with their interlocutors and adversaries. But what if this natural belief, given Christian imprimatur, isn’t true?
If Christians assume innate knowledge of the contents of right and wrong in the heart of every man, efforts to rationally and morally demonstrate the rightness and superiority of Christian ethics will suffer neglect. This occurs. Although New Testament Scriptures warn against investing too heavily into morality, Christian ethics does provide an avenue of witness for the truth of the Gospel. Furthermore, how can a person be convinced of sin, as defined by the Christian God and His Christ, if the person doesn’t recognize the validity of Christian ethics? How sane is it to impose Christian ethics in the sociopolitical realm, if those ethics are alien and incomprehensible to one’s adversaries?
Focus on the Mosaic revelation of law and justice, or seeing the New Testament precepts through the prism of the Old Covenant ethos, at best, conflates and confuses. Dispensationalism encourages Grace and Love at the neglect of Justice and Principle, for reasons as yet rationally incoherent to me, but definitely evident.9 (Those attracted to Dispensationalism forgive as if it were justice, lending to faulty perceptions that the mercy and grace is a legal and moral obligation of God.) Whereas, Reformed Covenantal theology is prone to produce a coercive Gospel, legalist streaks, intellectual sourpusses and lack of graciousness.
Although most precepts between the Mosaic (Old) covenant and Christian (New) covenant are identical, the context and ethos under which they operate differs. The former harangues and threatens into submission, the latter persuades and woos. The former demands justice and fairness. The latter, recognizes injustice and unfairness, but defers the demand for justice unto God, in the name of gracious forgiveness and reconciliation. This differentiation in the ethos becomes obscured if one perceives the New Covenant as extension of the former; ‘one covenant with two administrations’.
The problem, my perfectionist soul has with Old Covenantal Theology is that, from first to last, it is rationally, hermeneutically, morally and judicially indefensible. It supports its contentions, short of Scriptural standard of proof. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses10, unless one enlists hermeneutical pretzelism and sophistry. It habitually violates the Scriptural warning “Do not go beyond what is written.“11 It reads into Genesis narrative a covenant that the Genesis narrative itself negates; much as Jerome and Augustine read into the Genesis narrative an absence of sex or frenzy of sex respectively. It attempts to suggest that those of Christ’s admonitions in the Sermon of the Mount which are in complete contradistinction to Mosaic precepts are mere expositions.12 It would require a marking up of the 613 Mitzvot laws of the Mosaic Code, striking out ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civil’ provisions as well as the punitive subcomponents of ‘moral’ provisions, while pasting in New Testament amendments; an exercise only CIA censors could appreciate and love. Some advocates would unjustifiably and capriciously lift the Ten Commandments (minus One) out from the whole of the ‘moral’ component of the Old Covenant.
It leads to all manner of rational conundrums and absurdities, potentially giving a theological Jon Stewart, years’ worth of comedic material. It justifies scornful accusations of irrationality, inconsistency and disingenuity on the part of unbelievers. There exists scant empirical evidence that the moral law of God permeates the souls of men; in the biographies of individuals, histories of societies or the particulars of legal codes of those nations; who have had scant acquaintance with Judeo-Christian ethics. Those, who suggest a universal Tao, require a glossing over of the underlying intents and details of the behaviours and laws.
Covenantal theology violates both Scriptural and human principles of Justice; principles that even God and His Christ explicitly acknowledge. Contracts, covenants and constitutions, without an amending formula, by definition are broken if one violates a provision or alters a provision unilaterally in order not to officially violate it. Christ, in His condemnation of the Pharisees concerning Corban13, confirms this understanding. In the required markup of the Mosaic Code in moral, civil and ceremonial aspects, with the further excising of punitive aspects of the moral components, the endeavour produces inconsistent and inscrutable results. Foundational attributes of justice include scrutability and consistency. (“But sin is not taken into account when there is no law.”14 “For, there is no respect of persons with God”15.) And how scrupulous God is with regard to the keeping of His law!16 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”17
The underlying presuppositions underlying Reformed Covenantal and Catholic theology is unduly influenced by Hellenist philosophy; by a Platonic/Aristolean conception of perfection in their philosophical One and his promulgations require stasis. The Jewish Scriptures represent a God who remains the same18, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever”19, yet is dynamic. He can feel intensely, yet His Sovereign Will and Righteousness is not jeopardized by His passions. His ethic and ethos remains consistent; but its implementation must correspond with the particulars of the objective reality into which it is applied.
The paradigm, represented by Covenantal theology, misunderstands the problem with mankind. In representing the Genesis narrative as Covenant of Works, it frames the central problem as being one of disobedience. Biblical analysis, uncorrupted by the Reason and Traditions of men, suggests that the central problem is that man doesn’t believe and trust God. It is ultimately through unbelief that led man to sin and total and utter depravity. In symmetry, it is through faith that he is restored; “faith from first to last”.20
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, Chapter 19 – “Of the Law of God”, Article 1, 2, 3a
- Matthew 5:18 (AKJV)
- Revelation 21:1
- Matthew 22:30
- Hebrews 7-10
- John 18:36
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, Chapter/Article 4.2, 19.2, 19.1, 4.2, 19.5
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three (Life in Christ), Section One (Man’s Vocation Life in the Spirit), Chapter Three, (God’s Salvation: Law and Grace), Article 1, VATICAN (English Version), Items 1954, 1979, 1955, 1968
- The relationship between Dispensationalism and neglect of justice may not be causative or correlative. It might be coincidental. Nevertheless, I find, for instance, a neglect of the principles of justice, upon which the Grace of God unto salvation must be founded. I don’t yet understand the why.
- 2 Corinthians 13:1
- 1 Corinthians 4:6
- Matthew 5:33-34, Matthew 5:38-39
- Mark 7:9-13
- Romans 5:13
- Romans 2:11
- 2 Samuel 6:6-7
- Matthew 5:18
- Psalm 102:27, Hebrews 1:12
- Hebrews 13:8
- Romans 1:17
3 thoughts on “New Covenant Theology – The ‘Moral’ Law of God”
I have done a lot of work and reading on this subject for over 30 years, and your take on it resonates with me. This philosophical/ethical/theological assumption has been around since ancient times and is certainly not limited to the adherents to Covenant Theology. The assumption of Natural Law, or the universal inherent “Moral Law”, remains unproven from Scripture in my humble opinion.
Many come to Romans 2:13-15 with this assumption, and then rather than seeing New Covenant Gentiles as the intended focus (as in the end of the chapter), conclude that unregenerate Gentiles are being referenced there. Few works that I have seen in the voluminous literature on this subject argue for Natural Law/universal inherent “Moral Law” without adopting Romans 2:13-15 as their locus classicus.
The problem with this unproven unbiblical assumption is exacerbated by Covenant Theology via their connecting it necessarily to the Old Covenant, or in their assumed tripartite division, the Decalogue in the Law given via Moses. They must read, for example, the Sabbath commandment back to creation via the universal inherent “Moral Law”, in order to maintain their creedal insistence that we are still bound by the Fourth Commandment. Of course, this is done in spite of the change of the Law that you refer to in Hebrews, along with the coordinate change in their teaching of the Day of Rest to the first day of the week while retaining the “principle” of the Fourth Commandment. In my humble opinion, this whole creedal house of eisegetical cards comes crashing down if there in fact is no such thing as Natural Law/universal inherent “Moral Law”, and therefore no Sabbath commandment via creation.
This assumption actually gets worse on the other end of the salvation history spectrum when the fulfillment of the New Covenant promise to write God’s Law on the hearts of His people (Jer. 31) is seen as merely a restoration or repair of that which all unregenerate humans have had since Adam. If I were to debate this issue:
1) I would grant that point for the sake of argument,
2) Allow them to explain their understanding of the significance and function of the fulfillment of this promise under the New Covenant,
and when they were done explaining that,
3) I would ratchet their own words back to the Garden, and point out that it certainly did not work for either Eve or Adam even in its undefaced prelapsarian condition.
I have two primary concerns in the pursuit of this subject as you might guess from above, which are as follows:
1) Mishandling of Biblical texts such as Romans 2:13-15; and
2) Misconstructions in Biblical theology, particularly regarding the Decalogue and the New Covenant.
Keep up the provocative work! I, for one, appreciate the independence of your thinking on this subject. By the way, do you have any connections to New Covenant Theology?
Soli Deo Gloria,
John T. “Jack” Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
I appreciate your comments and doubt that we differ all that much. I do not have any official connections to New Covenant Theology. However, I met Mr. John G. Reisinger personally, in a rally week in Ottawa in the Fall of 1982/3. I was and remain very fond of the man. The morning sessions dealt with the logical progression in Romans; in which his hypothesis (at the time) of New Covenant Theology caused a discomforting stir in my and my compatriots heart at the time.
I didn’t revisit this issue until 2009/2010. But by this time, my own views came to correspond with Mr. Reisinger’s for the most part; although I had come to similar conclusions through a different Biblical approach (less exegetical and more thematic and comparing Scriptures with Scriptures), plus the benefits of a philosophical bent and as a student of history and political theory.
My interest is less to duplicate Mr. Reisinger and company but to pursue a discrediting of the ‘law of God, written in the heart of men’ natural theory; what C.S. Lewis sort of intimates as the TAO (The Abolition of Man). There is much to like in Lewis. But in this, I think that he is wrong.
The reason for this pursuit is that modern Christianity seems to evangelize as if we were still in Jerusalem, instead of Athens. They presume that the outsider shares a common innate sense of morality, which the latter is repressing. This presumption lends to greater self-righteous indignation of their interlocutors and adversaries. This I have painfully observed. Consequently, there is little and incompetent efforts at rationally explaining the virtue of Christian ethics. There are attempts to politically impose a morality that many outsiders find genuinely incomprehensible. If the innate morality theory is wrong, as I believe it is; we do impede our own ability to evangelize effectively in many subtle ways.
(I am aware of Scriptural passages about worrying about the Law. However, Christian ethics and even the Jewish counterpart can act as witness to the Gospel. (Think of the ethos behind the Year of Jubilee as it pertains to ameliorating all history’s societies’ propensities toward greater disparity of wealth as they age. Marx blames it on the dynamics of capitalism. But capitalism merely provides a vehicle; perhaps a very conductive vehicle. These same proclivities occurred and were given consideration by the ancients. I am not suggesting an imposition of the Old Covenant; (nor do I have any hope in political solutions; nor am I a socialist. The Year of Jubilee is not a socialist solution). A seminal theme in Scriptures, particularly Hebrews, discredits hope in sociopolitical solutions. However, the Year of Jubilee is useful in demonstrating the manifold wisdom of God.)
As an explanation of history, to which I retain keen interest, a diffeent take on the Garden of Eden narrative provides substantive breakthrough in understanding history. In the Garden, everything was given man for the ‘picking’. I see Adam and Eve wanting to figure it out for themselves (not necessarily in order to be autonomous from God, but because they wanted to internalize wisdom behind the counsels of God by their own subjective faculties). My understanding of Scriptures does not see that thirst as unwarranted or sinful (Proverbs 2, 4, James 1:5). It was the manner by which they sought to seek it, which was sin. And in the curse to Adam (Genesis 3:19 – “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food”, I see in the God of metaphor, man seeking his own intellectual, moral and spiritual nourishment by that same ‘sweat or your brow’. In other words, man is largely starting from scratch after the Garden, adding another dimension to the ‘total depravity’ tenet of Calvinism and early Armininianism. I am only skimming over my arguments. But this idea that man largely starts from scratch is way more consistent with my observation and understanding of human history.
I do actually believe that Romans 2:13-15 is speaking of unregenerate Gentiles; but not in the way that Covenant Theology does. I know that NCT argues that Paul is speaking of New Covenant Gentiles. However, it is inconsistent with thc contextual purposes of Romans 2 and 3. Paul is attempting to show that all men; whether the hedonistically immoral, the pagan moralist (of which traces of residue Roman Republican morality at this time exists and is extremely strict, possibly more stricter than any Judeo-Christian counterpart although it differs), and the Jew. By this means, is Paul able to conclude (Romans 3:9); “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” Paul does not yet speak of regenerated or converted Jews or Gentiles until the end of Chapter 3. I know that Romans 2:25-9 uses ‘the perfect’ Gentile to shame the Jew. But it is a theoretical construct. Neither Jew nor Gentile can attain perfection through his own works.
My take, and I have developed and am developing this theme much more thoroughly than I am here, is that the passage does not suggest full knowledge of the Law in the Gentile, only partial, and based on verses in Romans 1:19-20, it is not internal. Rather, God shows it through external entities working through man’s subjective faculties (no doubt with God’s Spirit speaking to the man although is not yet part of him). The importance to this, concerns also the discourse about the right of God to judge those who have never heard of the Law and the Gospel. How can God be just to condemn such men. I see Romans 2:14-15 as giving justification for God’s justice (In Romans 4:15, 5;13 and in human understandings of justice, there ought to be laws before we are judged by them.) However, if man, through his subjective faculties, comes to similar conclusions as the Law, he stands judged by his own standards which conform to the Law when he violates the Law. (Matthew 7:1-2 speaks along a similar vein.)
I thank you for your interest.
You might be interested to know that I am not a “New Covenant Theology” adherent. I have many good friends who are including John G. Reisinger, Fred Zaspel, and others. You might also be interested to know that very few of them agree that the Gentiles under consideration in Rom. 2:13-15 are regenerate Gentiles in whom the promise of the New Covenant has been fulfilled. I had the great privilege of presenting this understanding at the John Bunyan Conference in Lewisburg, PA a few years ago. My friends, to the best of my knowledge, remain unpersuaded in spite of my best efforts! I have an appendix to my paper entitled “Chronological Bibliography of Works Presenting the Interpretation of the Gentiles in Romans 2:13-15 as Christian or New Covenant Gentiles” that you might find profitable. The most significant works on this subject, in my opinion, that have been done since 1995 were authored by N. T. Wright and Simon Gathercole. Are you familiar with their works? I can send this file to you if you write to me offline at johntjeff at verizon dot net. Soli Deo Gloria!