John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

This is part 1 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

John Lightfoot was a 17th century paedobaptist theologian. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly and vice chancellor of Cambridge. He is especially known for his rabbinic scholarship, the capstone of which was his work Horae Hebrai, or A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica.

He played a role in the Particular Baptist’s own defense of credobaptism. He wasn’t the only paedobaptist resource the Baptists would appeal to. John Owen was another. There were several key angles in the disagreements between credobaptists and paedobaptists, but at least one worth mentioning with respect to Lightfoot. The Particular Baptists rejected fleshly circumcision is a sacramental seal of the covenant of grace under the old testament. Conversely, paedobaptists, seeking to preserve the unity or continuity between old and new covenants, saw the old covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace. For them, this meant that circumcision, being a sign of the old covenant, simultaneously served as a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11).

However, the Particular Baptists saw a substantive difference between the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision and the covenant of grace. While fleshly circumcision was a condition (Gen. 17:14) and sign of old covenant membership, it was not a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace. For the Particular Baptists, those two covenants were/are actually and truly two distinct covenants. In their appendix on baptism, which should be placed at the back of the 1677/89 Confession, they say:

If our brethren do suppose baptism to be the seal of the covenant which God makes with every believer (of which the Scriptures are altogether silent) it is not our concern to contend with them herein; yet we conceive the seal of that covenant is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the particular and individual persons in whom He resides, and nothing else… 

In demonstration of their catholicity on this point, they would often appeal to paedobaptists who believed something similar, a la Owen and Lightfoot. In the above mentioned appendix, they quote Lightfoot at length in response to the paedobaptist argument from Romans 4:11. Below, I have transcribed verbatim what they reproduced from Lightfoot in the Confession’s appendix—

Circumcision is nothing, if we respect the time, for now it was without use, that end of it being especially fulfilled; for which it had been instituted: this end the Apostle declares in these words, Romans 4:11 σφραγῖδα etc. But I fear that by most translations they are not sufficiently suited to the end of circumcision, and the scope of the Apostle whilst something of their own is by them inserted.

… 

Other versions are to the same purpose; as if circumcision was given to Abraham for a Seal of that righteousness which he has being yet uncircumcised, which we will not deny to be in some sense true, but we believe that circumcision had chiefly a far different respect.

 

Give me leave thus to render the words; And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith, which was to be in the uncircumcision, Which was to be (I say) not which had been, not that which Abraham had whilst he was yet uncircumcised; but that which his uncircumcised seed should have, that is the Gentiles, who in time to come should imitate the faith of Abraham.

 

Now consider well on what occasion circumcision was instituted unto Abraham, setting before thine eyes the history thereof, Genesis 17.

 

This promise is first made unto him, Thou shalt be the Father of many nations (in what sense the Apostle explaineth in that chapter) and then there is subjoined a double seal for the confirmation of the thing, to wit, the change of the name Abram into Abraham, and the institution of circumcision. v. 4. Behold as for me, my Covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. Wherefore was his name called Abraham? for the sealing of this promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. And wherefore was circumcision instituted to him? For the sealing of the same promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. So that this is the sense of the Apostle; most agreeable to the institution of circumcision; he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith which in time to come the uncircumcision (for the Gentiles) should have and obtain.

 

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.

Thomas Aquinas on Gender

Thomas Aquinas on Gender

The context of this post is an ongoing discussion concerning the identity of the human person. Previously, I’ve made a distinction between the substance of a thing and the accidental properties which accrue to that thing. This “thing,” in this case, is the human person, which I’ve described as the imago Dei in terms of substance, the accidents being those things which do not determine essential or substantive identity yet change from time to time, i.e. black hair turns to grey, skin becomes tan, etc.

If we consider human nature, in general, in terms of the individual man, the above seems somewhat easy to put together. A man can be the same man substantially even though some of his accidents may change. Easy enough, right? But, this simplicity dissolves whenever we consider gender, or the distinction between male and female. As Christians, we would obviously deny that a person would be the same person if they were able to switch from male to female. Gender, after all, is not only accidental, but seems substantially determinative of a person’s identity, more so than eye color, hair color, skin color, life circumstance, etc.

I believe Aquinas can help sort out this difficulty by making the proper distinctions. In ST, 93.4, Thomas “steel mans” (represents to the best of his ability) the following objection—

It would seem that the image of God is not found in every man. For the Apostle says that man is the image of God, but woman is the image (Vulg., glory) of man (1 Cor. xi. 7). Therefore, as woman is an individual of the human species,  it is clear that every individual is not an image of God.

He answers—

The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman. Hence after the words, To the image of God He created him, it is added, Male and female He created them (Gen. i. 27). Moreover it is said them in the plural, as Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iii. 22) remarks, lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman: as God is the beginning and end of every creature. So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man, he adds his reason for saying this: For man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man.

Therefore, we should consider both man and woman under human nature, while at the same time understanding that, individually, man and woman have more specific, individual natures, i.e. male and female. Man is substantially distinct from woman in that sense, and this is predominantly seen in the distinction between the final causes of either. Man’s end, in terms of the male nature, is God; woman’s end, in terms of female nature, is man (1 Cor. 11:9). But when both male and female are considered under, more generally, human nature, their combined end is God (cf. WSC, Q.1).

So, gender introduces more into the equation. Generally, there is one human nature. More specifically, however, human nature might be considered under male and/or female natures, each of which have distinct ends (purposes, roles, etc.). The same cannot be said with respect to skin color, height, etc. Man’s formal and final causes remain the same regardless of height, skin color, eye color, or any other accidental properties. This is not the case with gender.

Baptist Orthodoxy, Creedal Christianity, & Catholicity

Baptist Orthodoxy, Creedal Christianity, & Catholicity

The excuses for deriding Baptists are legion. The London Baptists of the 17th century were assailed by Prebyterian paedobaptists for being Anabaptistic, or for supposedly believing that rebaptism was necessary, contrary to several instances of clarification. The derision received by those Baptists, who had quite well crossed their t’s and dotted their i’s theologically speaking, was not deserved for several reasons, one of which was the overabundance of clarification the paedobaptists received throughout their correspondence with the London Baptists: That they were, in fact, not Anabaptists, despite some obvious similarities.

Over the last one-hundred years or so, criticism of the Baptist tradition has shifted away from sacramentology toward a more general ecclesiological criticism, not altogether unrelated to the regulative principle of worship (RPW). It is no secret that Baptist churches, especially in the United States, have become laughing stocks in the eyes of serious alt-traditional laypersons and theologians alike. The reasoning for this ranges from the arbitrary implementation of “programming” to female Sunday School teachers to ordination of female “pastors” and, perhaps the eldest criticism of these last hundred years—a tendency to privatize the interpretation of the Scripture thereby neutering catholicity and openly rejecting creedal theology of any sort. And while the latter has most certainly informed the former aberrations of Baptist practice in America, it exists in sleeper cells within the most conservative circles of Baptists, from the Reformed Baptists to the independent fundamentalists to the Landmarkian tradition of Baptistic thought (all of these may overlap in various ways, FYI). To be clear, I’m not blanketing these groups, but only saying the rejection of creedal Christianity does lurk in all of them, either explicitly or implicitly, as assumptions.

It is the rejection of catholicity and the accompanying anti-creedalistic, “my only creed is the Bible,” mentality that serves as contemporary modern-day laughing stock material for serious theologians from other theological traditions, from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism to Lutheranism.

A Qualifier

Now, I couldn’t care less what individual Presbyterians and Lutherans think about my tradition, nor do I mind the jesting (sometimes, it’s even fun). But the fact is, some of them do make a valid point about the practical behavior of Baptist churches today. Baptists are even pointing this out about themselves, e.g. Drs. Craig Carter, Matthew Barrett, James Dolezal, et al. As a Baptist, I myself can say that there are conservative and liberal Baptists whom fail to obey the Apostle when he writes, “But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:24-25).” Nor do they follow in the creedal tradition of the Apostles. Nor do they take care to follow the implications of the Apostle Peter’s words, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20).”

I will elaborate below on some of these observations, but there is a fundamental concept lacking in the general Baptist milieu, and that is the concept of orthodoxy and what makes the orthodox, well, orthodox. Our 17th century forerunners understood orthodoxy and the resulting catholicity very well. One of the several goals of the Second London Confession was to demonstrate a measure of catholicity between the Particular Baptists and their paedobaptist brethren.

A final qualification: When I mention fundamentalism henceforth, I am not referring to the very needful late 19th to early 20th century fundamentalist push-back against liberalism. The Princeton fundamentalists, for example, were good, theologically astute men. And there were Baptists in their ranks from C. H. Spurgeon to B. H. Carroll as well. Also, I am not referring to the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. In terms of holding to essential Christian teaching, every Christian ought to be a “fundamentalist.” I am instead referring to the independent Baptist fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s, which began with good intentions. But because of their theological pre-commitments (or lack thereof), that movement has ended in a gross confusion of law and gospel. Much of its preaching does not consider the text of Scripture, but (ironically) man’s opinion about what Scripture says—and this has a lot to do with the error(s) to be discussed below.

The Intention of the 2LBCF Framers

If you purchase and read the reprint of the confession and catechism from Solid Ground Christian Books, you will find a preamble titled, ‘To the Judicious and Impartial Reader.’ It is in this originally included document that the framers of the confession make known their intentions. They say, “We did… conclude it best to follow their example in making use of the very same words with them both in these articles (which are very many) wherein our faith and doctrine are the same with theirs.”

There is a running joke in theological circles, and with many online, about the plagiarism of the Second London Confession, which is only a revision of the Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession of Faith. We Baptists, unapologetically, copied the confessions of the independent congregationalists and the Presbyterians. But it wasn’t because we were trying to be funny or intentionally unoriginal (well, maybe the second thing a little), it was because we were trying to maintain catholicity. Their further explanation makes this clear when they clarify their method, which was “to manifest our consent with both [documents] in all the fundamental articles of the Christian religion, as also with many others whose orthodox Confessions have been published to the world on the behalf of the Protestants in diverse nations and cities.”

Most of the Second London merely repeats (in substance) what the Savoy and Westminster say. There are obvious differences in the chapters on the church and baptism. And there is some practical illumination added which did not exist in the other two. Yet, I would venture to say that what defines (but does not determine, a function which belongs to Scripture alone) Particular Baptist orthodoxy is the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89).

The Modern Baptist Rejection of Confessions and Creedal Statements

“No creed but the Bible” is a popular sentiment among Baptists. I will first demonstrate how this statement is, on its face, illogical and objectively false. Secondly, I will examine the claim in light of the Baptist orthodoxy of the 17th century. Thirdly, I will attempt to show how, “No creed but the Bible,” leads to things like unfettered church programming, bad doctrine, female ordination, and the contemporary influx of cultural Marxist thinking we now deal with today (not to mention all the LGBTQ stuff).

First, the claim, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is irrational. That statement alone is a creedal statement which is not found in the Bible. To say, “there is no creed but the Bible,” is to adopt a creed and thus become the very thing the statement is supposed to avoid in the first place. It’s self-refuting.

Second, our Baptist forerunners did not speak in terms of “no creed but the Bible.” A diligent student will not be able to find that kind of language in extant Baptist literature preceding the last 100-150 years. It is easy to find, however, the authoritative subjection of councils and creeds to Scripture in Baptist thought, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined… can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit (2LBCF, 1.10).” But this is hardly a Baptist distinctive. This same paragraph is found in the Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration, neither of which were Baptist. I do not know any Christian, excluding Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, who would deny this statement. The highest churches in Protestantism from Anglicanism to Lutheranism agree with this. Yet, all of those traditions are creedal. I will explain below what it means to be creedal in connection to the meaning of catholicity (little “c”) below.

Third, “no creed but the Bible” has made provision for what the Apostle Peter denounces as private interpretation. This has led to an utter neglect of creedal Christianity and catholic doctrine. It has made the individual mind the supreme judge of interpretive decisions. Essentially, Baptists have entered into a vacuum of theological thought. And they get to determine how to fill that vacuum. Sometimes, by God’s grace, they turn out okay (usually by relying on creeds and confessions, but not overtly admitting they do so). But other times, they end up forcing one of their members to shut down a business for legalistic reasons, or they come up with clinically insane doctrine that would make a 17th century Baptist vomit all over the London cobblestone sidewalks.

The fruit of “no creed but the Bible” is a downplaying and broadening of confessional statements, i.e. the BFM, 2000 in concert with the corrupt cooperative program; and an outright rejection of any kind of human accountability or authority, i.e. Beth Moore fighting her heart out for “women pastors,” regardless of the counsel she’s received or the historical orthodoxy of her own professed Baptist tradition. “No creed but the Bible” has brought about some pretty rotten fruit, from Billy Graham to the “Jesus Movement” of the 1960s and 70s, and the subsequent empire of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel enterprise. It’s brought about charismania, rampant hypocrisy, and the church growth movement. It’s birthed forth rock concerts in church services and “digital church.” And of course, the emergent church of the 90s and early 2000s is another offspring of “no creed but the Bible,” or at least the principle sentiment behind it. All this considered, either Baptists spawned Pentecostalism, or Pentecostalism has influenced modern Baptists. It’s a “chicken/egg” conundrum that some historian somewhere will probably one day solve.

Creedal Christianity & Catholicity

Creedalism and catholicity are everywhere either asserted or exemplified in the Bible. For example, Paul recites a creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7—

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.

There are those, of course, who deny the creedal nature of this statement. But there are several reasons leading one to conclude, beyond all doubt, that these verses indeed included an early creed which predated Paul’s ministry. The words for received and delivered refer to receiving traditions from elders and passing them on to others. For more reading on the creedal nature of this passage, visit this link.

Paul passes on a creedal statement to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:16 which he calls “the mystery of godliness,” something equated to the gospel itself elsewhere. This text was no doubt something easily committed to memory, a summary of the essential faith, “God was manifest in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.”

The response, of course, is that these creeds are inspired by God whereas the Nicene or the Apostles’ Creeds are not. This is true, but this does nothing but make these creeds infallible. It does not forbid us from making creeds in like manner anymore than the existence of Psalms or the epistle to the Hebrews prevents us from singing hymns or preaching sermons. In fact, it sets an infallible, authoritative precedent for the construction of creeds and confessions of faith, and actually obligates the church to follow the same method in point of practice. This just is the biblical way.

These creeds are to be used as a tool to maintain catholicity. I have to be careful here because the word catholic is often associated with Roman Catholicism. However, Rome does not own that term, nor do they have sole rights to its meaning. In fact, the term was used long before Rome was what it is today. In the Nicene Creed, we read, “ We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” And when this creed was framed, Roman Catholicism in no wise looked how it looks now. Balthasar Hubmaier, an Anabaptist leader in the 15th and 16th century, calls it “the universal church.” Interestingly enough, he goes on to exposit the doctrine of the universal church from the Nicene Creed (cf. Hubmaier, Catechism). Thus, the creedal expression and the concept of catholicity are consistent themes throughout Christian orthodoxy, even being found in the Anabaptists—who some consider to be fringe Baptists.

Modern Baptists have gotten away from all of this, whether it be the modern fundamentalists or the more liberalized and contemporary sectors of the SBC. Both extremes share one thing: a “no creed but the Bible” mindset. It’s “them and their Bibles” and there is no accountability for their interpretation, their application, or their teaching on the Scripture. There is no fundamental meaningful doctrinal standard for modern Baptists, and that’s why “Baptists” are all over the board in these recent days. The term “Baptist” has nearly lost all meaning.

I propose that the solution is a return to creedal and catholic Christianity, in the same spirit with which our Baptist forefathers penned the Second London Confession of Faith. It is pretty bad when Anabaptists, who are often considered fringe Baptists by many serious theological thinkers, are more orthodox than most modern Baptists. And if I had a decision to make between most modern SBC or “fundamentalist” churches on the one hand, and Hubmaier’s church in the 16th century on the other, I’d probably be going to Hubmaier’s church where at least I can be sure historical, creedal and catholic Christianity is taken seriously.

On Tradition & Innovation (traditum & nuovo modo)

On Tradition & Innovation (traditum & nuovo modo)

In reaction to the communist attack on American values, including some within the evangelical mainstream, some Christians have sought to anchor their societal and religious identity in something older than the now. This is not a new trend, by any means. The struggle between the old and the new existed for first century Jewish Christians, and it was a constant balancing act among the heathens of the Roman empire. The traditionalist Romans, which for many centuries were the majority, sought to preserve the oldness of the empire—their religion, their ritual, their military strength, their code of ethics, and their philosophical underpinnings, etc.

The New Testament church, as it began to spill over the boundaries of Judea, was quickly recognized as something new and unfamiliar. The two universal Roman persecutions under Decian and then Diocletian were not so much interested in squelching Christianity for personal reasons, but for the sake of preserving the empire and its traditional ways. Older was better; anything new must be extinguished or exiled.

The principle convictions of the Roman empire was not at all wrong. There was nothing wrong with wanting to preserve what they loved, or what made Rome Rome. In fact, every empire has done this, to one extent or another, through world history. Every empire has to do it if it wants to survive. What made it wrong was, perhaps, their approach and their reasoning. They were, after all, rejecting the true God in favor of idols. And in doing so, they went to war with the very kingdom of God.

Why do I recount the church’s early history? 

People in many areas of the country are tired of newness. Newness, ironically, is getting old. And the reason it is getting old is because it’s not newness itself that is wrong, but the nature of the newness. This newness has brought us all sorts of garbage—from abortion, to pornography, to a rejection of basic reality through foolish, relativistic sophistry. It has gutted academia of all honorable clout, and it is actively pursuing the hearts and minds of our youth. Entitlement is the anthem, the “noble” cause, newness has brought us in these recent years. The concept of Critical Race Theory and the outflowing social justice and reparations has been the latest vehicle by which the new communists have tried to actually affect, you guessed it, communism.

We’re tired of it. Christians are tired of it. Husbands are tired of it. Fathers are tired of it. Wives and mothers are sick of it. The Patriarchy is bending the shackles placed upon it by the K-12 indoctrination system, and reaching back in time to recover its ancestors’ ways.

This is a very good thing.

Yet, There’s a Twist

As desirable as it is to recover the doctrine of the past, we have to make sure we do so circumspectly and intelligently. There is a right and a wrong way to utilize history. Sometimes, the beauty of history, with all its warts, tempts us to adopt all of its ways regardless of reasons. We often try to appropriate history in our own lives for no other reason aside from, “It’s history!”

Tradition is history put to the test. It is history experimentally tried in contemporary life. For example, Christian doctrine is referred to as tradition (2 Thess. 2:15). Traditions can be beliefs, rituals, or other kinds of customs. But they are traditions, not because they were recently invented, but because these beliefs, rituals, and customs have been passed down. They are historical inasmuch as they come from the past.

It should be no mystery that at least some traditions are bad traditions. The Scripture makes this plain when it says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ (Col. 2:8).” The tapestry of history is woven together with light and dark threads and gives way to images of glory and nightmares of terror. Tradition is covering yourself, as for warmth, with one piece of that tapestry or another. Which historical doctrine or practice will you apply to your life? Sometimes, the question comes to us in this form: Which historical doctrine or practice will you keep and maintain? The second question assumes a very important fact, that we are all born into a traditional context. We’re already pre-covered with one part or other of the tapestry of history, good or bad, either warts or porcelain skin.

Tradition, therefore, isn’t some smorgasbord of truth, exclusively considered. It is a buffet of good and bad foods. And the individual, in concert with other individuals, either within the church or within a civil society, i.e. nation, must discern which traditions are healthy and which are rotten. Adults, especially Christians, often choose to adopt traditions they come into contact with through theological literature, videos, or personal relationships at school or church. They receive traditions, or should receive them, after some process of analysis, the end of which is to discern good from evil, falsehood from truth. 

Unfortunately, when Christians receive new traditions, it’s often because they are attracted to them for reasons which may or may not justify their beliefs. For example, if a Protestant jumps to Roman Catholicism because they like the smell of the incense and cathedrals, they’ve not justified their move because, in addition to smells and bells, they’ve also adopted an entirely new (to them) theological system.

There is also the issue of those who are generally unable to discern right traditions from wrong ones. Young children do not reason through, nor do they empirically verify everything their parents teach them. But this is because children are under the tutelage of their parents for a reason, i.e. to train them up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6). And though it may not fall on the child to discern tradition at that particular stage of life, it most certainly is up to his or her father. If a father educates his family in bad tradition, not only will he not train the child up in the way it should go, but he will actively lead them astray—a scenario to which we might apply Mark 9:42, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”

There are, thus, good and bad traditions concerning which we are responsible for discerning according to objective ethical and aesthetical truth.

The New Nationalism & the Rejection of Conscience

Because of the above, I’m dumbfounded there are some who do not believe tradition, family or otherwise, should be subject to personal or individual inquiry. A set of particular traditions just are good. And, naturally, the traditions of which we speak are usually thought of in terms of nation or country of origin. Traditions are good, the nation in which they were formed is good. There is no reason, per se, as to why these things are good. But in order for such and such nation to survive and thrive, and in order for the people who practice such traditions to continue on, these traditions must be engaged and protected. Note here we are not talking about tradition as a good, universal idea or form. We are talking about specific traditions developed over time along certain ethnic or national lines. I will touch on the goodness of tradition as a general concept or universal below.

This view of inherently good particular or national traditions has led to what some might call extreme nationalism. Nationalism is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, there is a kind of nationalism necessary for all people to espouse. What extreme nationalism does, however, is it divorces reason from the ethics of national and familial tradition. Particular, man-made tradition just is good. To question it is wrong. Why would it be wrong to question a given national or familial tradition? Because of the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you (Ex. 20:12).” But how does this blanket application of the fifth commandment square with what Scripture says elsewhere? In Luke 11:48, Jesus chides the religious elite (traditionalists) for approving of and even following in bad traditions passed down from their ancestors: “In fact, you bear witness that you approve the deeds of your fathers; for they indeed killed them, and you build their tombs.”

Extreme nationalism neuters human reason and dashes to pieces the judgment of conscience, the very faculties responsible for distinguishing man from beast, and instead demands that he accept tradition apart from discerning its truth or goodness. All of this leads to irrationalism. For example, when asked whether or not he is Christian or pagan (because of mixed signals on his website), the author of an extreme nationalist blog and meme gallery, Europa Invicta, responds—

Neither one nor the other, and both at the same time! I received a Christian education, yet I don’t believe in God as Christians imagine him to be, though I am not a heathen either. However, I have a lot of affection for both traditions because there is so much cultural heritage in Europe thanks to previous generations of Christians as well as the vision that neo-Pagans have for the world and human relations. Let us say that here, too, I try to celebrate our respective legacies to transcend them in a positive common vision.

Interestingly, while he readily accepts pluralism with regard to religion (which consequently spawns and shapes tradition and culture), this is not the case with skin color, ethnicity, or nationality. The site features several memes depicting white people, with different colored hair, which read, “We have all the diversity we need.” But what more can be expected when traditions are chosen, not for any objective moral reason, but in terms of preference, and then made arbitrarily exclusive of other people?

This doesn’t mean, of course, that it is wrong to have a kind of hereditary and cultural pride. But when those things are seen as substantial identifiers of human persons, national identity becomes more preferable, desirable, and indeed more obligatory than truth itself. In the case of Europa Invicta, the intellectual tradition of Christianity specifically is rejected in favor of pluralism (Christ is not God in a pantheon of other gods). But, according to the traditionalist who assumes the finality of tradition, this is perfectly acceptable because, again, traditions are the finibus (ends) of mankind, not truth. And if these traditions are identified with truth itself, then they must displace their contraries, among which would be Jesus Christ, who repeatedly chides the traditions of men in favor of the superior will of His Father.

An Overreaction to Tradition

Some, having more favor for the nuovo modo (new way) than the paths of old, banish tradition, almost indiscriminately, to the dark, cobby halls of antiquity. There is a tug-o-war between the old and the new. But this actually need not happen if we are to understand tradition and innovation as two distinct genera, both of which are inherently good. Bad traditions or innovations would degrade from the goodness of either. So, for example, aspirin may be a good innovation, but methamphetamines intended for human consumption are not. 

Aristotle helpfully innovated on Plato in some very important ways. But nominalism and subjectivism threaten to undo both. Innovation (progress) is good, but there are those things which actually threaten and diminish true innovation, or perversions of it, which are not truly innovative at all but evils under the guise of progress, e.g. the leftist notion of “progress” isn’t progress at all.

Tradition is also inherently good, but there are bad habits and false religions, often called traditions, which erode the truth and goodness of true tradition. For example, religion is a good expressed through tradition, but what if the religion is pagan idolatry? To the extent it fails to be a good and true religion, it is evil. And to the extent it is evil, it fails to be a good tradition. This privation in the goodness of tradition, which too often plagues society, is often referred to in a positive way as “bad tradition.” But ontologically, bad tradition is nothing more than a privation of the good. And good tradition is but the application of goodness and truth in human belief and practice.

Furthermore, those who favor innovation to the detriment of tradition fail to observe that without tradition there can be no favorable or good innovation, or at least we cannot know whether or not an innovation is good without tradition. This is because the principle of innovation always lives in the past. An innovation either seeks to improve upon some pre-existent thing. Or, it operates upon the foundation of some pre-existent thing. The past is the reference point for innovation. For example, Da Vinci dabbled in the dream of flight. But flight was only significant to Da Vinci because of some pre-existent thing, i.e. human travel. Flight would have been an improvement on human travel and indeed has been, but it also would have operated upon principles discovered and applied far beforehand, making tradition necessary to Da Vinci’s innovative aspirations.

So, to respond to bad tradition by favoring innovation over tradition altogether is to misunderstand the metaphysics of either. They are really two sides of the same coin when both are understood as mutual goods, either of which may be perverted through sin.

Conclusion

Tradition and innovation are good things with bad imposters. We cannot ignore the reality of corrupt or perverse traditions, of which we must be discerning. Neither, however, can we cast tradition (sic et simpliciter) aside in favor of innovation, for two reasons—(1) because that’s impossible, as shown above, to do so; and (2) it would be to forego the good, beautiful, and true, which tradition is inasmuch as it exists. Likewise, neither can we dispose of the innovative in favor of tradition. For traditions are not immutable, nor do they transcend development. They themselves are developments or innovations in terms of their particularity and originality, of our knowledge of them, and of our eruditeness in skillfully applying them.

Covenants, Law, & Nature – A Response to Gary DeMar

Covenants, Law, & Nature – A Response to Gary DeMar

Delving into this discussion is always a difficult quandary for me, mainly because I’m usually at a loss in terms of where to begin. It’s complicated, really. There are two debates: One between classical theism and presuppositionalism, and another (related) debate between two-kingdom theology and reconstruction theonomy. I will not go into details about these debates here, but Gary DeMar’s recent article, ‘Biblical Examples of Church and State Jurisdictional Separation’, sets one foot in the former debate and another in the latter debate.

Before you get sucked into reading what follows, a working grasp of both aforementioned debates would be helpful if not necessary to fully understand what will be said here. But I will try to clarify as I go along for those of you who are just now familiarizing yourselves with the broader discussion(s).

DeMar’s article fundamentally relates to the debate between a particular version of two-kingdom theology and his more reconstructionist understanding of theonomy, which largely follows a Gary North/Bahnsen-esque trend. Two-kingdom theology understands natural law to be (1) objective; and (2) knowable. And this is consistent with a classical theistic or scholastic understanding of natural revelation (what is) and natural theology (our knowledge of it). Reconstructionist theonomy tends to affirm natural revelation while denying a stable or usable knowledge of natural revelation as a basis for any sort of civil judicial system. This is because an objective knowledge of natural revelation would imply a natural theology, something rejected by Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and others of their ilk. It would also imply the natural man can understand something of natural revelation accurately, an idea that cuts against the grain of (especially) Van Til’s view of total depravity.

DeMar’s [Insufficient] Reason for Denying Natural Law

Right off the bat, in his article, DeMar takes to attacking the two-kingdom use of natural law, “Some will argue that [morals, governmental jursdictions, and separation of powers] can be accounted for using natural law,” he says. And this position would generally characterize the Reformers and the post-Reformed, who understood natural law to be foundational to civil ethics. Yet, by way of rejecting this position, DeMar offers an alleged reason such use of natural law should be seen as untenable, “But Darwinism ended natural law as a basis for anything except change (emphasis added).” He then quotes Gary North:

Charles Darwin destroyed natural law theory in biological science…. His successors destroyed natural law theory in social science. In the 1920’s, quantum physics destroyed natural law theory in the subatomic world. This immediately began to undermine modern legal theory.

This type of reasoning is highly problematic. If natural law is true, then neither a perversion of nor an attempted rebuttal to it would say anything about its objective reality. Let’s extend their reasoning to a fundamental claim of Christianity—the inerrancy of Scripture. Christians believe the Bible is inerrant. It is really inerrant regardless of what the scoffer might say in response to such a claim (on this we’d all agree). It would seem, however, according to DeMar’s style of reasoning, that a scoffer could invalidate the inerrancy of Scripture merely because he either perverts it (a la., Karl Barth), or rejects it (Julian Wellhausen). But orthodox Christians would never grant this to be the case, would they? Absolutely not.

Therefore, if natural law is true, then it is true regardless of what scoffers (e.g. Darwin) say about it.

DeMar’s Conflation of Being and Knowing

Everyone who rejects outright relativism either implicitly or explicitly affirms a difference between the order of being (what objectively is, i.e. reality) and the order of knowing (our knowledge of it). If these orders are confused, knowing and being becoming virtually synonymous, then our knowledge essentially creates reality. Unqualified subjectivism or relativism inevitably ensues.

When DeMar makes the claim that Darwin “ended natural law as a basis for anything except change,” he is confusing these two orders. What Darwin thinks (order of knowing) of natural law makes no difference as to what natural law is (order of being, objective reality). It is what it is regardless of what a person thinks he or she knows about it. If natural law and its validity stands or falls based on one’s thoughts about it, then relativism is the consistent result from such rationale. Reality is or is not based on what people like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, or Charles Darwin thought about it, or so it is implied. The Christian should reject this kind of thinking outrightly.

Paul clearly states that, “what may be known of God is manifest in them (Rom. 1:18), and that, “His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made (v. 20).” Romans 1:18, i.e., “manifest in them,” is further elaborated upon in Romans 2 with the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles. Presuppositionalists obviously trivially accept what Romans 1 says, but they will immediately emphasize v. 18, which says the natural man suppresses this knowledge in unrighteousness. But this does absolutely nothing to natural revelation. While the sinner is in the wrong, natural revelation and thus natural law remain an authoritative source of revelation nonetheless. It’s so authoritative, in fact, that it leaves its dissenters “without excuse,” and eligible for judgement (vv. 20, 26).

Therefore, natural revelation and natural law maintain their full integrity even though sinful man perverts and ultimately rejects it. And this makes DeMar’s claim that, “Darwin ended natural law as a basis for anything except change,” one of shame and compromise. He’s essentially claiming Darwin, a heathen, changed that which God instituted and revealed from the foundation of the world. And he’s also rejecting fundamental reality as nothing more than a Heracletian change-scape with no objective moral force. This is not a position available for the Christian.

DeMar’s Lack of Covenantal Clarity

DeMar gives another example of Joe Biden rejecting the natural law alluded to by Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings. But in light of the above, a denial of reality in thought doesn’t automatically equate to a falsification of reality.

Arguing for “biblical jurisdictional separation,” DeMar’s version of a separation between church and state, he begins to invoke the Old Testament, “Moses became the chief judicial officer in Israel, assisted by numerous lesser civil magistrates (Ex. 18:17-26).” There is nothing wrong with DeMar’s observation here, per se. What is wrong is his presupposition that the Old Covenant ought to expressly inform our understanding of modern church/state relations. This may sound foreign to some. “Isn’t the Bible God’s Word, and should not God’s Word be applied to all of life?” it may be asked.

The question assumes something that is true, namely, that God’s Word is the regulating standard for the Christian’s faith (what we believe) and practice (how we live according to what we believe). However, what DeMar does here is quite sloppy. First, he fails to make a distinction between moral precepts and positive precepts. Second, he does not even consider the implications of the New Covenant, brought out in places like Hebrews 8:13, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

DeMar is arguing for the implementation of standards belonging to an obsolete and annulled covenant. The way in which the magistrate interacted with the priesthood in the Old Testament came precisely through the Mosaic Covenant. But if the Mosaic Covenant is gone, then surely the dynamics of magistrate/lesser magistrate instituted through it are gone as well. What would be our standard for understanding a quasi-continuation of the Old Covenant if Scripture itself annuls its formal and material cause, its final cause being met in Christ? There is none.

The moral law, or the Ten Words, were part of the Mosaic Covenant, and one may opine, “If government is to operate according to the Ten Commandments, then the Mosaic Covenant must be appropriated somehow.” But this is both wrong and unnecessary. The moral law or the Ten Commandments did not come through the Mosaic Covenant, but were already in force prior to it, and were merely included within the Mosaic Covenant. Even the Sabbath was operative prior to the revelation of the Law-covenant at Sinai (Ex. 16). If one were to study Genesis, they would find every moral precept in the Ten Commandments were both known and in force prior to the implementation of the Ten Commandments within the context of the Sinai Law-covenant (Mosaic Covenant).

The question, then, would be, “How were they known?” I believe Romans 2 helps us confirm an answer to this question we should be able to know through reason, “God’s law is known to man apart from the Law-covenant, i.e. Gentiles who are without the law know the law.” Even prior to the institution of the Law-covenant in Exodus 20ff, the moral law was apprehended and applied to society without any express or systematic Scriptural revelation. In other words, it was assumed. This continues to be the case today. And though these natural laws are carried out imperfectly within sinful society, this says nothing about the existence and objectivity of natural law itself. It only says something about man’s sin and his rebellion against God.

All of DeMar’s examples concerning the dynamics of church/state relations are examples drawn from within the Mosaical context, a context which no longer exists with the establishment and inauguration of the New Covenant (cf. Hebrews 8). It is mention-worthy that DeMar does not cite a single extra-Mosaical or otherwise New Covenant example to bolster his point. Consistent application of the Mosaic Covenant in this fashion would lead to a belief that any given country is obligated to be a theocracy with a monarch and an informing priesthood. And this is exactly what Roman Catholicism tried to accomplish, and often succeeded at doing throughout certain points in history. The inverse example can be found in the Protestant (often Lutheran & Reformed) churches who were ruled by monarchs. Instead of the church ruling the monarch (a la., Rome), the monarchs ruled the church. None of this, of course, bore good fruit. And, I would say, the only reason Gary DeMar is likely alive (along with many of us) is because of the tolerance of Oliver Cromwell and the eventual rebellion of the Protestant churches against the monarchs (think non-conformists). Not to mention, the nation eventually spawned by such independent thought, the United States.

All of this seems to be lost on DeMar with his over-commitment to reconstructionism, which is actually nothing more or less than a reimplementation of Mosaical institutions which the New Testament has abolished. It’s his “blind-spot,” I believe (Lord help us, we all have them).

A popular retort has been, “But Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17)’!” I agree! But the term law must be qualified. It’s used equivocally time and time again in the New Testament. So, which law was Jesus speaking of? The temporal Mosaic covenant, or the eternal moral law? If one reads through the Sermon on the Mount, they would see the eternal moral law is most certainly in view.

To tie this up in a pretty red bow, and bring it back to my earlier claim, that DeMar “fails to make a distinction between moral precepts and positive precepts”: Moral precepts, which just is natural law, are nothing more than a revelation of the unchanging moral character of God applied to creaturely living. Positive precepts are those things commanded beyond mere moral law, and they sit upon moral law much like a superstructure sits upon a foundation. But positive commandments come through covenant and are, therefore, subject to the purpose of the covenant, e.g. for a specific people, place, time, etc. The Mosaic Covenant included countless positive precepts which went beyond the unchanging moral law of God. Included in those positive precepts were the ceremonial and civil laws, which often intertwined with one another, as DeMar himself notes in his article. But these laws are expressly annulled by the New Testament.

The later institution of a monarch in Israel represents an amendment to the original design of the Mosaic Covenant. Yet, the Israelite monarch was a type instituted to look forward to the other and greater antitype, King Jesus.

Conclusion

I will close by summarizing my criticisms above in the form of a brief argument:

(1) If the dynamics between kings and priests are perpetual for every human society, then the laws defining kings and priests are perpetual.

(2) If the laws defining kings and priests are perpetual, then the Old Covenant is not annulled.

(3) But the Old Covenant is annulled (Heb. 8).

Therefore,

(C1) The laws defining kings and priests are not perpetual.

Therefore,

(C2) The dynamics between kings and priests are not perpetual for every human society.

Perhaps the most significant blunder in DeMar’s political theology is his neglect of covenantal distinction. That which comes through any given covenant cannot be fragmented or separated from its original covenantal context. As it is, the New Covenant annuls the Mosaic Covenant and all that which originated through it.

In my opinion, DeMar could strengthen his position if he stopped appealing to the Mosaic Covenant and its positive-temporal precepts, instead making appeal to the Noahic covenant in Genesis 8-9, which sets the judicial standard, not only for Israel, but for all creation as the result of sin coming into the world. And it can thus be applied to all societies, yet with a degree of liberty in terms of the particulars. I believe this is what John Calvin had in mind with his two-kingdom political theology in book IV of his Institutes. The moral law must be applied throughout society, since it is the natural standard for the whole world without exception. And so long as the moral law of God is what any given civil law seeks to serve, then said civil law may be justified.

I realize I now open myself to the question, “By what standard do nations execute the moral law?” But while the moral standard is the same across the board, the mode of upholding it may be compared to something like individual Christian liberty. In this case, there would be a sort of national or civic liberty in the mode of enforcing the moral law, since there is no specific mode of enforcement revealed in Scripture for nations who do not live under the Mosaic Covenant, but only general principles.

DeMar’s concern seems to be one we should all share. “How do we overcome the subjective interpretations and perversions of natural law?” But this concern doesn’t warrant a wholesale rejection of natural law theory. And to answer the question, “How do we overcome the subjective interpretations and perversions of natural law?” I would say we do so in the same manner we overcome subjective interpretations and perversions of the Scripture: We argue about it, and to the victor goes the spoils. Such is our lot in a sinful world, with no utopian solution.

This is why we need to be collectively pushing for a recovery of logic in ethical and political discourse. Arguments are the means by which we justify our theses, and this is true regardless of whether or not we see natural law or the positive commands of Scripture as the standard for civil justice. False interpretations of either will persist, and only by logical discourse can we get to the bottom of what and what is not true.

And, I would add, no other environment has allowed for this to occur more effectively than that of the environment protected by the Constitution of the United States of America over the last couple centuries.