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.

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.

For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.

I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”

What Is 4-D Homiletics?

First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.

In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.

In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.

However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.

Tim Challies & Government

Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:

If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.

Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

He also says in a later part of the article:

Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.

Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).

In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?

In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.

In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?

Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter

You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”

I thought you’d never ask!

Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.

4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.

He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.

If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.

Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.

Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).

We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.

God In the Fire

God In the Fire

“Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” — Daniel 3:25

In less than two weeks, pandemic numbers continue to rise at an unprecedented rate, and Americans in various places have been confined to quarters by fiat government orders. The liberties we once thought we had have become a thing of the past in a most obvious fashion. Understandably, many are scared, wondering what the future months hold. The light, if any, seems dim at the end of the tunnel, especially since Trump has announced that these preventative quarantine measures could last into the Summer.

Christians, however, ought to understand this situation according to a whole different set of considerations. While the world will do its best to elicit maximal amounts of fear, the church ought to maintain a cool and collective head.

Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-Nego, & Some Context

Just prior to the events recorded in the passage you read above, King Nebuchadnezzar gave orders to the people that they should worship the golden image he had erected at the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltry in symphony (Dan. 3:1-6). But there were certain, faithful Jews—a remnant, if you will—the three of which were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. They refused to worship the statue (v. 12). As a result, the king grew in fury and brought the three rebellious Jews to stand trial before him. He issued a threat, saying, “…if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?“ Having been warned by the king, the three men responded as follows:

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.

I would be interested to know just how many of today’s professing Christians would have told Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego that they “need to submit to the authorities” because “Romans 13 commands them to do so.” Would they cloak such demands in “love” and “charity”? Who knows. But there are certainly some parallels between what these three men underwent thousands of years ago and what the Western church now faces. How far will we allow the government to define our worship? How long will we allow them to possess the keys which rightly belong to the church? 

Similar questions must’ve been circling through the minds of many Jews during Daniel’s day while under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. And rightfully so. They are important questions with which we must wrestle, even in the land of so-called liberty.

The point here, however, is that the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. The situation within which the three men in Daniel 3 found themselves is the status quo. We shouldn’t expect it to be any other way. God Himself has declared this to be the way in which worldly governments and peoples behave (Ps. 2:1). All politics aside, this is the context in which Christ’s bride finds herself. So, the question is not so much, “What do we let them get away with?” It’s more, “How do we love Christ through all of this?” And, “How do we love our neighbors?” I believe the answer to either question precludes reflexive fear, doubt, etc. And the reason reflexivity would be an inappropriate response in this case is because of the God we profess to worship.

We do not worship statues. We worship the God who goes before us. The God who stands with us in the flames of uncertainty and eminent shipwreck.

God In the Fire

The author of Hebrews 13:5 says, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” The bride of Christ, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, is in the flames. She’s in the furnace of the world, and the world would love nothing more than to burn her up and watch her ashes blow away with the wind. But just as God has already declared the norm for the post-lapse (fallen) world, so too has He declared the norm for the church militant, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:10),” and with, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn. 15:20).” 

Persecution is the norm for the church militant, and with it, suffering, and even bodily death. However, held along with this reality are two other parallel truths. First, the kingdom of God belongs to us. Second, God is with us and will never forsake us.

When the king had finally thrown the three men into the furnace, by utilizing his government assets (Dan. 3:20), the flames were hotter than they ever had been (v. 22). Yet, upon a second glance, the king and his men realized that there weren’t three men standing in the furnace. There were four. And not only this, but neither of the four were being consumed by the white-hot flames. Looking closer, the king noticed that the appearance of the fourth man was like “the Son of God.”

Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23), is that fourth man. Just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the fire of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, so too He is with us to this day. He will never allow us to be consumed. He will never allow us to be crushed. He will bring us through COVID-19 and state oppression just as He brought the Jews through long seasons of exile. Just as He delivered Daniel’s friends through the furnace, so too He will escort His bride to rivers of peace.

This promise is as sure as God’s presence in the Person and work of Christ nearly two-thousand years ago. There, in a dusty little sand-box just off the shore of the western Mediterranean Sea, the God-Man saved His bride. The flames no longer burn, and death ceases to sting. He’s come to stand with us.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. — Romans 8:18-19