Westminster Civil Ethics vs R2K Natural Law on Kidnapping

Christians and non-Christians alike have grieved this past week while also trying to process ethical questions regarding longtime convicted kidnapper Cleotha Abston who is being charged with abducting and murdering Eliza Fletcher.

Many ethical questions are at hand and convictions run passionately deep regarding how those questions might best be answered through a Reformed Christian world and life view. As strange as this might sound to many, some Reformed Christians have little regard for “worldview type” answers to ethical questions that intrude upon the sphere of civil government. Among the leading critics of a confessionally Reformed view of civil government are those who subscribe to what is called “Reformed 2 Kingdom” (R2K).

R2K is a position that posits that Christians are citizens of the spiritual kingdom of God along with inhabiting the earthly kingdom of this world, which includes as fellow members all people without distinction. R2K has been opposed by those who would define it not as a species of a distinctly Reformed 2 Kingdom model but instead an offspring of a Radical 2 Kingdom paradigm because of a non-Reformed balance between Scripture and Natural Law. Although R2K rightly appreciates that there is a law of nature that is revealed to all humans in conscience without distinction, the R2K movement is increasingly radicalized by denying Scripture its rightful place of influence in the civil kingdom, which too falls under the governing domain of God. Consider one leading proponent of R2K:

Scripture is the sacred text given to God’s covenant people whom he has redeemed from sin. . . . Given its character, therefore, Scripture is not given as a common moral standard that provides ethical imperatives to all people regardless of their religious standing.

David Van Drunen

With their Natural Law paradigm, R2K proponents deny that Abston ought to have been executed according to Exodus 21:16 for his first kidnapping. In theory, R2Kers could advocate for capital punishment for kidnapping, just as long as they don’t justify the penalty on the authoritative word of God!

The task at hand:

Questions before all nations include…

  • Which sins ought to be considered crimes?
  • What should be the punishment for criminal acts?
  • How might we best justify our answers?

Civil magistrates are governing authorities established by God for the punishing of wrongdoers. In light of this awesome God ordained responsibility, Natural Law proponents tell us that the Scriptures are neither necessary nor permitted to inform civil magistrates on the details of how to govern society in a manner pleasing to God. (Noodle that one around in your head for a moment.)

For the R2K crowd, God requires civil magistrates to govern society according to the “Book of Nature” alone. It would be displeasing to God for Christians to desire and pray that the general equity of OT civil law be implemented today because capital punishment finds its NT fulfillment in excommunication. (More on that later.)

Because there are no theocracies today, we’re told that civil magistrates may not glean from Old Testament law which sins should be deemed crimes. Nor may civil magistrates seek to determine suitable punishment for criminal acts by searching the Scriptures. Natural Law is exclusively sufficient for the task.

Natural Law and fallen autonomous reasoning:

Natural Law informs us that the least of all sins deserves God’s wrath. Yet R2K proponents also maintain that civil magistrates should not punish some sins at all and all remaining sins should not be punished equally severely. Accordingly, God’s preceptive will is for civil magistrates to determine by the light of fallen nature alone whether bestiality, homosexual acts and abortion (just to name a few sins) are to be considered purely sins, criminal acts too, or simply amoral. (Even if nature were to inform us that these sins should also be illegal, how successful and unified have the nations been over time on deriving a “Natural Theology” of sin, crime and penology to that effect?)

First principles:

Natural Law began with creation and was operative during the time of Moses through today. Natural Law could not have contradicted Israel’s civil sanctions lest God could deny himself. Furthermore, neighboring nations would not have violated the “Book of Nature” by executing kidnappers according to the God of Israel’s wisdom during the Mosaic era. Accordingly, there’s no reason to believe that Natural Law in any way forbids putting a kidnapper to death today, (lest the cross of Christ has altered Natural Law). Therefore, why think that non-theocratic nations today ought not govern in a way that would have been more exemplary for non-theocratic nations during the Mosaic era? Should we believe that God would be angrier with non-theocratic nations today if they turned to Scripture to try to determine which sins should be considered crimes? Would God be angrier with non-theocratic nations if they were to execute kidnappers according to Special Revelation rather than justifying the loosing of kidnappers after limited incarceration based upon Natural Law inference?

At the very least, if Natural Law has not changed over time and God’s two forms of revelation are complementary and never antithetical, then why should we accept the claim that God would not have the nations adhere to the general equity of Old Testament civil law, which is fundamentally the moral law applied to the civil realm?

Various reasons have been given why we are not to govern society according to OT equity. 

“In other words, the Old Covenant, Mosaic death sanctions typify and anticipate the eschatological manifestation of God’s righteous judgment against his enemies.”

Lane Tipton

Much can be said. First off, the death penalty preceded Moses. Did the death penalty that preceded Moses typify and anticipate the same eschatological manifestation? Secondly, what about the non-capital offenses that were not sanctioned by death? For instance, I can possibly see how OT civil restitution might typify eschatological judgment in a Roman Catholic sense, but how in a Reformed sense in which there’s no doctrine of purgatory that can identify as the anticipatory eschatological manifestation of OT restitution?

Finally, since the death penalty preceded Moses and was instituted for violations against God’s image bearers, why should we suppose there is no lasting and intrinsic temporal value for such civil sanctions? Why, in other words, should laws that would be so useful for governing any OT society be considered secondary to typology, or so devalued by the cross of Christ that they lose timeless societal value? After all, if every transgression or disobedience received just retribution, then mustn’t civil sanctions still serve a functional societal purpose simply by virtue of all nations requiring governance before and under God? In a word, is biblical typology all that antithetical to biblical penology?

“The civil codes have lost their context now that salvation is in Christ, in a spiritual kingdom, and not in Israel, a temporal nation.”

Rick Phillips

Aside from a false disjunction that would implicitly presuppose that Israel’s civil code and spiritual kingdom are somehow mutually exclusive concepts – the Reformed tradition has always maintained that salvation was always spiritual; hence not all Israel was Israel. Secondly, why should we believe that God’s wisdom and righteous judgment loses practical applicability upon King Jesus’ commissioning the church to disciple the nations under the whole counsel of God? How does the cross make foolish and passé the wisdom and general equity of civil laws that were intrinsic to a nation that would seek God’s wisdom in civil justice? Is the Son of God no less King over the nations than Lord over the church?

“I’ll say it again, since Paul spent so much time addressing the differences between Jews and Gentiles, and also said that Gentile were not bound by Israelite norms, then his instruction in Rom 13 is hardly a reaffirmation of OT civil laws.”

Darryl Hart

We cannot logically deduce that which is not deducible. Nor is it wise to require God to provide answers in the exact places we might hope to find them. That is to come dangerously close to putting God to the test.

Scripture is replete with examples of Jesus not providing answers in the context in which people often sought them. Accordingly, citing Romans 13 in an effort to refute Westminster civil ethics through the employment of a fallacious argument from silence is on par with concluding that (a) Jesus was not a teacher sent from God; (b) Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; (c) Jesus intended to establish Israel as a political power but failed with the passing of John. (Mark 10:17-18; Acts 1:6,7; John 21:20-22)*

The Westminster Confession describes them as “sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (XIX. 4).” In other words, these laws were for regulating the nation of Israel, which was then but no longer is the particular people of God. While there is an undisputed wisdom contained in this civil law it can not be made applicable to any nation today, since there are no biblically sanctioned theocracies now.

Rick Phillips

How can “undisputed wisdom… not be made applicable…”? Wisdom not relevant? Something seems intuitively doubtful about such claims. Are the Proverbs no longer applicable because there are no theocracies today? What about the Ten Commandments? Aren’t civil laws the application of moral laws in the civil sphere, after all?

Plain and simple, the Confession does not teach that the civil law “can not be made applicable to any nation today…” Rather, it teaches the very opposite! It teaches that nations are obliged to implement the judicial law as the general equity of it may require.

R2K types misread Westminster Confession 19.4 by saying that the preservation of the general equity of the OT civil code now applies solely to church discipline.

“They are transformed into the judicious application of church discipline.”

Rick Phillips

By this miscalculation, when the Divines advocated for the preservation of the general equity of Israel’s civil law, they weren’t allowing for anything like maintaining an equity of civil justice. Nor were they establishing biblical principles of accommodation by affording freedom to rearrange and substitute non-essential aspects of the law such as stoning for hangings (or today lethal injection, and DNA for the principle of two or three witnesses.). Rather, we’re asked to believe that the Divines were actually teaching the preserving of the general equity of capital punishment by applying the death penalty to ecclesiastical excommunication!

Clearly, the prima facie rendering of 19.4 and the associated proof-texts don’t support such a fanciful interpretation. (Genesis 49:10; 1 Peter 2:13-14) These verses have nothing to do with church discipline but rather everything to do with civil magistrates.

The OT reference pertains to the scepter not departing from Judah along with the future obedient allegiance of the peoples. Whereas the NT reference pertains to a secular punishing of evil doers, not ecclesiastical censure of professing believers!

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and to him shall the gathering of the people be. Genesis 49:10
Submit yourself to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that to well. 1 Peter 2:13-14

The way in which modern day R2Kers interpret the preserving of the general equity of the law cashes out not as preserving the general equity of the law but an utter obliteration of it.

Not to belabor the point but given this pervasive perversion of 19.4, probably more should be said:

There was excommunication under the older economy, a “cutting off” as it were (an exile of sorts), which was not accompanied by OT execution. Yet in God’s wisdom both were operative, presumably with distinct purposes. Accordingly, it seems a bit dubious that excommunication is equitable to execution. Moreover, it is simply fallacious to argue for a repeal of directives that pertain to the state from directives that pertain to the church. Yet we are asked to believe that OT capital punishment for wrongdoers is equitable to and swallowed up by excommunication. What then is the general equity for capital punishment for those already outside the church and, therefore, cannot be excommunicated, non-ecclesiastical warning? Moreover, what is the general equity of OT civil sanctions for the Christian who warrants a lesser penalty than death, ecclesiastical admonishment?

It’s not just arbitrary, it’s simply silly to think with the expiration of Israel’s theocracy that the Divines actually thought the wisdom of the civil law was no longer to resemble the original penal sanctions in their general equity, while also maintaining that the civil law is perpetually binding in its general equity! The linguistic gymnastics is astounding.

Let’s not force the Divines into contradiction. Excommunication and capital punishment aren’t close sisters. They’re not even distant cousins. To see how distantly disanalogous they are, one need only consider that repentance lifts the penalty of excommunication, which was not the case for capital crimes under the older economy.

Consider the following R2K attempt to reduce Westminster civil ethics to absurdity:

“The public high school teacher may be able to teach algebra but because she doesn’t know where the truths of math come from, she doesn’t really understand math. Or the elected official may understand that human life should be protected and vote for harsher penalties for manslaughter but unless he understands that human beings are created in the image of God, his vote is inauthentic.”

Darryl Hart

Actually, Algebra teachers do know without discursive reasoning that truth in general and the intelligibility of algebraic truth in particular presupposes God. (Developing this apologetic insight, especially as it relates to the moral pressure of not thinking false thoughts, extends beyond the scope of this article.) Moreover, Algebra teachers are also held accountable for suppressing God in the classroom by not taking every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5b)

But aside from the implicit and rampant Thomism of the day that misunderstands the epistemological underpinnings, limitations and implications of natural law and natural theology, it’s hardly controversial, nor terribly relevant, that one can possess warrant for belief x while not being able to offer it. After all, even if one can know something apart from being able to offer warrant for her true-belief (epistemological externalism), why is the ability to offer internalist epistemic justification somehow superfluous, let alone forbidden?! Are beliefs that are not self-consciously justified always as defensible as those that are self-consciously justified? Is the ability to justify civil laws from special revelation morally and functionally irrelevant? Why should we accept that self-conscious epistemological justification that comes from (propositional) special revelation lends no force to the justification of penal sanctions, or that such revelation is implicitly forbidden by God to be invoked in “earthly kingdom” discourse?

Regarding manslaughter and murder, a significant reason why man is to be held responsible by civil magistrates to honor and protect human life is because man is uniquely created in God’s image. (Genesis 9:6) Yet defiantly, R2Kers have dismissed this OT revelatory justification for “harsher penalties” as an irrelevant divine tidbit that is implicitly forbidden to be invoked in the earthly kingdom. Although all men everywhere know in conscience something of the dignity of human life, natural law doesn’t reveal that humans are God’s image bearers. Accordingly, why shouldn’t unbelievers be instructed in the Scriptures according to a fundamental reason why capital punishment is required by God? In other words, apart from invoking Scripture’s teaching on the dignity and relevance of the imago Dei as it relates to capital punishment, what is the natural theological basis for execution? Was Natural Law sufficient for Moses? What’s easier to interpret, discuss and debate, the propositions of Special Revelation or General Revelation, (Systematic Theology or Natural Theology)?

Here’s the crux:

R2K reasoning leaps from the premise that (a) people know things they aren’t prepared to justify to the grand implication that (b) offering a robust justification for beliefs is of little use if only we can muddle through without having to give one! In other words, R2Kers confound (c) the common grace ability of societies to “function” (no matter how badly) according to a subjective standard of “good enough” with (d) the ethical question of whether there is a moral imperative to apply the objective standard of Scripture to society whenever possible. (In passing, we might consider how well societies are doing with the R2K ethicist’s hope that “the elected official may understand that human life should be protected…”)

One more for the road. Now fasten your seatbelts!

“Nero did not violate God’s law if he executed Christians who obeyed God rather than man. If Paul continued to preach after the emperor said he may not, then Nero was doing what God ordained government to do. Christians don’t get a pass from civil law just because they follow a higher law…If a law is unjust or if we must obey God rather than men, then we suffer the consequences of disobedience. That’s what the apostles did. They didn’t form political action committees to overturn Roman laws. Paul doesn’t mention justice. He doesn’t mention God’s law. He doesn’t qualify the magistrate’s authority. They are God’s ministers – period. So you disobey God’s word. You refuse to do what Paul says. Submit to the unjust emperor.I am saying that I follow what Paul said in Rom 13. God wants his people to submit to those in authority, those whom he has established. If I break the civil law, I should be punished. God gave us authorities to uphold the law and maintain order We and peace. It’s disorderly and unpeaceful if you think you can pick and choose which laws to obey because you have Jesus in your heart.”

Darryl Hart

No, you are not losing your mind!

Apparently Christians may not protest unjust laws that persecute Christians because our kingdom is not of this world. Is campaigning for a particular political candidate who embraces Christian values permissible? Or, is that too close to mentioning justice while forming an unservile political action committee? Does this professor ever try to vote a candidate out of office, or is that to disobey political status quo that is established by God? Oh, and Nero cannot break God’s law because he gets to submit to himself?! The logical trajectory of a position can often be its best refutation, as in this case.

Common misguided arrows about Westminster Civil Ethic:

  • Westminster civil ethics are not eschatologically dependent. Which is to say, a doom and gloom amillennialist can hold to a Westminster civil ethic because the question turns not on how things might end up but on how things ought to be.
  • Contrariwise, a postmillennialist can believe that we are to be governed by solely natural law in the civil realm.
  • Westminster civil ethics are not inexorably tied to cultural transformation. Which is to say, one can believe that such civil laws will never possibly be legislated until the church first believes that they should. And even then, there’s always the eschatological question of future Christian influence in society.
  • That Muslims might want to see the world oppressively governed by the Koran is irrelevant to whether God’s people should desire that the general equity of God’s civil laws be legislated lawfully and not by force.
  • Capital punishment is not contrary to the Great Commission, for anyone on death row should be pleaded with to turn from their sins and receive Christ as he is offered in the gospel.
  • That some Christians find the prospect of certain civil sanctions repulsive for today raises the question of whether these same Christians would have delighted in such laws had they lived under Moses. It seems to me that Christians who mock the notion of such laws for today have shown themselves incapable of contemplating the intrinsic wisdom and goodness of such laws prior to the cross. Their disdain is trans-testament.

Closing Remarks:

There will always be additional theological, philosophical and confessional arguments that can be levied against the proffered position. I do hope, however, that I have addressed at least minimally the more common ones.

Full circle, how might one go about justifying whether a convicted kidnapper who violates the imago Dei should be punished? Secondly, what is the “natural theology” consensus for the penal sanction, assuming there should even be a penalty?

As I’ve argued on the subject of the Christian Sabbath, if one wants to deny Westminster’s civil ethic, then by all means do so yet without claiming the imprimatur of the Westminster Divines.

In closing, let’s hear from some opponents to Westminster civil ethics who at least acknowledged the Divines’ civil ethic.

“At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith — at least in the Confession’s original formulations…Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny. (Kline in Westminster Theological Journal 41:1 [Fall, 1978]: 173)

Meredith Kline

The view is not really new; it is just new in our time. It was the usual view through the Middle Ages, was not thrown over by the Reformers and was espoused by the Scottish Covenanters who asked the Long Parliament to make Presbyterianism the religion of the three realms — England, Scotland and Ireland.” (In Presbuterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 5:1 [Spring, 1979]: 1)

Laird Harris

“Essentially, Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it.” (In Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: An Informed Critique[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 323-324]).

Sinclair Ferguson

“The words of Chapter XIX, iv can be understood to include the view that the Mosaic penalties may be applied by the Christian magistrate (if “general equity” so dictates). We have already noted that such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy.” (Ferguson, 346-347)

Sinclair Ferguson
*Footnote for the hazardous appeal to Romans 13 to argue R2K from silence: 

Mark 10:17-18: When a rich young ruler called Jesus good, he neither affirmed nor denied that he possessed that quality of person but instead said nobody is good but God. Depending upon one’s pre-commitment it might be inferred that Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; yet the text neither affirms nor denies either conclusion.

Acts 1:6, 7: When the apostles asked Jesus whether he was at that time going to restore the kingdom to Israel, he neither affirmed nor denied such an intention but instead said that it was not for them to know the times or epochs that the Father has fixed by his own authority. Dispensationalists, given their pre-commitment to a restored national Israel, infer from the answer a confirmation of their theology, that the kingdom will be restored. Notwithstanding, no logical conclusion can be deduced from the text with respect to the restoration Israel’s kingdom.

John 21:20-22: When Peter asked Jesus whether John would be alive at the time of Jesus’ return Jesus told him that if he wanted John to remain until such time it was no business of Peter’s. Jesus then put to Peter his task, which was to follow Jesus. Jesus’ answer did not logically imply that John would remain or not, let alone whether Jesus would even return one day! The answer even caused a rumor among the brethren that John would not die (John 21:23). John in this very epistle (same verse: 23) remarked on the unjustified inference that caused the rumor: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

Links to quotes by David Van Drunen , Lane Tipton, Rick Phillips and Darryl Hart

https://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Case-Natural-Law/dp/B000UIKAXO

https://www.kerux.com/doc/1501a1.asp

https://www.tenth.org/resource-library/articles/which-old-testament-laws-must-i-obey/

https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/new-warrior-children-thread/

https://oldlife.org/tag/ted-williams/

https://oldlife.org/2017/01/04/is-donald-trump-mainstreaming-apostasy/#comment-151575

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