Professor Pushback, Perkins and R2K

A few hours ago I received the following message through my blog from professor R. Scott Clark in response to an article of mine that recently appeared on The Aquila Report. After discussing the matter on the phone with this brother, I’ve decided to address a few things.

Your account of “R2K” seems like a caricature. Who defends the “R2K” view you describe?

Anyone who knows the 16th & 17th centuries knows that general equity = natural law (e.g., Wollebius & Perkins) and that is intended to be applied to civil issues such as kidnapping.

Ecclesiastically it applies to the church but that doesn’t exhaust it’s use.

My response will be limited to the professor’s use of William Perkins along with a corroborating footnote pertaining to Johannes Wollebius.

Here we can find a relevant quote from William Perkins, with an excerpt of that quote immediately below. (Bold and italicized emphases mine throughout article.)

Judicials of common equity are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men and these in respect of their substance bind the consciences not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles for they were not given to the Jews as they were Jews, that is, a people received into the covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the Land of Canaan, of whom the Messiah according to the flesh was to come; but they were given to them as they were mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations are. Again, judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law.

It’s to misread Perkins to infer that in the civil realm it is just the law of nature that is binding upon all men. Instead, we should take Perkins to mean that it is the law of nature that makes the judicial laws of Israel suitably binding upon all men. To miss that point is to miss Perkins’ point. The law of nature establishes the foundation upon which civil laws can and should be applied to all nations.

Perkins distinguishes particular judicial laws that were peculiar to Israel’s commonwealth that don’t have this same quality of nature, which further punctuates his point that morally rooted judicial laws are universally applicable. Example: the brother should raise up seed to his brother. (Johannes Wollebius holds a similar view that distinguishes judicial laws that are grounded in natural law from those that are not.*)

The judicial laws in view were not themselves natural laws, for the judicial laws were both made and given to men under Moses “according to” what was already instinctive to them. Moreover, these judicial laws were given to the Jews not by virtue of their unique covenant standing before God but in their common created capacity of being “mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as other nations.” So, the judicial laws are neither to be seen as fundamentally moral nor particular to a covenant nation but rather as having expansive moral import based upon something even more fundamentally primitive in nature, which makes way for their trans-nation application.

R2K wrongly takes the fundamental moral basis upon which judicial laws can be found universally applicable and turns that natural law foundation into the only feature that carries through to the nations. In doing so, R2K denies Perkins’ position, which couldn’t be clearer. It is the judicial laws themselves that have universal judicial application and not merely the instinctive properties of natural law contained within them: “Again, judicial laws… are moral and therefore binding.” Perkins also informs us of the reason why the judicial laws can be universally and morally binding, which is because “they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature.”

WCF 19.4:

Apropos, for civil magistrates to govern according to the general equity of Israel’s judicial laws (WCF 19.4) is to govern strictly according to those civil laws that were rooted in the common equity of the moral law and not according to the judicial laws that pertained to the land promise or other non-moral aspects of Israel’s society. Yet R2Kers (like the referenced professor) offer an alternative paradigm of governance, which would limit civil magistrates to govern strictly according to natural law yet not according to Israel’s judicial laws that are rooted in natural law. Aside from departing from the nuance of Perkins and Wollebius on the binding moral relevance of Israel’s civil code, one need only consider the historically global results and degeneracy of such governance in order to appreciate the ineffectiveness of natural law in the civil realm. But that shouldn’t be surprising since natural law was never intended to be a model for wielding the sword! The civil laws were given for a reason, and in the minds of men like Perkins et alia the intrinsically moral civil laws are forever binding upon conscience because of their divinely inspired relation to natural law:

“judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law.”

William Perkins

Perkins couldn’t be clearer that judicial laws grounded in nature are binding upon conscience. In the minds of Perkins, Wollebius and those who followed in their footsteps, the OT judicial laws that stemmed from common equity were so inexorably tied together that in the Reformed tradition to apply the common equity of natural law was in fact to implement the civil code! Westminster 1647 corroborates with the expectation that civil magistrates ought to punish according to the natural law immorality of blasphemy etc., which is a moral consideration rooted in, yet extending beyond, the law of nature with respect to a revealed civil sanction.

When we come to the American Revision of the standards, we may not whimsically alter the original import of general equity, which according to historical precedent was inexorably tied both in significance and substance to the civil code (as opposed to intending a nebulous and uninstructive law of nature with respect to civil governance). In sum, Clark the church historian is wrong even on his appeal to his own historical sources.

R2K as non-confessional with no suitable alternative:

As a mental exercise one might simply consider – even if civil magistrates needn’t consult OT civil laws in the formation of contemporary civil laws, would the more moderate (and, therefore, less consistent) R2ers argue that civil magistrates oughtn’t ever consult OT civil laws that relate to the moral law? If not, then when does it become advisable to do so, when all else fails? Plain and simple, to be a creedal R2Ker one must self-project either as (a) antinomian in their laissez-faire R2K consistency (e.g. D. G. Hart, Lee Irons and perhaps Michael Horton) or else (b) happily inconsistent and arbitrary (e.g. R. Scott Clark). One must either condone – even support! – same sex civil unions or else arbitrarily object to them contrary to their R2K profession of Reformed orthodoxy. Indeed, Natural Law condemns such acts as sinful but not as criminal. The latter assessment is either a matter of Special Revelation or autonomous reasoning. R2K opts for the latter, unaided reason.

From their respective ivory towers, R2K ethicists offer absolutely zero practical alternative to Westminster civil ethics. None! For although natural law calls for eternal damnation for the least of all transgressions, it is mute with respect to temporal punishment for even the greatest of all transgressions. If R2ers would for a moment make practical application with their armchair ideology (perhaps put even a morsel of meat on the bones), they might begin to see how arbitrary, inconsistent, fraught with error and just plain useless their abstract kingdom theory really is.

Wrapping up:

For Perkins, the “substance” of these judicial laws that were given to the Jews binds not just “Jews but also Gentiles…” Contrary to the R2K consensus, these judicial laws are universally binding not because their foundational equity is to be equated with, and reduced to, natural law without remainder, but because these judicial laws expand and complete what is contained in natural law! Indeed, within the judicial law is a foundational general law of nature, but it is the judicial law itself that Perkins claims now binds all men: It is the “judicial laws so far as they have in them… the law of nature…” that are binding upon conscience. In other words, the judicial laws that are trans-binding are those judicial laws that are grounded in a natural law that is common to all men. What mustn’t be missed either with Perkins’ or my redundancy(!) is that judicial laws are morally trans-binding whenever they are founded upon the moral law revealed in nature!

For the confessionally Reformed, judicial laws are fittingly applicable to all nations precisely because of the instinctive features within them that would be common to all men. For the Westminster Divines, to implement the moral law in the civil realm was to apply OT civil law. What we may not do is project the natural law foundation for judicial laws as being the only feature of the law that remains universally binding in the civil realm, at least not if we want to maintain a Westminster civil ethic. Apropos, bestiality is instinctively and fundamentally immoral. So is same sex marriage. Notwithstanding, what apparently is not intuitive is whether such “private” and “victimless” transgressions should be deemed criminal and, therefore, punishable under the law (hence the spectrum of views within R2K on these practices as well as other deviant ones).

One final word:

Two Kingdom theology has been widely refuted for many years. The most devastating critiques I’ve read are written by RTS professor James Anderson. Dr. Anderson’s critique and follow-up critique are uniquely useful because they demonstrate with analytical rigor how David Van Drunen’s Two Kingdom paradigm, which I believe is representative of at least Escondido if not the rest, is logically incoherent. Dr. Anderson’s two critiques are stated with precise premises and progression of thought that is open to evaluation. Any takers?

Although possible, it does seem doubtful that R2K proponents will consider the riches of Westminster’s civil ethic until they come to grips with the bankruptcy of their owned treasured system. Another problem is that R2K proponents are not typically rigorous systematic theologians or analytical in their theological approach but rather often historian types. This has made it difficult for them to critically interact with opposing positions, form counter arguments, and defend their position against internal critiques. A tendency to assert rather than argue has not yet proven to be a formula for fruitful discussion. I remain doubtful it will become one anytime soon.

*Johannes Wollebius, draws a similar distinction. “In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.” Exceptions would apply to “those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.” The only question is whether kidnapping, homosexuality, or even blasphemy are acts related to the promised land or peculiar to the Jewish state, or are these matters of morality, which would entail judicial penalties biding upon all nations.