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General equity refers to any portion of a particular Mosaic law that overlaps with natural law (the perpetual moral law written on the hearts of all men at creation). WCF 19.4 says “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” In other words “not obliging under any now, further than the perpetual moral law does require.”
First, “which expired” means that the judicial laws, as given to Israel, are abolished. Not a single judicial law comes to any modern nation through Moses. If any judicial principle abides, it comes from the moral law given to all men at creation, not from the particular application of that moral/natural law to Israel. (See here)
Of course, precisely which portions of the Mosaic judicial law are of abiding general equity was a matter of debate. Rutherford gives perhaps the greatest defense and articulation of the 1646 Westminster view, which was the more detailed expression of the earlier view of Calvin and the reformed (see this helpful collection of excerpts from Rutherford on judicial law and compare with Calvin Inst. 4.20.14-16).
Judicial laws may be judicial and Mosaical, and so not obligatory to us, according to the degree and quality of punishment, such as in Deuteronomy 13, the destroying the city, and devoting all therein to a curse; we may not do the like in the like degree of punishment, to all that receive and defend idolaters and blasphemers in their city. And yet that some punishment by the sword be inflicted upon such a city, is of perpetual obligation;… No man but sees the punishment of theft is of common moral equity, and obligeth all nations, but the manner or degree of punishment is more positive: as to punish theft by restoring four oxen for the stealing of one ox, doth not so oblige all nations, but some other bodily punishment, as whipping, may be used against thieves… the punishing of a sin against the moral law by the magistrate, is moral and perpetual; but the punishing of every sin against the moral law, tali modo, so and so, with death, with spitting on the face: I much doubt if these punishments in particular, and in their positive determination to the people of the Jews, be moral and perpetual.
17th Century Presbyterian General Equity
Thus their application of general equity was:
- P1 The punishing of a sin against the moral law by the magistrate is moral and perpetual.
- P2 False religion is a sin against the moral law.
- C1 The punishing of false religion by the magistrate is moral and perpetual.
with the qualification that:
- P3 The common Law of Nations [the application of natural law by nations] determines what is moral and perpetual.
- P4 Nations differ over the degree of punishment for sins against the moral law.
- C2 The degree of punishment for sins against the moral law is not perpetual and and moral.
18th Century American Presbyterian General Equity
Fast forward to the 1788 American revision of the WCF which rejects C1. I have not been able to find primary sources that explain the revision, but we can develop something that will get us close. With the founding of America upon the principle of a new theory of natural law that prohibits the establishment of religion, the American Presbyterians could argue:
- P3 The common Law of Nations determines what is moral and perpetual.
- P5 Nations (which now includes America) differ over whether false religion should be punished by the magistrate.
- C3 The punishment of false religion by the magistrate is not perpetual and moral.
19-20th Century Presbyterian General Equity?
Nearly 100 years later, Charles Hodge summarized the reasoning behind the American revision. “[T]he relative duties of [civil government] cannot be learned by reasoning a priori from [its] design, but must be determined from the Word of God. And when reasoning from the Word of God, we are not authorized to argue from the Old Testament economy because that was avowedly temporary and has been abolished, but must derive our conclusions from the New Testament.” Notice that the Old Covenant is simply set aside entirely, meaning the issue of general equity is largely set aside as well. At some point this developed into the view officially adopted by the PCA in 1973. Their Book of Church Order 3-4 states “The power of the Church is exclusively spiritual; that of the State includes the exercise of force. The constitution of the Church derives from divine revelation; the constitution of the State must be determined by human reason and the course of providential events.” To answer the question of civil government, Scripture must be set aside.
20th Century Theonomic General Equity
The same year, Rousas John Rushdoony published The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) followed by Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (originally as a thesis paper, 1973). Bahnsen argued
[F]rom a “theonomic” perspective, the church’s only hope for an effective witness in secular society is to call men away from sinful self-reliance and worldly wisdom, directing them to submit to the authoritative word of God revealed in the Scriptures. Here alone will we find an adequate foundation for modern ethics which overcomes the sifting sands of relativism and the upheavals of anarchy. With Paul, we would “cast down reasonings and every high thing which is exalted against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)… Theonomic ethics, to put it simply, represents a commitment to the necessity, sufficiency, and unity of Scripture. For an adequate and genuinely Christian ethic, we must have God’s word, only God’s word, and all of God’s word.
The popular attitude of our generation — both outside and inside the Christian church (which is a commentary in itself) — is that the civil laws of the Mosaic revelation are outlandish, out-dated, and surely not morally acceptable for modern states. Those who, like “theonomists,” do not repudiate the moral validity and use of the Mosaic judicial laws in contemporary political affairs have scorn heaped upon them as anachronistic fools or dangerous tyrants. Today even theologians who claim to be “Reformed” widely ridicule or emphatically reject the theonomic endorsement of the validity of Old Testament civil laws. But we should honestly ask: who is closer to the Reformed theology of the Westminster Confession on this point today, theonomists or their detractors? (“The Westminster Assembly and the Equity of the Judicial Law“)
Many (including Bahnsen) mistakenly thought that theonomy was a return to the 17th century Presbyterian view, but both modern “Covenanters” and modern Theonomists have now recognized that the two views are not the same, particularly with regards to natural law theory (see here and here). Theonomy rejected the “autonomous” appeal to natural law found in P3 and therefore rejected C2. Bahnsen argued that Mosaic judicial law was a subset of moral law (rather than a subset of positive law) and therefore argued that Mosaic judicial law, including the degree of punishment, had not been abrogated and remained binding on all nations. Thus theonomy’s view of general equity is:
- P6 Scripture alone must determine what a crime is and what punishment is due for each crime in modern nations.
- P7 Old Covenant judicial laws have not been abrogated, aside from some culturally specific circumstances (such as execution by stoning or electric chair).
- C4 Old Covenant judicial laws determine what a crime is and what punishment is due for each crime in modern nations.
Inconsistent Appeal to Natural Law
I think it is fair to say that the historic Presbyterian “Covenanter” view held to an inconsistent view of natural law. Consider Calvin’s Institutes 2.2 where he explains the inability of fallen man to correctly discern natural revelation, even in civil matters.
[W]hen you hear of a universal judgment in man distinguishing between good and evil, you must not suppose that this judgment is, in every respect, sound and entire. For if the hearts of men are imbued with a sense of justice and injustice, in order that they may have no pretext to allege ignorance, it is by no means necessary for this purpose that they should discern the truth in particular cases… Indeed, if we would test our reason by the Divine Law, which is a perfect standard of righteousness, we should find how blind it is in many respects. It certainly attains not to the principal heads in the First Table… As to the precepts of the Second Table, there is considerably more knowledge of them, inasmuch as they are more closely connected with the preservation of civil society. Even here, however, there is something defective… For the natural man cannot bear to recognise diseases in his lusts. The light of nature is stifled sooner than take the first step into this profound abyss.
The Canons of Dordt (III.4) stated the matter very clearly.
There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.
As a result of the Covenenter’s inconsistent view of natural law, it produced two diametrically opposed views: that represented by PCA BCO 3-4 and that represented by theonomy. Both views are wrong, and so is the historic Presbyterian view.
Most reformed Christians today are in a sort of 1788 limbo. Should the government punish false religion? “Definitely not! We believe in the separation of church and state!” Should the government punish homosexuals and adulterers? “Absolutely! We confess the general equity of Mosaic laws still apply!” They selectively appeal to Israel when it agrees with them and ignore it when it doesn’t. They have provided no biblical rationale for when a particular Mosaic judicial law has an abiding general equity application to modern civil law and when it does not. They really just don’t know what to do with general equity. Many of them object to libertarianism because they believe there are all kinds of moral issues that should be punished, but they can provide no consistent biblical justification for punishing those sins but not the sin of false religion & idolatry.
Reformed Libertarian General Equity
Reformed Libertarianism affirms Bahnsen’s presuppositional critique. Political philosophy, civil ethics, must be determined by Scripture alone. However, Reformed Libertarianism rejects theonomy’s view of Mosaic judicial laws. We affirm Rutherford’s opinion that the “whole bulk” of Mosaic judicial laws are abolished and that they contained positive law in addition to an abiding moral equity. We also affirm the American advancement of this concept. The Americans (presumably) reasoned that the positive aspect of Mosaic judicial law extended beyond merely the degree of punishment, but to the question of any punishment at all for some sins. The punishment of false religion was itself a positive law, not an abiding moral law. Finally Reformed Libertarianism looks to Scripture, not natural law theory, to determine which Mosaic judicial laws have an abiding general equity application to modern civil law and which do not and Reformed Libertarianism also agrees with theonomy that the degree of punishment is part of that general equity.
- P8 Whatever judicial laws Scripture teaches God has given both to Israel and to all nations has an abiding general equity application to all nations, while all other Mosaic judicial law has been abrogated.
- P9 Scripture teaches that punishment for acts of violence has been given to all nations (Genesis 9:6) and to Israel (Leviticus 24:17-21; Exodus 21:22-25; Deuteronomy 19:18-21) according to the principle of lex talionis (eye for an eye).
- C5 Punishment for acts of violence according to the principle of lex talionis (eye for an eye) has an abiding general equity application to all nations, while all other Mosaic judicial law has been abrogated.
1677/89 London Baptist General Equity
100 years before the American revision of the WCF, the particular baptists in London made essentially the same revision. Signatories like Benjamin Keach said “murders and traitors ought by the sword of justice to be cut off, or pulled up; but not such who are only guilty of divers sorts of errors in matters of faith, or such who many ways are immoral in their lives… only for murder, treason, felony, &e., ought persons to be delivered up to the civil magistrate, to suffer corporal punishment.” Which sounds an awful lot like C5.