Thomas Cartwright a Theonomist?


Things Necessary

Clearly there have been men in history who have advocated positions similar to theonomy. That’s the whole reason we have Calvin’s very clear rejection of theonomy (as we saw previously). “For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false.”1 This section was present in his first edition (1536). By 1573, John Whitgift, a prominent Calvinistic Episcopalian in England, noted “or do you doubt whether the civil magistrate hath authority to appoint any other punishment for these, and such like crimes, than is prescribed in the judicial law of Moses? (for this is now called in controversy, and beginneth to be table-talk).”2 In other words, by 1573 this had become a Facebook issue. These words of Whitgift are in response to Thomas Cartwright.

Thomas_CartwrightCartwright (1535–1603) was an English Puritan. He argued against Whitgift’s Erastian (civil authority is supreme over the church) Episcopalianism (church hierarchy headed by a bishop) in favor of a form of Presbyterianism.

Calvin dealt with the question of authority over church polity under the subject of Christian Liberty (3.19, 4.10, 4.20). He argued that our justification by faith alone freed our conscience before God. Thus if any human authority attempted to bind our conscience before God through the means of a law or requirement they said was necessary for eternal life, we are at liberty to ignore it. Roman Catholicism was clearly at the forefront of his mind here. However, Calvin distinguished between things necessary and things indifferent (adiaphora). We are not bound by things indifferent before God (conscience), but if a human authority places a law upon us concerning things indifferent – that is, the human authority is not making this requirement a matter of eternal life (“forming a religious obligation”), but simply a requirement concerning the due arrangement of polity – we must obey, as God commands us to submit to human authority.3 “Many are greatly puzzled with this question, from not distinguishing, with sufficient care, between what is called the external forum and the forum of conscience.”4 Since both ecclesiastical bodies and civil governments are in the “external forum” they may work together to duly arrange things (though he thought the Lutheran model gave too much authority to the civil government). For more on this, see Calvin’s Two-Fold Government.

However, Calvin also included the “true worship of God” under things necessary.

[T]hey are not at all entitled to insist that whatever they devise without authority from the word of God shall be observed by the Church as matter of necessity… Everything relating to a perfect rule of life the Lord has so comprehended in his law, that he has left nothing for men to add to the summary there given… So Peter, when he reminds pastors of their duty, exhorts them to feed the flock without lording it over the heritage (1 Pet. 5:2); meaning by heritage the body of believers. If we duly consider that it is unlawful to transfer to man what God declares to belong only to himself, we shall see that this completely cuts off all the power claimed by those who would take it upon them to order anything in the Church without authority from the word of God…

[I]t will be easy to decide what human constitutions are contrary to the word of the Lord. Of this description are all those which are devised as part of the true worship of God, and the observance of which is bound upon the conscience, as of necessary obligation… In the Epistle to the Colossians, then, he maintains that the doctrine of the true worship of God is not to be sought from men, because the Lord has faithfully and fully taught us in what way he is to be worshipped. (4.10.6-8)

But if, without any regard to circumstances, you would simply know the character belonging at all times to those human traditions which ought to be repudiated by the Church, and condemned by all the godly, the definition which we formerly gave is clear and certain—viz. That they include all the laws enacted by men, without authority from the word of God, for the purpose either of prescribing the mode of divine worship, or laying a religious obligation on the conscience, as enjoining things necessary to salvation. (4.10.16)

Calvin notes that some people take this too far by claiming we don’t have to follow any human authority in the church. He responds by clarifying what constitutes things indifferent in the church.

[I]ndeed, the danger of mistake is great: for it is not easy to see at first sight how widely the two things differ. But I will, in a few words, make the matter so clear, that no one will be imposed upon by the resemblance. First, then, let us understand that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to insure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence. Wherefore, if we would provide for the safety of the Church, we must always carefully attend to Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). But seeing there is such diversity in the manners of men, such variety in their minds, such repugnance in their judgments and dispositions, no policy is sufficiently firm unless fortified by certain laws, nor can any rite be observed without a fixed form. So far, therefore, are we from condemning the laws which conduce to this, that we hold that the removal of them would unnerve the Church, deface and dissipate it entirely. For Paul’s injunction, that all things be done decently and in order, cannot be observed unless order and decency be secured by the addition of ordinances, as a kind of bonds. In these ordinances, however, we must always attend to the exception, that they must not be thought necessary to salvation, nor lay the conscience under a religious obligation; they must not be compared to the worship of God, nor substituted for piety.5

Thomas Cartwright vs John Whitgift

Note that Calvin compares these things indifferent for the ordering of the church with things in every human society done to maintain peace. He has in mind administrative details. Shifting gears over to England, there arose a controversy between Puritans and the Church of England known as the Vestments Controversy over the required attire of ministers. After lengthy debate, it was admitted that the vestments were things indifferent. Cartwright was unhappy with this outcome and in this later debate with Whitgift he changed tactics by denying that there are things indifferent. Everything must be determined by Scripture.

Whitgift’s response was to point out Calvin’s comparison between ordering all human societies and ordering the church, and then ask if Scripture was necessary to order all human societies.

Recognizing the boldness of this claim, Cartwright offers a syllogism to back it up: “But no man can glorify God in anything but by obedience; and there is no obedience but in respect of the commandment and word of God: therefore it followeth that the word of God directeth a man in all his actions.”  Whitgift, breathless at such a declaration, answers that this would make not merely the matters in question, but all civil matters as well dependent on the Word, indeed, any action whatsoever, even “to take up a straw.”6

It was in this context that Cartwright replied that civil magistrates are bound to the judicial laws of Moses: his attempt to argue the Queen has no authority to play dress-up with ministers (amongst other things), not because it is beyond her jurisdiction, but because God’s direction in these matters is so specific. This mindset led Cartwright to some rather absurd conclusions.

[F]or Cartwright, as Joan O’Donovan says, “the particular command . . . is the perfect form of law because it ‘leave[s] as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be.’”  Accordingly, we ought never to rest content with a mere general moral intuition if a clear Scriptural directive can be found; indeed, the latter is the only basis upon which the former can be valid.  This conviction leads Cartwright to a preposterous dependence on Scriptural prooftexts at many points in his debate with Whitgift where mere common-sense would have more than sufficed.  For instance, when complaining that in the Prayer Book service, the minister cannot be clearly heard by the congregation when he stands at the far end of the chancel, Cartwright feels the need to allege a Scriptural positive law for the principle, and resorts to Acts 1:15: “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples.”  When Whitgift raises his eyebrows, Cartwright holds his ground: “The place of St. Luke is an unchangeable rule to teach that all that which is done in the church ought to be done where it may be best heard, for which cause I alleged it.” ((Bradford Littlejohn “A word of God for all things we have to do”))

But let us begin with Whitgift:

To prove that these things only are to be placed in God’s church which God himself in his word commandeth, is noted the fourth and the twelfth of Deut. “Ye shall put nothing to the word that I command you, neither shall you take anything therefrom, &e.” And in the other place : “Whatsoever I command you, take heed you do it ; thou shalt put nothing thereto, nor take ought therefrom.” God in the old law to his people prescribed perfect and absolute laws, not only moral and judicial, but ceremonial also ; neither was there the least thing to be done in the church omitted in the law. And, therefore for them at that time, and during that state, it was not lawful to add anything, nor to take anything away, no, not in ceremonies and1 other civil laws. Now in the time of the gospel God hath left unto his church, expressed in his word, a perfect rule of faith and manners, and sufficient to salvation; and cursed is he that shall add anything to it, or take anything from it in that behalf; for therein it is perfect and absolute. But, as he hath left the judicial law to the discretion of the magistrate, to add thereunto or take therefrom, or alter and change the same, so that no law be made against the rule of faith and good manners expressed in the word of God, &c.

Thomas Cartwright Page 21, Sect. 2.

Unto the places of Deuteronomy, which prove that nothing ought to be done in the church but that which God commandeth, and that nothing should be added or diminished, first, you answer that that was a precept given to the Jews for that time, which had all things, even the least, prescribed unto them. I see it is true which is said, that, one absurdity granted, a hundred follow. For, to make good that things ought to be done besides the scripture and word of God, you are driven to run into part of the error of the Manichees, which say that the old testament pertaineth not unto us, nor bindeth not us. For what is it else than to say that these two places served for the Jews’ time, and under the law? for surely, if these two places agree not unto us in time of the gospel, I know none in all the old testament which do agree. And, I pray you, what is here said which St John in the Apocalypse saith not, where he shutteth up the new testament on this sort: “I protest unto every man which heareth the prophecy of this book, that, whosoever addeth anything to it, the Lord shall add unto him the plagues which are written in it; and, who soever taketh away any thing from it, the Lord shall take away his portion out of the book of life, and out of the things that are written in it?” which admonition if you say pertaineth to that book of the Apocalypse only, yet you must remember that the same may be as truly said of any other book of the scripture.

Jo. Whitgift.

My first answer to that place of Deuteronomy is true ; neither can you disprove it by any sound reason or good authority: for, if you will have this precept now to be understanded of all the self-same ordinances and laws, of the which and for the which it was at that time given, then must we of necessity keep the ceremonial and judicial precepts of the law being at that time in force. The which thing, as I suppose, no learned man will once imagine; but yet, as this precept was then given to them, that they should add nothing to the laws of God then in force, or take anything from them, so is it perpetual for us also, that we should add nothing to the law of faith and manners, which is likewise perfectly prescribed unto us in the book of God.

And thus you see how far I am from “the error of Manichees,” and from thinking “that the old testament doth not appertain unto us:” and yet I am not so Jewish to think that we are bound either to the ceremonial or judicial law; and therefore I say that that precept, applied unto us, doth not extend any further than to such things as God hath commanded or forbidden us that be Christians to do in his word. How unjustly therefore you charge me to say, that “these two places agree not unto us under the gospel,” when as I have plainly declared how they agree to them under the law, and to us under the gospel, let any man judge. The words in the last of the Apocalypse, although they be properly and namely spoken of that book, yet I am fully persuaded that they may also be affirmed of the whole testament. And I am so far from allowing either addition or detraction, to or from the word of God, that I utterly condemn as false that which you have set down before in your book, that “many things are both commanded and forbidden of which there is no express mention in the word, which are as necessarily to be followed or avoided as those whereof express mention is made.”

Chapter vi. The Second Division.
T. C. Page 21, Sect. 3.

Then you are driven to say that the Jews under the law had a more certain direction, and consequently a readier way, than we have in the time of the gospel; of the which time the prophet saith that then a man should not teach his neighbour, they shall be so taught of God : as if he should say that they that live under the gospel should be all, in comparison of that which were under the law, doctors. And Esay saith that in the days of the gospel the people shall not stand in the outward courts, but he will bring them into the sanctuary ; that is to say, that they should be all, for their knowledge, as learned as the Levites and priests, which only had entrance into it.

Jo. Whitgift.

In matters of ceremonies and judicials they had more particular rules prescribed unto them, and “a more certain direction.” For we have very little in these matters particularly written in the new testament ; but the moral law we have as perfect as they had, and in the law of faith, which is the law of the gospel and the rule of salvation, we do far exceed them. Other meaning than this there cannot (with all the violence that you have) be wrung out of my words. Your places alleged out of the prophet Jeremy and Esay improve nothing that I have spoken ; for the prophet Jeremy speaketh of the elect of God, whom he doth teach and illuminate, not only with the outward preaching of his word, but by the marvellous operation of his Spirit also. The words of the prophet Esay (if you mean the 7. ver. of the lvi. chapter; for else there is no such words there) do signify that God will gather the gentiles and strangers into his church, and make no distinction betwixt them and the Jews, in the time of the gospel; but how you should gather of that place that the people ” should be as learned as the priests and Levites,” I can not conjecture. Neither truly do I know to what purpose this text is alleged, except it be a little by the way to flatter the people and to claw them.

Chapter vi. The Third Division.
T. C. Page 21, Sect. 4, 5.

Now, if the Jews had precepts of every the least action, which told them precisely how they should walk, how is not their case in that point better than ours, which, because we have in many things but general rules, are to seek oftentimes what is the will of God which we should follow? But let its examine, their laws, and compare them with ours in the matters pertaining to the church; for, whereas the question is of the government of the church, it is very impertinent that you speak of the judicials, as though you had not yet learned to distinguish between the church and commonwealth.

To the ordering and governing of the church they had only the moral and ceremonial law: we have the same moral that they had: what special direction therefore they enjoy by the benefit of that, we have.

Jo. Whitgift.

The Jews, as it is confessed by learned men, had their laws more particularly prescribed unto them, and especially touching ceremonies, not only because they were prone to idolatry, but also oftentimes in subjection to idolatrous princes, where they had occasion offered unto them to worship their false gods. Therefore a learned interpreter saith: Fateor . . . . in multis ceremonns aimmtus mandatis juisse occupatos, ne alias appeterent (Calvin. Op. Amst. 1667-71- Harm, in Quat. Libr. Mos. Sec. Prsecept. Tom. I. p. 410 ; where ne alienus.): ” I confess that they were occupied in many ceremonies commanded of God, lest they should desire other.” This then was one, though not the only cause of their ceremonial laws; and in this respect their case was not better, but indeed much more servile and worse than ours, who are delivered from that yoke of ceremonies, and bound only to two, as Augustine, Epist. 118. ad Januar., saith, “most easily to be observed, and most excellent in signification, that is, the supper of the Lord and baptism.” So that you are much deceived if you think us to be in worse case than they were, because we have not so many particular rules for ceremonies as they had ; for we are delivered from the bondage of ceremonies, as the apostle declareth to the Galat. v. : and therefore M. Calvin, in his book against the Anabaptists, answering this reason of theirs (” There is more perfection required in the church of Christ than there was among the Jews ; and therefore Christians may not use the sword or be magistrates”) saith on this sort : Hoc quidem verum est, quod ad ceremonias attinet : “This is true as touching ceremonies;” meaning that we are not now bound to so many laws of ceremonies, but have freedom and liberty therein. I speak of accidental ceremonies as well as of sacraments.

You say that, ” whereas the question is of the government of the church, &c.” ; wherein antiquum obtines. For our present question is, whether all things to be used in the church are prescribed in the scripture. And that which I speak of “the judicial law,” I speak it by occasion of the interpretation of these places of Deuteronomy. Howbeit I see no such distance betwixt “the church and the commonwealth,” but the laws of the one doth and ought to pertain to the other; except you will do as the papists did, that is, seclude the civil magistrate altogether from meddling in any ecclesiastical matter. And I am well assured that not only the ceremonial and moral law, but the judicial also, pertained to the government of the church of the Israelites, and that these precepts, of “not adding to or taking from,” pertained to that law also. M. Musculus, in his Common-places, cap. de Legibus, divideth the judicial law into two parts, into ecclesiastical and civil :his words be these : ” Wherefore these precepts may not unfitly (he meaneth judicial) be divided into two kinds, whereof some are ecclesiastical and other civil.” M. Beza, in like manner, in his book De Hcereticis a Magist. puniend., saith that ” the judicial law doth partly consist in the external manner of worshipping God, partly in the civil affairs of this life3.” And M. Calvin, in his Harmo. upon the five books of Moses, expounding this in the xxiii. of Exodus, ” Thou shalt utterly overthrow them and break in pieces their images,” calleth it a politic law, and yet notwithstanding an appendix to the first precept, and added to confirm that which he had spoken before against idolatry 4. Therefore ” to the ordering and governing of the church” the Jews had not only ” the moral and ceremonial,” but the judicial law also.

Chapter vi. The Fourth Division.
T. C. Page 21, Sect. ult.

We have no ceremonies but two, the ceremonies or sacraments of baptism and of the Lord’s supper; and we have as certain a direction to celebrate them, as they had to celebrate their ceremonies, and fewer and less difficulties can rise of ours than of theirs ; and we have more plain and express doctrine to decide our controversies than they had for theirs. What hour had they for their ordinary and daily sacrifices ? was it not left to the order of the church ? what places were appointed in their several dwellings to hear the word of God preached continually, when they came not to Jerusalem ? The word was commanded to be preached, but no men. Hon made what manner of place they should have. Where was pulpits commanded or chairs? and yet they had both. Where any form of burial in the law ? and yet it is a thing pertaining to the church, that the dead be after a comely sort buried. Where any order or form of marriage? and yet it is known they had. It was (which is more) in the discretion of that church, upon occasion of dearth, or war, plagues, or any other com mon calamity, to proclaim a fast.

Jo. Whitgift.

“We have no ceremonies,” which be sacraments, ” but two,” and in them, and for all things pertaining to their substance, ” we have as certain direction as they had ” for any of their sacraments. But yet is not every circumstance to be used about the celebrating of them so particularly, nor so certainly prescribed unto us, as was to them in their ceremonies, sacraments, and sacrifices ; for they had every particular circumstance to be used about their sacrifices, sacraments, and ceremonies, set down unto them, as it is evident Exod. xii. xxv. xx vi., &c, and in Leviticus. We are not bound to any such prescript form of outward ceremonies and circumstances, but have free liberty, not only to appoint, but also to alter and change the same, as shall be thought most convenient ; so that nothing be done against the word of God, and that the general rule be observed, 1 Cor. xiv., ” That all things be done decently and in order.” All this therefore that you speak of ” hour,” ” place,” and of Ji the form of burial,” and of ” marriage,” &c. infirmeth nothing that I have said : for these be circumstances not used in the service of God, but in other actions ; and I speak of such ceremonies and circumstances as are used in the church, about the service and worshipping of God, which were to the Jews particularly prescribed (as appeareth in the places before alleged), but be not so to us.

Chapter vi. The Fifth Division.
T. C. Page 22, Sect. 1, 2.

I will not be long, whereas you say that they had nothing but was determined by the law, and we have many things undetermined, and left to the order of the church; I will offer, for one that you shall bring that we have left to the order of the church, to shew you that they had twenty which were undecided of by the express word of God. For, as their cere monies and sacraments are multiplied above ours, so grew the number of those cases which were not determined by any express word; and therefore Twill conclude that, for somuch as we have the same laws to direct us in the service of God which they had, besides2 that, a noble addition of the new testament to make things more manifest, and to bring greater light unto the old testament, we have also precise direction of our religion as they had; and therefore those places of Deuteronomy stand in as great force now, touching the government of the church, as they did then.

And, as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region where they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstances of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require. But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemp tuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny, and am ready to prove, if that pertained to this question. And therefore, although the judicial laws are permitted to the discretion of the prince and magistrate, yet not so generally as you seem to affirm, and, as I have oftentimes said, that not only it must not be done against the word, but according to the word, and by it.

Jo. Whitgift.

Surely, if you can ” shew me twenty things” to be done of them in the service of God, or discipline of the church, “left to the order of the church, and undetermined ” in the law, ” for one that I can shew left to the order of our church,” you can do more than any man that I know hath either spoken or written. Musculus, Loc. Corn., after that he hath made a particular recital of the ceremonial laws, saith that ” God did therefore appoint unto them such a number of ceremonies, because they should not invent any other, seeing they had ceremonies enow whereby they might be exercised, and as it were by a certain kind of schooling might be instructed in the spiritual sense3.” To our discretion is left, as I have said, the most of the circumstances pertaining to both the sacraments, most of all external rites, ceremonies, and other things that pertain to comeliness and order, yea, and the disposition of many things also which appertain to the external discipline and government of the church ; which are to be varied according to time, persons, and place, as shall hereafter be proved. If you be able to shew that the same liberty was left unto them in so many things, you shall do more than I can conceive.

But admit all this to be true that you say, there can be nothing spoken more directly for the justifying of my cause. For, if the Israelites, notwithstanding these places of Deuteronomy, had liberty to order things in the church, not commanded or prescribed unto them in the word of God, then do the authors of the Admonition unaptly use these places of Deuteronomy to prove that those things ” only are to be used and placed in the church which God himself in his word hath commanded.” For, if the Jews (notwithstanding these precepts) did lawfully use those things that were not in the word commanded, without adding to the word, or taking from it, surely we may do so in like manner. And thus have you taken much pains in justifying that cause, which you would so gladly overthrow.

Where you say that ” we have the same laws to direct us in the service of God that they had,” if you mean the same moral laws, you say truly, but nothing to the purpose : if you mean the same ceremonial laws (which properly are said to be ” laws directing them in the service of God “), then do you Judaizare, ” play the Jew.” And certainly I marvel what you mean by this saying, seeing that you know our external manner and kind of worshipping of God to be far distant from theirs ; and our sacraments, though spi ritually the same, yet both in number, form, matter, obser vation, and kind of signification, much differing from them, and especially seeing that their ceremonial law is utterly abolished. Neither do I well understand what your meaning is when you add, ” Besides that, a noble addition of the new testament, to make things more manifest, and to bring a greater light unto the old testament1.” For, if you mean that the new testament is added to the ceremonial law, that cannot be so, for it is the end of the ceremonial law, and doth utterly abrogate it. Nam finis legis Christus, $c. : ” Christ is the end of the law.” For as well the figures, as the promises contained in the law and the prophets, are fulfilled in the new testament by the coming of Christ; as he himself Saith, Luke xxiv. If you mean that it is added to the moral law, that is also untrue; for it only explaineth it, it addeth nothing unto it. Indeed it bringeth ” a great light to the old testament,” because all things are there fulfilled which were prophesied of, and prefigured, in the old testament. jyf, Calvin, Institu. cap. Hi. sect. 9, saith that to think Christ to have added anything to the law is “most pernicious.”

I must crave pardon of the reader for making such excur sions out of the way ; for I am compelled to follow you, which interlace your book with such by-matters, and those so suspicious and dangerous, that I cannot safely pass them over with silence. And even now again do you enter into a strange and dangerous opinion in my judgment ; for you would have the civil magistrate bound to observe all the judicial laws of Moses, ” except such as were made in respect of the region where they were given, and of the people to whom they were given.” Of the which laws the magistrates, you say, ” may only change the circumstances, as the times, and places, and manners of the people shall require.” But you ” utterly deny, and are ready to prove, if that pertained to this question, that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous * and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death.”

Howsoever you pass this matter over ” as impertinent to this question,” yet, forasmuch as you have here set it down (and I am fully persuaded that it is untrue), I mind to touch it something, and to utter the reasons of my persuasions. I leave it to the consideration of those that know the laws and state of the realm, and especially such as have the chief government and care of the same, what lieth hid under this your opinion. First, all the laws of this land, that be con trary to these judicial laws of Moses, must be abrogated : the prince must be abridged of that prerogative which she hath in pardoning such as by the law be condemned to die: the punishments of death for felony must be mitigated according to Moses’ law, which doth by other means punish the same, Exod. xxii. To be short, all things must be transformed : lawyers must cast away their huge volumes and multitude of cases, and content themselves with the books of Moses : we of the clergy would be the best judges ; and they must re quire the law at our hands, Deuter. xvii. verse 8. And so, while we make them believe that we seek for equality among ourselves, we seek indeed regal dominion over them. Look Deuter. xvii. verse 12. But, to omit all these considerations, which I leave to those to whom they do especially pertain, I will shew, as briefly as I can, how far this opinion is from true divinity.

First, besides all those places of scripture which make generally for the abrogation of the whole law, we have especial places for the judicial law, and namely those where Christ maketh laws of divorcement for adultery, Matt. v. and XIX. ;which were altogether needless, if she that is taken in adultery should of necessity be stoned to death, according to the law of Moses. Augustine, ad Pollentium de Adult. Conjug. Lib. ii. capp. 6, 7, 8, and 14, proveth by that which is written of Christ, John viii., touching the woman deprehended in adultery, and brought unto him by the scribes and Pharisees, that the wife taken in adultery ought not to be punished with death, but suffered to live, that she might be reconciled to her husband, or at the least repent1. Cyril also, upon the xi. of Leviticus, saith that, “though the punishment of death was according to the law of Moses appointed for adultery, and certain other crimes, yet among Christians there is no such commandment in force2.” Musculus, in his Common-places, Tit. de Legib., speaking of the law, saith thus : ” They ask the question whether the whole law be abrogated : we answer, if whole Moses gave place to Christ, then hath his whole law given place to the law of Christ3.” And a little after : ” The commandments of the law are moral, judicial, ceremonial. That the ceremonial commandments have ceased it is evident ; forsomuch as the priesthood of the law, to the which the ceremonies were annexed, is abrogated by the priesthood of Christ, according to the order of Melchizedech ; and that the judicials also are ceased it doth herein appear, for that the whole order of government of Israel, which was requisite unto the inhabiting of the land of promise, hath from that time ceased, when as they, being expelled, began to dwell amongst the gentiles without a king, without governors, without a priest, and without a law4.”

Hemingius, in his Enchir., is of the same judgment : his words be these : ” There is also the judicial law, which expired with the commonwealth of Moses ; so that it doth not bind any man of necessity, but so far only as some portion of it doth pertain to the law of nature (as the law against incestuous marriages, Levit. xviii.), and so much of it likewise as the civil magistrate shall admit for policy5.”

I omit that place of M. Calvin, which is written in his comm. Harmony upon the 5. books of Moses, where he, speaking of these laws, Exod. xxiii., Deut. xii., Numb, xxxiii., which were given for the breaking of images, destroying of places where idolatry was committed, &c. saith that they were but temporal exercises, to keep the people in obedience, &c.6 And in the same book, speaking of the vii. of Deuteronomy, “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire, and covet not the silver and gold that is on them, &c. ;” saith, “Although this was a politic law, and given only to the ancient people for a time, yet hereby we may gather how detestable idolatry is, &c.7″ But of all other places that is most evident which he hath in his Institu. cap. xx. sect. 13, 14, 15 ; and therefore I will rehearse it more at large : Sunt qui recte compositam rempub. negent, fyc.e:

” There are certain which deny that commonwealth to be well ordered, which, omitting the politic laws of Moses, is ruled by the common laws of the gentiles. The which opinion how dan- gerous and seditious it is, let other men consider ; it is enough for me to have declared that it is both false and foolish. But that usual division is to be observed, which divideth the whole law of God delivered by Moses into manners, cere monies, and judgments ; and every part thereof is diligently to be considered, that we may understand what pertaineth unto us thereof, and what doth not. In the meantime, let no man be troubled with this, that both the judicials and ceremonies did appertain unto manners ; for the ancient fathers, the in ventors of this division, although they were not ignorant that these two latter parts were occupied about manners, yet (be cause they might be altered and abrogated without any preju dice unto manners) they called them not moral. They called that first part properly by that name moral, without the which the true holiness of manners, and the immutable rule of living, could not well consist.” And again : ” The law of God forbiddeth to steal : what punishment was appointed for theft in the policy of the Jews, appeareth in Exodus. The most ancient laws of other nations punished theft with double : they which followed afterward made a difference betwixt open theft and that which was secret : others condemned the thieves with exile and banishment : others adjudged them to be whipped ; and, last of all, others, to be put to death. False witness amongst the Jews was punished with equal pain in respect of the hurt; in other places only with infamy; in other places with hanging, &c. All laws jointly do revenge murder with blood, but yet with divers kinds of death. In some places there are grievouser pains appointed for adul» terers, in other places those which are more easy : yet we see how they all, by this diversity of punishment, tend to one end ; for they all with one consent do give sentence of punishment against those offences which are condemned by the eternal law of God, to wit, murder, theft, adultery, false witness ; but they agree not all in the manner of the punish- ment. Neither truly is it necessary or expedient that they • should agree herein. There is a country which should out of hand be destroyed with thieves and slaughter, if it did not with horrible example deal very sharply with murderers. There is also some time which requireth the augmentation of the sharpness of punishment, and some people very prone unto some certain sin, except they be with great rigour kept in awe. He is then very evil affected, and envieth the public commodity, that is offended with this diversity, which is most meet to retain the observation of the law of God. For that which some men object, that by this means injury is done to the law of God, whiles, it being abrogated, other laws are pre ferred before it, is most vain. For other laws arc not pre ferred before it, but allowed, not by any simple comparison in respect of God’s law, but according to the condition of time, place, and nation ; neither can that be said to be abrogated which was never prescribed unto us; for God delivered it by the hands of Moses, not for all nations, but particularly for the Jews, &C.1″

M. Beza likewise, in his book De Hcer. a Magist. puniend., of this matter writeth thus : ” We acknowledge those politic laws to be prescribed only to the country of the Jews ; neither are we so unskilful that we would have Moses’ commonwealth or government called back again, as though it were not lawful for every magistrate within his own dominion to make laws in civil matters2.” And a little after : ” The judicial laws were framed only for one nation. Therefore, seeing they were never written for us, they cannot be said to be abrogated1.” And again: “Only the Israelites were bound to the judicial laws, that is, those that dwell in Jewry, because they were made fit for that commonwealth only.” And, after that he hath shewed by an example of the law for theft, that that manner and kind of punishment did only bind the Israelites, and that other magistrates in their countries for good causes may appoint a sharper kind of punishment for the same, he concludeth thus: Lex enim ilia Mosis, quatenus pcence modum prcescribit, aliis gentibus neque unquam fuit posita, neque nunc est proprie abrogata3 : “That law of Moses, insomuch as it prescribeth the manner of punishment, was neither at any time given to other nations, neither is it now properly abrogated.” So that now they that be disposed may perceive how this doctrine of yours not only tendeth to the overthrowing of states of commonwealths, but is contrary also to the truth, and opinion of learned men, and those especially of whom you yourself make greatest account. Therefore it is true that I have said in my Answer to the Admonition, that is, ” The judicial law to be left to the discretion of the magistrate, to add to it or to take from it, or to alter and change it,” as shall be thought most fit for the time, manner of the country, and condition of the people ; as M. Calvin also very aptly noteth in the very end of that fifteenth section before rehearsed4.

Cartwright’s Second Reply

To prove that there is a word of God for all things we have to do, I alleged that otherwise our estate should be worse than the estate of the Jews, which the Answer confesseth to have had “direction out of law in the least thing they had to do.” And when it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little undetermined and without the compass of the law as can be, the Answer, in imagining that we have no word for diverse things wherein the Jews had particular direction, presupposeth greater perfection in the law given unto the Jews than in that which is left unto us. And that this is a principal virtue of the law may be seen not only by that I have showed: that a conscience well instructed and rouched with the fear of God seeketh for the light of the word of God in the smallest actions; but even by common reason, the masters whereof give this rule: “that it greatly behoveth those laws which are well made (as much as can be) to determine of all things and to leave as few things as may be to the discretion of the judges.”…

It is not (as the Answer surmiseth untruly) that the magistrate is simply bound unto the judicial laws of Moses; but that he is bound to the equity which I also called the substance and marrow of them. In regard of which equity I affirmed that there are certain laws amongst the judicials which cannot be changed. And hereof I gave example in the laws which command that a stubborn idolater, blasphemer, murderer, incestuous person, and such like should be put to death. For the first point that the equity of the judicial doth remain and therefore ought to be a rule to direct all laws by, to let pass the authority of Masters Calvin and Beza [Cartwright refers us to Calvin’s Institutes 4.20.16 and to Beza’s “book of putting heretics to death,” presumably De haereticis (1554). Beza’s repudiation of Castellion’s book of the same title] and other writers of our time that have written with any judgment of this matter (which do in plain words affirm that there is a perpetual equity in them and that our laws, albeit very different in form, yet ought to retain the reason or ground of them), I say to let that pass; it is to be considered that all these laws moral, ceremonial, and judicial, being the laws of God and by his revealed will established, must so far forth remain as it appeareth not by his will that they are revoked.

And seeing that the alteration which is come in this behalf is by the coming of our Savior Christ only, it is to be inquired what those laws are which be put end unto. Which thing may be considered in that division which St. Paul useth where he saith that our Savior Christ came to make peace first between God and men and then between men and men: that is to say, between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-18). The ceremonial law therefore being a law of enmity (which as a wall held out the Gentiles from joining themselves unto the Jews), was necessary amongst other causes in this respect to be taken away. The curse of the law for the breach of any [of] the laws of God either pertaining to the Jews in times past or unto us now, being that which maketh the wall between the Lord and us, was for our reconciliation with his majesty necessarily to be removed. Whereupon followeth first that the moral law (as that which neither hindereth our reconciliation with the Lord nor our good agreement with men) is in as full strength as ever it was before the coming of our Saviour Christ…

Secondly it followeth hereupon that those judicial laws of Moses which are merely politic and without all mixture of ceremonies must remain as those which hinder not the atonement of the Jews and Gentiles with God or of one of them another. Beside that it being manifest that our Savior Christ came not to dissolve any good government of commonwealth, he can least of all be thought to have come to dissolve that which himself had established. And of this point the Answer hath two contrary sentences, one of Musculus [Lutheran theologian (1514-81] which saith that the judicial law is abrogated; the other of Beza which is the same with that which I have brought reasons of: that is to say, that the judicial law being given unto Jews, is not yet abrogated, so that if they had any estate of commonwealth in the land of Canaan, they should be constrained to use that form of government which was given unto them of Moses. Now albeit those laws given unto Jews for that land do not bind the gentiles in other lands, for so much as the diversity of the disposition of the people and state of that country gave occasion of some laws there which would not have been in other places and peoples; yet for so much as there is in those laws a constant and everlasting equity whereupon they were grounded, and the same perfecter and farther from error than the forge of man’s reason (which is even in this behalf shrewdly wounded) is able to devise, it followeth that even in making politic laws for the commonwealth Christian magistrates ought to propound unto themselves those laws, and in light of their equity, by a just proportion of circumstances of person, place, etc., frame them.

Furthermore, that the equity of the judicial law remaineth not as a counsel which men may follow if they list and leave at their pleasure, but as a law whereunto they be bound, what better proof can we have than the Apostle, which, after he had alleged divers similitudes fetched of the common use of men to prove that a minister of the Gospel ought to be maintained of the church’s charge, unto the adversary which might except that those were but human reasons he allegeth as the eternal law of God one of the judicial laws of Moses, which was that a man should not muzzle the mouth of the ox which treadeth out the corn (1 Cor 9:3-9; cf Deut 25:4). Where it is manifest that he doubteth not to bind the conscience of the Corinthians unto the equity of that law which was judicial. Likewise of the finding of the priests in the service of the altar commanded in the Law he concludeth that those which preach the Gospel should live off it. And this maintenance of the priests, albeit in the manner of provision it was ceremonial, yet as it was a reward of their service due by men (as the punishments also, if they had failed in their duties), was mere judicial. Whereupon it is brought to pass that in those judicials, to all the circumstances whereof we are not bound, we are notwithstanding bound to the equity.

It remaineth to show that there are certain judicial laws which cannot be changed, as that a blasphemer, contemptuous and stubborn idolater, etc. ought to be put to death. The doctrine which letteth this at liberty, when they can allege no cause of this looseness but the coming of the Saviour Christ and his passion, faulteth many ways. And first it is a childish error to think that our Saviour Christ came down to exempt men from corporal death which the law casteth upon evil-doers; when as he came not to deliver from death which is the parting of the body from the soul, but from that which is the separation both of body and soul from the gracious presence of the Lord. And if it were so that our Saviour Christ had borne in his own body this civil punishment of public offenders, it must follow thereupon not (which the Doctor fancieth) that it is in the liberty of the magistrate to put to death, but that he must willy-nilly (if they repent) keep them alive. For if our Saviour Christ hath answered that justice of God in his law whereby he hath commanded that such malefactors should be put to death, it should be great injustice to require that again in the life of the offender. So that either our Saviour Christ hath answered that justice of God which he requireth in his law concerning the death of such offenders, and then it cannot be asked again in the body of the offender, or else he hath not answered it, and then remaineth of necessity to be answered in the life of the offender…

Therefore to close upon this question, I will add this: that the magistrates which punish murder and thefts and treasons, with other transgressions of the Second Table, severely, and are loose in punishing the breaches of the First Table, begin at the wrong end, and do all one with those which, to dry up many rivers fed continually by one fountain, begin at the channels where it divideth and parteth itself into many arms – which as it is an endless labour, so is this also that they go about. For when as St. Paul teacheth that God for just revenge of the dishonour of his name and staining of his glory giveth men into wicked minds to the committing of all kinds of sins contained in the Second Table, be they never so horrible, and so maketh the breach of the First Table cause of the breach of the Second, it cannot be, (let the magistrate lay as good watch as he can, both multiply and aggravate his punishments as much as he can), I say it cannot be but where either the First Table is broken or the breach not duly revenged, swarms of treasons, thefts, murders, adulteries, perjuries, and such like must needs break out in those governments. And therefore, as the short and easy way to dry up the channels and rivers is to stop the head and fountain of all, so the only remedy of purging the commonwealth of these pestilences is to bend the force of sharp and severe punishments especially against idolaters, blasphemers, contemners of true religion and of the service of God. And therefore I conclude that those which would have the severity of the law against idolaters abated do, all unawares, not only thereby utter the small price which they set either of God’s glory or of the salvation of their brethren, but withal declare themselves enemies to commonwealths and of all both civil and godly honesty of life.


Cartwright does appear to be a methodological theonomist along the lines of Bahnsen. He argues that modern magistrates are obligated to obey the Mosaic civil laws because they cannot be changed and they have never been abrogated.

Whitgift’s reply is telling. He points to the threefold division of the law and shows that the judicial laws have been abrogated. Cartwright accuses him of being a Manichean, to which Whitgift kindly reminds him that the moral law remains. He quotes Calvin at length, as well as Beza, demonstrating that Cartwright was idiosyncratic and contrary to the standard position. They said that the Mosaic civil laws were never given to us. Cartwright dismissed these men. However, he tried to claim, just like Bahnsen, that he was following the same general equity principle. But it was clear that he meant something very different by general equity than Calvin and Beza meant – just as Bahnsen means something very different when he speaks of the “general equity” of Mosaic civil laws. Both Cartwright and Bahnsen mean whatever can be applied today from those laws must be applied. This was not the correct meaning of general equity.

Paul Avis, in his instructive article “Moses and the Magistrate,” has shown that even where they used similar language, there was a compelling difference between a Calvin and a Cartwright on this issue. The former, although much more emphatic about the positive uses of the law than Luther was, took a fundamentally similar tack on the judicial laws. Luther believed that the while the Ten Commandments summed up the natural law, the latter temporally and logically preceded this formal expression, and the same principle applied to the rest of the Mosaic laws. They were expressions and applications of natural law in a particular polity, and so, although its accuracy as a good application was, by virtue of its divine revelation, more assured than that of the law of Solon, it was not intrinsically more binding. Only inasmuch as our own circumstances were the same as those of the Hebrews should we expect our own judicial laws to be similar to theirs. Calvin’s argument is similar, viewing the natural principle of equity, perfected in the gospel principle of charity, to be instantiated in the Mosaic judicial laws, but to exist independently of them, so that it might and often should be instantiated quite differently in a contemporary Christian polity. Cartwright, however, while he will use Calvin’s term of the “general equity” of the law, understands this as something posterior, rather than prior, to the particular positive law, extracted from it, rather than instantiated in it. ((Bradford Littlejohn “A word of God for all things we have to do“))

This can be visualized in the following way:

Calvin & Confessional "general equity"
Calvin & Confessional “general equity”




Bahnsen & Cartwright  "general equity"
Bahnsen & Cartwright “general equity”

We saw previously that the Confession followed Calvin’s view of the threefold division of the law and general equity, while theonomy rejects it. Cartwright wrote 70 years (around 1573) before the Westminster Assembly. The Assembly did not follow Cartwright’s methodology. Consider another quote that Whitgift brought against Cartwright’s position.

Hemingius, in his Enchir., is of the same judgment : his words be these : “There is also the judicial law, which expired with the commonwealth of Moses; so that it doth not bind any man of necessity, but so far only as some portion of it doth pertain to the law of nature (as the law against incestuous marriages, Levit. xviii.), and so much of it likewise as the civil magistrate shall admit for policy.”

Hemingius was a contemporary theologian in Denmark. His statement here is remarkably similar to the wording decided upon at the Westminster Assembly.




There is also the judicial law, which expired with the commonwealth of Moses; To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people,
so that it doth not bind any man of necessity, not obliging any other, now, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution;
but so far only as some portion of it doth pertain to the law of nature further than the general equity thereof may require. their general equity only being of moral use.


This post is not meant to determine whether or not Cartwright was correct. Perhaps he is.7 The purpose was simply to demonstrate where Cartwright was coming from, and where he was not coming from.

  1. Institutes 4.20.14 

  2. The Defense of the Answer to the Admonition, Against the Reply of T.C.” p.22 

  3. “human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience” 4.10.5 

  4. 4.10.3 

  5. 4.10.27 

  6. Bradford Littlejohn “A word of God for all things we have to do“ 

  7. he’s not 

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