The Blue Parakeet: Corollaries — Positive Law

parakeetWe’ve worked through several examples about how this Story/narrative approach to Bible study pushes us to rethink some familiar passages. Now that the quarter is nearly over, I want to sort through some additional hermeneutical principles built on the narrative approach. We don’t have time to do a thorough set of classes on hermeneutics, but these will get us well on down the road.

Positive law

In an excellent post on “positive law” John Mark Hicks explains,

The distinction between positive law and moral law in the modern era finds its roots in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). He distinguishes between those laws which “have been laws from eternity” (moral or natural) and those laws which have been made “by the will of those that have sovereign power over others” (e.g., God or human governments; Leviathan, 26)

Thus, “moral law” or “natural law” refers to principles that are inherently right and wrong. Godless societies know that it’s wrong to kill or lie. Reading scripture may better educate us as to morality, but we come to scripture knowing that some things are right and some things are wrong.

“Positive law” is law solely because God commands it. But for the command, it wouldn’t be wrong. Hence, it is argued, there is nothing inherently evil in instrumental music, but God requires a cappella singing as a matter of positive law. (This is, of course, quite contrary to arguments made by others, based on the Patristics, arguing that instrumental music is in fact evil.)

Although references to positive law can be found in Thomas and Alexander Campbell, the distinction was particularly important in the work of Benjamin Franklin. As he wrote in a popular sermon quoted by Hicks,

But there is a higher order of singing than any of this; singing in the regularly ordained worship of the Most High; singing in obedience to the commandment of God. This is the singing we are concerned with. This is prescribed in Scripture. Indeed, the entire worship is prescribed in the law of God. No man knows what worship is, only as the Lord has prescribed it. The worship is all positive, and comes with the weight of authority. The whole of it is arranged to please God. The whole of it is of the Supreme Will. It was not intended as an attraction, an entertainment, or amusement; but as homage, adoration, praise and thanksgiving, from those who were lost and have been found; who were fallen, but are lifted up; were enemies, but are now reconciled; were separated from God, but have been united with him; were in bondage under sin, but are now redeemed by the blood of Jesus. They do not sing because they love to sing, or because they love music, but because they love God and delight to do those things that are pleasing in his sight; to obey his command; to sing, making melody in their hearts to the Lord. In obeying this command their minds are not taken up with a bundle of note books, tune forks, or with music at all; but with praising God, thanksgiving, exhortation, admonition and teaching.

You can see how this approach sucks the joy out of congregational singing. It’s not about loving to sing. It’s not about the beauty of the music. It’s about obedience to command. Indeed, the musicality — the quality of the music — is quite beside the point. What matters is obedience and the lessons taughts by the words. It’s a joyless form of worship.

Worse yet, the Movement began to elevate the positive commands over the moral commands. Quoting Hicks again —

I offer James A. Harding’s own words where these implications are rather explicit (Debate on Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit [1889], 256-7).

While the positive law is not right in the nature of things (in so far as mortals can see), but it is right because it is commanded. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant, and the ceremonial law of the Jews under the old covenant, are illustrations of positive law…Positive law differs from moral law in that it can be obeyed perfectly. Positive law is therefore a more perfect test of faith and love, a more perfect test of allegiance to God, than moral law…For these two reasons, doubtless, God has ever been more ready to overlook the infractions of moral, than of positive law; and for the same reasons the positive is peculiarly adapted to the expression and the perfection offaith. I would not have you suppose that I think God would for a moment tolerate a willful violation of moral law. No, no: I simply mean that God, who knows so well our inherited weakness, is patient and gentle with us in our imperfect obedience to this law, and in our many backslidings from it. But positive law we can obey perfectly, and he is strict and stern in demanding that we shall do it.

You read that right. Harding says that God gives grace for moral failings but not for violations of his positive law: “But positive law we can obey perfectly, and he is strict and stern in demanding that we shall do it”!

As a result, the Churches of Christ (heirs of Franklin and Harding) have elevated positive law above moral law. No church has ever been disfellowshipped by its sister congregations for lack of evangelistic zeal or concern for the poor. No, we save our condemnation for violations of supposed laws of worship or church organization. And the more arbitary the law seems, the more we’ll damn over it.

Thus, when a church admits to membership a married couple with three well-behaved, God-fearing children, if it’s learned that the wife was foolishly married to an abusive (but non-fornicating) husband at age 17 and divorced 3 months later, the church may well split over whether she must divorce her current husband as a condition to salvation. It’s an awful, painful, marriage-destroying, covenant-breaking interpretation, and therefore it’s plainly positive. And so we split churches and break fellowship over pre-conversion divorces. The more arbitrary the supposed command, the more important it is that we strictly enforce it!

Franklin explains,

The man in his heart says, “It must be done, because the absolute authority requires it.”

There are three degrees in this before it can reach the highest test, the greatest trial of faith. 1. To obey when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. 2. To obey when we can see pretty clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. 3. To obey when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself, morally speaking. It tries the state of heart, the faith, the devotion to Him who commanded, to obey a command when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. The test is greater, and the trial more severe, when we can see clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. The test is greatest, and the trial of faith most severe, when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself, but only made right by the arbitrary force of the absolute authority. This will all appear presently.

Franklin sees positive law as having the greatest force — and our obedience to it as having the greatest merit in God’s eyes — when the positive law violates morality! He seeks to prove this by referring to God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac — failing to notice that God didn’t allow Abraham to actually go through with it, because it would be, you know, immoral.

As a result, we have this peculiar strain of thought in the Churches of Christ that elevates the arbitrary above the moral and obedience over love. What Franklin, Harding, and their ilk faled to notice are all the New Testament passages declaring an end to such thinking —

(Rom 12:2)  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Paul declares that, to the mature Christian, God’s will must make sense. We can “test and approve” it. This is quite opposite to Franklin’s “obey when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself, morally speaking.”

Paul spends the rest of chapter 12 telling us to use our gifts in God’s service and to love each other. His point comes to a climax in chapter 13 —

(Rom 13:8-10)  Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Paul says the only law is moral law.

But what about baptism? You see, Franklin’s conclusions were driven by a desire to defend baptism. Baptism is, he argued, a positive command.

Baptism is the test of his belief in Christ–the trial of his loyalty to the King. Here, at the entrance of the kingdom, the question comes before him of obedience in a matter of the most trying nature–obedience to a commandment, where he can see no reason for the obedience, only that the King requires it. If he stops at the first formal act required of him, and refuses to obey, what may we expect of him at any subsequent time? If the very appointment intended to test his loyalty, try his faith, and develop the spirit of obedience in him, shall be set aside by him, what ground have we for expecting obedience of him in the future?

In this view of it, any one can see the wisdom of God in placing such an appointment as immersion at the entrance into the new covenant. In the first place, he can not see that the thing commanded, in itself, can do any good to soul or body. In the second place, he can see pretty clearly that the thing commanded can not, in itself, do any good, in any philosophical way, to soul or body. In the third place, it appears as if it might do the body injury. Then, it is humiliating to the last degree. Still further, as any one can see, the Lord could save a sinner without it as well as with it. Why, then, must it be done? The wisdom and goodness of the Supreme Majesty of heaven and earth require it. The absolute authority commands it. Shall this authority control? or shall poor mortal man decide that it is not essential?

Baptism “might do the body injury” and “is humiliating to the last degree” (this was an age when bathing more than once a year was considered unhealthy by many). Frankln, you see, believe the strongest case for baptism was to argue against it, to show its arbitrariness, even its danger.

What kind of God did Franklin worship? A God who tempts his subjects to see whether they’ll be faithful. A God who finds a dip in cold water to be a sufficient test of faith. A God who cares little for joy and understanding, preferring a blind obedience of senseless commands. (What kind of religion would this sort of thinking produce?)

This is all exactly backwards — perverse, even. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that those who believe would have eternal life. God is no trickster. He wants us saved.

And baptism is a pretty lousy test of faith. When the scriptures speak of Christians being tested, they speak in terms of persecution and martyrdom. (Imagine meeting Abraham or Stephen in heaven and saying, “Hey, my faith was tested, too. I had to be baptized!” Oh, please …)

No, baptism is a gift to be joyfully accepted. It was never designed as a test of faith, and the scriptures never once speak of baptism in those terms.

You see, we have been willing to turn the Bible’s teachings completely upside down to build the strongest case possible for baptism and a cappella singing. We’d do better to stop importing human philosophy into the scriptures and let them speak as the First Century writings they are.


11 Responses

  1. Great analysis, brother, that goes to the heart — of God, of the message, of the reader!

  2. “No church has ever been disfellowshipped by its sister congregations for lack of evangelistic zeal or concern for the poor.” That statement alone demands much attention. Shouldn’t that be enough to show us our mistakes?

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Great post Jay. It has only been within the last year or so that I came to understand the history of our distinction between moral law and positive law. Many thanks to John Mark Hicks blog for that. It does make it easier to understand why we have split hairs over relatively trivial issues and overlooked differences on significant theological issues that we felt were not explicitly stated.

    For example, B.W. Stone was not orthodox on either the person or work of Jesus and we have always been willing to overlook his heterodoxy and that of others that do not believe Jesus was God. The Jule Miller filmstrips even blamed the third council of Nicea and a council at Chalcedon for the mainstream belief in the trinity. Ever notice how we changed the lyrics to the song Holy, Holy, Holy to avoid a reference to the trinity? But she or he who does not toe our party line on divorce, music, frequency of the supper etc, may be condemned w/o pause.

    I am sure you know there was a lot more to both the talk and walk of James Harding and Benjamin Franklin (our Ben Franklin, not the Benjamin Franklin) than these things they said about positive law. I suspect both of them enjoyed a closer walk with Jesus than I do. Perhaps all of us, to some extent, are prisoners of the intellectual currents of our times.

    So, once again I get to quote whoever it was that said “the one thing we learn from the study of history is that we don’t learn from studying history.” God grant that all of us study it more and learn something from the lessons taught there. Can you imagine the pitfalls the CofC could have avoided if we had all studied our own brief history?

    I look forward to more and hope your posts are widely read and well received.

  4. This is twice is a few days where I read a quote on this site from restoration literature and my first reaction was, “wow, maybe I need to rethink.”. Unfortunately, in each case with less than 5 minutes of Google searching I find the full context of the quotes and I do learn something but come away with a significantly different impression of the original author’s intent than what is implied on this site.

    Admittedly, this is the first I had heard such an explanation of the differences between moral and positive law (I learned something).

    Immediately following the quote above James A. Harding uses the following examples to support his claim that God’s positive laws trump moral laws. I’ll change his examples to questions to see if any here have explanations contrary:

    Why did God immediately strike Uzziah dead for violating a positive law but seem to overlook (but did chastise) David for violation of moral law with Bathsheba and others?

    Likewise, why did God command Abraham to kill his son (a positive law) even though it violated moral law?

    A side note. I don’t know yet how to digest some of what Bro. Harding said. I understand that grace can apply to positive law as well as moral. I certainly don’t believe a new Christian is expected to know everything immediately following baptism. I’m still learning 37 years later. My point here is the elevated importance of positive law.

  5. Interesting point. The growth of progressive thought in the Churches correlates strongly to the growth in the study of our own history. When I first started teaching (1978) I couldn’t find a copy of the “Declaration and Address” any of the Church of Christ RM histories available. It was years later that I finally found a copy and learned why it was never, ever published!

  6. Harding’s example are unfairly selective. God also struck people dead for violating moral law (consider the Flood as an example. There are plenty of others). And there are plenty of examples of God excusing a violation of positive law (Hezekiah’s Passover in 2 Chron 30, for example). Therefore, Harding only “proves” the greater importance of positive law by ignoring contrary evidence.

    I’ll make a more detailed argument in a few days, but read all of Gal 5, where Paul says that seeking justification through circumcision damns and that only faith expressing itself through love avails. That sure seems to announce a change — a change away from positive law. Compare Rom 13 and the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount. It’s awfully hard to build a case for positive law from the NT.

  7. We’d do better to stop importing human philosophy into the scriptures and let them speak as the First Century writings they are.

    Thats a non-sequitur. Benjamin Franklin’s bizarre explanations were not based on any “first century-ness” of the scriptures. Rather, they were based on his need to come up with answers to a 19th century controversy.

  8. Let me try that again… To correct Franklin’s odd logic, there is no need to relegate the application of the NT scriptures to the first century. We simply need to let them say what they say, and follow them where they lead.

  9. Jay,

    I look forward to your post. I realize this concept is new to me. However, as I understand it prayer, worship, doing all in His name and even believing in God and Christ are all positive laws.

  10. Franklin read into scripture Hobbes’ notion of “positive law.” He presumed that positive law was somehow higher than moral law, and then went looking for evidence to support his conclusion. He chose his evidence selectively and without regard to the context of the events on which he built his case. He started with a false premise and then built a spurious case from scripture to “prove” it.

    The error has echoed throughout Church of Christ teachings for over 150 years. It has led to division and misery. Preachers who never heard of “positive law” have been taught to divide and damn over teachings not even in the Bible — enforcing these teachings with greater vigor than the teachings that actually in the pages of scripture.

    How do we fix this? Well, by starting with the basics. The most fundamental principle of hermeneutics is that you read a First Century writing as a First Century writing — in historical and literary context. You let the scriptures instruct you because the scriptures are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” We let the scriptures tell us both the questions and the answers.

    Therefore, it is wrong to start with the supposition that positive law is a higher law than moral law. It’s wrong ask Enlightenment questions. We ask scriptural questions. We let the scriptures speak as what they are — not a constitution or a blueprint.

    In order to have proper humility before God’s word, we read the scriptures to see what God thinks is important — which is quite possibly not what we’re fighting about or worried about. To read them truly, we try to get as close to the original historical setting and language as possible. And we look through the scriptures to know the God who breathed them.

    In reading the scriptures for what they say, rather than what we wish them to say, we quickly see that they answer questions radically different from what we want to ask. They say very little about what “acts of worship” to do and how often. They don’t say much about how to support orphans. They say quite a lot about love for our brothers, being a community of salt and light, care for the poor, and bringing the gospel to the lost. They teach us that care of orphans has been close to God’s heart since the Law of Moses. And they teach us quite a lot about worship — but not in the terms we are looking for.

    So, anyway, reading the NT scriptures as what they are — First Century writings — hardly seems controversial to me. Does that mean that they are irrelevant today? Of course, not. I’ve said no such thing. Rather, it’s just a question of correctly interpreting them in historical context. I just think that historical context is more important than many think.

    You see, we read a passage like 1 Cor 11 and figure it’s wrong to have a kitchen in the building. In this part of the country, churches damn sister congregations for having communion preparation sinks in their basement, because a sink is just one more step toward a kitchen. I’m not kidding. I’ve known of churches that pulled the water fountains out of their buildings because their reading of this passage. It’s stupid — but any disciple of Franklin et al. would just consider the stupidity of the “command” a greater test of their faith.

    But the early church met in homes, for crying out loud! And the homes had kitchens. But we don’t bother to pull out the commentaries and check our assumptions because we read 1 Cor 11 as legislation and forget how very much historical context matters.

    Worse yet, the whole point of the passage is that we should treat our brothers with love and respect, and instead we fight and divide and damn. We get it backwards because we start with the assumption that it’s some sort of blueprint or constitution.

    Does 1 Cor 11 give us binding, authoritative instructions? Yes. Can we find the right instructions to follow if we start with false assumptions? Only by sheer good luck. How do we get away from false assumptions? Well, it would help if we’d pay more attention to the setting of the letter and get away from our legalistic assumptions. That’s not all, but it would be a huge start in the right direction.

  11. Jay,

    Sorry to make you write such a long comment 😉 I’m probably overreacting but I do get the impression that some folks are going places with this that you didn’t intend… or, certainly, places I wouldn’t go. The New Testament scriptures were not written only for people in the first century. The letters of Paul are not really someone else’s mail. They contain instructions to the church that were intended by the Holy Spirit to be passed down to us. It seems that some folks take the “first century writings” so far that they discard parts that are counter-cultural today. That’s too far. If that’s not what you mean by calling them “first century writings” then perhaps it would be a good idea to clarify.

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