Seventeenth Century Reformed Confessional Theology
On the Natural Law and the Ten Commandments
By Richard C. Barcellos, Pastor
The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 is a daughter confession of the famous Westminster Confession of Faith and is in substantial agreement with it on the law of God. Some theologians tend to accuse these confessions of being flat in their view of the relationship between Old Covenant and New Covenant law. These theologians claim that the framers of the confessions did not adequately consider the monumental redemptive-historical changes brought on by the death of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant and therefore express too much continuity between Old Covenant and New Covenant law. Because both confessions hold to the transcovenantal utility of the Decalogue, they are accused of being simplistic in their approach to the issues related to continuity and discontinuity. However, continuity in law and discontinuity in application due to the redemptive-historical effects brought on by Christ's death and the inauguration of the New Covenant are both acknowledged in these confessions, though not in those words. Neither of these confessions teach a flat view of the relationship between Old Covenant and New Covenant law. On the contrary, the very acknowledgment that Christ strengthens our obligation to the Moral Law [Decalogue in context] under the New Covenant in 19:5 and the change of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day in 22:7 (Westminster Confession 21:7) shows us that both confessions recognize redemptive-historical changes in the application of the Decalogue since the coming of Christ. Chapter 19:5 reads, "The moral law [Decalogue in context] doth for ever bind all, …; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation." Since the coming of Christ, the obligation for believers to keep the Ten Commandments is strengthened. Surely this displays a sensitivity to the redemptive-historical effects of Christ’s coming. As well, the statements in 19:3, 4 concerning the abrogation of the "ceremonial laws" and the application of the general equity of the "judicial laws" testify to an acknowledgment of a shift in the application of law during the interadvental period. The seventeenth century men were in some senses twentieth century men without our terminology. They saw redemptive-historical effects produced by Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant and included this perspective in their confessional statements. The claim that they were flat in their approach does not do justice to their words, but gives the appearance of reading one’s theology back into theirs. What exactly did they believe about the Natural Law and the Decalogue? To this we now turn our attention.
There are three key texts in both confessions which speak to the relationship between the Natural Law and the Ten Commandments: 4:2; 19:2; and 19:5. It must be granted that neither confession uses the phrase Natural Law, however, this does not mean that the phrase as understood in this essay does not adequately apply to the theology of these confessions. Both confessions do you the phrase "law of nature" (WCF 21:7 and BCF 22:7). The phrase Moral Law in the confession and the phrase Natural Law as understood in this essay are functionally synonymous. We will look at the three key texts in order.
In chapter 4, Of Creation, both confessions teach that Adam and Eve had "the law of God written in their hearts." The full text of The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 4:2 reads:
After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, rendering them fit unto that life to God for which they were created; being made after the image of God, in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness; having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfil it, and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being justify to the liberty of their own will, which was subject to change.
The Westminster Confession is slightly different in its wording, though not in doctrine. Both confessions reference Romans 2:14 and 15 for biblical support. Neither of them defines what is meant by the law of God written on the heart in this chapter. However, we do get help elsewhere in both confessions.
In chapter 19, Of the Law of God, both confessions define what they mean by "the law of God written in their hearts." The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 in 19:2 says,
The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man.
Romans 2:14 and 15 is referenced for biblical support. Commenting on this statement, Samuel E. Waldron says, "The major assertion of paragraphs 1 and 2 is that the same law written in the heart of Adam was reiterated in the Ten Commandments." (Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, [Darlington, England, Evangelical Press, 1995 edition], 235.) In the very next section of both confessions, the Ten Commandments are identified as Moral Law. It is important to remember that neither confession teaches that the Decalogue exhausts Moral Law. Instead, they teach that the Decalogue summarily contains Moral Law. This indicates that both confessions teach that the Ten Commandments are Moral Law based on creation. This puts them squarely in the tradition of Calvin on this issue.
The final text in the confessions is found in chapter 19:5. The texts are identical and read as follows:
The moral law [Decalogue in context] doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.
It is very clear that both confessions teach that all men are obliged to obey the Ten Commandments. "The moral law doth for ever bind all …" The obligation to keep the Ten Commandments for man in general is based on the nature or content of the commandments and God’s authority as Creator. The obligation for Christians to keep the Ten Commandments is based on their nature or content, God’s authority as Creator, and the gospel or redemption.
The theology of these confessions should now be clear. First, at creation God wrote Moral Law, the Decalogue, in the hearts of Adam and Eve. Second, all men by creation have this same law written in their hearts. Third, this Moral Law was later written upon tablets of stone by God and delivered to Israel through Moses. Fourth, this law stays in effect for all men even after the Old Covenant has been abolished. And fifth, Christ upholds this law "as a rule of life" (Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, 19:6.) for his church.
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