Law and the Bible: A Review Article

Diane L. Olinger

Ordained Servant: June–July 2014

Child Safety

Also in this issue

Volunteers and Your Church: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls

Improving Upon the Status Quo: Child Safety

David’s Sword and David’s Shield

Anselm of Canterbury by Simonetta Carr

Psalms 127–128

Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions, edited by Robert F. Cochran Jr. and David VanDrunen. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013, 269 pages, $24.00, paper.


Law and the Bible is a collection of nine articles, surveying the theme of civil law throughout the Bible. Each article is co-authored by an attorney and a Bible scholar. David VanDrunen, an OPC minister and professor at Westminster Seminary California, is the co-editor of the volume and of its first article. Law and the Bible is a valuable resource for those who ask, What light does the Bible shed on contemporary legal systems, and particularly on Christian participation in those systems?

A quick look at the article titles shows the Genesis-to-Revelation scope of Law and the Bible, one of its greatest assets along with its interdisciplinary approach.

  1. “The Biblical Foundation of Law: Creation, Fall and the Patriarchs,” by Randy Beck and David VanDrunen.
  2. “Law and Political Order: Israel’s Constitutional History,” by William S. Brewbaker III and V. Philips Long.
  3. “Criminal and Civil Law in the Torah: The Mosaic Law in Christian Perspective,” by David Skeel and Tremper Longman III.
  4. “The Law of Life: Law in the Wisdom Literature,” by Roger P. Alford and Leslie M. Alford.
  5. “Crying Out for Justice: Civil Law and the Prophets,” by Barbara E. Armacost and Peter Enns.
  6. “The Kingdom of God, Law, and the Heart: Jesus and the Civil Law,” by Robert F. Cochran Jr. and Dallas Willard.
  7. “Civil Law and Civil Disobedience: The Early Church and the Law,” by Joel A. Nichols and James W. McCarty III.
  8. “Living as Christians Under Civil Law: The New Testament Letters, Law, and Politics,” by David M. Smolin and Kar Yong Lim.
  9. “Expectation and Consummation: Law in Eschatological Perspective,” by John Copeland Nagle and Keith A. Mathison.

Overall Approach—Realistic Expectations

The focus of each of these articles is on civil law, the law that orders human societies and is implemented and enforced through human government. The Bible addresses many areas of civil law, including evidence, civil and criminal procedure, court administration, and welfare regulations. However, the editors and most of the authors of Law and the Bible take pains to dampen our expectations of finding immediate applications to our current situation. They remind us, again and again, that not every moral exhortation of Scripture should be codified and that not every piece of civil legislation in Scripture (for example, certain civil laws of the Old Testament theocracy) would be appropriate for the modern nation-state. The authors pay careful attention to context (narrative, historical, cultural, and redemptive-historical) with the hopes that this will help us avoid the temptation of “cherry-picking” verses to justify already-existing political agendas. An example of this type of “cherry picking” is cited in the article on political order and Israel’s constitutional history where the authors, William S. Brewbaker III and V. Philips Long, warn us against the pattern of argument of a royalist bishop who used Jeremiah’s admonition to submit to Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 27:5–6) as authority against resistance to monarchy generally (50n4).

While I generally found this approach instructive, I question the emphasis on historical and cultural differences when exegeting some texts. After all, I am in the same redemptive-historical context as the original audience of the New Testament letters[1] I think, perhaps, I need to be cautious in allowing this to be trumped by cultural or historical differences. The kind of exegesis I’m concerned about occurs in a discussion by David M. Smolin and Kar Yong Lim about the meaning of Paul’s admonition against Christian v. Christian civil litigation. They emphasize the corruption and injustice of the Roman legal system, which strongly favored those of wealth and power, and contrast it to our own. The authors write:

Based on this background, one can see that the application of Paul’s words on civil litigation could vary greatly depending on the circumstances. Thus, where Christians are a vulnerable minority and the courts are often corrupt, the circumstances would parallel those that Paul addressed, and his admonitions against Christians going to court against one another would appear directly applicable ... On the other hand, trying to apply Paul’s words where Christians have composed the majority for hundreds of years is more difficult ... The entire concept of Christians bringing their disputes before nonbelievers assumed by Paul would be inapplicable. (233)

Arguably there are legitimate uses of the legal system by Christians against Christians in our modern society, which don’t come within Paul’s admonition,[2] but I think the authors overstate the case.

Most of the article authors in Law and the Bible are reticent when it comes to advocating for particular legislation or policies, and limit their role to suggesting the principles that should guide a Christian in making policy decisions. For example, in their article on the Mosaic law, David Skeel and Tremper Longman III conclude that the Mosaic law “recognizes both the importance of lending and the crushing effect that debt can have, and it is unabashedly paternalistic in its concern for the dignity of the poor” (97). However, they stop short of advocating any particular program of international debt relief for developing nations, noting that the further we get from the Old Testament context of individual debt relief the harder it is to apply the Mosaic principles. One exception to this reticence in advocating for particular legislation or policies is in the article on civil law and the prophets by Barbara E. Armacost and Peter Enns. In discussing U.S. immigration law, the authors take a firm stand against “anti-immigrant legislation that is calculated to be oppressive” (143) (examples include laws prohibiting illegal aliens from contracting for utilities, laws which require public schools to determine immigration status of students, and laws which empower local police as deputy immigration enforcers). The Israelites were not to mistreat the foreigners living among them, for they too had been oppressed in Egypt (141–42, citing, inter alia, Exod. 22:21 and Jer. 7:6, 22:3). From this imperative, Armacost and Enns conclude that Christians should oppose and seek the repeal of laws like those mentioned above and “should prayerfully consider disobeying them as circumstances require” (143).

Natural Law and Other Themes

Other topics addressed in Law and the Bible include civil disobedience (with a case study on apartheid in South Africa), form of government, war, abortion (only very briefly, more on this below), catastrophic climate change, and nuclear holocaust (as part of a discussion of end times prophecies in Daniel and Revelation). Natural law is a theme set forth in the book’s introduction and first chapter and is revisited by a number of the authors. As Cochran and VanDrunen write in their analysis of law from creation through the patriarchal period:

When the patriarchs have legal disputes with their pagan neighbors, they do not appeal to a parochial moral standard known only through special revelation, but they presume (as their pagan neighbors often do also) a standard that is accessible to all ... However Christians may develop a theory of natural law, the existence of a universal moral standard has many potential implications for how they approach legal life in a diverse society. (45)

Although VanDrunen does not mention his Two-Kingdoms theology explicitly, Cochran and Dallas Willard, authors of the article on Jesus and the civil law, critique VanDrunen’s argument that Jesus’s demanding kingdom ethics apply institutionally only to the church, and not the state, which is to enforce lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” (173). According to Cochran and Willard, “this too neatly avoids the difficult work of determining the implications for the state of Jesus’ teaching on love” (173).

What would VanDrunen’s natural law arguments and Two-Kingdoms theology look like in action? In other words, how would his ideal Christian lawmaker or policy advocate operate in the legal system? If I have understood VanDrunen, the task of such a Christian lawmaker or policy advocate would be to go to Scripture to confirm and clarify the natural law (perhaps helped by a guide like Law and the Bible) then, so equipped, the lawmaker/advocate would enter the public square to make arguments based on this natural law, arguments which are accessible to all and not just to Christians.[3] In other words, the Christian would not make arguments based on special revelation, or, at least, not solely from special revelation. Of course, there is much disagreement about whether this is the proper stance for a Christian lawmaker/advocate, with some believing that it is exactly the Christian’s task to bring the wisdom of God’s Word, special revelation, into the public square.[4]

There are practical problems as well with natural law and other “accessible” forms of argument by Christians. For instance, the courts are on the lookout for proffered legislative rationales which are really only covers for underlying religious motivations of lawmakers. See Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987) (striking down a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public schools unless accompanied by instruction in creation science, which law had a stated secular purpose of protecting academic freedom); Kitzmiller v. Dover, 400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (holding that a school district’s Intelligent Design policy violated the Establishment Clause of the constitution because ID is a religious teaching, despite proponents’ statements to the contrary). Furthermore, the courts have not been friendly to arguments labeled as moral or natural law arguments, treating them as attempts to insert religion into matters where it does not belong. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (holding that a state criminal abortion law violated the constitutional right to privacy); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (striking down a state law criminalizing homosexual sodomy and overturning an earlier case, Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), in which the Court cited the “ancient roots” of such prohibitions and referred to homosexual sex as an “infamous crime against nature”).

The legal cases I’ve cited in the paragraph above deal with the teaching of evolution in the public schools, abortion, and homosexual conduct, three issues on which many Christians have felt conscience-bound by their interpretation of Scripture to take a stand about matters of civil law. Interestingly, these three issues receive very little attention in Law and the Bible (exceptions being a discussion of tactics of abortion protesters in the article on civil disobedience, 206, and discussions touching on gay marriage in several places, including the article on criminal and civil law in the Torah, 98–99).

A Valuable Resource

Regardless of how one frames the task of the Christian lawmaker/advocate or even the concerned Christian citizen, that task will be aided by a thorough knowledge of what the Bible has to say on matters of civil law, making Law and the Bible a valuable resource. The style of writing in this volume is described in the forward as “learned but accessible,” and that is a good description. The authors’ approach to their topics is similar to what one might read in a theological or legal journal (serious, orderly, objective), but the authors have left behind the heavy hermeneutical and jurisprudential jargon of their respective disciplines. This makes Law and the Bible a viable resource for not only lawyers and law students, pastors and seminarians, but also individual Christians with an interest in the implications of the Christian faith for civil law, and even non-Christians who want to understand how Christians approach these issues. Although this would be heavy fare for a Sunday school class, it might be a profitable tool for a church conference or study group.


[1] See Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 303.

[2] I am thinking here of instances where bringing a case before a judicatory of believers would be unworkable due to the fact that the Christians involved in the dispute are not joined to a common institutional body, or instances where there is a “distance” between the believers in the case which might keep them from knowing anything about the other’s faith or from engaging with one another personally (as might be the case for Christians doing business through corporate entities).

[3] For more information on the use of accessible religious arguments in the public square, see Michael J. Perry, Love and Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). In Love and Power, Perry makes the case for the possibility of ecumenical political dialogue using a public accessibility standard. Interestingly, he uses the book’s conclusion to confront concerns expressed by Professor Smolin, coauthor of the article in Law in the Bible on the New Testament letters. Smolin’s concerns then were that Perry’s prerequisites of fallibilism and pluralism effectively shut out conservative Christians from the envisioned ecumenical political dialogue. Love and Power, 139. Perry’s response was that public accessibility is the “essential criterion,” more important than an acceptance of fallibilism and pluralism. Ibid., 140. Perhaps Perry’s arguments were persuasive, since Smolin’s article in Law and the Bible includes a defense of natural law as a common platform between Christians and pagans based on his analysis of Romans 2:14–15 (Law and the Bible, 225–27).

[4] See, e.g., John Frame, “Review of David VanDrunen’s A Biblical Case for Natural Law,” http://www.frame-poythress.org/review-of-david-van-drunens-a-biblical-case-for-natural-law/. While convinced that there is such a thing as natural law, Frame rejects the idea that it, as opposed to Scripture, must be our only basis of argument in the public square. In his “Conclusion” Frame writes: “Scripture is God’s word, and God’s word is the foundation of morality. When we want to draw people, believers or unbelievers, to that foundation, we should be unashamed to refer to Scripture. I grant that there are many cultural forces telling us not to refer to Scripture in the public square. But we should not listen to them. The attempt of VanDrunen and others to convince us not to apply Scripture to civil matters is a failure.”

Diane L. Olinger an attorney and a member of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, June 2014.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2014

Child Safety

Also in this issue

Volunteers and Your Church: Avoiding Legal Pitfalls

Improving Upon the Status Quo: Child Safety

David’s Sword and David’s Shield

Anselm of Canterbury by Simonetta Carr

Psalms 127–128

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