Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law by David VanDrunen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, 594 pages, paper, $45.00.

David VanDrunen’s Divine Covenants and Moral Order is a dense work of great learning and significance. One of the obvious implications of the collapse of (for want of a better term) “Christian values” in wider society is that the world in which we live is increasingly set in opposition to the traditional teaching of the Christian churches. This means that churches will have to better justify to their own people the ethical stands they take, and that means that pastors will need to be much better versed in ethics than has previously been the case. Setting aside the chaos created by the politics of sexual identity, on any given day a pastor could be confronted with an ethical question of a complexity unknown to previous generations.

VanDrunen is well known both as an advocate of a Reformed version of natural law theory and as a proponent of Two Kingdoms theology. Both play their role in this book, which functions as the biblical-theological sequel to his earlier historical study of natural law in the Reformed tradition.

In Part One of the work, he looks at natural law in the covenant of creation and in the Noahic covenant. This provides the basis for what are, in effect, biblical case studies: the judgment meted out on Sodom and the justice in Gerar relative to the incident of Abimelech and Sarah; judgments against the nations in the prophets; and then natural law in Rom. 1:18–2:26. In Part Two, he examines natural law in the Abrahamic covenant, Sinai, the Wisdom literature, and the new covenant people of the church.

Perhaps the most vital foundation of VanDrunen’s case is his interpretation of the Noahic covenant, a point that marks his special contribution to natural law theory. For him, this covenant is not salvific and thus not part of the overall economy of the covenant of grace. Instead, it is a covenant designed to preserve the human race via a minimalist ethic. One might say that it is, humanly speaking, a pragmatic move on the part of God to provide a basic framework for ethical behavior within fallen creation. This then allows human beings to coexist, to survive, and thus provide a context within which God’s special people might operate and his larger purposes might be brought to fruition.

In rooting general human ethics in the Noahic covenant, VanDrunen does two things. First, he avoids making himself vulnerable to accusations of allowing ethics to stand somehow independent of God and his revelation. The image of God and the Noahic covenant both serve to underscore the fact that human beings are at no point to be considered independent of their creator. Second, VanDrunen considerably narrows the basis for what we might call social ethics. Far from a theonomic imposition of even the case law of the Old Testament, there is here only a very slim ethical obligation. VanDrunen sees the three explicit Noahic obligations as a recapitulation of the terms of the original covenant of creation, and thus as connecting to the law of creation.

I find the case for the Noahic covenant as standing outside of the economy of grace to be persuasive. The connection with the creation mandate seems sound. The purpose is clearly preservation, with no reference, either explicit or even implicit, to any kind of eschatological consummation. Certainly God has saved Noah from the flood, and thus saved the human race, but there are no connections to any greater salvation. Its universal scope makes it a lasting ethical mandate.

Where many readers may find that they differ with VanDrunen is in his argument in Part Two that the Mosaic covenant is to be understood as the republication of the covenant of creation, specifically designed so that Israel might fail and thus to underscore the significance of the fall of Adam.

This is where I sense my own lack of contemporary systematic and biblical competence. I am not sure as to why Sinai needs to be reduced to republication, which VanDrunen seems eager to do. Certainly one function of the Sinai law is to bring Israel to its knees in humility before God; but it also seems that the law fulfills other functions. It is promulgated in the context of redemption from Egypt and against the background of the LORD carrying his people through the wilderness as a man carries his son (Deut. 1:31). Further, the use of the law in the New Testament as giving shape to the applications which Paul, for example, draws from the indicatives of Christ’s life and work would seem to me at least to require that Sinai is not reduced simply to a recapitulation of the mandate in the Garden and Israel to yet another piece of evidence of human depravity and failure.

In the final chapter, “The Natural Order Penultimized,” VanDrunen develops his positive ethical thinking within the context of a Pauline “now and not yet” structure. He argues that in Christ the church is freed in an ultimate sense from the natural law. However, because Christians live in two worlds—the world to come and the world as it is now—their lives must inevitably exhibit a certain tension.

It is within this tension that VanDrunen sketches out a basic ethic for Christians living in a non-Christian world. Heterosexual marriage is affirmed, as are the basic principles of justice, civil authority, the need to work as a member of society and to show a certain respect for the moral judgments of pagans. While some may find the latter theoretically shocking, it is surely the pragmatic reality of much of life. Christians do share a lot of moral convictions with, say, the common and Roman law codes and with many of our unbelieving neighbors. In addition, VanDrunen points to biblical foundations in Paul’s thinking for such. This is not a naïve inclusivism or Pelagianism which he is proposing.

My one caveat in this is that the world in which we live is growing ethically ever more diverse and complicated. It does seem that each year brings less and less consensus on what might be deemed moral absolutes, or even moral preferences. In addition, ethical thinking today seems to have a profoundly aesthetic dimension to it where it has no need to offer any kind of publicly legitimate rationale but merely appeal to taste—taste which is so often shaped more by the narratives presented in the televisual media than in anything approaching rigorous moral discussion or dialogue with longstanding moral conventions and traditions. In this new world of moral discourse, VanDrunen offers the Christian reader a good starting point, but I wonder whether the combination of the complexity of moral choices and the collapse of moral discourse will mean that the natural law and the Noahic covenant will prove too slender a foundation for believers to operate with confidence in the growing moral anarchy of the public sphere. Not that they are inadequate in themselves, but that the move from them to knowing how to respond to many modern ethical questions is not particularly straightforward.

This is an important book with which I have much sympathy. Anthropology and ethics are set to be the two most pressing issues of the next twenty years for Christians, especially pastors and elders. VanDrunen is to be thanked for offering a profound contribution exemplifying one way of approaching these topics.

Carl Trueman is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Ambler, Pennsylvania, and as a professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2015.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information

Ordained Servant: November 2015

Jonah's Baptism

Also in this issue

Jonah’s Baptism

A Clarification of the Review of Divine Covenants and Moral Order by David VanDrunen

Insightful Fool’s Talk: A Review Article

Interpreting the Prophets by Aaron Chalmers: A Review Article

Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop (Briefly Noted)

To Persuade or Not to Persuade: A Review Article

Cowper’s Grave

Download PDFDownload MobiDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church