Basis for Civil Government Laws in the French Confession 1559

Is the civil government today obligated to enforce the Mosaic civil codes? This is a topic that has brought out a number of debates. Most recently the Theonomy Debate I attended in Tempe AZ between JD Hall and Joel McDurmon. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading through The Westminster Assembly Readings Its Theology in Historical Context (Westminster) by Robert Letham for a while. When I say “a while”, I mean that I read it then set it down for a few months then pick it up later and read it some more. I’ve always enjoyed Letham’s books since I was exposed to his work on the Trinity during my time in seminary. As an aside, I strongly recommend his book The Holy Trinity to those who are curious about the historical context of the doctrinal formulations of the Trinity.

In The Westminster Assembly, Letham is looking at the historical context of the Westminster Assembly as an aid to understanding the theology of the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession of Faith is described by Letham as “the most expansive confessional documents in the Reformed churches, even in Protestantism in general.” In this most helpful work, Letham uses recent historical research, most notably, Chad VanDixhoorn’s seven-volume Cambridge University Ph.D. thesis and his other writings. (Westminster, 2) The importance of “unearthing” many of these historical documents and works is that they provide an historical context for the formulations of the theological thinking of the Assembly.

Letham rightly states, “It is a constant temptation for theologians to read back into an earlier time the more developed teaching that came later.” Therefore, Letham makes it clear, that this work is not a discussion of their theology as understood by North American Presbyterians. He is careful to guard from being accused of reading contemporary theological conclusions into the mind of the Assembly. He wittingly compares it to a theologian today writing on issues of the 23rd century. Using this work as a help on a subject that I have been recently reflecting upon, especially in light of the debate I attended in Arizona. What is the basis of the laws that our civil government enforces? Is the government obligated to enforce the Mosaic civil ordinances? Or do they enforce the creation ordinances that God has summarized for us in the 10 Commandments (Decalogue)? And if the government enforces the Decalogue, what part do they enforce? Letham begins answering this question using contemporary historical research and external reformed sources contemporary with the Westminster Assembly. Due to the length of this answer, I will limit this post to the answer according to the French Confession of 1559.

The historical context to understand their theology

The Decalogue is a “reinforcement of creation ordinances and so transcend the time limited Sinai covenant” writes Letham. (Westminster, 293We understand that the validity of the Decalogue doesn’t stop at the covenant with Israel as it is rooted in creation and not in Sinai. Everyone knows these laws as true even though they may reject them and suppress their truthfulness. (Romans 1) The civil laws given to Israel, according to Letham, are part of the covenant God made with Israel. Laws, that, Paul argues in Galatians 3:19, “was for a specific purpose of preparing Israel for the coming of Christ” (Westminster, 294). Citing the French Confession article 23, Letham provides support and some historical context on the subject. The French Confession Article 23 (1559) states:

XXIII.  We believe that the ordinances of the law came to an end at the advent of Jesus Christ; but although the ceremonies are no more in use, yet their substance and truth remain in the person of him in whom they are fulfilled.  And, moreover, we must seek aid from the law and the prophets for the ruling of our lives, as well as for our confirmation in the promises of the gospel. (emphasis mine)

Article 23 emphasizes the substance of the law remaining though the form of the law is “no more in use”. According to article 23 the ceremonies and figures of the law as shadows have been accomplished and “fulfilled” in the person and work of Jesus. While the shadows of these ceremonies and ordinances of the law came to an end at the advent of Jesus, the substance remains because of the eternality of the eternal person (Son of God) who fulfilled them. (Westminster, 294-295) Article 23 also points out that we can still seek the law and prophets as an “aid” in the ruling of our lives though the ordinances have come to an end. Letham later cites article 39 of the French Confession that states:

XXXIX.  We believe that God wishes to have the world governed by laws and magistrates, so that some restraint may be put upon its disordered appetites.  And as he has established kingdoms, republics, and all sorts of principalities, either hereditary or otherwise, and all that belongs to a just government, and wishes to be considered as their Author, so he has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God.  We must therefore, on his account, not only submit to them as superiors, but honor and hold them in all reverence as his lieutenants and officers, whom he has commissioned to exercise a legitimate and holy authority. (Westminster, 294)

It seems clear, in the mind of the French Confession at least, that God established kingdoms and republics and therefore “all belongs to a just government” because God is their Author. According to article 39 the “sword” belongs to these kingdoms and republics to enforce the 1st and 2nd table of the Law. In conclusion, according to the French Confession, the basis for civil law, was the 1st as well as the 2nd table of the Law not the civil laws of Moses. And as a result, in the mind of the French Confession, the civil laws of Moses are no longer an obligation for the civil government to enforce.