A correspondent to the HB writes:
People can gloss over the term all they want, but secularism is still what it is, a rival religion and ethos to Christianity. The real divide between the FV and anti-FV crowd began with Van Til (maybe even Kyuper), which is to say it has more to do with epistemology than theology. The FV folks reject the idea that anything in this world can be “ethically neutral,” and see any attempt to leave Christ out of something as treason against his kingship. The anti-FV folks think otherwise.
I’ll treat these claims as implied questions because they give me an opportunity to address some significant questions.
For several decades the word “secular,” has been treated as a pejorative, as an equivalent to “unbelieving,” or “hostile to Christianity.” The word has become so notorious, in some circles anyway, that there have been episodes of conspiracy theorist-fundamentalist hysteria over the use of the Latin phrase, “novus ordo seculorum” (new order of the ages) which appears on the Great Seal of the United States and on the dollar bill.
There’s nothing inherently evil about the word “secular.” It’s simply Latin (saeculum) for the Greek word (αιων/aion) that Paul used repeated for “ages” as in Ephesians 2:7. It refers to an epoch of history. Paul’s usage is significant. As he used it “secular” doesn’t signify “opposed to Christ and his kingdom,” or even epistemologically “neutral.” It signifies “this age,” i.e., the place we occupy in redemptive history. It refers to the penultimate rather than the ultimate or final state.
We live in the penultimate age, the time in between the accomplishment of redemption by Christ and its consummation. This isn’t the final state (heaven or glory). The act of distinguishing between this age and the age to come has a pretty good pedigree (Matt 12:32; Eph 1:21).
The question is, given that we live in “this age,” and not in the “age to come,” (though, Christians participate in the age to come by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; Phil 3:20) how shall we live? Implied in the biblical doctrine of two ages is a distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms or spheres. Paul functioned in both but distinctly. A “secular” approach to civil government does not confuse the two kingdoms or spheres, it recognizes that the national covenant ended with the fulfillment and abrogation of the 613 Mosaic laws. After all, one searches the New Testament in vain for evidence that the apostles sought to establish a state church or a civil government on the basis of special revelation.
We know that the spiritual kingdom must be ordered according to special revelation (Scripture), but the question remains, on what basis shall we make civil decisions? Historically, the attempt to make them primarily on the basis of special revelation led to a mistaken renewal of the Mosaic civil state. Emerging from the Thirty-Years War (1618–48) the west began to look for alternatives. The American republic, established as a “new order for the ages,” provided an opportunity to establish a civil government on the basis of general or natural or creational revelation.
This last point is particularly important. I have often been impressed by the theonomic polemic against natural law. I am impressed by the (at least formal) similarity between the theonomic rejection of natural law and the Barthian rejection of natural or creational law. For folk who (presumably) reject Barth on so many other fronts, why would they effectively embrace his view of natural revelation? Why do so many of them embrace his view of the covenant of works? The Westminster Divines didn’t have problem affirming the existence of both natural law and the covenant of works.
In Westminster Confession of Faith 19.1 we confess:
God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which He bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it
This is the second time the confession mentions the covenant of works, by the way. If repetition means anything, it does suggest that this is a fundamental idea in the Reformed confession.
This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
We confess that “this law continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness….” What is the antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun? It’s the law that was given in creation. The creational law, the natural law, the covenant of works, continues to be in force in two tables.
God elaborated this law during the Israelite national covenant by giving civil and ceremonial laws which he abrogated in the death of Christ. He also gave civil law to Israel. What happened to them?
To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require (19.4)
The civil laws have “expired.” In the words of John Cleese, they’re “pushing up daisies.” They don’t oblige any non-canonical civil entity any more than the “general equity” of the civil laws may require. Whatever “general equity” means, it doesn’t mean “the abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail.” In fact the Decalogue and other biblical summaries of the natural law have usually been taken to be, in effect, the “general equity thereof.”
As I’ve argued before, the same quest to make “the covenant” (as the FV likes to say) “objective” is the same spirit that gave us the slogan “abiding validity….” It is a vain attempt to impose an ostensibly “objective” standard for Christian civil conduct in this age.
Though they were mostly Constantinians, i.e., they took for granted the right and necessity of the civil government to enforce the first table of the Decalogue, the Westminster Divines didn’t have any problem affirming the abiding validity of natural or creational law in exhaustive detail. WCF 19.5 says, in part:
The moral law 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.
This is because the divines understood something that theonomists apparently do not: Natural or creational revelation is just that, revelation. How is revelation “neutral” or hostile to God? It isn’t. It’s God’s law. The apostrophe s signals possession and possession isn’t neutrality.
I suspect that the reason theonomic and Constantinian types react to natural/creational law the way Dracula reacts to mirrors, is because they realize that if Christians ever caught on to the idea of natural law, their cause would lose considerable plausibility. If Christians realized that civil life in this age is normed by creational law, God’s law revealed in creation, they would have no need of the quasi-Gnostic insights some claim to have into the “correct” application of Mosaic civil laws in our age.
Some have reacted to Constantinianism and to theonomy by denying the universal and abiding validity of the moral, creational, natural law for all persons, in all times, and in all places. This is also a mistake. We confess both the abiding validity of the moral law and the abrogation of the 613 commandments. To deny the abiding validity of the moral law as summarized in the Decalogue (recognizing that there are Israelite, typological elements in the Decalogue that no longer bind universally) and in the NT is antinomianism. The second commandment is still God’s law. The fourth commandment is still God’s law. The latter was expressly grounded in creation in Exodus 20:8, not in the Mosaic covenant. Yes, the Sabbath day has changed by virtue of the resurrection but the 1 day in 7 principle remains. According to Ephesians 6:1–3, the fifth commandment still applies but the the nature of the promise attached has been altered in light of redemptive history. There is no more land promise for a national people of God. The abiding validity of the substance of the law, however, is the general equity of which the divines spoke. This is why the orthodox, confessional position is neither theonomic nor antinomian. The tradition was Constantinian and most confessionalists since the 18th century have rejected Constantinianism. Nevertheless, the abiding validity of the creational, natural, moral law remains.
[This post first appeared in 2007 on the HB and has been revised]