What Does “General Equity” Mean?

I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.

Johannes Wollebius, Compendium theologiae christianae, 14.6 in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W. Beardslee III (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), 84.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


    • Zachary,

      Theonomy is the assertion of the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail” (Bahnsen, 1974). Wollebius, on the other hand, was distinguishing between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. Of these only the moral is perpetually valid. The ceremonial laws and civil laws were intentionally temporary.

      Wollebius was making just this point. He was, in effect, 20 years before the Assembly concluded, giving us the Westminster Assembly’s view of “general equity thereof” in WCF 19.4:

      4. 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.

      It’s not that the civil laws have no application but they apply only insofar as they are expressions of the moral law. This is why he treats them like the laws of foreign nations. That’s certainly not theonomy. By treating them like the laws of foreign nations, he was reserving the right to be selective. Under theonomy, a magistrate must enforce the 1st table and go to war with those that don’t. You will note that Wolleb restricts his discussion of the political laws to the 2nd table, an approach rejected by the theonomists.

      This is most certainly not theonomy. It is the historic Reformed view, which is the antidote to theonomy.

  1. So you ar saing that the civil laws of the Old Testement is completely disconnected whith the moral law?
    God just gave these laws randomly? It really don’t meant to umhold a moral principle?

    • Rafael,

      No, the Westminster Divines, following the ancient Christian tradition, distinguished between three aspects or categories within the biblical law. The civil and ceremonial categories were intentionally temporary. The moral law reflects the character of God in a way that the civil and ceremonial laws did not. It is necessary to love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as one’s self but washing one’s hands because of ceremonial uncleanness? That’s not a permanent law. Leaving the camp because of a discharge or the death penalty for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Those are not abiding laws grounded in the nature of God. They did not exist until they did, i.e., they were not in force under Noah and Abraham and they expired with the death of Christ. Thus, evidently they belong to a different class than “love God and love neighbor.” After all, our Lord himself said, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:37–40).

      The Reformed confess:

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.

      The moral law is the natural law. It is permanent. The civil and ceremonial laws were peculiar to the Mosaic (old) covenant.

      On these topics see:

      1. Sedgwick on the Threefold Distinction
      2. Beza on the Threefold Division
      3. From the Finger of God: The Biblical Basis for the Threefold Distinction
      4. The End of Sacrifices and Ceremonies
      5. Heidelberg 92: What Is The Law of God?
      6. Evangelicalism and the Reformed View of the Law
      7. The Abiding Validity of the Moral Law
      8. Irenaeus on the Abiding Validity of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments)
      9. Ursinus on the Abiding Validity of the Moral Law
  2. Just to clear the thoughts and avoid misinterpretaions, let me point some things before we continue the conversation… I was in no way advocating “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail”, nor do i ignore or disagree with the threefold “distinction” of the law.
    Nonetheless i think it’s não totalt answer the question about the grounds of the civil law.

    The Divines belived that the civil law was grounded upon the moral law, and in as much as the civil law reflects general moral laws, it stil abiding us today. That is what crealy stated in the original post.

    IV. 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.

    “I. As the ceremonial law was concerned with God, the political was concerned with the neighbor.

    II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.

    III. In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has not more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.”

    III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

    So, for the Divines some aspects of the civil law still need to bo observed in the gospel era, and the magistrate still have obligation with Christ, not only personaly, but in the office too.
    The threefold division do not contradict this.

    The civil law is a minimum of morality needed for the peacefull life in community, and in this sense we still need one ang the Word of God still provide to us, although not exactly as it was given to the Jews. This is clearly stated in the WCF, and in the Reformed thought in general.

    To properly fulfill the commendment “thall shalt not kill” one could never support a law that permitis abortion. Thats is a indisputable exemple, but many other could de made.
    For Calvin, for exemple divorce is a civil law. This could never be a moral law, and still have been permitted by God, and only very few would argue that this not abiding us today. The WCF clearly stated this, although not expressly calling this a civil law.

    So although the WCF and the gerneral reformed tough not defend a “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail”, this not follow that civil law is something only in our past, and something totally alien in the gospel era.

    • Rafael,

      The Divines were theocrats but they also said that the judicial laws have “expired.” You can’t say “expired” and they are “the bate minimum” for civil life.

      That flatly contradicts Wollebius and the WCF. Foreign laws are not essential by definition.

    • The Divines were living near the end of Christendom, an age of the western world when it was widely assumed that authorities should *enforce* Christianity, not just make it possible for Christians to live in peace with their unbelieving neighbors.

      That said, it is a misunderstanding of the divines to read them as saying the civil laws of Moses were binding, or “aspects” of them. Not so. That portion of the law, they said, “expired.” That word means DEAD. The civil law of Moses is a legal corpse. And we aren’t going to make “fetishes” of a corpse, or of its “aspect.”

      The only question is: whether there is something from the moral underpinning of some old civil enactment, which has the nature of “equity,” of fundamental fairness or justice, that transcends time and space, which is just as reasonable before the law of Moses and accessible to Noah, or to the nation of Seth before the flood; as it is in lands beside Israel of old, or in times since the days of the theocracy.

      The civil law is not the moral law. The moral law is fully summarized in the Ten Commandments, the moral cornerstone of the whole legislation. All the commands of God are “moral” in some respect, even if they are merely his ‘say-so,’ and have no other discernable “moral utility.” But it is vital to see that the moral law is the basis (form), but not the matter of civil law in general.

      I will gladly stipulate that abortion falls (as a rule) under the ban of the 6C, without exception. Any exceptions merely prove the rule. But we do not adhere to this simply because we know the 6C, or because Ex.21:22 gave a legal precedent. It is a function of a legal and medical consensus of a wide diversity of histories; and cultures and codes, both forensic and ethical. The facts of nature have only grown more evident and stubborn over time, and the aberrant dictates of modern, decadent western tastes cannot forever defy nature. It will give way, either bit by bit or in a rush.

      But we do not pick and choose of the laws of Moses, which we will honor “because they are Moses” or because they are Scripture. Rutherford was correct to say, that any who would so commit to such a rule was “debtor to the whole law of Moses, upon penalty of death,” and he references Paul’s sweeping away of Moses in Gal.5:1-3.

      If, for example Ex.21:22 appears to provide an excellent example of one instance of Israel honoring the 6C in a civil manner, a modern society would be idiotic to ignore gleanings of such inspired counsel from the past. But still, it would be quite naïve simply to overwrite Ex.21:22 into their own legal code. That stipulation assumes an ancient and differently technologically enhanced time than the modern west. A similar criticism would be just as applicable to a naïve appropriation of the same Mosaic precept in a more primitive culture to ancient Israel (at any point in human history).

      The problem is not with the utility of some decent law in its original context. The problem is in taking an application of the moral law–a civil precept–from its historic and conditioned context, especially its COVENANTED context (with a divine King’s fiats), and forcing the application universally upon humanity in all places and times, upon pain of conscience and of eternal judgment.

      The law of divorce in Moses is civil. The fact that western society has divorce laws does not make the laws or their conditions either more or less ethical. Neither does their allowances vis-à-vis the Mosaic allowances or limits. Moses’ civil legislation is not a standard of comparison. We must fall back upon the moral law itself, as the one and only ethical standard. Christians are bound to adhere to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles on the question of divorce, no matter what the local statute respecting marriage and divorce is.

      To say, the biblical laws of Moses/Jesus commands are the undisputed rules for secular society, is simply to assume the ethical propriety of the imposition of ancient rule and biblical morality on everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, by the coercive power of the sword and the rulings of a new caste of rabbinical jurists. Say hello again, to canon-law and medieval synthesis.

      Whether there are laws about abortion or divorce in any given society; or whether these are so rare as to make legislation superfluous, and shunning sufficient to demonstrate cultural opprobrium of various abuses; is not itself a thing of moral weight. On the other hand, no culture is sufficiently warded against failure that does not regard the 6th and 7th Commandments.

      Please consider these things.

  3. It can be hard to wrap our minds around ‘general equity’. I remember watching a documentary on China, a couple were wanting a divorce, the state stepped in ( through local emissaries) and mandated counseling. The end result; the couple ‘worked it out’ and the marriage remained intact. This was a predominantly Buddhist influenced culture. No reference to The Ten anywhere in sight. Might this be what general equity refers to?

Comments are closed.