The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Commandments, Not Suggestions

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It’s only been recently that biblical law has been viewed as non-applicational to contemporary society, by non-Christians and Christians alike. The claim is made that there are so many laws in the Old Testament that would be impossible to apply today. Laws against murder and theft are viewed as self-evident that everyone agrees on. Certainly in principle this is mostly the case, but not always in practice. The country is divided over whether abortion snuffs out a human life or just “terminates a pregnancy.” Civil governments tax and redistribute confiscated revenue to people who under other circumstances would never receive the money unless it had been voluntarily given to them or they stole it. In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that municipalities can use the government’s eminent domain power to aid private parties by taking private homes, land, and businesses for private commercial development, in essence creating a reverse Robin Hood effect in order to generate additional tax revenue. Is it theft? Does it come under the prohibition of the eighth commandment?

The simplest approach is to claim that grace trumps law and then be done with the totality of God’s law. Of course, no one can live in a world where there is no law. Even atheists concede that we live in a moral universe even though they can’t account for morality given their naturalistic and materialistic assumptions. This hasn’t stopped them from trying to come up with moral absolutes that have application beyond the individual. [1] History’s most notorious tyrants—Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin—felt no twinge of conscience in exterminating millions, but would have objected if someone tried to kill them. But in a purposeless universe, who’s keeping track?

There is a long history going back centuries of attempts to apply biblical law to society.  “Indeed, biblical laws deal with topics ranging from criminal and penal law to judicial procedure and the administration of justice, commercial law, torts and injuries, family law, property law, estate planning, martial law, and social welfare, in addition to the laws concerning divine sanctity, cultic sacrifice, and religious taboos that usually come to mind when people first think of law in the Bible.” [2] Some laws are easily transferable and applied. Laws against murder, theft, and perjury are written into the law books of America, so much so that few people ever question their origin. Marking property lines with “permanent monuments identifying land corners” is a common practice that has an ancient history as legal reasoning has shown, first, by the contention that private property is a divine ordinance, and second that the boundaries of a person’s property was sacrosanct: “From earliest times the law not only authorized but protected landmarks. Interference with landmarks of another was a violation of the Mosaic Law. See Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10.” [3] This is why Ted Koppel could say in a 1987 commencement address at Duke University,

What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions. They are commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify in a handful of words acceptable human behavior, not just for then or now, but for all time. Language evolves. Power shifts from one nation to another. Messages are transmitted with the speed of light. Man erases one frontier after another. And yet we and our behavior and the commandments governing that behavior remain the same. [4]

There was a time when Koppel’s views were common because the general population of the United States, from farmers to government officials, knew the Bible and its moral precepts even if they all didn’t embrace the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Mark Noll comments that “It should not be surprising that even the least orthodox of the founders of the nation paid attention to scripture, for they lived at a time when to be an educated member of the Atlanta community was to know the Bible.” [5] Today, the law as summarized in the Ten Commandments literally has been removed from public view in the places where it is needed most—in our civil institutions which have become a law unto themselves. Even so, a study of the subjects these ancient laws address will show that they have a contemporary ring to them despite how they are dismissed by modern-day lawmakers and jurists. Law professor John W. Welch observes:

In teaching biblical law to law students for twenty years, I have noticed that its topics and underlying policies have always proved to be surprisingly relevant and stimulating to me and to my students. Not only do Israelite and other Near Eastern texts promulgate rules that deal with problems and address legal issues that still arise in society today, but comparison and analysis is also illuminating and profitable for American law students precisely because the roots of the legal system in the United States are so deeply intertwined with biblical law. Thus, the study of its solutions and value structures helps to illuminate the issues and elements that both shaped the origins of American law and also remain relevant in modern times. [6]

There is no doubt that Welch’s observations are accurate. The amount of extant material available to scholars on the subject supporting the claim is overwhelming even if we are unaware of them. Some of the earliest court cases in the United States make statements that show the importance of the Decalogue in the reinforcement of our nation’s legal tradition. In a 1914 case, the court acknowledged, “The laws of spiritual life, of civil life, and moral life are all set forth in the ten commandments.” [7] The 1899 West Virginia case Moore v. Strickling argued in a similar way:

These commandments, which, like a collection of diamonds, bear testimony to their own intrinsic worth—in themselves appeal to us as coming from a superhuman or divine source; and no conscientious or reasonable man has yet been able to find a flaw in them. Absolutely flawless, negative in terms but positive in meaning, they easily stand at the head of our whole moral system; and no nation or people can long continue a happy existence, in open violation of them.” [8]

In 1931, Judge Charles Sumner Lobingier declared that “Israel’s law is the connecting link between the earliest and the latest legal systems and has proved itself one of the most influential forces in the evolution of the world’s law.” [9] But long before these modern statements, we find that “King Alfred in his Doom Book adopted the Ten Commandments and other selections from the Pentateuch, together with the Golden Rule in the negative form, as the foundation of the early laws of England.” [10] Harold. B. Clark presents a compelling historical perspective in his 1944 classic Biblical Law:

The Scriptures doubtless have been a potent influence upon American Law. In the early colonial period, the Bible seems to haven commonly regarded among the people as law. Several of the colonies formally adopted provisions of Mosaic law. [11] For example, Plymouth Colony in 1636 adopted a “small body of Lawes” largely based upon the laws of Israel. And New Haven Colony in 1639 resolved that “the word of God shall be the only rule to be attended to in ordering the affairs of government in this plantation,” and in 1655 adopted a code in which 47 out of 79 topical statutes were based on the Bible. [12]

With the exception of Rhode Island, every early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its legal code. In 1638, prior to leaving Boston, Massachusetts, the leading men of the proposed Rhode Island colony incorporated themselves into a political body. The Portsmouth Compact, signed by 23 men, stated the following: “We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.” The following Bible passages accompany the text: Exodus 24:3–4; 2 Chronicles 11:3; 2 Kings 11:17.

There is a lesson here for today’s churches and courts. There is no escape from law. The question is, Whose law?

  1. Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal, 1979:6 (December 1979), 1229–1249. “I will put the current situation as sharply as possible: there is today no way of ‘proving’ that napalming babies is bad except by asserting it (in a louder and louder voice), or by defining it as so, early in one’s game, and then later slipping it through, in a whisper, as a conclusion.” (Arthur Allen Leff, “Economic Analysis of Law: Some Realism about Nominalism,” Yale Law Review 60 [1974], 454–455).[]
  2. John W. Welch, “Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform,” Brigham Young University Law Review (2002), 613.[]
  3. International Paper Realty Company v. Bethune. No. 43092. Supreme Court of Georgia, June 10, 1986.[]
  4. Ted Koppel, The Last Word, Commencement Address at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (May 10, 1987). Quoted in Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 164.[]
  5. Mark A Noll, “The Bible in Revolutionary America,” The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, ed. James Turner Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 39–40.[]
  6. Welch, “Biblical Law in America,” 610–611.[]
  7. Quoted in Harold B. Clark, Biblical Law, 2nd ed. (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1944). 8, note.[]
  8. Moore v. Strickling (1899) 46 W. Va. 515, 33 SE 274, 50 LRA 279, 282. Quoted in Clark, Biblical Law, 8.[]
  9. 4 China LR (1931) 362 (Lobingier). Quoted in Clark, Biblical Law, 43.[]
  10. Quoted in J. Nelson Happy and Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, “Genesis!: Scriptural Citation and the Lawyer’s Bible Project,” Regent University Law Review 89 (1997).[]
  11. William Galbraith Miller, The Data of Jurisprudence (Edinburgh and London: William Green and Sons, 1903), 416.[]
  12. Clark, Biblical Law, 44.[]

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