Within the Reformed law-gospel paradigm, the pedagogical function of the moral law is routinely recognized. Calvin’s three uses of the moral law include pedagogy in the first use: to act as a mirror by revealing sin to us and, in turn, our need for God’s grace. (See Institutes 2.7.6-12.) As Augustine famously put it, “the law bids us, as we try to fulfill its requirements, and become wearied in our weakness under it, to know how to ask the help of grace.” The constant testimony of the moral law—mainly through the judgment of our own consciences, God’s vicegerent—leads us to embrace Christ. The second or civil use is limited to the restraining power of the law: fear of punishment to counteract evil. Third, for Calvin, moral law encourages obedience to God as a standard to help the regenerate channel their (non-meritorious) gratitude into worshipful action. It teaches us good works. This is the moral use.
Typically, discussion of the moral law vis a vis society is limited to the context of Calvin’s second use. The implementation of the moral law, punishing evil and rewarding good, is, perhaps, unthinkingly assumed to be merely about material tranquility or providing generally stable conditions wherein Christians can live quiet lives.
But early modern Protestants went further in the law’s civil usefulness. We might say that they combined Calvin’s first two uses for purposes of social order. Herein the civil use becomes a constructive one, going beyond mere restraint or negation. In this way, the moral law is both evangelistic or prepatory and restrictive.
It is evangelistic, so to speak, because it is through the expression and application of the perpetual moral law via human law that makes man aware of the moral standard he transgresses. For moral law to act as social teacher and, by extension, confront man’s conscience, it must be expressed in concrete circumstances by human laws. Indeed, this is, in part, how God’s universal moral law (i.e., the natural law) is known. Brian McCall has rightly discerned that the natural law itself implies and requires human lawmaking. As John Owen (1616-1683) argued, the natural law (being an ordinance of reason) is learned, in a sense, by improvement of reason through acquaintance with “resolutions, determinations, instructions, [and] laws [that have] proceeded from the reason of other men” and that are “congruous to the light and law of nature.”
For early moderns, this was true of natural theology generally. Not only did grace not abrogate but rather perfect nature, grace also presupposed nature. Evangelistically, then, the reception of special revelation depended on the reception of natural revelation that preceded it. In A Discourse Proving that the Christian Religion is the only True Religion (1702), Increase Mather (1639-1723) argued that “except men give Credit to the principles of natural religion, they will never believe the Principles of revealed Religion.” Likewise, Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) in the Knowledge of God in Christ: “The knowledge of God by nature and creatures is necessary, as a foundation for higher apprehensions, and for turning to God. Men without it would be wholly brutish, incapable of instructions in Christianity.” So too, Matthew Henry’s (1662-1714) Commentaries: “Let us be more and more confirmed in our belief of the principles of natural religion, which Christianity supposes, and is founded upon.” Consider also, Herman Witsius (1636-1708): “For, as grace supposes nature, and makes it perfect; so the truths revealed in the Gospel are built on those made known by the light of nature.” Finally, and most forcefully, Thomas Manton (1620-1677) declared that “Religion hath never lost more than when outward helps have been despised, which men do to hide their own ignorance.” The point was that religious truths known naturally were improved by what we might now call cultural conditions and these things—natural truths—were preparatory for embrace of revealed truths, salvific truths.
The same was true of societal morality (and law). Insofar as human law reflected higher law it could lead men to higher morality; indeed, it might be a precondition of it. Good laws and their just and equitable enforcement, then, were not simply a matter of societal stability but also of pedagogy, of directing men to virtue and, ultimately, ascent to higher truths. Thomas Aquinas, of course, declared that the end of law was to lead men to virtue.
Again, what we would now dub “cultural Christianity” was considered by many early modern Protestants as preparatory and evangelistic. Principles of reason could be strengthened and refined, and, in the end, natural theology was tasked with drawing out of man what he already inherently did or should know onto a higher plain, forcing him to pursue what stood even above reason.
Wrapped up in this view of culture and law was also a certain view of temporal or civil power, of earthly rulers and their God-ordained role. This role was much loftier than most of us now conceive of it. More than the preservation of secular order was demanded of them. Commenting on the Lutheran, Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), James Estes notes that his subject
[M]ade the magistrate’s duty to promote the common weal by preserving peace and order clearly subordinate to his duty to serve the church. The magistrate, he argued, does not establish true preaching and worship in the hope of furthering the peace and order of his territory; on the contrary, he establishes peace and order to the end that orderly and effective preaching and worship might be possible.
In other words, the magistrate provides the conditions for the propagation of truth—in the context of Christendom, that meant an established church. Though the magistrate lacked direct legislative competency in matters of religion, he was a defender of the faith (fidei defensor) and a protector of the church. Similarly, in his Mosaic Polity, Franciscus Junius (1545-1602) charged civil rulers with the souls of their people. “For the magistrate in his political order assists his society in aspiring to the gate of eternal salvation, and so does the ecclesiastical minister, through the support of human society and the influence of a good magistrate.”
Acknowledged by Junius is not only the magistrate’s duty to protect the church, as nearly all believed at that time, but also the morally prepatory nature of the magistrate’s policies (i.e., law). Hence, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) assigned to civil rulers and their lawmaking a prepatory function:
Though Magistrates cannot force men to Believe, Love God, and so to be saved, yet they must force them to submit to holy Doctrine, and learn the word of God, and to walk orderly and quietly in that condition, till they are brought to a voluntary personal profession of Christianity and Subjection to Christ and his holy Ordinance; and so being voluntarily Baptized (if they are new converted Heathens, that never were before baptized) or Confirmed (if they were baptized before) they may live in holy Communion with the Church.
Not only is law prepatory but also encouraging, we might say. In his 1656 letter to the parliamentarian, Sir Edward Harley, Baxter advocated for laws against “scorning at Godliness” so that average people who are prone to peer pressure might know that they “have the encouragement of the lawgivers’ judgment for the resisting of such temptations.” Law teaches, affirms, and defends. By invariably reflecting a governing morality, law leads men to some end by informing them (at least ostensibly) about their inherently moral natures. Obergefell did this as much as much as any edict of Justinian.
The Presbyterian barrister and pamphleteer William Prynne (1600-1669) held in The Sword of Christian Magistracy (1653) that this feature of law and authority is an inescapable fact of life and properly flows from natural law, even when the object of punishment or promotion is false—as Aquinas taught, evil is always a privation of the good.
Now, what was the ground of Nebuchadnezzar’s, and these other Pagan Idolaters’… corporal Censures, and capitall Proceedings against the Servants, Apostles and Saints of God, but this? they deemed them Hereticks, false Teachers, Opposers, and Blasphemes of their Idol-gods, and false Religions, which they embraced, beleeved as the true: For as the very light of Nature instructs all Nations that there is a God, and instigates them to elect and adore some Deity or other as their God and Savior: So it farther instructs them, that that Deity they adore, and that Religion they imbrace is no ways to be openly blasphemed, reviled, oppugned, contemned, under pain of the most severe capital punishments, because such offences against the supreamest Majesty of God transcend any Treason against an earthly Soveraign… and by the light of Nature in all ages punished such whom they esteemed Atheists, Hereticks, Blasphemers of their gods, or oppugners of their established Religion… [Although] ‘Tis true, most of these erred in the object, in deeming that Heresie, Schism, Blasphemy, Error, which was not.
Prynne’s point is that even pagan governments punish that which contravenes their respective religious/moral baseline and that this is to some degree unavoidable. The only question, then, is what end, law is preparing men for; what truth it is instilling in them; what nature it is telling them they possess. Rightly employed, law can and should prepare men for the gate of eternal salvation. Any other use is contrary to law itself, a derogation of justice and denial of truth. Christians used to think this way. Why they, by and large, no longer do—or at least think they shouldn’t—is an inquiry for another time.
Timon Cline is a graduate of Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Wright State University. His writing has appeared at Areo Magazine, The American Spectator, and National Review, and he writes regularly on law, theology, and politics at Conciliar Post.