Interpreting the Bible: Be Careful of Positive Law

bible.jpgI’m not real happy with this title, but I couldn’t think of a better way to say it without a paragraph-long caption.

“Positive law” is a law that’s a law just because someone in power (God in this context) says so. It’s often contrasted with “natural law” or “moral law,” which are laws that are inherently right and wrong.

The law that we must drive on the right is a positive law. The answer could just as easily have been the left–as in England. Either choice is as moral as the other. Just so, the rule that tax returns are due April 15 is just an arbitrary date. April 1 would have been just as moral (and maybe appropriately ironic!)

On the other hand, driving recklessly or while drunk is not only illegal but wrong. It would be wrong even if the legislature had never made such rule.

When we interpret the scriptures, we should be very, very reluctant to find a positive law. If a conclusion is dictated by morality, then it’s clearly a matter of God’s will. We really don’t need the Bible to tell us that stealing is wrong. The Bible helps us in some more subtle areas, such as in sexual immorality, where our passions tend to cloud our judgment.

But on the whole, God’s morality is recognized by even non-Christians. The world considers it good to help the poor and hungry. The world considers it wrong to steal. Most people hate being lied to.

Thus, the moral teachings of the Bible educate us and help us be more sensitive to moral questions, but the moral law stands as true independently of the Bible. We are moral people because we are created in God’s image, and he has impressed his moral nature on us all.

On the other hand, there are some rules that even our greatest thinkers would never have figured out but for the Bible. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper fit this category, and yet these institutions are clearly expected of the church.

There are a few other issues that aren’t moral but which aren’t quite positive either.

Once you understand that we are saved to be part of a community that does good works, then the need to periodically assemble, to encourage one another, and to be equipped and built up is a very natural conclusion. On the other hand, the choice of meeting every Sunday is positive.

If you understand the nature of God and our salvation, then worship is the perfectly natural result. We sometimes constrain the spirit of worship by imposing a host of rules on what should be spontaneous–as were the Psalms, for example–and so we should worship because it’s our nature to worship, not because it’s commanded.

Just so, as the community has a mission, it really needs leadership. Choosing leaders who are spiritual and who’ve proven their spirituality in their lives and families is obvious.

I’m not sure that baptism and the Lord’s Supper aren’t the only positive laws. The Bible barely mentions Sunday (Acts 20:6; Rev. 1:10), for example, and these passages are far from commands.

And yet, except for a few Sabbatarian groups,  such as the Seventh Day Adventists, the Christian community has universally adopted the practice of weekly, Sunday assemblies.

You see, there are many practices that are barely mentioned in the scriptures, but which are clearly of apostolic origin, that the modern church has chosen to honor. It only makes sense as apostolic practices will usually be very wise. However, such questions cannot be salvation issue.

God nowhere commands us to meet every Sunday. Therefore, if we decide for spiritual reasons to meet on Saturday instead, we aren’t violating God’s commands. We will not displease God by such a choice.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Hermeneutics, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Be Careful of Positive Law

  1. Chris Guin says:

    I think there are some subtle pitfalls in this kind of thinking. A bowing Christian may be able to avoid them naturally, but a person struggling with understanding morality as the world understands it will likely fall into them easily, it seems to me. The overarching principle that needs to be remembered is that God is the ultimate sovereign in everything – he is the why behind every should and every ought, and that's it – if we have morality written on our hearts, than it has validity only insofar as it aligns with God's will and no more. The pitfall that the modern moral man is apt to fall into is the belief that he is the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong, capable even of judging God.

    It is not whatsoever true that God wouldn't make seemingly arbitrary rules – he did all the time. He told Abraham to go where he led him without even so much as laying out a case for why the Levant was the ideal location for the nation he would bear – it didn't matter whether Abraham agreed, only whether he trusted. This is not to say that the commands really ARE arbitrary – but they may certainly seem that way to us, and that's absolutely fine. If we understand that all the rules hang on love, that is because it was revealed to us – if our idea of love contradicts the will of God in one area, then it is our idea of love that must give. By informing us that there our deeper principles behind the commands, God is not deifying our interpretations of those principles.

    There is a vast difference between the following two beliefs:
    "That seems arbitrary to me, so I disagree with it. It must be wrong." versus
    "That seems contrary to the spirit of God as I have understood it from what he has revealed to me, so I must prayerfully attempt to reconcile them" – the difference being, of course, who is God and who is not (the point isn't whether the belief in question actually IS wrong, by the way).

    However, for a bowing Christian this may be an overly subtle distinction – as we align ourselves more with the will and character of God and become transformed into his image, our personal understanding of things will be a surer and surer guide, and that's how it should be. But who is actually in charge must always be understood.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    I grant the danger of this kind of thinking. But there is, I think, a very great danger in NOT thinking this way. I mean, the history of the Churches of Christ is composed of men finding arbitrary rules in the New Testament that don't really make sense and nonetheless imposing them on others as, after all, God is sovereign. And indeed he is. And indeed he can be just as arbitrary as he wishes.

    Obviously, this is just one of several hermeneutical precepts, none of which can be applied in isolation. Thus, knowing God is sovereign leads to truth only once you understand the purposes of God.

    The passages I quoted in the preceding post on the Holy Spirit ( quotes these rarely discussed passages–

    (1 Cor. 2:14-16) The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

    (Rom. 12:2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

    These teach that a man with the Spirit can be trusted to "make judgments about all things," "has the mind of Christ," and is "able to test and approve what God's will is." I take these seriously. Of course, man's intellect is fallen and imperfect, but nonetheless the promises are given.

    The point about positive law is just that we should see it as a warning to be very, very careful. There are positive laws that God has imposed, but for good reason, not just to test our willingness to submit to silly rules.

    Thus, when we study the roles of women, divorce and remarriage, and other difficult issues, the point where I deeply doubt someone's opinion is when they say, "I know it doesn't make any sense, but God said it, so we have to do it." That, to me, has been the starting point of the some of the most rich and fruitful Bible studies I've done–and when I finished, I found that the proposed positive law evaporated as a false interpretation.

    But, like many things, it's just an indicator, not an absolute. There are, after all, positive laws–just not very many and none that doesn't have a powerful reason behind it.

  3. Pingback: Interpreting the Bible: But I Say Unto You … « One In

  4. Jay Guin says:

    I just read your post arguing, correctly, I think, that homosexuality is a linchpin issue for whether Christians can effectively evangelize in areas such as the northeastern U.S.

    The positive law argument does not contradict the-homosexual-sex-is-wrong argument. As argued earlier regarding Eden,… Jesus and Paul consistently refer to Gen 1 and 2 as the basis for sexual ethics. Eden was sinless, and Eden was sex between a man married to a woman. All other sex is condemned.

    The conclusion is reinforced by the Law of Moses and the Jesus' condemnation of fornication (Matt. 15:19, for example) among many other passages.

    I grant that this may not be a convincing argument to non-believers–especially non-believers who consider Eden a myth. But it's not just a test of our willingness to do what we're told. Rather, it's the order of human society God wants because it's the best order.

    The argument that the damage done by one homosexual sexual union is too trivial in its effect on society is false, because there are many sins of that nature. From shoplifting to adultery, the damage done to society by one person is often truly trivial. But if the rule is not a sin for one, then it's not a sin for all, and the result is the collapse of society.

    Finally, as C. S. Lewis has argued, God nowhere promises us that we get to do whatever our natural urges push us to do. Indeed, God tells us repeatedly that many of our natural urges are sin! And this is difference between Christianity and irreligion–do we worship our flesh or our Maker?

    The point of Christianity is to change from a fleshly being to a Spiritual being by the power of the Spirit. It's a radically different viewpoint.

    Many non-believers want to do good for others, but "good" is often defined as letting people do what they want. That's not good. It's hedonism–until what they want is changed by the Spirit.

  5. Chris Guin says:

    I suppose my point with the homosexuality argument wasn't that it's a positive or arbitrary law, but that to a larger culture that seems to have little innate feeling that subordinating your sexual desires to a larger calling can not only be a good thing, but a moral imperative, it feels to them like a positive or arbitrary law. What arguments can be made that it is not (and there are plenty, including those you described) are based fundamentally on an acceptance of a moral code outside of your own desires (kindness and gentleness often make it, at least nominally, into this kind of moral code nowadays because it feels good), arbitrated by a God who isn't you.

    It's possible I'm being overly pessimistic – maybe with the right words modern moral men can be brought to see how God's word aligns with the law already written on their hearts. But people are so utterly convinced of the goodness of relying on themselves for moral decisions that I have trouble seeing this happen apart from the work of the Spirit.

    There's a new musical called Spring Awakening out – I like the music, but the lyrics are the most cringe-inducing and banal I have heard in a long time. One of the opening songs has the young hero expressing his conviction (in words that don't even remotely rhyme but are clearly trying) that morality comes from his mind and his soul rather than the Bible or culture at large – and from my perspective, it sounds so utterly self-absorbed, infantile, and deluded, that maybe it's possible that someone can be made sensitive to this view of things simply by being made aware of it. I don't know.

Leave a Reply