Guy wrote a comment asking why I take such a dim view of positive law (and I do). I knocked out a quick comment, but I think the topic bears a more thorough explanation. It’s going to take several posts that dig deeply into the mind of God.
After some background, the first few posts will delve into the scripture’s teachings on moral and positive law. We’ll then look at some supposed positive laws to see whether the Bible really teaches what we often teach to be laws.
A little background
For those not familiar with the term, “positive law” is a law that prohibits something not intrinsically wrong. A “moral law” is based on fundamental morality. In civil law — the law of governments — we would say that the prohibition of murder is a matter of moral law, because murder is wrong even if the government doesn’t choose to punish it. However, the law setting a minimum wage is positive law, because general principles of morality don’t declare wages below $7.25 an hour immoral — although there certainly is a point at which wages are immorally law — which may be higher or lower than the federal minimum wage.
In religious conversation, the distinction isn’t quite so clear, because presumably God makes both laws and God’s will is the very definition of morality. Nonetheless, the terms are useful. As a rule, in the Churches of Christ, we would refer to such teachings as the 5 acts of worship and the scriptural form of church organization to be positive laws, because there’d be nothing inherently immoral in, say, a cappella singing. After all, God commanded instrumental worship in the Old Testament. (This essay by John Mark Hicks also addresses positive law.)
Now, in the Churches of Christ, this distinction has an important history. After the time of Alexander Campbell, some ministers began to argue that God held his people to a higher standard of obedience to positive commands. Benjamin Franklin, for example, preached, in a sermon published in 1877,
But positive divine law is of a higher order than this. It has the force to make that right which is not right in itself, and is the highest test of respect for divine authority known to man. It is also the greatest trial of faith ever applied to man. It is intended to penetrate down into the heart, and try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. The very acts that some men have irreverently styled, “mere outward acts,” “mere external performances,” are the Lord’s tests of the state of the heart, intended to penetrate deep down into the inmost depths of the soul, try the heart, the piety, the devotion to God. They try the faith. The man that will obey a commandment, when he can not see that the thing commanded can do any good, or, it may be, that he can see pretty clearly that it can not do any good in itself, does it solely through respect to divine authority; does it solely to please God; does it solely because God commands it. This has no reference to popularity, pleasing men, or to the will of man, but it is purely in reference to the will of God. This is of faith; it is piety, devotion to God. It rises above mere morality, philosophy, or the pleasure of man, into the pure region of faith, confidence in the wisdom of God, and in submission to the supreme authority–yields to it reverently when no other reason can be seen for it only that the divine will requires it. The man in his heart says, “It must be done, because the absolute authority requires it.”
There are three degrees in this before it can reach the highest test, the greatest trial of faith. 1. To obey when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. 2. To obey when we can see pretty clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. 3. To obey when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself. It tries the state of heart, the faith, the devotion to Him who commanded, to obey a command when we can not see that the thing commanded can do any good in itself. The test is greater, and the trial more severe, when we can see clearly that the thing commanded can not do any good in itself. The test is greatest, and the trial of faith most severe, when we can see that the thing commanded is clearly wrong in itself, but only made right by the arbitrary force of the absolute authority. This will all appear presently.
Notice he argues that we must obey God’s positive commands even when “the thing commanded is clearly wrong” — as though God could command such a thing!
Ultimately, he argues that positive laws are the “highest test for respect for divine authority known to man”! Therefore, obedience to positive commands was elevated above moral obedience.
It was only a few years later that the silences of the scriptures were tortured into a positive command, as though one could command by silence! Indeed, even today I read editor-bishops damning those who sing with an instrument for violating a “command” of God.
Of course, when silences become commands, well, there’s an awful lot of silence, and this has led to damnations and counter-damnations over who correctly reads the silences. You see, we’ve invented the perversity of “positive silences” and made silences that we infer more important and more binding that what God actually said. And, indeed, this has led to a notable lack of interest in reading what the text says for what it says.
Even today, many schools of preaching continue to teach the superiority of positive commands to moral commands — and certainly Church of Christ theology shows this attitude. After all, it’s the positive commands that we believe serve as “marks of the church.”
Many of us have experienced the kind of Christianity this reasoning has produced — a Christianity that damns over every violation of positive “law” and grants grace for violations of moral law, a Christianity that defines its borders by adherence to every fashionable inference rather than faith and love and the Spirit, a Christianity that can make no sense of Romans and 1 John and Jesus but happily claims perfect knowledge of the two passages that mention singing.
Indeed, while many Christians caught up in this religion are good, loving people, they are part of churches so afraid of violating a law that they do next to nothing for God’s kingdom.
So this is the background against which I write. And so I contend that Benjamin Franklin has it exactly backwards: moral law is higher than positive law. Indeed, I question whether God even imposes positive law any more.