A Confessional Word: Equity


While others are trying to slay 2k with what appears to be a minority view of which version of the Belgic Confession has been adopted by the URCNA, this might be a good time to visit the Westminster Confession on the topic.  It would, of course, be anachronistic to describe the WCF as neo-Cal or Van Tillian, but there are plenty of Reformed teeth being worn down in gnashing over, for example, David Van Drunen dusting off the natural law for fresh consideration.

But if you can hear yourself think over all the screaming, one can find the natural law perspective of the Westminster divines has, indeed, found its way into the confession.  For example, consider the word “equity.” Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us that the civil laws of Israel are no longer binding “further than the general equity thereof may require.”  But what does “equity” mean?  A law dictionary would tell us that it “denotes the spirit and the habit of fairness, justness, and right dealing which would regulate the intercourse of men with men,” and that’s actually a pretty good start. Surely it doesn’t satisfy those who wish for mathematic-like certainty in civil law or those with a radical distrust of reason, but it pretty well captures a concept which has been with us for quite some time.

One article summarizes:

 In the classical Reformed tradition, equity is the righteousness of the moral law, which is 1) embodied in a natural law binding upon all men as creatures under the authority of the Creator, and 2) common to moral teaching found in the Scriptures as a whole.

The article makes the customary inquiry of John Calvin:

 It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws.

Similarly, Beza speaks of a “law of nature common to all nations” and continues:

if anyone compares several of the laws of the Greeks, and many of the laws of the Romans, with the Mosaic, he will find a similarity among them in establishing penalties, so that it is sufficiently plain that all were adapted to the same goal of natural equity.

Perhaps we can get closer to the mind of the divines by consulting  “a Puritan pastor in London during the Westminster Assembly” Samuel Bolton who

identifies the “common and general equity’ of the judicial law as that which is shared with natural law. . . “that which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a maxim: Those judgments which are common and natural, are moral and perpetual.”

Samuel Rutherford “sat with the drafting committee which bore primary responsibility for the text of the Westminster Confession.” He tells us “For our divines strongly argue from the moral equity, and the law of nature…”

The author concludes:

Classical Reformed writers isolate in the judicial laws those moral directions which are held in common with natural law and the moral law teaching of Scripture as a whole, in distinction from what is peculiar to the judicial laws and hence does not rise above temporary obligation. The classical Reformed tradition has sought corroboration from other sources for the content of general equity, before accounting a provision of the Mosaic judicial law to be of perpetual obligation. Often the initial point of reference for Puritan writers was natural law, and this is reflected in the Confession’s references to the light of nature, and to the law given to man at creation.

Meanwhile in another web essay, Peter Wallace comments on Turretin, who

claims that Roman law may often be preferred to Mosaic law because much of Roman law is “derived from natural and common right…[and] can be more suitable to places, times and persons.” In other words, Turretin’s concern is for the equity of the law (which may be found in various law codes), since the particular statutes are no longer binding.

All of which is to say that attempts to portray natural law reasoning as unconfessional or to imply that anything but VanTillian apologetics is mandatory for the Reformed  isn’t going to get much help from the Westminster Confession.


Filed under Epistemology, Natural Law, Presbyterian Vocabulary, Uncategorized, Westminster Confession of Faith

24 responses to “A Confessional Word: Equity

  1. jedpaschall

    Good stuff MM. Sorry I totally spaced on sending you that book. I’ll try to remember to do so this week.

    This is what is most aggravating in the whole debate, those who are seeking to tar and feather 2kers show almost no familiarity with the Reformed tradition prior to Kuyper. They do not see the latent idealism (of the Kantian variety) that has permeated their ideology, nor do they understand that the Reformed tradition before the Enlightenment was framed on realist/Thomist/Aristotelian assumptions. The Reformed understanding of NL was almost universal, even if it varied in particulars. Yet, somehow in seeking to recover this we (2kers) are outside the tradition. In the words of Norm MacDonald in Dirty Work, Ridiculous!

  2. Richard

    And what is further ridiculous, Jed, is that those who reject natural law wind up sounding exactly like Karl Barth, frequently repeating his very words. And how theonomists can take Chapter 19 of the WCF to mean that the civil law still applies in toto is beyond ridiculous.

    • Jed and Richard, I am kind of confused by some of the generality of what you are saying. Are you both saying that there are men who deny Natural Law? I didn’t know that. I admit that I probably live in a cocoon on some issues. I do know that a particular variety of Natural Law / Two Kingdom doctrine is in dispute at this time but I was unaware that there were people who didn’t hold to a doctrine of Natural Law and were using that as a basis for refuting Two Kingdom teaching.

      • I don’t mean to pre-empt Jed and Richard, but I can toss out something for consideration. It isn’t a denial of natural law per se but it is a denial that natural law is consistent with the WSC.

        In the final analysis, all this means that those who argue that the state is to be guided by general revelation (or natural law) rather than special revelation (Biblical Law) are fearfully out of accord with our Confessional Standards. The Westminster Standards teach that civil government exists for the glory of God, the Westminster Standards also teach that the rule to direct us in order to glorify God is the Bible, not natural law, therefore the Westminster Standards teach that the state is to glorify God by ruling in accordance with His law-word in Scripture (not his law in nature). Those who argue that the state is to be governed in accordance with natural law, rather than Biblical Law (though any student of the Bible and Reformed theology should know that this is a false dichotomy, as natural law and Biblical Law are the same in their ethical content, only one is revealed less clearly than the other), deny this teaching; and thus they must choose between their rationalistic theories (which place general revelation above special revelation when it comes to statecraft) and our Confessional Standards, as they cannot have both. Indeed, far from Recovering the Reformed Confession, the reality is that Natural Law advocates are fundamentally overturning the doctrine of our Confessional Standards.

        This was posted by “Reformed Covenanter” at http://confessionalpuritan.forumcircle.com/viewtopic.php?p=4713

      • Mike, That was Daniel Ritchie’s site. It might even be defunct now, but I am not sure and really don’t pay any attention to it. Sorry, I am ignorant about the site. DR use to participate on the PB so I have been somewhat familiar with him. I have only visited the site a few times. I think he has changed his position after examining some things. I believe he revised his book even to reflect his views since moving away from libertarianism and and I believe Theonomy (but don’t quote me on the Theonomy thing). I believe he moved away from those positions for an Establishmentarian position which is not Theonomy. And you are correct that isn’t an argument that argues against Two Kingdom’s from a Non Natural Law perspective. And it probably should be noted that most of the emotional upheaval isn’t necessarily about Natural Law / Two Kingdoms. It is about a certain vein of it and how they are being examined and taught. The general statements of anti-2k is not true for a lot of people who have criticisms of the Modern views being taught. I know a lot of 2 Kingdom people who have disagreements with some of the newer views concerning the topic. Just saying.

  3. I asked Dr. Guy Richard about Samuel Rutherford and Natural Law. Here is what was asked and said.


    Dr. Guy Richard,
    If you wouldn’t mind answering a quick question for me I would appreciate it. It might not be simple or be easy to answer shortly nor quickly.

    I moderate the Puritanboard.com. One of the Administrators on the Puritanboard Chris Coldwell and I were discussing Samuel Rutherford and Natural Law. We were looking at some of his thoughts on Natural Law in Lex Rex when and I found a quote from his Disputation Against Pretended Liberty that I considered to be his more definitive thought on the subject.

    As I worked my way through examining Lex Rex he doesn’t ever seem to specifically define Natural Law but he does reference it and prove it is a Law in man by reason for preservation as I sum it up. In his book Disputations he writes what I would consider a more precise definition.

    CHAP. I.
    Of Conscience and its nature.
    “Of this intellectual Treasure-house, we are to know these. 1. That in the inner Cabinet, the natural habit of Moral principles lodgeth, the Register of the common notions left in us by nature, the Ancient Records and Chronicles which were in Adam’s time, the Law of Nature of two volumes, one of the first Table, that there is a God, that he createth and governeth all things, that there is but one God, infinitely good, more just rewarding the Evil and the good; and of the second Table, as to love our Parents, obey Superiors, to hurt no man, the acts of humanity; All these are written in the soul, in deep letters, yet the Ink is dim and old, and therefore this light is like the Moon swimming through watery clouds, often under a shadow, and yet still in the firmament. Caligula, and others, under a cloud, denied there was any God, yet when the cloud was over, the light broke out of prison, and granted, a God there must be; strong winds do blow out a Torch in the night, and will blow in the same light again; and that there be other seeds, though come from a far land, and not growing out of the ground, as the former, is clear, for Christ scattereth some Gospel-truths in this Chalmer; as John 7.28. Then cried Jesus in the Temple; as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and whence I am. John 15.24. But now they have both seen, and hated both me and my Father.”

    Now I don’t think his work in Lex Rex is in any way in conflict with his later work but it does seem he puts a more precise definition of what Natural Law is in Disputation. He also seems to indicate that Natural Law emanates from the moral law that was originally written on man’s heart and it consists of two tables. That would seem to indicate to me that he directly would logically link the Decalogue and this Law of Nature together.

    We are discussing this in relation to Coffey’s book (which I have never read and don’t have) that Chris is quoting for me and how Rutherford might have seen a difference of application concerning the 1st Table from Natural Law for heathen kings vs. Christian kings (or whatever various form of Government he might be addressing).

    I guess my question would be threefold. Is Rutherford’s definition more precise in Disputations than Lex Rex because he is addressing a different group or persons? Or am I reading too much into the definition of Disputation? Does he consider Natural Law to be fully revealing of the Decalogue? I understand you are the expert.

    Thanks for your consideration,

    Dr. Richard’s Reply


    Sorry for the delay in responding to your email. But thank you for contacting me. I always enjoy talking about Rutherford. I feel like he is my mentor and close personal friend in many ways, as much time as we have spent together!

    Regarding your questions, let me first say that the passage you found in Pretended Liberty is a very good representation of what Rutherford believed regarding natural law. He clearly believed that the whole of the ten commandments were written upon the hearts of all men “in deep letters.” But, apart from Christ and apart from God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, “the ink is dim and old, and therefore this light is like the Moon swimming through watery clouds, often under a shadow, and yet still in the firmament.” Natural law is real. There is no such thing as an atheist, no one who ought to be able to plead ”not guilty” to breaking any of the 10 commandments. It is ”still in the firmament.” But it is oftentimes ”under a shadow.”

    How this applies in the case of a person living within England or Scotland (or any other “Christian” nation) will be different many times than in the case of a “heathen” who does not have the same “Christian influences” around him/her. The one who lives within a Christian nation will have certain Christian influences (i.e., God’s Word, Christians themselves, the church, civil laws derived from the Christian ethic, etc). These things would serve to reinforce natural law in the case of the one living in a “Christian nation.” But the heathen would not have these influences. All he/she would have is natural law, which is the ten commandments written upon his/her heart “in deep letters” but with “ink [that] is dim and old” and “often under a shadow.”

    I’m not sure whether or not that answers your questions. Feel free to email back if you’d like further clarification on anything.

    Thanks again for contacting me. Blessings on your continued study!


    Dr. Guy M. Richard

    First Presbyterian Church

    Dr. Guy Richard’s publications. http://www.fpcgulfport.org/dr-guy-richard-s-publications

    Just a quick question Dr. Richard,

    Would it be okay to quote your response to my questions? I will not use private messages without permission of the author in any way unless I am given permission. It is matter of ethics and loyalty. If not that is just fine. I totally understand.


    I’d prefer that you not publish them in print form. But if you would like to use them on line or something like that, that would be fine with me.


    Concerning Samuel Bolton…. He arrived later during the Assembly as a replacement and it must be noted that he held to a minority view concerning the Covenants when it came to how the Mosaic Covenant was viewed. He was more like the Lutherans and not the Reformed per WCF 7.5,6. He would make a distinction concerning law and gospel that dichotomizes them in a way the Reformed wouldn’t.

    • Interesting material, Randy. Certainly there can be a good deal of discussion on how much we subjectively shut out the light of the natural law and the role of special revelation informing it. While I’m not a historian, it seems like there has been a lot of common ground in civil law over the ages as you see a core of laws concerning physical harm, theft, rebellion against authority, marriage, and in some sense making punishment fit the crime among other things. Then someone in the USA in 2013 can profit from reading the ancient Greek Aristotle.

      We could go a lot of different ways here. I can’t tell if you are giving an FYI or if you would like to take this in a particular direction.

  4. A Theonomist Calvin wasn’t. I thought I would add this from Calvin also. You might enjoy it. I think you will. All of Chapter 20 is very good.

    14. In states, the thing next in importance to the magistrates is laws, the strongest sinews of government, or, as Cicero calls them after Plato, the soul, without which, the office of the magistrate cannot exist; just as, on the other hand, laws have no vigour without the magistrate. Hence nothing could be said more truly than that the law is a dumb magistrate, the magistrate a living law. As I have undertaken to describe the laws by which Christian polity is to be governed, there is no reason to expect from me a long discussion on the best kind of laws. The subject is of vast extent, and belongs not to this place. I will only briefly observe, in passing, what the laws are which may be piously used with reference to God, and duly administered among men. This I would rather have passed in silence, were I not aware that many dangerous errors are here committed. For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false. We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.
    15. The moral law, then (to begin with it), being contained under two heads, the one of which simply enjoins us to worship God with pure faith and piety, the other to embrace men with sincere affection, is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God. For his eternal and immutable will is, that we are all to worship him and mutually love one another. The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fulness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures (Gal. 3:24; 4:4). The judicial law, given them as a kind of polity, delivered certain forms of equity and justice, by which they might live together innocently and quietly. And as that exercise in ceremonies properly pertained to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as it kept the Jewish Church in the worship and religion of God, yet was still distinguishable from piety itself, so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself. Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so, also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual. But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle. Those barbarous and savage laws, for instance, which conferredhonour on thieves, allowed the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, and other things even fouler and more absurd, I do not think entitled to be considered as laws, since they are not only altogether abhorrent to justice, but to humanity and civilised life.
    16. What I have said will become plain if we attend, as we ought, to two things connected with all laws—viz. the enactment of the law, and the equity on which the enactment is founded and rests. Equity, as it is natural, cannot be the same in all, and therefore ought to be proposed by all laws, according to the nature of the thing enacted. As constitutions have some circumstances on which they partly depend, there is nothing to prevent their diversity, provided they all alike aim at equity as their end. Now, as it is evident that the law of God which we call moral, is nothing else than the testimony of natural law, and of that conscience which God has engraven on the minds of men, the whole of this equity of which we now speak is prescribed in it. Hence it alone ought to be the aim, the rule, and the end of all laws. Wherever laws are formed after this rule, directed to this aim, and restricted to this end, there is no reason why they should be disapproved by us, however much they may differ from the Jewish law, or from each other (August. de Civit. Dei, Lib. 19 c. 17). . . .

  5. I wasn’t trying to be provocative or go in any particular direction concerning what I posted. I heartily believe that differing sides of any issue tend to speak past each other when they are talking. I have been guilty of it. For years I remained a Reformed Baptist because I was hearing but not understanding. Then one day the light bulb came on due to the patience of some good godly men. And I think that is somewhat true concerning Natural Law. I don’t have all my ducks in a row as well I wish it could be. Things just aren’t as easy as some make it sound.

    I was just trying to encourage you that the language is historical and shouldn’t be claimed to be outside of truth. Our forefathers used it. I wasn’t trying to go in any direction necessarily. Just trying to fortify and edify. Hope it did that brother.

  6. Thanks MM. This is helpful.

  7. I’m half way through Van Drunen’s NL2K and am finding it well-reasoned, scholarly, well footnoted, even dry. Certainly not polemical. I haven’t gotten to his interactions with the Dutch yet, but I certainly have found nothing that people should be getting up-in-arms about. Basically all he is doing is demonstrating how Natural Law has influenced Reformed thinkers, beginning with Calvin.

  8. David R.

    The problem is though, that if the civil laws of Israel are still binding where the general equity thereof may require (WCF 19.4), and general equity is the righteousness of the moral law (Isbell), and the righteousness of the moral law includes both tables (Reformed theology 101, right?), then it would appear that the civil magistrate is obligated to enforce both tables. As has been pointed out: “It must also be acknowledged then that in its original intent, WCF 19:4 must also have placed the ‘four first commandments containing our duty towards God’ (19:2) under the jurisdiction of the state, whatever precisely is meant by saying that the judicial laws given to Israel ‘expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.'”

    • David, equity/natural law doesn’t disclose the trinity. Neither does it tell us about Jesus. Ditto worship except in terms of raw duty. So it’s hard to see how the magistrate enforcing equity/natural law can enforce the first table.

      • David R.

        I don’t see how your answer solves the problem I raised. Are you saying that equity/natural law is actually something less than the moral law?

  9. David R.

    I write the above not because I hold theocratic convictions, but rather because it seems to me that simply proving that general equity equals moral law is insufficient to rule out a theocratic theory of civil government. To do that, I think we also need something like Kline’s holy/common distinction.

  10. David R.

    Perhaps the solution to the problem is to recover the distinction between the natural law, that is, the law of God as written on the heart of man in his original creation, and the light of nature, that is, that which remains of the natural law on the heart of man after the Fall, and then to argue, with Stuart Robinson, that the rule for the civil magistrate is the latter and not the former. Following is John Colquhoun’s explanation of the distinction:

    That fair copy of the natural law which had been transcribed into the nature of the first man in his creation was, by the fall, much obliterated; and it continues still to be, in a great degree, defaced and even obliterated in the minds of all His unregenerate off-spring. And, indeed, if it was not in a great measure obliterated, what need could there be of inscribing it anew on the hearts of the elect? What occasion would there be for such a promise as this: “I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts” (Hebrews 8:10)? What necessity could there be of writing it in the Sacred Volume in order to make it known to men in all generations? Indeed, so obliterated was it that the Lord saw it necessary to make it known to His people by both external and internal revelation. But although this natural law inscribed on the heart of Adam was much defaced by the Fall, yet it was not wholly obliterated. Some faint impressions or small relics of it remain still in the minds of all men. Indeed, with respect to its general principles and the immediate conclusions obviously deducible from them, it is not and cannot be totally effaced; but with regard to such conclusions as are more or less remote, it is, by the darkness of the mind and the depravity of the heart of man, wholly perverted (Romans 1:21, 32). The general principles which, in some measure, are still inscribed on the minds of men, even where they have not the benefit of the written law, are such as these: there is a God; that God is to be worshipped; that none are to be injured; that parents ought to be honored; that we should do to others what we would reasonably wish that they would do to us; that such general principles as these are, still in some degree, engraven on the minds of all men, is evident from these words of an apostle: “The Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law.” This shows the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another (Romans 2:14-15). The same is also manifest from the laws which, in countries destitute of the light of revelation, are commonly enacted for encouraging virtue and discouraging vice, and for preserving the rights of civil society. Men in heathen countries can have no standard for those laws but the relics of natural law, which all the descendants of Adam bring with them into the world.

    The remains of the law of nature in the minds of men are commonly called the light of nature, sometimes the light of reason. They are the dictates of natural conscience, and they contain those moral principles respecting good and evil which have essential equity in them. The law of nature, as engraven on the heart of Adam in his creation, should always be distinguished from the light of nature as now enjoyed. The former is uniform and stable, of universal extent, and of perpetual obligation; the latter, being that knowledge of the nature of God, and of their own nature, as well as of the duties resulting from the relations between them which men since the fall actually possess, is greatly diversified in its extent and degree, according to their different opportunities, capacities, and dispositions. In some parts of the world, where the light of nature is not assisted by the light of revelation, it does not appear superior to the sagacity of some of the inferior creatures. How far, then, must it be from being sufficient to guide men to true virtue and happiness; or to afford them in their present depraved state proper views of the wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy of God!

    And Stuart Robinson:

    In that the rule for the guidance of the civil power in its exercise is the light of nature and reason, the law which the Author of nature reveals through reason to man; but the rule for the guidance of ecclesiastical power in its exercise is that light which, as Prophet of the Church, Jesus Christ has revealed in his word. It is a government under statute laws already enacted by the King.

    (I am not sure whether Clark, VanDrunen or Hart utilize this distinction, but if so, I don’t believe I’ve seen it.)

  11. David R.

    I mean, I’m not sure whether they utilize the distinction between the natural law and the light of nature.

  12. David, maybe another even more biblical distinction is between sword and Spirit. The state only enforces by the sword that which is physical (and not what is spiritual), the church by the Spirit that which is spiritual (and not what is physical).

  13. David R.

    Zrim, it may be biblical, but I don’t know if it helps to explain the duty of the state vis a vis natural law.

  14. David R.

    Good collection of WCF references. I think it would also be interesting to note where the WCF distinguishes between the natural law per se and the light of nature. For example, most of your references explicitly refer to the latter, but WCF 21.7 clearly refers to the former (as does WCF 19.1). Again, I think it’s helpful to clarify that American Presbyterians (by and large) understand that the latter and not the former is the rule for civil government (which is why we don’t hold to civil enforcement of the first table).

    • David, maybe. I suspect that if we were to trace these terms throughout history we would find some variations in what is meant. But I do think people have an itchy trigger finger when natural law is mentioned whereas light of nature may get an easier hearing.

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