There has been a bit of blogging chatter of late over certain sexual sins, precipitated in no small part by some of the goings on in contemporary American politics as well as the goings on in certain Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiastical assemblies and synods. Providentially, Ryan Glomsud, Executive Editor for Modern Reformation magazine, has recently supplied us with a thumbnail sketch for “why we don’t stone adulterers.” The answer to that question is good for answering a whole raft of questions that seem to hang on the larger question on the difference between the theocratic dispensation and the present exilic age.
The Bible is a mysterious book to many people, not least because of the peculiar (and harsh) laws and punishments one finds in the Old Testament. I can recall a discussion of religion and ethics on Larry King Live a number of years ago, when the evangelical guest was asked why he could be so adamant about enforcing the Bible’s morals when the punishments assigned for breaking these rules seemed so outrageous. Obviously we don’t stone people for their sexual activities, so isn’t the sin just as outdated as the punishment? Sadly, the pastor was completely flummoxed as to how to interpret these sections of the Bible.
Calvin and the Reformed offer a few simple guidelines to help you get started solving these alleged conundrums for yourself. Accordingly, there are three different kinds of laws in the Old Testament: ceremonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial laws regulated the believing community’s life of worship, including the intricate sacrificial system oriented to the temple. The civil laws pertained to the “nation” of Israel as a unique theocratic society. Some scholars describe these temporary arrangements as a kind of martial law phenomenon, a state of “intrusion ethics” in which the normal order of affairs is suspended and God rules his people directly in a way that hints at the final intrusion of the kingdom of God in the age to come. Finally, there were and are moral laws written on every human’s conscience; these are the basics of what is right and wrong. Calvin equated this with “natural law” and insisted it could be accessed via general revelation. In that sense, it was rooted in God’s creation of the world (that is, “natural”), and some relative degree of justice in the world is possible because of “common grace”–the superintending work of God that restrains evil and lets the rain fall on the just and on the unjust.
As Christians, we rejoice in the fact that Christ has fulfilled all the law (Rom. 10:4). The ceremonial laws are fulfilled because Jesus was the final and perfect sacrifice (Heb. 10:10-12). The civil laws are abrogated because the church, Israel, is made up of a people in exile without any socio-political expression in this phase of redemptive history. We do not, in other words, live in a period of intrusion ethics. We have no need, therefore, of ecclesiastical officials to govern the affairs of state and nation, nor do we need the sacrifices of goats and bulls to atone for our sins. But what of the moral laws?
For Calvin, Christ has redeemed us especially from the consequences of breaking the moral law; he has fulfilled all righteousness and has taken upon himself the curse of the law so that in him we might have abundant life. We then pursue a life of piety out of gratitude. Our adherence to the moral law can profit us nothing in relation to our justification before a holy God, yet it continues to inform all of the interactions between creatures, believer and unbeliever alike. In this sense, the moral law remains in effect such that right is right and wrong is wrong.
What then is the quick answer to the question of stoning adulterers? Our approach flows out of this basic categorization of laws and a Reformed understanding of where we are currently situated in redemptive history. The moral law remains in effect in this qualified way so that adultery is wrong at all times and in all places. But the stoning punishment of Deuteronomy 22:23-24 is no longer in effect because this particular code belonged to the civil law that temporarily governed the nation of Israel but has long since passed away.
Ryan Glomsrud (D.Phil., University of Oxford), “Why We Don’t Stone Adulterers,” Modern Reformation, Issue: “Interpreting Scripture” July/August Vol. 19 No. 4 2010 Page 23.