Is “General Equity Theonomy” a Confessional and Biblical Doctrine?
Some of those who identify as theonomists today refer to themselves as “general equity theonomists,” believing that this identification lands them within the boundaries of Reformed confessional orthodoxy. But if it does, then the term “general equity” needs to be defined the same way the tradition defined it. The technical term “general equity” is used in both the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession.
The Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 says, “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
Following the Savoy Declaration, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 19.4 says, “To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.”
So, while the confessions teach that the “general equity” of the judicial law obliges us, the question remains as to whether “general equity theonomists” mean the same thing by general equity that the confessions mean. I have found it hard to nail down a single clear definition of “general equity theonomy” that universally describes those who say they hold to it. The term seems to be defined variously and even in contradictory ways. So, rather than focus on the personalities involved in this debate, or cite definitions from a number of different adherents, I want to address what some appear to mean by “general equity theonomy,” which is that the essential or core principles of Old Testament judicial laws have binding authority today. That is, many say that the Old Testament judicial laws have been abrogated, but the essential principles of the judicial laws continue to bind all people today.
1. The Historic Meaning of the Term “General Equity”
The question as to the meaning of the term “general equity” is a matter of historical research. I am indebted to Brandon Adams for several of the quotations found in this section.
John Calvin identifies the term “equity” with moral law. “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” (Institutes 4.20.15-16, italics in the text are mine).
Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, wrote, “Although we do not hold to the forms of the Mosaic polity, yet when such judicial laws prescribe equity in judgments, which is part of the decalogue, we, not being under obligation to them insofar as they were prescribed by Moses to only one people, are nevertheless bound to observe them to the extent that they embrace that general equity which should everywhere be in force . . . . Because it follows natural equity, and expounds that perpetual precept of the decalogue, Thou shalt not steal, to this extent all are bound to fulfill them both” (De Haereticis a civili Magistratu puniendis Libellus, Geneva: Robert Stephanus, 1554, pp. 222-23, italics in the text are mine). Beza clearly linked general equity to the decalogue and natural law.
William Perkins wrote, “Judicial laws so far as they have in them the general or common equity of the law of nature are moral and therefore binding in conscience as the moral law” (A Discourse on Cases of Conscience in The Whole Works, London, 1631, 1.520).
Thus, the historic meaning of the term “general equity” refers exclusively to the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, which is also revealed in the law of nature. The crucial thing to understand about the general equity of the old covenant judicial law is that the judicial law’s general equity is not first to be found in the judicial laws themselves. If there is general equity in any given old covenant judicial law, it is first found in nature, in creation and conscience, and it is also summarily taught in the Ten Commandments. Therefore, we should not approach old covenant judicial laws to discover distinctive or new principles of law, which are not already revealed in creation, conscience, or the decalogue. Old covenant judicial laws do not establish timeless principles of law; rather, to the extent that there is any general equity in them, it is based on the larger trans-covenantal moral law of nature, which is found outside of those laws.
Therefore, if “general equity theonomy” means that the core principles of the judicial laws remain in force, but those principles do not necessarily entail God’s transcendent moral and natural law summarized in the Ten Commandments, then that definition of general equity is contrary to the Reformed confessional tradition. According to the confessional tradition, we must not begin with judicial law to discover principles of general equity. Rather, we must begin with the decalogue and see whether there is any moral or natural law principle in any given judicial law.
2. The New Testament Use of Judicial Law
If it’s true that the essential core principles of the judicial laws remain binding for us today, then consider how we might interpret Deuteronomy 25:4, which says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Without the inspired New Testament commentary on this passage, we might say that a core principle of this passage is “You should allow your animals to feed while they are working.” One way to apply this law might be to say that people should see to it that their hunting dogs always have access to a portion of the meat they kill during the hunt as a matter of biblical law. That would seem to be a reasonable application of the core principle of this judicial law, recognizing that the law itself has been abrogated, but that the essence of it is perpetually binding.
And yet, the New Testament does not derive any such essential principle from Deuteronomy 25:4. Rather, the New Testament finds the eighth commandment embedded in Deuteronomy 25:4, which is an element of transcendent moral and natural law, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15). 1 Timothy 5:17-18 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’” The general equity of the law of the muzzled ox is that you must not steal wages from the one who works. Paul saw that the general equity of Deuteronomy 25:4 is nothing other than the eighth commandment, which means that churches should pay their pastors. The same general equity of Deuteronomy 25:4 would apply to refusing to use unjust weights and balances, to forbidding customers from stealing from merchants, merchants from stealing from customers, etc.
In conclusion, any version of “general equity theonomy,” which does not look for prior transcendent moral law within the judicial law, which is summarized in the decalogue and/or revealed in nature, uses a hermeneutic contrary to the New Testament. The issue at stake is the controls on our interpretation and application of judicial law.
3. The Way to Find and Apply General Equity of Judicial Law
Take Deuteronomy 22:8 as an example. It says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” Someone wrote, “We are not morally required to build a parapet around our roof line because we don’t go up there. But general equity would require a rail around your second story deck.” In this instance, the application of general equity theonomy seems to keep tightly to the essential core principles of the judicial law in question. Not a roof, but a second story deck. Not a parapet, but a railing. It’s not the particulars of the law that are binding, but the essential principles.
But it’s crucial to understand that the general equity of the law of the parapet isn’t merely a matter of the essential principles of that particular judicial law. The general equity of the law of the parapet is nothing other than the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). Does the law’s general equity require a railing around a second story deck to protect the lives of people who go up there? Absolutely. But railings on second story decks are not required because of the law of the parapet itself. Rather, general equity requires a railing on a second story deck because of the transcendent moral law, summarized in the decalogue, which stands behind the law of the parapet: “You shall not murder.”
Understood properly, the general equity of the law of the parapet requires us to protect other people’s lives, and not merely do what is expedient, cheaper, or more convenient for ourselves. The general equity of the law of the parapet applies in a number of circumstances. People who use guns should practice gun safety principles. If you have a deadly illness, take precautions not to spread it to others as far as it depends on you. Salt your sidewalks after an ice storm. Drive safely so as not to endanger others. Don’t leave live electrical wires exposed in your home. The sixth commandment requires that you not be concerned merely for yourself, but must always live so as to protect the lives of other people. That is the general equity of the law of the parapet, the sixth commandment, “do not murder.”
In conclusion, any understanding of the term general equity, which neglects the decalogue, or natural law revealed in creation or conscience, as the essence of general equity is not accurately defining the term according to its historic and confessional sense. Any version of general equity theonomy that does not look for a moral law that transcends Old Testament judicial law but instead sees Old Testament judicial law as itself a subset of moral law that remains binding is not following the example of the New Testament.
The greatest mistake of such a hermeneutic is that it does not begin with the universal transcendent norms of natural and moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, seeking to find those moral principles within judicial law. Rather, it begins with the judicial laws themselves and tries to uncover the essential principles within those laws, wrongly assuming they are all moral, in order to apply them universally.