Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics V – Moral and Positive Law

Be grateful–this post is under 2500 words. 🙂 I plan one more on Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics and I will move to thinking about a biblical-theologial hermeneutic for contemporary Churches of Christ.

The Distinction between Moral and Positive Law

The distinction between positive law and moral law in the modern era finds its roots in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). He distinguishes between those laws which “have been laws from eternity” (moral or natural) and those laws which have been made “by the will of those that have sovereign power over others” (e.g., God or human governments; Leviathan, 26)

This distinction was appropriated by Reformed theologians. Charles Hodge, the 19th century Presbyterian Princeton Seminary professor, is a good example of this. He referred to “moral” laws as those “permanent relations of men” that arise out of the character of God and the nature of things (thus, a form of natural law). But “positive” laws “derive all their authority from the explicit command of God.” So, while moral laws are those which obligate human beings due to the nature of things or the nature of God, positive laws refer to “external rites and ceremonies.” As a result, “the criterion of such laws is that they would not be binding unless positively enacted.” Consequently, there is a fundamental difference between moral and positive commands. Moral laws are obligatory “in their own nature,” but positive laws are obligatory solely by the explicit command of God (Systematic Theology, III:267, 269). In the case of the Sabbath, as a specific example, it is a “moral duty that the people should assemble for religious instruction and for the united worship of God” which “was obligatory before the time of Moses, and would have been binding had he never existed.” But it is a “positive [law] that the seventh rather than any other day of the week should be thus set apart” (Systematic Theology, III:323-324).

Preachers and writers in the 19thcentury Stone-Campbell Movement used this distinction with some regularity. Thomas Campbell used the language of “positive divine ordinances” in the Declaration and Address (1809) and regularly preached the “positive institutions as tests of obedience.” Baptism, according to Alexander Campbell, is a “positive ordinance” as opposed to a “moral” precept. J. W. McGarvey claimed that there was a time “when every preacher in the Reformation had one or more discourses on Positive institutions, and with many it was a favorite subject” (“Is Baptism a Positive Institution?, Apostolic Times 5 (26 June 1873), 4. David Lipscomb apparently regularly preached a sermon on the distinction of moral and positive law (as heard by E. H. Hoover). The Sand Creek church divided because a segment introduced “innovations” in violation of the “positive commands of God.” W. H. Hopson offers a good example how this distinction was used to underscore the essentiality of baptism in his sermon “Baptism Essential to Salvation” while Issac Errett uses the distinction to prioritize the spirit of obedience over failure of positive obedience despite a heart to obey and J. S. Sweeny applies the distinction in a way that we leave the unimmersed to divine “equity” rather than human judgment. The clearest presentation of its function in Stone-Campbell theology is the frequently reprinted sermon by Benjamin Franklin entitled “Divine Positive Law.”

I hope this demonstrates the pervasive nature of this distinction within the Stone-Campbell Movement. I remember points and sermons based upon this distinction in my own lifetime, but this language is not the common language of 20th century Churches of Christ.  However, the idea or concept is integral to our theological hermeneutic. We may not use the language any longer but the idea is deeply embedded in our DNA.

According to Franklin’s sermon, positive law is “the highest test of respect for divine authority” since it “tests” the condition of the “heart” as it penetrates “deep down into the inmost depths of the soul.” Obedience to positive law “rises above mere morality…into the pure region of faith.” Disobedience to positive law reveals the “spirit of disobedience.” Obedience to positive law is the absolute test of loyalty even more so than moral transformation because moral obedience has the crutches of reason, consequences and natural law to support it.  Obedience to positive law is wholly an act of faith.

Examples of Positive Law

Applied to Baptism

At the root of the insistence of the absolute essentiality of baptism is this idea of positive law. Positive commands are clear. James A. Harding, for example, believed the clarity of the baptismal command was unassailable. “If a man does not understand the baptismal question, in this country,” he argued, “it is because he will not, not because he cannot understand. It is not the Lord’s fault; he made the matter plain enough” (“Should Unbaptized Sectarians Be Called Upon to Lead the Prayers of the Lord’s House,” Gospel Advocate 25 [22 February 1883],118).

The problem is not baptism itself, but the heart. “Now let it be understood,” Harding wrote, “I do not find fault with these people because they have not been baptized. That is not the disease; it is only a symptom; unbelief is the disease; their hearts are not right…What right have we to call upon these people who will not obey the Lord, who cannot eve endure to hear all of his commands repeated, to lead the services of our Father’s house” (“Union Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 25 [27 June 1883], 410).  Because the command is so clear and so simple, a refusal to obey must reflect an unbelieving heart, a spirit of disobedience. The positive command to be immersed, then, serves the function of testing the loyalty and heart of a person. Obedience to this positive command identifies whose heart is sincerely interested in obeying God.

So, whoever refuses to be immersed as a believing adult is either stupid (positive commands are clear, are they not?) or rebellious. If one does not obey the clear command of God–even if they don’t see it as so “clear”–they reveal an unbelieving, rebellious heart who never really wanted to obey in the first place.

For more on this point see chapter 7 in Down in the River to Pray by John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor.

Applied to Public Worship

The five acts of worship are positive commands for assembled saints.  Since worship must proceed out of faith (hearing the word of God), it must be conducted according to how God prescribes his worship.  “Man knows what worship is, only as the Lord has prescribed it,” Franklin writes. “The worship is all positive, and comes with the weight of authority.” God has a law of worship for his community and when the church assembles it must follow the “positive” ordinances of the Lord.  “The precise things he prescribes are acceptable to and please him, and nothing else” because the Lord is the “Supreme Lawgiver” (Franklin, “A Distinctive Plea,” American Christian Review 15 [29 October 1872], 348). Consequently, “the worship is divinely prescribed” and “God has ordained [all] special acts of worship” (Franklin, “What Is To Be Done?” American Christian Review 13 [25 October 1870], 340). “The Lord and his Apostles,” Franklin writes, “established the worship for Christians–prescribed every item in it–every act” (Franklin, “Conclusive,” American Christian Review 13 [18 October 1870], 332). These “five acts of public worship” are singing, teaching, communing, contributing and praying (H. Turner, “Does the New Testament Determine the Elements of the Public Worship?” Christian Quarterly 2 [January 1870] 250-258).

The significance of applying positive law to the worship assembly is extremely important. If one conceives of the worship assembly as a function of positive law, then it must be regulated by specific authorizations (through CEI) on the analogy of ritual prescriptions in the Old Testament (and in the case of positive legalities it is read even more strictly than the rituals of the OT). To  change, subtract from or add to these positive ordinances is to display the “spirit of disobedience.”  The “performance of the acts of worship and devotion prescribed by his supreme authority are all so many tests, trials of love, respect and devotion we have in our hearts for the Lord,” wrote Franklin.  “These acts try the heart, probe it and test the state of it” (“What Is To Be Done?” 340). Failure to obey these positive prescriptions–or add to them or subtract from them–reveals a rebellious heart.

The acts of worship, then, on the first day of the week (and they are prescribed only for the first day of the week) distinguish between faithful and unfaithful hearts. Indeed, “rendering obedience in all his appointments in the true spirit of obedience,” according to Albert Allen,” is the highest worship, veneration, or homage the Christian can ever offer while in the flesh” (“The Contribution,” Lard’s Quarterly 3 (1863), 419).  Obedience to positive law is a higher value than obedience to moral law and consequently, for some, faithful assembly is more important than faithful discipleship or at least faithful assembly is the highest form of discipleship. Those who innovate upon God’s law are unfaithful. The worship assembly with its positive ordinances became a test of loyalty and faithfulness, and thus a test of fellowship. Consequently, the question of instrumental music became a dividing line for Churches of Christ.  “The original worship, in all its items,” Franklin declared, “must be maintained or all is lost” (“Distinctive Plea,” American Christian Review 14 [5 December 1871], 388).

For more on this point see chapter 5 in A Gathered People by John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine.

Implications and Observations

  • It prioritizes positive commands over moral commands.
  • It prioritizes positive obedience over moral obedience.
  • It prioritizes positive perfectionism over moral transformation.
  • It prioritizes baptism and Sunday assembly over daily discipleship.

I offer James A. Harding’s own words where these implications are rather explicit (Debate on Baptism and the Work of the Holy Spirit [1889], 256-7).

/While the positive law is not right in the nature of things (in so far as mortals can see), but it is right because it is commanded. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant, and the ceremonial law of the Jews under the old covenant, are illustrations of positive law…Positive law differs from moral law in that it can be obeyed perfectly. Positive law is therefore a more perfect test of faith and love, a more perfect test of allegiance to God, than moral law…For these two reasons, doubtless, God has ever been more ready to overlook the infractions of moral, than of positive law; and for the same reasons the positive is peculiarly adapted to the expression and the perfection offaith. I would not have you suppose that I think God would for a moment tolerate a willful violation of moral law. No, no: I simply mean that God, who knows so well our inherited weakness, is patient and gentle with us in our imperfect obedience to this law, and in our many backslidings from it. But positive law we can obey perfectly, and he is strict and stern in demanding that we shall do it.

Everyone should read that again. It is actually quite startling. God is patient with moral weakness and imperfection but he is stern with positive infractions and the reason is–and this is so very important–we are naturally imperfect in terms of morality but God expects perfect obedience of his positive ordinances. We can obey the law perfectly–at least the positive law!  Perfect obedience to the positive ordinances is required, expected and, if lacking, damning.

Consequently, a person can struggle with the weakness of gambling, or lying, or greed, or even racism–and withthis God is patient.  But if one misunderstands the ritual of baptism, or worships with the instrument, or does not eat the Supper every week, or eats the Supper on a day other than Sunday, etc., God is “strict and stern” just as he was with Nadab and Abihu or Uzzah. God demands, in this system, perfect and precise obedience to his positive ordinances or it is death.

It is little wonder, then, that many members of the church got the idea (and I certainly had it in my youth) that it is more important to faithfully observe the divine (positive) ordinances than it was to devote ourselves to discipleship or morality. The positive ordinances were a “higher” law than the moral law. The latter is something we all struggle with but the former is expected or else! Ultimately, this is the problem of the “angry God” scenario that Larry James described in a recent blog. God gets angry with those who do not understand or perfectly implement his positive ordinances while he is patient, kind and understanding toward those who struggle with moral weakness.

Of course, some were not as gracious as Harding. Some saw the problem here.  But instead of thinking that God might be patient, kind and understanding about the positive ordinances like the moral ones, they pictured God as unyielding, stern and strict with the moral law just as he was with the positive law. Thus, the one who dies breaking the law speeding (a moral violation of the command to obey the government) is as much in danger of hellfire as the one who dies on the way to be baptized (failure to comply with positive obedience). [If you think my analogy is a “straw man” read footnotes 249 and 250 in my Moser paper.]  God is equally distressed by both and there is no grace for either as long as they fail to keep “all the commands” of God (see the footnotes for the quote). Ultimately, grace is for the perfect! Now that’s an irony.

Hermeneutical Point

If obeying positive law is the quintessence of faithfulness and positive law is primarily a legal notion, then what is needed is a legal hermeneutic.  Or, was it the legal hermeneutic that produced the search for legal authority, for positive law? In either event, the hermeneutical task for Churches of Christ has always been to discover what God requires of us, especially what he requires in terms of positive ordinances. Our hermeneutic has been tailored to answer that question.

Our hermeneutic, then, served an ecclesial perfectionism, that is, the search for the divine positive ordinances which are necessary as a faithful New Testament church. And, yet, we could never agree on what the state of that perfection actually was.  We divided over communion cups, Bible classes, the proper use of the church treasury, kitchens in the church building, etc. It is logical that we would divide because our hermeneutic plus ecclesial perfectionism equals incessant squabbling as we struggle to “get it right” as if (and it did in the minds of many) our salvation depended on it.

Surely Alexander Campbell is turning over in his grave by now.  The hermeneutic which enabled him to return to the “ancient order” for the “happiness and usefulness” of Christians came to serve an ecclesial perfectionism, identify the terms of communion, and practice an ecclesiology without grace.


 John Mark Hicks, “A Gracious Separatist: Moral and Positive Law in the Theology of James A. Harding.Restoration Quarterly 42.3 (2000), 129-147.

John Mark Hicks, “K. C. Moser and Churches of Christ: A Theological Perspective.”  Restoration Quarterly 37.4 (1995), 193-211.

11 Responses to “Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics V – Moral and Positive Law”

  1.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    There is some discussion of positive law in A Gathered People (ch 5) too.

    Positive law had so much weight because it is a means of testing loyalty … it is a strange bird though.

    Bobby V

  2.   Richard constant Says:

    Positive law my butt.
    60 years old and I finally understand.
    Morality and ethics.
    The imperative and the indicative.
    This sets up the law of the way I see it today.
    The cultural indicative:
    which anyone can see is better than was.
    Always a compared to what..
    as defined by the cultural imperative…
    this is the way we do it it must be so.
    The imperative becomes subject to the indicative.

    No wonder they’re so many lines drawn in the sand.

    I am going to wait and see where you’re going with this John Mark.
    I hope it is,
    faith in God, is to trust in God.
    To trust in god,is to believe :

    Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God,
    Rom 1:2 which he promised afore through his prophets in the holy scriptures,
    Rom 1:3 concerning his Son, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh,
    Rom 1:4 who was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead; even Jesus Christ our Lord,
    Rom 1:5 through whom we received grace and apostleship, unto obedience of faith among all the nations, for his name’s sake;
    Rom 1:6 among whom are ye also called to be Jesus Christ’s:

    10:14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? 10:15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news.” 10:16 But not all have obeyed the good news, for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” 10:17 Consequently faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the preached word of Christ.
    6:17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 6:18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness.

    It has always been about faithfulness to the word of God.
    Christ is the faithful and true one.
    His life and words exhibit the divine nature.
    The divine nature is faithful to the good of creation. Which speaks of the love of God’s.
    Mercy kindness and long-suffering not wishing that any should perish to come to a knowledge of the truth which is built upon the faithfulness of the divine nature apart from law. Any law. It’s obedience to the faith of christ the word of God..

    8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 8:2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit2 in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 8:3 For God achieved what the law could not do because4 it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 8:4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

  3.   Richard constant Says:

    how about an ata boy for that j.m.

    Shouldn’t have posted so quick I don’t know if you know who Ray Kroc is he started McDonald’s I was in alcohol rehab with him in 1980.
    And this is what he said.
    Said always remember rich.
    Excuse me or please John Mark, and everyone it is a quote

    One ah shit wipes out ten ata boy’s.
    Anyway to someone I remember,
    it seems to be appropriate with positive law.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Rich, there is no need to quote Scripture extensively, and I would appreciate a bit more sensitivity to those who might not be so open to “plain” language.

    Your point that the faithfulness (the perfection) of Jesus in obedience to the Father is our redemption is on target. Grace means that we don’t have to be perfect otherwise there would be no redemption since we are not perfect. But Jesus is the faithful one–his perfection covers our imperfections.

  5.   Richard constant Says:

    i am thankful for you john mark,
    paul puts words right and i didn’t have time to forulate the words.
    as i have informed you writeing is not easy for me .
    voice activation software is wonderful.
    al though has drawbacks me being lazy to work with the program for accuracy.

    so i decited to cut and past hoping you would understant , thank you. and you did.

    i am sorry and ask everyone’ s forgiveness for my manner of expressing my self in such a disdainful manner.
    i am forth generation church.
    i knew something wasn’t right.
    i knew faithfullness of christ had a lot to do with my feelings of seperation.
    even though everything seemed so right.
    with doctrine.
    and in four days you explained exactly why.
    puting it together with my thirty-five year study

    i am truly blessed .

    no matter what

  6.   Gardner Says:

    When trying to persuade a brother that God is patient with us as we grow, he told me in effect, “You grow in love. But there are some things that aren’t matters of growth. You either do them or you don’t. You’re either take the Lord’s Supper or you don’t. You either worship with an instrument or you don’t.” He was implying that we can know that those who didn’t do those things are lost. I tried to argue with him that the practical result of that type of thinking is less concern about love and more about externals. This post helps me understand some of the background behind his way of thinking.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    That is a good illustration, Gardner. Thanks for the further insight.

  8.   Patti Summers Says:

    It seems to me the requirement for “ecclesiastical perfection” and absolute uniformity of practice presupposes a complete scholarly competence on the part of all baptized believers at various places in the world at various times, with varying translations, linguistic circumstances, etc. The contention that the Father who created humans with varying levels of intellectual capacity condemns the believer of good faith who arrives at a differing interpretation on some practice peripheral to the essential nature, sacrifice and resurrection of the Christ himself almost raises Reason to the level of a sacrament — a purveyor of Divine grace. The Enlightenment revisited.

    A sweet elderly sister once told me it was “completely impossible to misunderstand the word of God,” and I understand from your post what she was really saying. If such were true, then it seems to me that either God imbues the word itself with some miraculous quality that draws all the pure of intent to the correct interpretation on all points, or the Spirit gives correct interpretation on all points to only those whom he wants to have it — let’s call them The Elect.

  9.   Clarence Richmond Says:

    I”ve passed this on to a friendc with these comnments:
    I hate dumping this on you after all my other dumps, and you may not realize how strong my instinct is not to write this, but I think it may help identify a fundamental flaw in traditional Church of Christ theology that you and I have been dancing around, especially of late, which I tried to address (poorly) in recent e-mails (“Can we understand scripture?”). This paper below is the 5th in a series on the development of a hermeneutic in the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement. I just ran across it in my archives, a treasure trove of Restoration history and analysis and I think it clarifies the issue we seem to be hung up on better than I can. This is a rather exhaustive discussion of a subject that I feel lies at the root of most of the divisiveness within Churches of Christ and our exclusiveness toward denominations. This doctrinal orthodoxy, Moral vs Divine law, is best described in Benjamin Franklin’s often quoted sermon in the 1890’s, titled “Divine Moral Law” and is examined in the paper below, fairly, I think. Those who support this hermeneutic consider it as accepted doctrine as it has defined much of our brotherhood’s theology and hermeneutic method (CENI) for reading scripture for more than 100 years. I have finally come to reject it as false doctrine, as have the more “progressive” of our churches who have given it serious thought.
    This doctrine began near the close of the19th century when dissenting voices were being drummed out of the church in “editor wars”, largely unquestioned until the 1950’s when legalism began to be re-examined. After that, many brethren began in earnest to reject this dichotomy in their understanding of how God relates to and judges his people; i.e., failures of “Moral Law” evoke God’s grace and mercy when we violate it, with forgiveness available because God knows humans are weak and imperfect, whereas failures of “Divine Law” can only evoke God’s wrath because they are tests of faith that must be kept perfectly, no tolerance, and cannot be forgiven since they are indicative of a disobedient and rebellious heart. (After all, haven’t we been told that God’s will is so clear and simple that even fools can understand it (as Isa. 35:8 in the KJV seemed to say). Obviously, to assure that we perfectly obey it, availability of an inerrant and infallible scripture was essential to this doctrine ( the Apologetic Press position and others). Both logically go together, and fall together. This doctrine is not just unscriptural but condemned in scripture, I believe. Isn’t Matt.12:1 – 8 an example that” Divine” laws are not immutable where mercy is needed?
    I’m glad to see much of our brotherhood coming out of the dark ages of isolation and self-deception as the only “one true church”. Of course, other see it as encroaching liberalism and disregard for clear edicts of scripture. I just heard this confirmed by the sermon on “In Search of the Lord’s Way” on TV this morning. “Only we speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent …..” mantra. That’s nonsense. Nobody actually does that, nor tries so hard to rationalize it away as some brethren do with their mental gymnastics. Sorry, no offense intended. Not personal, just looking at it realisticly.
    So, take your pick. I won’t comment further if you will give this paper a fair hearing as time permits. It’s been hard for me to accept that I don’t have everything right and need to keep searching the scriptures. I still struggle with how scripture is to be interpreted and the new covenant to be implemented. Thank God that he judges by my faith, imperfect as it is, rather than my imperfect knowledge and works, and not just me.
    I know that your backlog is overloaded, as is mine, but this is fundamental to our faith, clearly a salvation issue expressed in our history of brotherhood exclusiveness and dogmatism.
    Respectfully and kindly, Clarence.

  10.   darrylrlewis Says:

    I can so relate to this. I’ve always known that “church law” superseded “everyday law” and at the same time I knew better. Understanding “the why behind the what” is eye-opening and revolutionary. Thank you for this, John Mark!


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