Law is usually defined as a rule of action; it is more properly a precept or command coming from a superior authority, which an inferior is bound to obey. Such laws emanate from the king or legislative body of a nation. Such enactments of "the powers that be" are recognized in Scripture as resting upon the ultimate authority of the divine Lawgiver (Ro 13:1). We propose in this article to discuss only the various distinctions or applications of the term, in an ethical sense, reserving for a separate place the consideration of the Mosaic law, in its various aspects, ceremonial, moral, and civil.
I. Classification of Laws as to their interior Nature. —
1. "Penal Laws" are such as have some penalty to enforce them. All the laws of God are and cannot but be penal, because every breach of his law is sin, and meritorious of punishment.
2. "Directing Laws" are prescriptions or maxims without any punishment annexed to them.
3. "Positive Laws" are precepts which are not founded upon any reasons known to those to whom they are given. Thus, in the state of innocence, God gave the law of the Sabbath; of abstinence from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, etc. In childhood most of the parental commands are necessarily of this nature, owing to the incapacity of the child to understand the grounds of their inculcation.
II. Certain Special Uses of the Term. —
1. "Law of Honor" is a system of rules constructed by people of fashion, and calculated to facilitate their intercourse with one another, and for no other purpose. Consequently nothing is adverted to by the law of honor but what tends to incommode this intercourse. Hence this law only prescribes and regulates the duties betwixt equals, omitting such as relate to the Supreme Being, as well as those which we owe to our inferiors, and in most instances is favorable to the licentious indulgence of the natural passions. Thus it allows of fornication, adultery, drunkenness, prodigality, duelling, and of revenge in the extreme, and lays no stress upon the virtues opposite to these.
2. "Laws of Nations" are those rules which, by a tacit consent, are agreed upon among all communities, at least among those who are reckoned the polite and humanized part of mankind.
3. "Laws of Natures." — "The word law is sometimes also employed in order to express not only the moral connection between free agents of an inferior, and others of a superior power, but also in order to express the nexus causalis, the connection between cause and effect in inanimate nature. However, the expression law of nature, lex naturae, is improper and figurative. The term law implies, in its strict sense, spontaneity, or the power of deciding between right and wrong, and of choosing between good and evil, as well on the part of the lawgiver as on the part of those who have to regulate their conduct according to his dictates" (Kitto, s.v.). Moreover, the powers of nature, which these laws are conceived as representing, are nothing in reality but the power of God exerted in these directions. Hence these laws may at any time be suspended by God when the higher interests of his spiritual kingdom require. Viewed in this light, miracles not only become possible, but even probable for the furtherance of the divine economy of salvation. (See Bushell, Nature and the Supernatural.) SEE MIRACLE.
III. Forms of the Divine Law. — The manner in which God governs rational creatures is by a law, as the rule of their obedience to him, and this is what we call God's moral government of the world. At their very creation he placed all intelligences under such a system. Thus he gave a law to angels, which some of them have kept, and have been confirmed in a state of obedience to it; but which others broke, and thereby plunged themselves into destruction and misery. In like manner he also gave a law to Adam, which was in the form of a covenant, and in which Adam stood as a covenant head to all his posterity (Romans 5). But our first parents soon violated that law, and fell from a state of innocence to a state of sin and misery (Ho 6:7). SEE FALL.
1. The "Law of Nature" is the will of God relating to human actions, grounded in the moral difference of things, and, because discoverable by natural light, obligatory upon all mankind (Ro 1:20; Ro 2:14-15). This law is coeval with the human race, binding all over the globe, and at all times; yet, through the corruption of reason, it is insufficient to lead us to happiness, and utterly unable to acquaint us how sin is to be forgiven, without the assistance of revelation. This law is that generally designated by the term conscience, which is in strictness a capacity of being affected by the moral relations of actions; in other words, merely a sense of right and wrong. It is the judgment which intellectually determines the moral quality of an act, and this always by a comparison with some assumed standard. With those who have a revelation, this, of course, is the test; with others, education, tradition, or caprice. Hence the importance of a trained conscience, not only for the purpose of cultivating its susceptibility to a high degree of sensitiveness and authority, but also in order to correct the judgment and furnish it a just basis of decision. A perverted or misled conscience is scarcely less disastrous than a hard or blind one. History is full of the miseries and mischiefs occasioned by a misguided moral sense.
2. "Ceremonial Law" is that which prescribes the rites of worship under the Old Testament. These rites were typical of Christ, and were obligatory only till Christ had finished his work, and began to erect his Gospel Church (Heb 7:9,11; Heb 10:1; Eph 2:16; Col 2:14; Ga 5:2-3).
3. "Judaicia Law" was that which directed the policy of the Jewish nation, under the peculiar dominion of God as their supreme magistrate, and never, except in things relating to moral equity, was binding on any but the Hebrew nation.
4. "Moral Law" is that declaration of God's will which directs and binds all men, in every age and place, to their whole duty to him. It was most solemnly proclaimed by God himself at Sinai, to confirm the original law of nature, and correct men's mistakes concerning the demands of it. It is denominated perfect (Ps 19:7), perpetual (Mt 5:17-18), holy (Ro 7:12), good (Ro 7:12), spiritual (Ro 7:14), exceeding broad (Ps 119:96). Some deny that it is a rule of conduct to believers under the Gospel dispensation; but it is easy to see the futility of such an idea; for, as a transcript of the mind of God, it must be the criterion of moral good and evil. It is also given for that very purpose, that we may see our duty, and abstain from everything derogatory to the divine glory. It affords us grand ideas of the holiness and purity of God; without attention to it, we can have no knowledge of sin. Christ himself came, not to destroy, but to fulfill it; and though we cannot do as he did, yet we are commanded to follow his example. Love to God is the end of the moral law as well as the end of the Gospel. By the law, also, we are led to see the nature of holiness and our own depravity, and learn to be humbled under a sense of our imperfection. We are not under it, however, as a covenant of works (Ga 3:13), or as a source of terror (Ro 8:1), although we must abide by it, together with the whole perceptive word of God, as the rule of our conduct (Ro 3:31; Ro 7). SEE LAW OF MOSES.
IV. Scriptural Uses of the Law. — The word "law" (תּוֹרָה, torah', νόμος) is properly used, in Scripture as elsewhere, to express a definite commandment laid down by any recognized authority. The commandment may be general or (as in Le 6:9,14, etc., "the law of the burnt- offering," etc.) particular in its bearing, the authority either human or divine. It is extended to prescriptions respecting sanitary or purificatory arrangements ("the law of her that has been in childbed," or of those that have had the leprosy, Le 14:2), or even to an architectural design ("the law of the house," Eze 43:12): so in Ro 6:2, "the law of the husband" is his authority over his wife. But when the word is used with the article, and without any words of limitation, it refers to the expressed will of God, and, in nine cases out of ten, to the Mosaic law, or to the Pentateuch, of which it forms the chief portion.
The Hebrew word (derived from the root יָרָה, yarah', "to point out," and so "to direct and lead") lays more stress on its moral authority, as teaching the truth, and guiding in the right way; the Greek νόμος (from νέμω, "to assign or appoint,") on its constraining power, as imposed and enforced by a recognized authority. But in either case it is a commandment proceeding from without, and distinguished from the free action of its subjects, although not necessarily opposed thereto.
The sense of the word, however, extends its scope, and assumes a more abstract character in the writings of the apostle Paul Νόμος, when used by him with the article, still refers in general to the law of Moses; but when used without the article, so as to embrace any manifestation of " law," it includes all powers which act on the will of man by compulsion, or by the pressure of external motives, whether their commands be or be not expressed in definite forms. This is seen in the constant opposition of ἔργα νόμου ("works done under the constraint of law") to faith, or "works of faith," that is, works done freely by the internal influence of faith. A still more remarkable use of the word is found in Ro 7:23, where the power of evil over the will, arising from the corruption of man, is spoken of as a "law of sin," that is, an unnatural tyranny proceeing from an evil power without. The same apostle even uses the term "law" to denote the Christian dispensation in contrast with that of Moses (Jas 1:25; Jas 2:12; Jas 4:11; comp. Ro 10:4; Heb 7:12; Heb 10:1); also for the laws or precepts established by the Gospel (Ro 13:8,10; Ga 6:2; Ga 5:23).
The occasional use of the word "law" (as in Ro 3:27, "law of faith;" in 7:23, "law of my mind" [τοῦ νόος]; in 8:2, "law of the spirit of life;" and in Jas 1:25; Jas 2:12, "a perfect law, the law of liberty") to denote an internal principle of action does not really militate against the general rule. For in each case it will be seen that such principle is spoken of in contrast with some formal law, and the word "law" is consequently applied to it "improperly," in order to mark this opposition, the qualifying words which follow guarding against any danger of misapprehension of its real character.
It should also be noticed that the title "the law" is occasionally used loosely to refer to the whole of the Old Testament (as in Joh 10:34, referring to Ps 82:6; in Joh 15:25, referring to Ps 35:19; and in 1Co 14:21, referring to Isa 28:11-12). This usage is probably due, not only to desire of brevity and to the natural prominence of the Pentateuch, but also to the predominance in the older covenant (when considered separately from the new, for which it was the preparation) of an external and legal character. — Smith, s.v.
It should be noted, however, that νόμος very often stands, even when without the article, for the Mosaic law, the term in that sense being so well known as not to be liable to be misunderstood. SEE ARTICLE, GREEK.