Last week’s Halbig decision is an interesting application of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura for today and is a prime demonstration why that doctrine is central to American life.
The question in Halbig was essentially whether a “magisterial” administration could redefine a written law contrary to its explicit text in favor of what the political hierarchy “meant” when the law was drafted. Was the text supreme or was it just one leg in a multi-legged stool upon which a prince could sit while pronouncing the law’s meaning?
Providentially, Kevin Williamson at the National Review Online weighed in on Halbig with his article, “Halbig and Hammurabi” (www.nationalreview.com, July 27, 2014). Hammurabi, it will be remembered is known to history as being (at least one of) the earliest king to codify laws in written form.
Williamson reminds us of the importance of Hammurabi’s legacy:
The Hammurabic Code…represented something radical and new in human history. With the law written down – with the law fixed – a man who had committed no transgression no longer had reaason to tremble before princes and potentates. If the driver of oxen had been paid his statutory wage, if a man’s contractual obligations had been satisfied, and if his life was unsullied by violations of the law, handily carved upon slabs of igneous rock for all to see and ingest, then that man was, within the limits of his law, free.
And the implications are immense:
“The written law was the first real constraint on the power of kings. An oral tradition is subject to constant on-the-fly revision.”
So the Court’s decision in Halbig was an affirmation on the restraint of kings.
Dr. Mereidth Kline has written a wonderful study entitled, “The Structure of Biblical Authority” (Euguene, OR; Wipf & Stock. Copyright 1989 by Meredith G. Kline) which traces God’s purposes in creating a society built upon written laws. Kline shows how the ancient near east – including the Babylonia of Hammurabi – was moved to codify their laws in stone. These ancient “covenants” specified the name of the king, his relation to his subjects and theirs to him, the laws that were to be followed and specific penalties for their violation. One stone was typically placed in the center of town so that all could see it; another was tucked away for safe keeping in the event the first was damaged or lost. This supports Williamson’s idea thoroughly.
This concept begins to become more interesting when one realizes that this is expressly the context into which God chose to codify His laws to the ancient Israelites. Sometime about 200-500 years after Hammurabi (depending on which source you choose) God wrote His law in stone; one copy for the Israelites and one stored in the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus 34) That was His way of assuring the Law was being expressed in a fashion that would have been familiar to the Israelites. And it would have been an entirely familiar thing to those societies among whom the Israelites lived.
But there is yet another fascinating part of God’s creation of laws written in stone that is fundamental. And that is the extreme sanction against anyone seeking to change it.
Dr. Kline explains:
A feature of the covenant tablets of peculiar significance for their canonical character is the inscriptural curse, or what we may call the canonical sanction. The tablet was protected against alteration or destruction by making such violations of it the object of specific curses… Wherever it is found the inscriptional curse is somewhat stereotyped in content. This is so both in respect to the techniques envisaged by which the text might be defaced or removed and with respect to the divine retribution threatened as a deterrent to any contemplating such transgression.” (Kline, p. 29)
How fascinating that God used that part of His creation as a model for the communication of His Law to the Israelites.
Consider Deuteronomy 4:2 –
You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it.
…or Proverbs 30:6 –
Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
So this was an established principle centuries later when the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament:
“Do not go beyond what is written.” (1 Corinthians 4:6)
Or when the Scriptures closes with just such an admonition.
Revelation 22:18-19 –
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plauges described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God willt ake away from tath person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City….
So we readily see that the roots of Sola Scriptura – contrary to some claims of its modernity – is really an ancient doctrine.
So the Halbig Court affirmed principle that is thousands of years old and one that America’s Founders also affirmed. Dr. John Eidsmoe’s study of early America produces this interesting fact:
Many, if not the vast majority of colonial Americans came from Calvinistic backgrounds.
The author goes on to show that by 1787 two thirds of Americans were “trained in the school of Calvin” and had come from “Calvinistic backgrounds.” This resulted in seventy seven percent of the country universities being built on Calvinistic principles. (Eidsmoe, John. “Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers”. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1987. Kindle locations 82, 87). With such a large Calvinistic influence the presence of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in the establishment of the laws of this country is self-evident.
So what happened in Halbig? The court merely restated what the Apostle Paul taught us two thousand years ago: “Do not go beyond what is written.”
Sola Scriptura at work today!