No Divine Law Equals No Moral Obligation

No Divine Law Equals No Moral Obligation: A Response to the claim of "Moral Obligation" to take COVID-19 vaccination

A Response to the claim of “Moral Obligation” to take the COVID-19 vaccination in “Why We Plan to Get Vaccinated: A Christian Moral Perspective”

by Matthew Arbo, Ben Mitchell, and Andrew Walker

Christians face a variety of ethical challenges in the days ahead. We seem daily to watch the codification of secular humanism, not only in legal statute but also in the nation’s cultural ethos. As Richard Weaver warned many years ago, Ideas Have Consequences.[1] Pagan ideas are not exempt from finding their way down to the day to day of human life.[2] As Judeo-Christian foundations continue to erode, believers in the resurrected King of Kings are left with the challenge of determining whether society’s laws, customs, and expectations are indeed just or not.

A storm is coming. And if we are going to brave the elements, we must be clear on principle. We will need many debates over application. But those debates depend on having our first principles clear. Given this necessity, I write to address a problem with the recent article at Public Discourse by Andrew Walker, Ben Mitchell, and Matthew Arbo, entitled “Why We Plan to Get Vaccinated: A Christian Moral Perspective.” I do so with respect to the authors and in the spirit of Christian brotherly love that ought to mark such discussion. The nub of the problem is the authors’ claim that individuals are “morally obligated” to get the COVID-19 vaccination while at the same time claiming that doing so is not a matter of sin and righteousness (instead, they say it is a matter of Christian liberty).

This contradiction is not a small one. It strikes at the heart of the matter undergirding our social tumult. While I do not in any way claim the authors teach the following error, the contradiction apparent in their article accords with the notion of a social or human law binding upon man, that is not itself bound by the divine law. In other words, the individual is “morally obligated” to an arbitrary standard, one that is not derived from divine law. Thomas Aquinas has said, “Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Proverbs 8:15: ‘By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. (emphasis mine)'”[3]

If God obliges one to take the COVID-19 vaccination, then failing to do so is sin.[4] If God does not obligate one to take the COVID-19 vaccination, one is not morally obligated to take it. Likewise, if God obliges one to take the COVID-19 vaccination, then the matter is not one of Christian liberty. If God does not oblige one to take the COVID-19 vaccination, then the matter indeed is one of Christian liberty. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith both address Christian Liberty. They are nearly identical. The former says:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also. (James 4:12; Romans 14:4; Acts 4:19, 29; 1 Corinthians 7:23; Matthew 15:9; Colossians 2:20, 22, 23; 1 Corinthians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 1:24)

The latter states:

God alone is Lord of the conscience,(k) and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship.(l) So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience,(m) is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.(n)

(k) Jam. 4:12;  14:4.
(l) Acts 4:19; Acts 5:29; I Cor. 7:23; Matt. 23:8, 9, 10; IICor. 1:24; Matt. 15:9.
(m) Col. 2:20, 22, 23; Gal. 1:10; Gal. 2:4, 5; Gal. 5:1.
(n) Rom. 10:17; Rom. 14:23; Isa. 8:20; Acts 17:11; John 4:22; Hos. 5:11; Rev. 13:12, 16, 17; Jer. 8:9.

Liberty of conscience, then, pertains to matters that do not concern sin and righteousness (i.e. eating an apple or banana). Liberty of conscience involves Christian freedom not to obey commands of men, which are contrary to or not contained in God’s Word. Liberty of conscience does not, however, pertain to a matter of moral obligation. One cannot say that he is morally obligated to do something and, at the same time, free not to do it.

Liberty of conscience does not pertain to a matter of moral obligation.

Perhaps here one would say that it is legitimate to claim that a man is morally obligated to get the vaccine and at the same time free not to get the vaccine so long as two different senses are in view. For example, he is morally obligated to human law, but free as it pertains to divine law. The problem with such a set up is that, as indicated above, human law is arbitrary and unjust if it is not born of divine law. As Aquinas says,

Since then the eternal law is the plan of government in the Chief Governor, all the plans of government in the inferior governors must be derived from the eternal law. But these plans of inferior governors are all other laws besides the eternal law. Therefore all laws, in so far as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law. Hence Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 6) that ‘in temporal law there is nothing just and lawful, but what man has drawn from the eternal law.’[5]

The main concern is the origin of this “moral obligation” to take the vaccine. If that origin is God, then it is a sin not to take it. But the authors assure us that “Christian liberty requires that each person be free to choose whether or not to receive these new vaccines.”[6] And, “Nor does it mean that an individual who forgoes the vaccine is necessarily sinning.”[7] Yet, at the same time, they say that taking the vaccination is a moral obligation,

If by the minimal burden of wearing a mask, we can potentially protect others from grave illness, then it seems we have a moral obligation to wear a mask. The same can be said for COVID-19 vaccinations. If by being vaccinated we can protect others from illness, then we have a corresponding obligation, given our Lord’s command to love neighbors, to be vaccinated.[8]

Christians want to be charitable toward those with whom they disagree. That spirit is exactly right. But, categorizing sin and righteousness disagreements as matters of Christian liberty is not the way to do so. For example, confessional Presbyterians think it is sin that confessional Baptists do not baptize their newborns. The Westminster Confession states:

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ,(l) but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized.(m)

(l) Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 8:37, 38.
(m)  17:7, 9, 10with Gal. 3:9, 14and Col. 2:11, 12 & Acts 2:38, 39 & Rom. 4:11, 12; I Cor. 7:14; Matt. 28:19; Mark 10:13, 14, 15, 16; Luke 18:15.

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance,(n) yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it;(o) or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.(p)

Similarly, confessional Baptists believe the confessional Presbyterian practice of baptism falls short of the divine standard. Their confession states:

Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance. (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36, 37; Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12; Acts 18:8)

For over 300 years, these positions have been articulated. I am a confessional Baptist, and some of my best friends are confessional Presbyterians. I am not alone in this. Baptists and Presbyterians have been preaching in each others’ churches, singing alongside one another, and laboring together each for the same Christ for hundreds of years. But we do so, in genuine humility, believing the other to be sinning in this area. We do not try to ease the blow by claiming it is a matter of Christian liberty. We do so by acknowledging, while confident in our stated positions, our own finitude and dependence on the Spirit for accurate interpretation.

Why Is This Important?

If Christians are to navigate the troubled waters coming our way, then we must be clear on the difference between a matter of “moral obligation” and a matter of “Christian liberty.”[9] If Christians believe they have social standards to which they are morally obliged that are not born from the divine standard, then, frankly, they are doomed. They will be susceptible to tyrannical government and every wind of doctrine that arises from a secular humanist society. As Carl Truman has recently warned,

The culture with no sacred order therefore has the task… the impossible task—of justifying itself only by reference to itself. Morality will thus tend toward a matter of simple consequentialist pragmatism, with the notion of what are and are not desirable outcomes being shaped by the distinct cultural pathologies of the day.”[10]

Christians live by revealed truth. If God has said, we are morally obligated. If He has not, then we are not morally obligated. If you are convinced that the COVID-19 vaccination, generally speaking, is a true application of the divine command—”Love thy neighbor”—then, with humility, tell people so while acknowledging that failure to take the vaccine is sin. If you are not convinced that taking the COVID-19 vaccination, generally speaking, is a true application of the divine command—”Love thy neighbor”—then leave it as a matter of Christian liberty.

If Christians are to navigate the troubled waters coming our way, then we must be clear on the difference between a matter of “moral obligation” and a matter of “Christian liberty.

But, whatever the case, do not claim that taking the COVID-19 vaccination is a “moral obligation” while at the same time saying it is not a “divine obligation.” God, while not the only moral governor, is the ultimate moral governor. Indeed, we can identify “moral obligations” that are implied from God.[11] We can also face matters of “moral obligation” that are from God but unclear.[12] In both cases, however, it would still be sin to fail to meet the divine obligation.

But, Walker, Mitchel, and Arbo claim that failing to take the vaccination is not sin, while at the same time stating that taking the vaccination is a “moral obligation.” Moral obligation, even if in reference to natural or human law, must accord with the ultimate, divine standard. The authors surely would admit that transgressing a divine standard equals sin. If that is so, they appear to be left advocating for a moral obligation (and a moral standard) that is not born from the divine standard (i.e. an arbitraty “moral obligation” that arises only out of the creature, the human will, or the social imaginary.[13]

As noted at the outset, the future appears to be fraught with challenges. Opportunities for sin, unbelief, division, and many other troubles are rife. We can disagree on matters of applications. But we must be clear on principle. In a nutshell, divine law equals moral obligation; no divine law equals no moral obligation.

[1] Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

[2] Ross Douthat, “The Return of Paganism,” New York Times, December 12, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/12/opinion/christianity-paganism-america.html.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Prima Secundae (Green Bay, WIO: Aquinas Institute, 2012), 249, 96:4. While it is true that human law in principle differs from divine law, it nevertheless maintains authority for it is born from divine law. Also, while Aquinas refers to the rule of kings above, by human law he does not have in view merely civil/criminal statues, but particular ethical determinations: “as from general and indemonstrable principles, that the human reason needs to proceed to the more particular determination of certain matters. These particular determinations, devised by human reason, are called human laws” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Prima Secundae, 206, 91:3). For more on the hierarchy of laws see, Timon Cline, “About That Richard Baxter Quote Part 1,” Founders Ministries, December 9, 2020. https://founders.org/2020/09/04/about-that-richard-baxter-quote-part-i/.

[4] As question 14 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Q. 14: What is sin? A: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

[5] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: Prima Secundae, 220, 93:3.

[6] Matthew Arbo, Ben Mitchell, Andrew Walker, “Why We Plan to Get Vaccinated: A Christian Moral Perspective,” Public Discourse, December 8, 2020. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/12/73110/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Founders Ministries has released a film and published a book on this very topic, both under the name By What Standard? God’s World … God’s Rules. The burden of both of those works is to demonstrate the danger of adopting a subjective standard, while pointing to the glory of God, His law, and His gospel. See, Jared Longshore, By What Standard? God’s World … God’s Rules (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2020).

[10] Carl Truman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 77.

[11] For example: Question 135 of the Westminster Larger Catechism marks sober use of sleep and labor as duties required in the sixth commandment.

[12] For example: Whether to assemble as a church for Lord’s Day worship when civil magistrate prohibits doing so on basis of protecting citizens.

[13] The social imaginary “refers to the myriad beliefs, practices, normative expecations, and even implicit assumptions that members of a society share and that shape their daily lives” (Truman, Rise and Triumph, 37).

Jared served in pastoral ministry since 2007, he has earned MDiv and PhD degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his wife Heather have seven children.
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