Thoughts on Genesis 9:6 and the First Table of the Law

Editor’s Note: As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

The Davenant Institute and Colorado Christian University (CCU) co-hosted a debate between Drs. Brad Littlejohn and Jonathan Leeman entitled, “Religious Liberty and the Common Good” on November 17, 2022.[1] This debate is part of a larger discussion on matters pertaining to Protestant political theology and one that I’m sure will continue on into the future.[2] The issues at play in the debate were larger than the title indicated and included questions pertaining to how natural law relates to civil governance, whether both tables of the Decalogue should be enforced by magistrates, and the nature of the two kingdoms. Admittedly, I felt caught between two worlds as the debate’s moderator. On the one hand, I am an ordained Baptist minister and am something of a Baptist historian. I value my spiritual heritage and am interested in how it relates to matters of public theology. On the other hand, I have served on the board with the Davenant Institute and have been shaped by their vision of recapturing the political theology of the Magisterial Reformation. The disputants did a fantastic job of clearly and charitably articulating their differences. As Drs. Littlejohn and Leeman presented opening statements and engaged with one another in a general exchange, my thoughts whirled across a range of questions. The one that seriously occupied my mind was the question of the Ten Commandments and whether a Christian magistrate should govern using the entire Decalogue, including the first table – Littlejohn jokingly described this as the “First Tabularian” view – or whether only the second table is in view.

Leeman argued that a just society should be concerned with Christian morality, and that magistrates should be Christians, but did not think that the Ten Commandments should be enforced by government. Thus, the magistrate should only punish for offenses against the second table, namely for murder, adultery, theft, or bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (I am curious to know how, for Leeman, the magistrate ought to punish the dishonoring of parents and the prohibition against coveting). In his argument against the policing of both tables of the law, he made an appeal to Genesis 9:6, the proscription against murder, for support: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Leeman argued that Moses’ concern was only with the policing of the second table, in particular the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Genesis 20:13).[3] On the surface, this makes sense, as Genesis 9:6 is dealing directly with the lex talionis, an eye-for-an-eye when it comes to the unlawful taking of human life. If a person commits murder, it is the responsibility of the magistrate to punish the murderer, which relates only to the second table (I take it, following Littlejohn’s humor, that Leeman would be “Second Tabularian”). This got me thinking.

I teach theology at CCU and I was thrilled to have had a number of my students in attendance. Earlier in the semester I lectured on theological anthropology, where I spent significant time on the hylomorphic dimensions of the human person, the rational soul, and the imago Dei. Of the latter, I took my students through representative biblical texts, starting with Genesis 1:27 and continuing to James 3:9. In a prefatory remark, I noted that “image” and “likeness” are interchangeable terms, and so I take the James passage, that speaks of “likeness of God,” to refer to the imago Dei. James’ point is to note the absurd incongruity between using the tongue to praise “our Lord and Father” and then use it again to curse him when we slander others. When I discussed it with my students, I was very explicit in telling them that when they verbally abuse another human being they are striking at the very image of God in that person, which is why slander and gossip are so heinous. Indeed, we could say that slander and gossip are blasphemous because they attack God’s own image. John Calvin notes the affront to God in his comments on James 3:9, where he says that the tongue “through a monstrous levity [can] transform itself; for when it pretends to bless God, it immediately curses him in his own image, even by cursing men.”[4] Thus the grounding of the discussion of the imago Dei in James is right worship of God.

Thinking of Genesis 9:6 and the lex talionis, one sees the same worship principle at play. If I murder a person made in God’s image, I am not merely unjustly taking the life of a human being, but I am also striking at the very image of God in that person. I am committing idolatry by committing murder. The lex talionis is the only just punishment because of the infinite value of the one whose life was tragically lost. In light of the recent shootings in a Colorado Springs gay bar and a Virginia Walmart we should be able to affirm that God is severely displeased with the murderers because of the infinite value of those whom they murdered—his image was in them. The imago Dei grounds the value and dignity of the victims in a way that nothing else can, because it locates them in the very nature of God. Murder is a personal affront to God’s character and thus an act of idolatry. Through a just legal system, capital punishment would be a reasonable punishment and should be grounded in God’s law. While Leeman is correct to note that Genesis 9:6 has direct relevance to the sixth commandment, and thus the second table of the law, it struck me as I listened to his remarks that it is also directly relevant to the first table’s admonitions against idolatry. There we are told by God through Moses that we are not to have other gods before him, that we are not to worship idols, and we are not to misuse his name. These are all proscriptions against false worship. We can say, then, that the sixth commandment’s rationale is given by the first table of the law. Likewise, in Genesis 9:6 there is a purpose clause that begins with (“for”) explaining why we ought not to murder: “for in the image of God has God made mankind.” The rationale for not murdering is the image of God. There is an analogy here to the relation of the two tables, noted above.

In the debate, Leeman noted the reality of the natural law, but seemed to locate its relevance only for the church. Yet the language of Genesis 9:6 hearkens us back to the prelapsarian condition of creation and Genesis 1:27; the word “made” is specifically creational language. Because humans are created in God’s image, it is naturally unlawful to commit murder. Genesis 9:6 also has an ethical framing, and as it was given in the context of Noah as a new Adam entering into a new Eden, and as it was given before the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, it constitutes an appeal to natural law. This appeal has universal application because of the continuity between pre- and post-lapsarian conditions. This explains the verse’s connection to the sixth commandment in Exodus 20; the Mosaic Law and the natural law are tied to each other as expressions of God’s eternal law, such that those who do not have the law of Moses nevertheless have the natural law in their consciences (conscientia) per Romans 2. A natural law argument against murder comports with what the Decalogue says about murder, that it is the unjust taking of a human life and it is striking at God’s own image in that life, thus both nature and Scripture tell us not to murder because it is idolatrous.

Leeman’s aversion to the magistrate policing the first table is understandable, especially in light of Baptist history. As a Baptist, I understand his concern that, while a magistrate can prohibit murder or theft, he or she might not police worship. The persecution of Baptists in the seventeenth century should at least give us pause. Yet do Baptists have to hold that Genesis 9:6 is as restrictive as Leeman would have us believe? Was Moses not a “First Tabularian”? I ask this, because many Baptists today follow Leeman’s line of reasoning, taking it to be the Baptist position; but is his view the only one in the Baptist tradition?[5] If one were to look at the work of the important eighteenth-century British Baptist John Gill (1697-1771), who himself knew religious persecution first-hand, we would see that he believed that the magistrate should govern using both tables of the law. Of his importance, Timothy George describes Gill as “the leading light among the Calvinistic Baptists of his day” who “influenced an entire generation of younger ministers.”[6] My use of Gill is not to say that he represents the entire Baptist tradition, but that he provides a way for Baptists to adhere to key elements of traditional Protestant political theology.

In the section of Book 4 of his A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (1796), entitled “Of the Respective Duties of Magistrates and Subjects,” Gill addresses the way a Christian magistrate should govern.[7] He begins his discussion by locating political theology in the experience of the early Christians. Because the Jews at the time of the New Testament were often accused of sedition and, as the Romans thought the Christians were a sect of Judaism, the Christians stressed obedience to the emperor in order to obviate Roman concerns of political dissent; for instance, Paul’s discussion in Romans 13:1–4. Gill noted that Baptists had to do the same so as to avoid the accusation of being seditious Anabaptists. They were to obey the civil magistrate and not be accused of disrupting the peace.[8] Gill draws an analogy with the priests in the old covenant, like Abiathar’s relationship to Solomon in 1 Kings, who were subject to the king: “[A]nd so the ministers of Christ under the gospel; Christ and his apostles paid tribute to Caesar.”[9] The subjection of the church (i.e. priest) to the king, Gill noted, was in express opposition to the medieval papacy because even Peter was subject to the magistrate. Interestingly, Gill earlier called the king a “nursing father” and the queen a “nursing mother.”[10] They are to make laws that promote the common good. In the old covenant, a king could not devise their own laws, because they ruled in a “peculiar” way directly under God. In the new covenant, however, a king (he is thinking here of the king of England) can make laws, though they must accord with God’s law and “the fundamental laws of the state.” A king can also provide checks against bad laws. Citing Isaiah 32:1, a king is to govern according to righteous laws, as David did, and should suppress impiety and irreligion while encouraging virtue and true religion. Drawing on Aristotle’s Politics, Gill says that the “first care of government” is “care of divine things, or what relate to religion.” How is a king to do this? By governing according to both tables of the law. Gill says, “Kings are the guardians of the laws of God and man; and christian [sic] kings have a peculiar concern with the laws of the two tables, that they are observed, and the violaters [sic] of them punished.” He then describes the “sins against the first table” as “idolatry, worshipping of more gods than one, and of graven images, blaspheming the name of God, perjury, and false-swearing, and profanation of the day of worship” and that kings have a “peculiar concern with the laws of the two tables.”[11] It is clear that Gill would stand with Littlejohn against Leeman, his fellow Baptist, in their debate.

In conclusion, what Gill says here comports with my argument about Genesis 9:6, supported by Calvin, and against Leeman’s view that only the second table should be policed by the magistrate. This is helpful because we can see that a Baptist—indeed, Gill can rightly be described as the doyen of the Baptists—can hold to the principle of the Magisterial Reformers as articulated by Littlejohn. Surely Gill’s ecclesiology will prevent him from imbibing Magisterial political theology as a whole. Nonetheless, he is instructive for Baptists like me and Leeman, because he gives historical-theological rationale for us to support the policing of both tables of the law. At the very least, we have in my overall argument a good reason to question Leeman’s “Second Tabularianism,” and affirm with Littlejohn that a just society should be one that can actually deal with the murders that have recently befallen our nation, by grounding our ethics in the eternal law of God as expressed in the natural law and in the decalogue.

[1] “Religious Liberty and the Common Good: A Debate Between Jonathan Leeman and Brad Littlejohn,”

[2] Leeman and Littlejohn have each contributed important books on political theology. See Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016) and W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017).

[3] Leeman addresses Genesis 9:6 in Political Church saying that the sixth commandment establishes religion generally, but not the Christian religion specifically. Leeman, Political Church, 82.

[4] John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle of James,” in John Owen, trans. and ed., Calvin’s Commentaries, 23 vols.(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2009), 22:322.

[5] Interesting, the “Standard Confession” of the General Baptists seems to imply that a magistrate can oversee matters of religion: “[I]n the case the Civil Powers do, or shall at any time impose things about matters of Religion, which we through conscience to God cannot actually obey, then…we will not yield, nor (in such cases) in the least actually obey them, yet humbly purposing (in the Lords [sic] strength) patiently to suffer whatsoever shall be inflicted upon us, for our conscionable forebearance.” This statement doesn’t prohibit the magistrate from care of religion, but only states that the Baptists would passively disobey if the magistrate violated conscience. William H. Brackney, ed., Baptist Life and Thought: A Source Book rev. ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 72.

[6] Timothy George, “The Ecclesiology of John Gill,” in Michael A. G. Haykin, ed., The Life and Thought of John Gill (1697–1771): A Tercentennial Appreciation, Studies in the History of Christian Thought 77(Leiden/New York/Koln: Brill, 1997), 225.

[7] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity; or, A System of Evangelical Truths, Deduced from the Sacred Scriptures, 3 vols. (London: Printed for W. Winterbotham, 1796), 414–420.

[8] Gill, Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 414.

[9] Gill, Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 416.

[10] Gill, Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 359. The eighteenth-century English Baptist Benjamin Beddome (1717–1795), a younger contemporary of Gill’s, in his exposition of the Baptist catechism, referred to the magistrate as a nursing father and mother. In it he asks, “Should we pray that magistrates might be raised up to favour the gospel?” and answers, “Yes.” The catechism then quotes Isaiah 49:23: “That Kings might be nursing Fathers and Queens nursing Mothers to the Israel of God.” Benjamin Beddome, A Scriptural Exposition of the Baptist Catechism By Way of Question and Answer (London: John Ward, 1752), 177.

[11] Gill, Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 417.


  • Ian Hugh Clary

    Ian Hugh Clary (PhD, University of the Free State), is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Colorado Christian University. He is a fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies; the London Lyceum; the Center for Baptist Renewal; and was recently a board member with the Davenant Institute. He is also a co-host of the Into Theology podcast through The Gospel Coalition Canada, and the book review editor for Evangelical Quarterly.

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