Apodictic law and casuistic law

I hear theologians and some preachers speak of apodictic law and casuistic law. What are they talking about?

Apodictic law encompasses absolute general commands rendered from “on high” as “thou shall not’s” and as such has little application in the courts. The Ten Commandments are a prime example of apodictic law.

Casuistic law (or case law) is based on precedents and is usually in the form of “if/then” conditional statements. Moral principles are applied to determine right and wrong in particular situations. Casuistic law is necessary because it is not possible to apply general commands directly to actual moral situations.

Would you give an example of each?

For example, apodictic law forbids giving false statements, but if during World War II you were secretly hiding a Jewish neighbor and then you subsequently were confronted by a Nazi storm-trooper who asked you where any Jews might be hiding, apodictic law would require you to reveal the truth. Or consider the case of Rahab the harlot who after she received the Israelite spies was met with a similar choice of telling the truth or preserving life (Joshua 2).

Therefore, casuistic law would reason that we are to tell the truth to whom the truth is due. In both of the above cases casuistic law may be seen as making the law more specific and removing confusion as to its application. We can argue that Rahab, living in the context of war and having shifted her allegiance from the king of Jericho to the God of Israel as her true King, had no obligation to make full disclosure to the soldiers. Her higher duty to protect the lives of the servants of God suspended the general apodictic command to tell the truth and her action was acceptable to God.

Nowhere in Scripture is Rehab condemned for her action. In fact, Rahab is cited as an example of faith for receiving the spies and sending them out a different way (James 2:25). Rehab and our hypothetical person confronted by the Nazis both fulfilled the absolute that applied in these wartime situations, namely to save the lives of God’s people; these actions, rather than being the lesser of two evils, are actually good.

Then doesn’t casuistic law lead to situational ethics?

Unfortunately, as you suspect, in Christian history casuistic law has often been seen negatively as providing excuses and exceptions where there ought to be none, and this has too often led to situational ethics. Situational ethics reduces apodictic law from a system of statutory rules to the “law of love alone,” wherein apodictic law is quickly treated as “love’s servant;” made ever so popular when decades ago Debby Boone sang these words in the song, You Light Up My Life, — “it can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”

This situational and incipiently antinomian (the heretical teaching that Christians are exempt from the law) perspective is nothing but a rejection of the binding authority of the specific precepts of God’s written Word. The teachings of Scripture and NOT our feelings are the final court of appeal for ethics and so constitute the bottom line for our decision making process. The canonical Scriptures are the very Word of God, the only infallible and inerrant rule of faith and practice and consequently are the highest authority.

This is not to say that casuistic law should be thrown out because of its abuse. Indeed the apodictic commands of God have to be worked out in the challenges of our daily life and so some guidance must be offered even if as the last resort a person must form his or her own judgment and bear responsibility for his/her own act. The problem that all of us face is to know what is good and then to have the moral courage to do it.

Although Christ condemned the casuistry of the scribes and Pharisees, which perverted the law through human speculation, He in no way minimized the role of specific obedience to the commandments of God, but rather made specific obedience a test of the genuineness of the disciples love (John 14:21). While obedience to the apodictic law of God can never be the basis for earning one’s salvation (other than by the imputed righteousness of Christ), Paul tells us that the law in and of itself is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12).

Therefore, genuine love motivates a believer to fulfill the requirements of the law (Roman 13:10). It is the love of God shed abroad in the heart of the believer that is the dynamic motivator of our behavior and this love demonstrates itself in harmony with, and not apart from apodictic law and precepts of Holy Scripture.