Greg Bahnsen`s Response to Aiken Taylor (Prebysterian Journal)

by Rev. Greg L. Bahnsen, Th.M., Ph.D.
The editor of the Presbyterian Journal is to be thanked for introducing
to his readers two vital theological questions relevant to the modern church:
the questions of ethics and eschatology. Such matters bear directly on the
lifestyle and hope of believers and, thus, are a concern to us all. In two
lead articles and two main editorials which spread over three issues in volume
20 of the Journal (9-6, 9-13, 9-20) the editor has cordially and charitably
given his own view of a particular outlook in eschatology (postmillennialism)
and in ethics (theonomy), both of which I espouse. As a teacher of theology
I rejoice at such healthy interaction and criticism regarding our doctrinal
commitments. We must, in the Berean spirit (Acts 17:11), "prove all things,
hold fast that which is good" (I Thes. 5:21).
I will begin by discussing the theonomic outlook in ethics, responding
to the editor's understanding and critique, and then later turn to the question of postmillennial eschatology, again offering an answer to the editor's
Jesus My Savior
The most blessed teaching of God's word and the central joy of my life is
that God sent His only-begotten Son to save sinners such as myself. When I
became a Christian, it was with a sense of my sin and misery before God. Because of the Spirit's work in my heart I recognized that "every sin...being a
transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in
its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the
wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death" (Westminster
Confession of Faith VI.6; hereafter "WCF"). Hereby I saw my need of the Savior
freely offered to me in the gospel and embraced Him in faith. Accompanying
this saving faith in Christ there was a repentance unto new life in Him. "By
it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of
the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and
righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such
as are penitent, so grives for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all
unto God, purposing and endeavouring to walk with Him in all the ways of His
commandments" (WCF XV.2). Such repentance gave meaning to my "accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and
eternal life"; in terms of this conception of saving faith I found myself
"yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come" as they were
found in God's inspired word (WCF XIV.2).
Because I came to Christ in this fashion it was only natural that, upon
reflection, I would take a theonomic approach to ethics--seeing the binding
validity of God's commandments in my life today. The conviction of my sin,
which was prerequisite to coming to Jesus as Savior, was possible only because
of God's holy law. "Sin is lawlessness" (I Jn. 3:4); "I had not known sin
except through the law" (Rom. 7:7). John Murray said, "The word 'ought' can
have no meaning apart from a rule or standard of right, that is apart from
iaw....Sin then is moral evil because it is a contravention of that which by
its own right, apart from any extraneous considerations, binds and demands....
The law that sin violates is the law of God" (Collected Writings II, pp. 77,
- 2
78). Without God's law there would be no sin, and thus no need for the Savior;
the gospel would be expendable. The fact that Christ had to die to satisfy thc
law's demand is dramatic proof that God's commandments cannot be laid aside,
changed, or ignored.
My salvation is not grounded in my own law-obedience, but rather in that (
of Christ (Gal. 3:11; Rom. 5:19). The Pharisees had made a religious show of
adhering to the law, but it was a mere facade--vain hypocrisy (Matt. 15:7-9).
In actual fact the Pharisees avoided the internal demand of the law, avoided
its weightier matters, and perverted its teaching (Matt. 5:21-48; 23:23-24).
They were, like many teachers today, blind guides who trimmed down the requirements of God's law so as to make it fit into their own cultural tradition
(Matt.15:3-6, 14). Their form of obedience was a self-serving way of justification (Luke 16:15; 18:9-14) that left them full of iniquity, despite appear.
ances (Matt. 23:27-28). Accordingly their trimmed down, self-centered righteousness could not ever bring entrance into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20)
If they had genuinely upheld the integrity and demand of the law, they would
not have been driven to legalism but to the Savior. J. Gresham Machen put it
well: "A low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of
law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again
prevail" (What is Faith?, p. 142).
So then, the law which convicted me of my ungodliness and my need of God'
Son was a reflection of God's own perfect, holy character (Ps. 19:7; Matt. 5:
48; Rom. 7:12; Rev. 15:4). Those who despise and break that law, then, can
have no fellowship with God; the law can no more be put aside than God himself
can be. "The law of God is simply the expression or transcript of his moral
perfection for the regulation of thought and life consonent with his perfection....Herein appears the perverseness of the idea that the moral law may be
abrogated and is superseded by love" (Murray, II, p. 78). If God never meant
for us to comply with this law, His wrath and curse would have been an arbitrary and instrumental playacting. So Dabney maintained, "Everywhere, the
law which we are still required to obey, is the same law which, b its perfectness, condemned us" (Systematic Theology, p. 633). Those who know Jesus Christ
as their Savior from sin cannot, therefore, deny the validity and place of
God's law today.
Jesus My Lord
After I came to Christ in faith and repentance, experiencing thereby the
pardon of God for my transgressions of. His holy law, the natural question became, how should a Christian live? I praise God for my reformed church training which taught me that those who have a new heart "are further sanctified,
really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection,
by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them...strengthened in all saving graces,
to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord"
(WCF XIII.1). For this reason I was taught to obey the commandments of God,
looking to Scripture for my guidance rather than to myself as a sinner who
was atuned to a fallen culture. Dabney insisted, rightly I believe, that "the
preaching and expounding of the Law is to be kept up diligently, in every
gospel Church" (S.T., p. 354). Such an emphasis is far from incompatible with
a religion of free grace held Dabney: "the view I have given of the Law, as
the necessary and unchanging expression of God's rectitude, shows that its
authority over moral creatures is unavoidable....It is therefore simply impossible that any dispensation, of whatever mercy or grace, could have the
effect of abrogating righteous obligation over God's saints" (p. 353).
A.A. Hodge agreed that this was the outlook of our Confession. "While
Christ fulfilled the law for us, the Holy Spirit fulfils the law in us, by
sanctifying us into complete conformity to it. And in obedience to this law
the believer brings forth those good works which are the fruits though not
the ground of our salvation" (The Confession of Faith, p. 251). Samuel Bolton
a participant at the Westminster Assembly, wrote: "We cry down the law in respect of justification, but we set it up as a rule of sanctification. The law
sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified; and the Gospel sends us to
the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified" (The
True Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 71). Because Christ is not simply my
Savior, but simultaneously my Lord, it is incumbent upon me to live in obedience to His commandments (Heb. 5:9).
In sanctification I am to imitate the holiness of God, expressed in His
law. "Sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be ye holy, for I am the Lord your
God. And ye shall keep my statutes and do them" (Lev. 20:7-8; cf. 19:2 and
I Peter 1:15-16). To attempt to be sanctified apart from this standard is to
challenge the Lordship of God my Savior. Murray explains that "every depreciation of the law of God as the pattern in terms of which sanctification is
fashioned invariably leads to the adoption of patterns which impinge upon the
unique prerogatives of God" (II, p. 307). In sanctification I strive to live
according to the example of Christ, who kept the law perfectly (I Jn. 2:5-6;
Jn. 15:10). In sanctification I live by the power and leading of the Holy
Spirit who conforms me to the law. Christ "condemned sin in the flesh in
order that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not
after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). Therefore, whether we consider the holiness of God, the life of the Son, or the work of the Spirit,
sanctification finds its blueprint or pattern in God's law. The basis for
sanctification, however, is not the law (as the editor portrays my view, 9-13,
p. 9b) but the dynamic ministry of God's indwelling Spirit (Gal. 3:3) --as
indicated by the Confession of Faith cited above.
What the above discussion indicates is that since Christians, living under
the Lordship of Christ the Savior, are to avoid sinning (I Jn. 2:1), they must
be concerned to obey the law of God (cf. Rom. 3:20). "He that saith, I know
Him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him"
(I Jn. 2:4; cf. 3:24). A.A. Hodge wrote in his commentary on the Confession:
"In respect to regenerate men, the law continues to be indispensable as the
instrument of the Holy Ghost in the work of their sanctification. It remains
to them an inflexible standard of righteousness, to which their nature and
their actions ought to correspond" (p. 258). In his 1841 Lectures on the
Shorter Catechism, Ashbel Green declared that believers are fully under the
law of God "as a rule of duty; and they account it their happiness and privilege to be so" (II, p. 16); such language merely reflected the commentary
edited by Erskine and Fisher in 1765. In a similar vein Herman Bavinck wrote
that "the moment we have learned to know that other righteousness and holiness
which God has given in Christ and which through faith He makes our own, our
attitude towards the law and our sense of its significance changes entirely....
We let the law stand in its exalted sublimity, and make no effort to pull it
down off its high pedestal. We continue to honor it as holy and righteous and
good.... We delight in it according to the inner man. And we thank God not
for the gospel only but also for His law, for His holy, righteous, perfect
law. That law too becomes to us a revelation and a gift of His grace. How
love I Thy law; it is my meditation all the day" (Our Reasonable Faith, p.490).
There is no evidence adduced by the editor from my book, Theonomy in
Christian Ethics, to warrant his bald claim that I give a different content
- 4 to the Psalmist's words, 1"0 how love I Thy law," than originally intended (9-13
p. 18b). The meaning of that exclamation is expounded above, in harmony with
my book. The implication of that teaching, again as reflected in my book, can
be stated in the words of John Murray, from his article "The Christian Ethic":
"Do we recoil from the notion of obedience, of law observance, of keeping commandments? Is it alien to our way of thinking? If so, then our Lord's way
is not our way. That is the issue and it is surpassingly grave. It is the
issue of our day and it is aimed at the centre of our holy faith. It is aimed
at the Saviour's self-witness and aimed at his supreme example. Anew, therefore, may we appreciate the ethic that is derived from him who said: 'I delight to do thy will, 0 my God: yea, thy law is within my heart' (Psalm 40:8),
and that follows in the train of a psalmist who said: tO how love I thy law!
it is my meditation all the day' (Psalm 119:97), and of an apostle: 'I delight
in the law of God after the inward man... So then with the mind I myself serve
the law of God' (Rom. 7:22, 25)" (Collected Writings I, p. 181).
From this quote we can also see how fallacious is the editor's remark that
from the very fact that Theonomy was published and argues against other views
of law in relation to grace, its author intends to say something different and
obviously thinks he is proposing something new (9-13, p. 10c); otherwise, says
the editor, the Westminster Confession would suffice and Theonomy would be
superfluous (9-13, p. 18b). These remarks are neither materially true nor
reasonable inferred. As Murray points out, a supremely grave issue of our day
that threatens the heart of our Christian faith is the current antagonism expressed to obedience to God's law. This antagonism calls us to appreciate
anew the biblical ethic of God's law. That is why I penned Theonomy: not to
go beyond the Confession, but to uphold and defend the position of the Confession regarding Christian ethics. The editor's remarks notwithstanding, I
did not intend to present a viewpoint which was new and different, but simply
to argue biblically and consistently for the Confessional viewpoint I have
always known and loved. It is not any inadequacy in the Confession's position
but rather the current crisis in Christian ethics that solicited the publication of a book like Theonomy. (The same could be said, obviously, for any
number of books published after the Confession of Faith in exposition and
defense of a reformed viewpoint in many areas of theology.)
We have observed in the previous descussion that because Jesus is my
Savior, the validity of God's law must be upheld; and because Jesus is my Lord,
it is imperative to strive to obey the law of God as the pattern of my sanctification. As saved, I have become the disciple of Christ and aim to live a
disciplined life under His direction. The law which I was formerly obligated
to obey, but failed as an unbeliever to do so (thus necessitating the work of
the Savior), is still the proper rule for my life as a believer indwelt by the
Holy Spirit. In light of this, I do not understand the editor's exposition of
Theonomy as teaching that once someone is saved the law takes on a different
dimension wherein obedience becomes a must, and wherein the law is now both
the pattern and the rule of life (9-13, p. 10a). The distinction between
pattern and rule needs explanation. But more importantly, obedience to the
law is a "must" for all men, saved or unsaved; it does not become a "must"
after salvation. Failure to obey the law defines that sin which calls for the
alien and imputed righteousness of Christ--a righteousness in perfect obedience
to the law--if one is to be justified by faith; subsequently, in the power of
Christ's Spirit, the believer attains personal righteousness in some measure
by obeying the very same required law. Moreover, since our justification and
our sanctification are both according to God's grace, I fail to see the "different dimension" of the law referred to by the editor. Thus I doubt that he
was there expounding accurately my own views.
Well then, we have said that the Christian life is one disciplined by the
law of God. The editor has said, to the contrary, that the disciplined life
is a matter of proper motivation and direction--not a matter of a written code
or a catalogue
e-of specifics for behavior (9-22, ip'101:)). The necessity and
place,of God's written'COde ihthe- believer's sanctification haS been explainer
and vindicated, already inoUrdiscussiOn of Scripture and the Confession, I
believe. Le me go on to Observe, then, that the misdirection of the editor's
remark is perhaps to be found in his pitting'of the goal (direction) and motive
(motivation) of Christian ethics against the standard (written law) of Christian ethics. In reality the three perspectives require each other (cf. C. Van
Til's Christian-Theistic Ethics). We are to have God's glory and kingdom as
the goal of our behavior (I Cor. 10:31; Matt. 6:33). In all our thoughts,
words, and deeds we are to be motivated by faith and love (Ron. 14:23; Matt.
22:37-40)„ However, please note that such moral considerations are delivered
by the Authorof the law; indeed,. they are given themselves as commandments
from God. .: They do not stand over against the law of God, as though we are to
choose between them and the commandments. After all, God is consistent with
Himself and has not revealed divergent paths of morality in the Bible. As
things actually are in life, we cannot determine which. of our actions -seeks
the glory of God and is consonant with love unless God's law guides us into
the paths of righteousness. Obediente to God's righteous law is the way to
glorify Him (Phil. 1:11), and it is the specific form of Christian love (Jn.
14:15; I Jn. 5:3). Therefore, the disciplined life of the believer is one of
obedience to the written law of God (note how "disciplining" is connected with
"teaching to observe whatsoever I have commanded" in the Great Commission,
Matt. 28:18-20). In that case the editor has set before us a false antithesis
and choice.
The Law of the Lord
Jesus, as both Savior and Lord; does not dispense with the law of God, as
we have seen above. According to the Confession, He does not dissolve it in
any way in the Gospel but rather much strengthens its obligation (XIX.5).
Bavinck said, "the gospel does not make the law of no effect, but restores and
establishes it.... The righteousness of the law, that which the law asks in
its commandments, 'is fulfilled precisely in those who do not walk according to
ForJesus and for the
the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom.
apostles /the/ will of God....continues to be known from the Old Testament....
The moral laws retain their force...-. Hence again and again that Old Testament
is quoted in order to cause the Christian church to know the will of God....
In other words, the moral law is, so far as its content is concerned, quite
the same in the Old and the New Testament" (Our Reasonable Faith, pp. 484,
485). Likewise, Dabney wrote with respect to Christ and the law: : "we deny
that He made any change or substantial additiOn,... Christ honoured this law,
declared it everlasting and unchangeable.... The moral law could not be completed, because it is as perfect:as God, of whose character it is the impress
and transcript. It cannot be abrogated or relaxed, because it is as immutable
as He" (S.T., p. 357).
When God delivered His law. in the Old Testament He indicated that it was
not to.become outmoded or invalidated. "Whatever.I command you, you shall be
careful to doi you shall not add to nor take away from it" (Deut. 12:32).
Ashbel Green comments "that all the reqUisitions of the moral law are immutably binding on man, unless he have an express dispensation in regard to positive precepts, from the lawgiver, God himself...; in no possible case, can
they be altered, changed, or abrogated by man, without this. appointment." He
goes on to add, "themoral law is a. perfect rule of life and manners--so per-
- 6 fect that it admits of neither additien i nor diminution" Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, II, pp. 1415). Thus the Psalmist declared, "Every one of Thy
righteous ordinances is everlasting" (GPs. 119:160), and "all His. precepts are
trustworthy; they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness" (Ps. 111:7-8)a
God is not wavering with respect to right and wrong; He does not operate
on adouble-standard of morality. Whatever was evil according to the Old Testathent law is also evil in the perspective of the New Testament. For example,
God's law explains that, as anapplication of the seventh commandment, homosexuality is abominable and prohibited (Lev. 18:22);as expected, the New Testament upholds this case-law requirement (Rom. 1:28-27, 32), seeing.homosexuality as contrary to "the ordinance of God." Similarly, the Old.Testament law
outlawed marrying your 'fatherts wife (Lev 18:8):, and as expected 'the New
Testament endorses this moral perspective (1 Cor. 5:1). Those who feel that
there is a discontinuity between the moral standards of the Old.and,New Testaments, or who feel that the New Testament ethic is limited to only:the Ten
Commandments, must be challenged as to whether they feel that it is permissable
today to commit homosexuality or incest:- they must be challenged to give a
credible account of why, if only the Decalogue binds us today, the New Testament inconsistently departs from that artificial restriction and supports-without apology or explanation—details of the Old Testament law. The Biblical
answer is that every one of God's laws is righteous and unchanging; what was
wrong yestetday cannot become right today. This is the Reformed perspective
in ethics (and accounts fot our belief in infant baptism): God's word is valid
and binding until He alone says otherwise. It cannot be broken (Jn. 10:35).
And because God delivers only righteous laws, He does not alter them. nabney
put it this way: "the idea that God can substitute an imperfect law for one
perfect, is derogation to His perfection. Either the former standard required
more than was right, or the new one requires less than is right; and in either
case God would be unrighteous" (S.T.,
We must conclude with Dabney, then, "that the Old Testament teaches precisely the same morality with the New" (p. 402). This perspective is well
in the word of God, being explicitly promulgated by Jesus Christ our
Lord. "Do not think that I came in order to abrogate the law or the prophets;
I came not to abrogate but to confirm. For truly I say unto you, until
heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle shall in any way pass away
from the law, until all things have come to pass" (Matt. 5:17-18). This pasSagemas the editor notes, is the foundational authority for my book, Theonomy
in Christian Ethics (9-13, p. 9c); it should be noted, however, that it is not
the'sole foundation, nor a'uniquely necessary one. The same premise is and
can be Verified from other passages and teachings of God's word. Also, while
I take the word 'fulfill' in the sense of 'to conform' (this is argued, not
for forty pages--as the editor claims, 9-13, p. 10a--but only half as many),
this is in no sense necessary to the thesis of my book. The salient point for
Christian ethics is that Jesus forthrightly denies that His coming has the
effect of abrogating the Old Testament law; He twice states this denial in v.
17, and thus whatever 'fulfill' might mean, it cannot imply abrogation of the
law without making the verse self-contradictory. In v. 18 Jesus explains that
not the slightest stroke of the law will cease to have binding moral force
until heaven and earth pass away. If Jesus does not remove our obligation to
any law from God, what right has any man to do so? Those who oppose the continued use Of any Old Testament precept without warrant from God's own word
oppose the teaching of our Lord and Savior. Usually they attempt to "explain
awe,y" the clear and forceful declaration of Jesus, where. He shows us how the
New Testament gospel age interprets the Old Testament law as abidingly valid,
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through manuevers that appear to be exegesis-by-embarrassment. Such tactics
cannot overcome Christ's own application of His teaching: "Therefore, whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall
be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19). Anyone who presumes
to demote any of God's law will be demoted in God's kingdom, and that according
to the word of the King himself.
Dabney wrote, "To what extent, then, does the consistent Reformed theologian hold the old covenant to be abrogated?... God's law being the immutable
expression of His own perfections, and the creature's obligation to obey being
grounded in his nature and relation to God, it is impossible that any change
of the legal status under any covenant imaginable, legal or gracious, should
abrogate the authority of the law as a rule of acting for us" (S.T., p. 636).
Paul understands by the fact that we live under grace and not under law that
sin (law-violation) shall not have dominion over us (Rom. 6:12-14; God's
grace in the New Covenant empowers us to keep the law (Titus 1:11-14). The
law of the Old Covenant is still binding, therefore, in the New Covenant-even as God declared, "My covenant I will not violate, nor will I alter the
utterance of My lips" (Ps. 89:34). Can the law be deemed contrary to the promises of God? Paul answers, "May it never be!" (Gal. 3:21). When God promised
and instituted the New Covenant of promise which we enjoy today He did not
institute a new law or moral outlook. To the contrary, He declared "This is
the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days...:
I will put my laws into their minds and I will write them upon their hearts"
(Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). The New Covenant enables obedience to the Old Covenant's law-code; whereas the letter brought spiritual death for disobedience,
the Holy Spirit brings life and obedience (2 Cor. 3:6). "I will put My Spirit
within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to
observe My ordinances" (Ezek. 36:27; cf. Rom. 8:4).
"Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; nay, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31). Given the preceding study, I cannot agree with the
editor when he says that life under God's grace is not conscious of the law
(9-20, p. 10c). "I of myself with the mind, indeed, serve the law of God"
said Paul, and "I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22,
25). We are to look carefully at how we conduct ourselves and to understand
what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:15,17), having, God's word in our mouths
and in our hearts--as the law called us to do (Deut. 30:14) along with Paul
(Rom. 10:8). Indeed, our moral decisions must be weighed in terms of the law:
not judging against the law (Jas. 4:11) but deciding on the basis of the law
(e.g., I Cor. 9:9; 14:34). We must pay attention to the commandments as a
standard by which to judge our relationship to God (I in. 2:3) and our love
for the brethren (I Jn. 5:2). Thus the law of the Lord surely has a conscious
place in the believer's life. Righteous living in obedience to God's law is
not, as claimed (9-20, p. 10c), simply feeling right and being comfortable witb
compliance; it calls for mental attention to the written word (in. 17:17; Col.
3:16; I Thes. 4:1-2) and then subsequent action (Jas. 1:2/-25). Nevertheless, '
it is still true, as the editor begins by saying, that there is a qualitative
difference between law obedience under law and law obedience under grace (9-20,
p. lob). It is not the difference between conscious and unconscious observance
of the law, but rather the difference between utter inability to obey the law
and Spiritual enablement to do so (Rom. 8:2-10; cf. 6:1-22). That is, because
we are not under law but under grace, sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom.
Our present obligation to keep the law of God is plain and evident from
the New Testament's exhortation to love, for "love is,the fulfuilment of the
law" (Rom. 13:10). According to the editor, under grace the believer's relationship to the law is not a relationship to a list of specific stipulations
but only to a generalitySUmmed- 1P in two precepts, "Love God and love neighbor" (9-20, p. 10c). JesuS said that'on these two commandments (which, by the
way, were quotations from the bid: testament laW at Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18)
hang all the law and the prophets (Matt.- 22:37-40). Yet these'love commands
did not, according to Christ's thinking, dispense with the laws of God. John
Murray points out that "If the law hangs on loVe, it is not,dispensed with.
That on which something hangs serves no purpose and has no meaning apart from
that which hangs on it.... Love does not devise the norms of its exercise nor
the ways of expressions' (I,'p: 179): A...ova doeS not take the place of the law
of God, it mmerely summariZes'it.- -Commenting on Paul's word that love fulfills
the law, Murray says elseWhere: "if They are summarized in one word, the summary does not obliterate or- abrogate- the expansion of:which it is a summary.
It is futile- to try to escape the underlying assumption of Paul's thought,
that the concrete precepts of the decalogue have relevance to the believer as
the criteria of that- behavior which loVe dictates" (Principles ofConduct, p.
192). And in turn the decalogue does not stand alone but "Summarily cOmprehendS" the entire moral law of God (Larger Catechism 93, 98). Love summarizes
our duty,'but law gives it specific definition. "Love is not an autonomous,
self-inStructing and self-directing principle. ALove'- does not excogitate the
norms by which it is regulated" (Murray, 11, p. 78). Otherwise a person might
reason that love permits adultery with his neighbor's. wife. But.Christ said,
"If'yelove Me, ye will keep my commandmentS" (Jn. 14:15), and John taught
that 'this is love, that we walk after His commandments" (2 Jn. 6). Love to
God and brother is' known, recognized, 'and guided by nothing less than the
commandments of God (I Jn. 5:23) And these commandmentS are not "a spiritually defined generality," to use the editor's words (920
Lord Over All
Three basic Reformed commitments have been rehearsed to this point. As
my Savior; Christ sbows me the necessity of the law. Asmy.Lord, Christ directs me to live in obedience to the law. And this law,of:the Lord is just
as binding in the New. Testament as in'the Old, not being invalidated by the
institution of the New CoVenant or by the principles of faith,,grace, and
love. TO these can be added a fourth distinctive: Christ is Lord over all
of life and over all mankind.
MO - area - Of a person's life is a safety zone from God's contral and de
mands. The Lord will not tolerate a dichotomy of life into sacred and secular.
He requires holineSs throughout alll-the areas of life. "Like as He who called
you is holy, be ye yourselves alsO holy in all manner ofliving" (I Peter 1:15)
NO-thing in our lives can be withheld from Him. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, .and with all-thy,mind. This
is the first and great commandment" (Matt. 22:37-38). The first commandment
of the decalogue requires us to glorify God by "yielding all obedience and
subMission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please
him" (Larger Catechism 104; hereafter "LC").. Thus nothing pertaining to my
attitudes and behavior--whether they pertain to myself, my family, my church,
my emploYment, my social relations, my society or state--is immune from the
Lord's direction. In repentance- I turn from all of my sins in all relations,
"endeavoring. , to walk with- HiM'in all the ways of His commandments" (WCF XV.2;
cf. LC m), and thus sanctificatidn "is' throughout, in the whole man" (WCF
XIII.2; cf. LC 75). AccOrdinglyYthe law'of the Lord guides, not simply my
private and religious life, but every facet of my walk as a servant of God-inrecreation, economics, friendships, culture, family, and all things. Wish-
ing to please my Lord, 1 recognize that, "sin is any want of conformity unto,
or transgression of, any lAw of God" (LC 24). It is my reasonable and spirit_ ual service to offer my .body as sacrifice to God and my mind to be
transformed completely by His perfect will (Rom. 12:12). Christ is Lord over
all. This is essential to a Reformed world-and-life-view.
John Murray put it this:way: "The law of God extends to all relations of
life. This is so becausewe-are never removed from the obligation to love and
serve God. We are never amoral. We owe devotion to God in every phase and
•department.of life. It:is this principle of all-inclusive obligation to. God,
and Of the all-pervasive relevance of the law of God, that gives anctity to
all of our obligationsand relations"' (II, p. 78).. As Bavinck said, "this law
governs all the relationships in which man finds himself, whether,toeGod,
whether to his fellow man, to himself, or to the whole of nature" (p. -489).
Sanctification accordinTto the pattern of God'slaliTlaust be throughout life,
seven days a week, in every aspect of behavior. Christ:isnot simplyi.m.v
Savior, He is likewise may Lord--in every department.of life, from private to
public. He has given- ma new heart on which is engraved the law of God (Ezek.
11:19; 36:26-27;• Jer.. 31:33; Heb. 10:16), and out of that heart flow. all the
Everything I think and ;do should be governed,
issues of life (Pray.
then, by God's law (Deut. 6:8). 1-have-thus come to agree with Murray that
"No one factor hasTheen more prejudicial to the Christian ethic in the home,
the church,.and society,- than contempt for the negatives of God's law" (I, p.
Not only is Christ. Lord over all of life, but„He4s Lord over all men as
well. He owns this universal -Lordship in virtue of being Creator, Redeemer,
and Judge. All things were created by Him and thus for His service (Col. 1:
16). As Redeemer He expeCts.all nations: to be Hip and taught to
observe whatsoever He - has coMmanded (Matt. 28118-r.20). : This. same Creator and
Cor. 5:
Redeemer will judge all,:men ActOrding- to .their aW7g.:deed
10; 2 Tim. 4:1). - Christ is troth the divine and messianic King; in the former
capacity. He is ruler over the nations (Ps.- 22:28).who chast.,,ns them, out of the
law (Ps.-94:10,12),,and in the latter capacity He is head over all things (Eph.
1:20-22) who punishes all who act lawlessly (Matt. 13:41). •
'Therefore the Christian cannot deny that God's law binds all men in ,all
places, for to do so would be to detract from Christ the Creator, Redeemer,
Judge, and King. In this light we can turn to our confession and Catechisms,
'where we learn that "The duty which Goclrequireth of man (without distinction
or qualification) is obedience to his revealed will" (LC 91)4 In the scriptures "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own
glory, man's salvation, faith and life" can be found (WCF 1.6). The moral
duty of all men in all areas of life is contained in God's inspired word. Of
God the Confession says, "He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His
works, and in all His, commands. To Him is due from angels:and men, and every
6ther Creature, whatsoeverworship, service, or obedience Heis, require of:them" (WCF 11.2)..No- creature is in a position to resist doing what
God directs him to do in any area of life, then, for "reasonableereatures do
owe Obedience unto Him as their Creator" (WCF Vll..l). Moral obligation, that
is, does not rest upon a' saving: relationship to God;,*as CreatorHe demands
that His law be obServed by all men,:.-By the law of God the Lord bound Adam
"and all his posterity; to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience"
(WCF XIX.1); "the moral law doth,for ever bind, all,as wet .justified persons
as ethers, to the obedience thereof;,and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator,
who gave it" (XIX.5). Whether we consider the content of the law or its
-. 10
Author, we must conclude that all men are bound to it. As the exalted King
Christ has all power over all things in heaven and earth (LC 54), and as such
He corrects believers for their sins and brings vengeance upon unbelievers fo:
their sins (DC 45). No person is given permission to Violate the law of God
in any respect. All men will give an account to Christ, as judge, for every
aspect of their lives (WCF XXXIII.1), and this fact should "deter all men fror
sin" (XXXIII.3).
A good summary of the implications following from:the fact that Christ i
Lord over all--over all areas of life, and over all mankind.isprovided by
the Catechism. "The moral law .is the deClarationof the will of God to mankind, directing and binding everyone to perSonal, perfect, and perpetual con•
formity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole
man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of'holiness and
righteousness which he oweth to God and man" (LC 93). "The moral laW is of
use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and will of God, and of
their duty, binding them to walk accordingly" (LC 95). "The law is perfect,
and bindeth every one to full conformity in the whole man unto the righteousness thereof, and unto entire obedience for ever; so as to- require the utmost
perfection of every duty, and to forbid the lease degree'of every sin....
What God forbids is at no time to bedone.... What is forbidden or commanded
to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to- endeavor that it may
be avoided or performed by others" (LC 99). Given such:teaChing, I do not
see why it should, have struck the editOr as somehow a "unique thesis" in
Theonomy that every bit of God's law is equally binding upon believers and
unbelievers (9-13, p. 10b-c). This is but an expresSion of that classic
Reformed thought found in the Westminster Standards. Consistent application
of these premises may be unusuak and unpopular today, but the premises are
.lifted straight from the historic Reformed position on ethics.
Reformed thought, consistent with the teaching of Scripture, has seen th,
law of God as having a "political use" in man's government; that is, God's IAA
binds the state, whether pagan or "Christian." Carl F.H. Henry summarizes in
this way: "Even where there is no saving faith, the LawServes to restrain
sin, and to.preserve the order of creation by proOlaiming'the will of
8, its judgments and its threats of Condemnation and puniShrient, the written
law along with the law of conscience hinders sin among the unregenerate. It
has the role of a magistrate who is a terror to evildoers... It fulfills a
political function, therefore, bye its constraining influence in the unregenerate world" (Christian Personal Ethics, p. 355). Because.Christ is "the
ruler of the kings of the earth" (Rev. 1:5), all magistrates in the state owe
Him obedience to His law. That law was specifically laid down, says Scriptur
for the restraint of those who are unruly in society (I Tim. 1:9-10). This
is the New Testament perspective as much as the Old's:
All men, Jewish and Gentile alike, are responsible before the law of God
this is Paul's teaching in Romans 1-3. Indeed all men, inclUding pagans,
have God's specific laws testifying in their hearts (Rom. 2:15) so that God
says they know His ordinance, for instance, against homosexuality, (Rom. 1:32)
Evidently all men know the entire law of God as it defines and punishes sin,
then, and not simply the ten commandments. Thus Sodom could be destroyed for
its homosexuality even before the special revelation ofGrod's law to Israel
on Mount Sinai, and the New Testament identifies the cause of Sodom's judgment as "lawless deeds" (2 Peter 2:6-8). So there can be no mistake: God's
law (even outside the strictly summary statement of the decalogue) is binding
- .on all mankind (eVen apart from redemptive, special revelation). God does
not have a double-standard of morality; what was sinful within the borders of
Israelwas not condoned juSt over the state line. Homosexuality is just as
forbidden. today in the United States as in ancient Israel (see my book, Homosexuality: A Biblical View, available from Baker 'nook House). Up until the
twentieth century, if you had asked,any,Reformed theologian, he would have.
told you as much, for God's law has international civic relevance. In the'
. giving of the law God made,clear that He had only one standard of ethics for
the native as well as thestranger in ISrael (Lev. 24:22; cf. Ecci. 12:13).
Accordingly God severely.punished the Canaanite tribes, in exactly the same
way that He would punish Israel, for their violatiOns of His law (Lev. 18:
In revealing His law God intended it to be a model for surrounding cultures to follow (Deut. 4:5-8). Consequently David would speak God's law
before kings (Ps. 119:46)!--obviously referring to other kings outside of
Likewise David would constrain surrounding nations to obey the law
of God (Ps. 18:43-50). The kings of the earth belong to God (Ps. 47:9);-.thus
righteousness and justice must characterize theirAhrones (Prov. 16:12; 29:4)
even as it characterizes God's throne (Ps. 97.:2).. It is axiomatic that those
who rule over men must do so righteously, in the fear of God (2 Sam. 23:3).
In the second Psalm David calls upon the kings and.judges of the earth to
serve the Lord withafear (Ps. 2:10-12), and he warns them of retribution from
God if they do not. There can be no doubt, therefore, that all nationseven in their social and political morality--are bound to the standards of
God's law. "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any
people" (Prov. 14:34). Accordingly it is an abomination for kings to commit
wickedness, for their thrones. are to be established on righteousness (Prov.
16:12). God's law was taken by the Old Testamentprophets as a light of
justice for all peoples (Isa. 51:4icfa Matf. 5:14), and for that reason the
prophets condemned pagan states' or their infractions'of God's holy law (e.g.
. Hab. 2:12, which is:precisely the indictment brought against Israel herself
in Micah 3:10). God's law was,rimvartially and universally binding on mankind
Hence Ezra praised the-Lord for.having a pagan emperor enforce God's'law
(even the penalsanctions) in all the area surrounding Israel (Ezra 7:11-28).
Consistent with this Old Testament perspective, Paul taught that civil magistrates in the era of the New Testament were to be ministers of GOd who
avenge His wrath against evildoers (Rom. 13:4)--which is to say, against
''violators of God's law (cf.: v. 10); to that end "they bear not the sword in
vain.".. When the magistrate.does not terms of God's law but replaces
it with his own law (Rev-. 13":167.1. 7:. cf. Deut. 6:8), hejs. then considered a
blasphemous "Beast" or "man oflawlessness" (cf. 2 Thes.:2:3,7). So it is
clear that al/kings owe allegiance to "the Kind of kings,"'and none are
immune from the stipulations of His holy and juSt law.:
In accordance with this the Westminster Confession and Catechisms taught
that magistrates, for the glory of God and:the public good, have the right to
punish evildoers (WCF XXIII.1); in this the law of God was to be their. guide
(LC 129-130, with Scripture citations, all of which pertain to civil rulers).
The Confession teaches, consequently, that those who Maintain. practices which
are contrary to the light of nature (God's Iaw revealed in .creation and con: science), the principles of Christianity, or. the power of godliness may be
lawfully puni.shed,.by the..civil, magistrate (WCF XX.4); the Scripture proofs
include God's law against seduction to idolatry And the command to have ,Bzra
enforce Lod's law, even, with its penal sanctions. The authors of the ,Confession cited Isaiah 49:2.3 (atXXIII.3) to show that magistrates were to be
nursing-fathers to:the church, seeing to it that God's ordinances are observed; biblical*.texts-werethus:add4Ced which instruct the magistrate to execute
blasphemers and idolators. 'Elsewhere the magiStrate is held accountable to
- 12
rule according to the wisdom of God found in His law, which if slackened leads
to unrighteous civil judgments (see LC 129...130, 145 with. Scripture texts). In
this light we can understand the assertion of and Gillespie, two prominent participants in the Westminster Assembly, when,-atthe appointment of
the Church .of Scotland--they subsequently wrote: "The orthodox churches believe, and do willingly acknowledge, that every lawful magistrate, (is) by God
Himself constituted the keeper and defender of both tables of the law" (Proposition 41).. So then, it is hard for me to comprehend why.the editor maintains--totally without supporting premises or evidence--that "there is a great
leap" from the outlook of the Westminster Standards to the view of Theonomy
that the entire Mosaic law is binding today, even on pagan states (9-13, p.
18b). There is no :gulf between the Westminster outlook and Theonomy which
needs to be "leaped". It is the modern, neutralist or secular outlook on the
state (which emancipates it from the specific directives of God's law in
Scripture) that is at odds with the Puritan approach to the state--as almost
anyone must acknowledge if he will but:recall that embarrassment he initially
felt when a modern instructor critically described the political ethic of his
CalVinist forefathers (e.g.,:Puritan New England). That political ethic is
no embarrassment to me any longer, having researched and carried out the biblical study that went into the writing of Theonomy in, Christian Ethics. I
fully endorse the Westminster Standards now. (The outlook of the Westminster
Assembly and that of Puritan New England is expounded in Appendices 2 and 3
of my book.)
The Whole Law
My obligation to observe the law. of God is evident from the fact that
Jesus is my Savior and my Lord. The law of the Lord is unchanging from Old
Testament to New, and it is binding in every department of life (including
society and politics) for all men (even unbelieving nations) because Christ
is Lord over all. What do these emphases, as rehearsed above, imply as to the
extent of the law's validity today? They imply that God directs political
morality today by His law as much as He directs my private morality by His law
every stroke of that law has relevance for my actions and thoUghts.. The details of the law cannot be expunged or ignored by the New Testament Christian
who desires to live under the pervasive Lordship of Jesus Christ. If I am to
sanctify and transform all areas of life to the glory of God, then it must be
according to the directions of His holy law and not my own wisdom and imagination. To that end I pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth even
as it is in heaven." In such a petition we all pray "that the kingdom of sin
and Satan may be destroyed..., that (Christ) would be pleased so to exercise
the kingdom of his power in all_the world..., that God would by his Spirit
take away from ourselves and others all blindness, weakness, indisposedness,
and perverseness of heart; and by his grace make us able and willing to know,
do, and submit to his will in all things" (LC 191-192). No area of life in
any area of the world is a safety zone from the Lord's direction, and thus we
- must pay attention to the of God as found in the inspired word of
the Lord. In this way we can obey the apostolic injunction to "abstain from
every form of evil" (I Thes. 5:22).
Ashbel Green wrote that "it is the deep sense which the believer has of
...his infinite obligation for redeeming mercy, which makes him earnestly
desirous to obey all God's commandments.... He loves the whole law of God,
and loves it because it is a perfect law. If he could have a mitigated law,
which some vainly talk of, it would only, on that very account, be the less
amiable to him" (Lectures on the:Shorter Catechism, pp. 10-11). That is, the
y defined'generality" that is
believer ought not to settle for. "a spirituall
- 13 indifferent to God's list of specific guidelines (as suggested by the editor,
9-20, p. 10c). Paul taught that "every scripture" of the Old Testament is
profitable for instruction in righteousness .:.iii. order athaththe man of God
may be perfectly furnished untb every good work" (
- 2 lim.a3:16-17). To ignore
some of those ,specific scriptures ;.is! to Live by an. incomplete and inadequate
ethic, for without them-one.cannotloe-thoroughly equipped for righteous living.
James taught that:if we stumble at even onepoinl in the law we are guilty of
violating the entire law:Pas. 2:10). The details are just as binding as the
whole, and they can beAaushad aside only at the expense of disobedience to the
Lord. So I cannot agree with the editor that after Christ some details of the
law "might never again matter at-all" (9-20, p. 11a). Every point of the law
as found in every Old Testament scripture is profitable for ethical living
today and is a measure. of our obedience to the Lord; such is the united testimony of Paul and James.; In this they were but echoingathe teaching of Jesus
Christ himself.
In Matthew 5:17 our Lord expressly taught that His coming did not abrogata
othe -Old Testament law. In vv. 18-19 following•He.said, ."For truly I say to
you, until heaven and earth-pass away not one iota or one stroke shall in any
wise pass away from the law, until all things take. place. Therefore whoever
shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so shall be
called least in the kingdom of heaven." Until the end of history not the
slightest detail of God's law will become. invalid,.and thus teachers are warnec'
by Christ himself from depreciating the details of the law. To say, as the
editor does, that Christ's fulfulling .of the law suggests nothing about a
check list of specifics- (9-20., p. .11a)• is to fly directly in the face of the
Lord's teaching, in Matthew 5:17=19a • That He "fulfills" the law implies-according to His own reasoning--that nobody.has the right to ignore the specifics of God's holy law.- In commenting upon Matthew 5:17-19, John Murray had
this to say: "Jesus refers:to 'the function of validating and confirming the
law and,the prophets..::, Jesus• i8, saying that he camenot to abrogate any part
of the'Mosaic
If there is-anything that is. distasteful to the modern
mind it is concern for detail, and:particularly is 'this the case in-the field
of ethics. By a lamentable confusion of thought concern for detailais identified with legalism.... 'One jot or one tittle.' It is a clear assertion that
the law in all its details must COMe to fulfillment and be accomplished....
'Out Lord recognized that the minutiae of the law had significance. If we do
not like minutiae or insistence upon them, then we are not at. hope with the
attitude of Jesus. We are-moving in an entirely different world of thought...
We are not to expect an undervaluation, far less disparagement,-of the details
of law; and we may as well expect from the outset that, if our perspective is
one that looks for the wood. but not the trees, then we shall, not be at home in
the teaching of Jesus.... Too often the person imbued with meticulous concern
for the ordinances of God and conscientious regard for the minutiae of God's
Commandments is judged as a legalist, while the person who, is not bothered by
details is judged to be the practical person who exemplifies the liberty of
the gospel. Here Jesus is reminding us:of the same great truth which he declares elsewhexe:a-lHe that is faithfuliin that which is. least is, faithful also
in'Mucha- and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in ranch' {Luke 16:
10). The,criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of, reward in the
age to comeis•nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of
God in'the- tinutial details of their prescription, and. the earnest inculcation
et, pp. 150,154)
of SUchObservance. on - thepart of others"(Eriacipls
That- is the perspective advanced by Theonomy,.-and 1.believe it to be in
harmony- '-with the entire word, of God, which consistently teaches that the whole
law is binding today in detail.- The specifics of that. law,contrary to the
- 14
editor (9-20, p.
applied wholesale to:Christ, who was tempted in all
points without sin (Heb. 4:15), who perfectly kept the Father's commandments
(Jn. 8:46; 15;10), and fulfilled all righteousness ('Matt.
3:15). In this He
is our example today, and We should heed His instruction that, in the midst of
keeping the weightier matters . 0fthe law, the minor specifics ought not to be
left undone (Lk. 11:42). EveryTjot and tittle is our standard of Christian
ethics. As-Bolton, the Westminster divine, said: "Since Christ, who is the
best expounder of the law, so largely strengthens and confirms the law (witnesF,
the Sermon on the Mount, and also Mark 10:19); since faith does not supplant,
but strengthens the law; since the apostle so often preSses and urgeS_th,duties commanded in the law; since Paul acknowledges that he served 'the law
of God in his mind, and that he was.under the law to ChiiSt (I Cor. 9:21);'I
may rightly conclude that the law, for the substance of it, still remains a
rule of life to the people of God.... If Christ and His apostles commanded the
same things which the law required, and forbade and .condemned the same things
which thelaw.forbade and condemned, then they did not abrogate it but strengtl
ened and confirmed it. And this is what they did: see aatt.:;5:19" (The True
Bounds of Christian Freedom, p. 62). The detailed specifies of'God's whole
law are binding on all men today.
For convenience the law of God may be considered in three Categories,
each of which serves a partiCular theological' or literary function, but all of
which are confirmed by Christ for today. In:the law God gives (1) general
precepts, (2) illustrations of how those precepts are applied in particular
cases, and (3) instructions pertaining to God's covenant mercy or the way of
restoration and redemption for ipfractions of laws in (1) and (2). The applicatory illustrations are in the same general category with the general precepts, being but an extension and explanation of them; thus (1) and (2) are
laws which define sin and the proper' judgments (temporal and eternal) on it,
thereby reflecting God's righteousness. The restorative laws, reflecting
God's mercy, typify the redemptive economy of Christ (i.e., point to the way
of salvation) and illustrate the perfection and holineSs required of the
redeemed community.
Some examples can help us to understand these three kinds of law and how
they apply to us in the New Testament age. In summary statement the law de- elated,' "Thou shalt not steal"; this general principle is permanently binding
(cf. Rom. 13:9). How does it apply however? God explained in His law that,
among other things, this law meant that it was wrong to defraud or oppress
employees (Deut. 24:14, cf. LXX) and that even an ox is not to be deprived of
its livelihood from the work it does (Deut. 25:4). Such were illustrations of
the general. precept; with changed circumstances (or a different culture) the
case-law illustrations or applications might be different, but the underlying
principle remains valid and binding. Thus Christ utilized the Old. Testament
case-law in telling the nigh young ruler that he ought not to -defraud (Mk-. 10:
19) and Paul spoke of the church's obligation to New TeStament ministers in
terms of the case of Old.Testament oxen, quoting "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox
as it treads" (I Tim. 5:18).. Likewise, as an application of the sixth command.
meat, "Thou shalt not kill," the law of God required Israelites to place a
fencing around the rooves of their houses. The underlying principle of this
law still applies to us today, even though we may not apply'it to entertaining
on flat rooves since this is not part of our cultural experience; instead we
might apply it today by placing a fence around our backyard swimming pools-again, in order to protect human life and thuS obey the genetal precept of
God's law. Without these case-law illUstrations or explanations of the summary ethic in the decalogue the ten commandments would certainly be twisted
and applied to man's own sinful desires. For instance, reading "Thou shalt
- 15
not commit adultery." men could prefer an extremely narrow interpretation of
sexual purity and exonerate their premarital, incestuous, or homosexual affairs
However the case-law specifications of the law prohibit such activities, and
1.Cor. 5:1-5; I Tim
the New Testament reiterates these prohibitions (Heb.
It should be clear,, then,. that the ten commandments or general precepts
cannot be read and understood apart from the explanatory contest of all of
God's revealed law. .Bavinck has noted that "the law of the ten commandments
does not stand loosely and independently by itself;- it finds itself, rather,
in the middle of a rich environment.... In Israel that law...was taken up in
a body of rights and ordinances which had to aovern the whole life of the
people. Besides, this law was explained, developed,. and applied throughout
the history of Israel by the psalmists, proverb writers, and prophets.... The
law of the ten commandments may not be separated from this rich context of
affairs. Indeed, the decalogue must be viewed and explained in the light of
the whole revelation of God in nature and in ScriptUre Understood in this
way, the Ten Commandments are a brief summary of the Christian ethic and an
unsurpassed rule for rour life. There are also many other laws to which we are
bound" (Our Reasonable Faith, pp. 488, 489). I put it this way in Theonomy:
"The case law illustrates the application or qualifiCation of the principle
laid down in the general commandment" (p. 313). Or to use the words of Patrick
Fairbairn, "A considerable portion of the statutes and judgments are... a
simple application of,the great principles of the Decalogue to particular case
intended at once to explain and confirm them.... It thus appears that the class
of enctments referred-to have an abiding value, as they serve materially to
throw light on the import and bearing of the Decalogue, confirming the views
already given of its spiritual and comprehensive character" (The Revelation of
Law in Scripture, pp. 97, 99). The case laws outside of the Decalogue (also
cal:Ied:"judicial laws" in Reformed. literature) are thus moral in character.
.Because their details are often communicated in terms of ancient Israel's
culture these laws are not binding as. such onus in today's culture; rather,
we are now required to keep the underlying principle.(or "general equity") of
these laws.
Such was the teaching of the Westminster Assembly as well'. The language
of this body can be readily understood in terms of the context of its day.
Heinrich Bullinger, the primary author of the Second Helvetic Confession, had
written that "the substance of God's judicial laws is not taken away or abolished." The English Puritan and presbyterian, Thomas Cartwright, said a generation before the Assembly that since some of the judicial laws were "made
in regard of the region where they were given, and of the people to whom they
were given," those who keep "the substance and equity of them (es it were the
marrow), may change the circumstance of them, as the times and places and
manners of the people shall require." Likewise William Perkins spoke of "the
law of Moses, the equity whereof is perpetual." Another English Puritan,
Philip Stubbs, said that the "law judicial standeth in force to the world's
end." So also, George Gillespie, an important writer of the Westminster
Standards, maintained in separate works that the judicial laW of, Moses ShOuld
be the rule for the civil,of a, commonwealth--an opinion put into practice
by John Cotton in New England during the same decade as the Westminster
Assembly. From these brief examples we can understand the Puritan view of
God's law: the particular cultural expression of:the judicial'or case laws of
Hoses was not binding, but rather the underlying principle,substanee, marrow,
or general equity was perpetually to be. observed by all. This is what we
read im.the Westminster Confession of Faith: in addition to ne summary code
of the ten commandments, God "gave sundry,judicial laws....not obliging any
- 16 other now, further than the general equity thereof may require" (XIX.4).- In
support of that assertion the Confession cites biblical passageS which have
also been used above to explain.the interpretation offered in Theonomy.. The
"equity of a statute," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "according to its reason and spirit so as to make it apply to cases for which it does
not expressly provide." The Confession teaches that this equity of the case
laws (e.g., Ex. 21-22) is required as the extent of our present obligation to
God's commandments. All sins and duties of the same kind are forbidden and
enjoined under the one sin or duty mentioned in the decalogue (LC 99); the
decalogue is but a summary of the moral law (LC 98). rhus the liberty of
Christians under the New Testament is further enlarged, says the Confession,
but not by our being freed from the judicial laWs of Moses (WCF XX.1). Instead, the Westminster divines appealed to God's commandments outside of the
decalogue as elaborating and explaining the application of the ten Commandments-as the proof-texting of the Larger CatechiSm at the ten' commandments
evidences (LC 103-148). If someone does not believe that these case-laws are
currently binding, contrary to the Confession, then the theonOmist could, for
example, challenge him toexplain why we should distinguish between manslaughter and first-degree murder today, prohibit homosexuality and incest, and
punish kidnappers who do no harm to their victims--none of which is clear
from the decalogue alone.
The final category of God's law which was mentioned above was the restor•
ative law (traditionally called the "ceremonial law") which functioned to
typify the way of redemption in Christ and to illustrate the holiness (or
"separation") of the redeemed community. For instance, Lev. 17:11 taught the
necessity of blood atonement if sins were to be forgiven; for this reason the
New Testament says that "it,was necessary" that Christ sacrificially die and
shed His blood for our salvation (Heb. 9:22-24). The law was but a shadow of
things to come (Heb. 10:1), for the shed blood of animals was never in itself
sufficient to atone for sins 1Heb. 10:4). ThOSe who were redeemed by blood
atonement were to celebrate the passover in the Old Testament, just as believers saved by Christ's blood are to celebrate the Lord's Supper today
(I Cor. 5:7). Because the redeemed community had been separated out of the
nations by God, it was to remind itself of its holiness by drawing a distinction between clean and unclean meats (Lev. 20:22-26)., by refusing to mingle
different kinds of seed and clothing, and by not plowing with' unequal animals
(Lev. 19:1-2, 19i Deut. 22:9-,11). These laws are not observed in this same
outward manner:today because the Savior has fulfilledthe foreshadows of the
Old Testament and established His holy , international, covenant community in
the church; every jot and tittle of God's word, when consulted, teaches us
today that the system of commandments contained in such ordinances as created
a wall of separation between Gentile and Jew have been' abolished in Christ's
flesh as He reconciles the two into one body through the cross (Eph., 2:14-19)
Consequently the laws typifying the separation or holiness of Israel are no
longer observed in the manner of the Old Testament today (e.g., laws pertaining to unclean meats, Acts 10).. Nevertheless these laws are still binding
upon the New Testament church insofar as they teach the necessity of separation from the world and/cleanliness before God--that is, the holiness of the
redeemed community. Hence the New Testament requires that believers not be
unequally yoked" with unbelievers, that they be separate and "touch no
unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:14.-17). Likewise they are to purge out the old
leaven of sin (I Cor. 5:7; cf. Deut. 16:4) and hate even the garment spotted
by the flesh (Jude 23; cf. Lev. 13:47-52). All such exhortations are pattern
ed after the restorative law of the Old Testament; -the manner of observance
is altered today after Christ, but the point Of the- Commandments is the same.
The Confession thus teaches that to Israel, as a church under,age, God gave
- 17 ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship,
prefiguring Christ, His gaceS, aCtions i sUfferings, and benefits, and partly,
holding forth divers instructions of moral duties" (WCF XIX.3; note the scriptural passages cited); under the New Testament Christians are freed from the
yoke of the ceremonial laW to:Which the Jewish Church was subjected (XX.1).
Yet Christ confirms eveh'thesehlawsh beiAg "the permanent and final embodiment
of all the truth portrayed in the Levitical ordinances(Murray, Principles
of Conduct, p. 151).
Therefore, in submission to the unifOrm teaching of God's word as reflected in the Westminster Standards, we SchibuId conclude that, because Jesus
is Savior and Lord, the law of God is binding today as a moral standard. The
law of the Lord is unchanged from Old to NeW:TestaMents and because Christ
is Lord over all, that law must be obeyed by all menhin all areas of life.
Accordingly the Bible teaches us that the whole law..of God is valid today,
without subtraction of one jot or tittle. Theonomic ethics does not add
these jots andtittles to the 'moral law" (in thelikstminster sense of that .
term) but argues that they categorically are part Of.the moral law of.1G7cadh
The ten commandments cover the entire field--and in that. sense are always
"enough" to show us our duty.-but in a summary fashion .-=,and thus are in need
of the explanatory application of the details of the Whole law.
The Critique of Theonomy
In the context of the-abOve discussion we can evaluate the editor's remarks about and against the them-16mile position in Christian ethics. .Misrepresentations of that position 'haVe been nbted already in the preceding discussion; a much better summary :(andhevaluation)skfhthebook can be found in
the bookreview by the ethicS instructor at Westminster Seminary, published
in the Journal on August 31, 1977. In fact; the "Sunday School Lesson" written by Dr. Scott for the same issue in Whith the editor comments on Theonomy
goes a great distance in expressing my commitments in Christian ethics (9-13,
pp. 14-15). Many of the editor'S remark, heWever„will tend to give an
inaccurate conception of the theonomic Viewpoint, and at many points he is
simply attacking a "straw man" position that I myself would criticize.
We have also observed above that the theonomic position is not a recent
novelty, as portrayed by the editor. The reader can go back and note how
thoroughly the Westminster Standards and classic Reformed theologians support
the premises, and in many cases the conclusions, of the theonomic viewpoint.
Where the premises are held by theologians who refrain from the conclusions,
I believe we must recognize an inconsistency that does not characterize the
biblical writers or the Puritans whocomposed the Westminster Confession and
Catechisms. But the relevant point is that the position of theonomic ethics
has healthy historical roots. It is not "the latest approach to the law,"
but has strong precedents in classic Reformed theology. Theonomic ethics
does not ask that something more or new be added to the best tradition of
Reformed ethics in its understanding of the way in which the precepts of God's
law are now binding. Lest we tend toward a pharisaical or Romanist commitment to tradition, however, I must affirm as a theologian that our. only
standard and obligation is faithfulness to the inspired scriptures. "The
supreme judge by which all...doctrines of- men...are to be examined,and in
whose sentence we are tiOrest, can be no'Other but the Holy Spirit spehhe4ng
in the Scripture" (WCF I.10). 1 am glad' that T:ericrmed traion stands
behind the theonomic position, but it istheolhh - eally irrelevant.
The editor, as seen previously, has also maintained that in an age of
. . details of the law of God are not of central importance; the Christ-
- 18 tian, he says, does not live by a written code of specifics--which, if true,
would tend to dismiss the theonomic outlook. However sufficient reason has
been given from God's word to disagree with the editor's remarks here. The
entire preceding discussion 'undermines the sufficiency of mere generalities
in Christian ethics as taught in Scripture. God loves us so thoroughly that
He has given us detailed guidance for all areas of our: lives; in love for Him
we must pay attention to His entire word and counsel.
The editor's criticism that Theonomy has a "host of 'missing links' over
which the argument leaps with no apparent warrant" (9-13, p. 18b) would be, if
supported, an important observation and area for further discussion. However
the editor has not given any indication of what steps in the argument were
omitted by the book at all. The example he offers is that of moving from
Christ's endorsement of the law for the rich young ruler to the validity of
the Mosaic penal code today. The problem though is that such an argument is
nowhere utilized or even suggested by Theonomyl Thus the editor is far from
proving his point. At this time I believe that adequate and complete steps
or links in the theonomic argument are expounded in my book.
In reviewing
the book Professor Frame said that it "presents solid arguments which must be
soberly discussed.... For those who disagree with Bahnsen's position--well,
the ball is in their court; they must cote up with an answer" (8-31-77,p.18c).
A particularly disappointing aspect of the editor's own evaluation of
theonomic ethics is precisely its lack of counter-argumentation, biblical
exegesis, and serious analysis of the issues' involved in the Christian approach to God's law in ethics today. The editor does not rebut the positive
arguments offered by Theonomy, he does not specify errors, and he presents no
interpretation of his OWn for the basic scriptural texts which are enlisted in
support of the book's theSis. 'Consequently the reader has no responsible way
Of telling whether theonomic ethics carries Reformed principles too far
(stretching the classic view to the point of absurdity) as. the editor says
(9-13, p. 19a), or whether it simply and consistently applies those principles
throughout the range of ethiCal issues. A careful understanding of the
theonomic viewpoint has not been presented, and no reasoned argumentation
against it (biblical or otherwise) is set forth. Thus the discussion of the
book serves little constructive prupose in helping Christians think through
theit ethical position in a way pleasing to the Lord; at worst, some readers
will have been misled as to the relevant questions involved and the viable
answers available
Therefore, although I appreciate the editor opening the door to discussion of Theonomy, in an overall and introductory sense his approach could be
strengthened in 'a number of places. His remarks misrepresent the book at
important points, overlook its'Reformed and Confessional roots, mistakenly
suppress details in favor of ethical generality for New Testament ethics, give
no evidence of gaps in the reasoning set forth in TheonemY, and offer no
counter-argumentation or biblical interpretation of his own. Thus in that
light I would initially respond that the editor's critique is somewhat crippled in attaining its proper goals. .
Beyond this preliminary reply to the editor, however, we should consider
his primary way of evaluating and criticizing theonomic ethics. When all is
said and done, the editor directs his appraisal of Theonomy at what he takes
to be its application and consequences. Being dissatisfied with those alleged
implications, the editor casts a negative shadow over the theonomic position
itself. The editor says that "to evaluate Theonomy.' would be necessary
to test'it against a 'jot' or ttittle" because the book argue's for the validity of every jot and tittle of the Old Testament law today (9-13, p. 18c).
19 -
In the opinion of the editor theonomic ethics must be tested by the details of
God's law as revealedo in the. Old Testament. Accordingly he Proposes nine or
t-en'examples of what he thinks would be applications of those details to life
today, telling his readers that such :are "not facetious examples" (9-13, p.
19a). Because these alleged applications of the theonomic thesis are disturbing to the editor, he promptly dismisses the position as extreme. But in this
he moves too hastily. If his examples are not facetious by intention, they
are nevertheless false in most every case. Readers have thus been seriously
misled andprejudiced against considering the biblical warrant for theonomic
Before elaborating on the erroneous applications which the editor attempt
to affiliate with Theonomy, however, a few prefatory comments would be impor,.
tint to make. First, this "test by details" is a methodology open to serious
question. The issue is not whether every detailof the law can be readily
understood and applied to our modern culture, in a way which is congenial to
our feelings or mindset in the twentieth century; our obligation to keep the
whole law of God cannot be judged on the-basis of whether its specifics strike
us as reasonable and fit into our present way of thinking or behaVing. The
issue is rather what God's word itself says about the law of God; Scripture
must interpret itself regarding the validity of God's whole law today. We may
draw an instructive parallel here to the question of biblical inerrancy. The
Bible makes a large set of indicative claims; among them one will find certain
statements which refer to the Scripture as,a whole. Does one decide on the
inerrancy of Scripture by examining alTof the individual assertions one by
one and verifying their truth _(pvenin-the case of the "problem passages"),
or does one heed the special self-referential statements of Scripture about
itself and let Scripture's evaluation control his handling of all the rest of
its claims? The biblical and Reformed answer is the second alternative. The
entire truthfulness of Scripture iso ncrt a matter of my solving all biblical
problems and making all of its claiMsappear true in light of modern thinking;
it is a matter of what Scripture says about itself. Likewise, the Bible makes
many ethical claims upon its readefl'S attitudes and behavior; in'addition to
such commandments the Bible contains certain statements about God's law itself
It expresses laws, and it comments on the laws. The issue of our obligation
to keep the whole law of God today cannot be settled by seeing whether all of
the law's details can be made to appear agreeable to modern thinking; the
issue rests on what Scripture itself says about its own law. Therefore, the
editor's "test by details" is inherently a theologically impossible way to
det'Ormine the acceptability of theonomic ethics:—
Secondly, we must. ask by what standard one would carry out such a "test
by details" regarding the law of sod. When someone- finds a particular Old
Testament law and discerns its proper application to life today, by what stanC
and does he decide on the acceptability of that law? If the standard is
Scripture itself, then one is reaffirming the theonomic approach to ethics;
every jot and tittle of God's word (including OT as interpreted by NT) determines our ethical obligations today. Nothing is abrogated or subtracted from
the OT law except at the word of the lawgiver HiMself. So. then, by what
extrascriptural standard does the editor propose to "test the details" of
God's law as applied today ,(and thereby evaluate the theonomit thesis)? The
uniqueness of biblical ethics and the unchallengable authority of the biblical
God make it difficult to see that there could be an extrascriptural standard
by which His law could be appraiSed. As Murray said: "The Christian faith
is distinctive and the Christian ethic is correspondingly distinctive....
There is a new pattern, a new kind of conformity, eloquently expressed by way
of antithesis when Paul says: 'Be not conformed to this World (be not fashioned to this age) but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom. 12:
- 20 2).... In view of the radical distinction (between likeness to God in the
sense of divine creation and recreation, and in the-sense of the Satanic temptation), revelation specifying the respects in which likeness to. God constitutes the pattern of human behavior is indispensable. Otherwise confusion
would be unavoidable.... The law of God guards the distinction so germane to
the basic obligation, namely, likeness to God. For the law of God is the will
of God for us.... When the sanctity of God's law is maintained and we reverence him in the prerogative that is his as the one lawgiver, then the likeness
to God demanded by our creation in his image and by the new creation in. Christ
is realized" (I, pp. 174-176).
So then, the standard by which we would judge the acceptability of God's
laws in our present Culture cannot be the ways of this world (Rom. 12:1-2).
Nor. can it be the standard of revered tradition (Matt. 15:6), majority opinion
(Rom. 3:4), the lifestyle of unbelievers (Eph. 4:17), the desires of sinful
men (I Peter 4:1-5), other high-sounding ethical standards (Col. 2:16-23),
the view of religious. teachers (I Jn. 4:1),human wisdom (I Core 1:17-31),
worldly philosophy (Col. 2:8), human laws (Acts 5:29), governmental decrees
(Rev. 13:8, 16-17; 14:1,12), public' approval (2 Tim. 3:3,12), personal convenience (Matt. 5:10), financial cost (Matt: 6:24), adVancement in the world
(Matt. 49:17,29), protection of special favors (Heb. 11:25.26), ease of
application in the face of the status quo (Acts 17:6), or.simplicity of understanding and applying those laws (Heb. 5:11-14). If the editor wishes to
judge Theonomy by a "test of details," what standard does he propose for us
to use in such an evaluation? The fact is that there is no acceptable standard of evaluation except the word of God itself--u.which is to say that our
obligation to the whole law of God can be determined only by interpreting
what the Bible itself says about such an obligation, and not by asking how
acceptable the details appear to us right now. I trust that-nobody will
think that sola Scriptura is taking Reformed principles too far. Rather than
allowing our present opinions and attitudes to be the standard by which we
evaluate'God's law, we ought to take God's law as the standard by: which we
evaluate our present opinions and attitudes.
As a third prefatory remark let me express my uneasiness with the manner
in which the editor treats the details of God's law that he chooses - to mention
TheSe specifics from the law are set forth as though any reasonable person;
would see how ridiculous they are; they are presented as apparent-embarrasS.ments to a modern theologian or believer--almost in .a belittling light, How
else can we account for the fact that the editor merely alludes to them-without argument or commentary--and expects'the mere allusion to dissuade
readers from believing that "every jot and tittle" of God's law is valid toda3.
He seems to think that it will be Self-evident to everybody that these strange
extreme, or horrible laWs cannot be accepted by us in the twentieth century
church. This approach to GOd's holy law is unworthy of us. as believers in the
inspired and infallible word of God; it is unbecoming.of us who have renounced
personal self-sufficiency and trusted in Christ, who Himself delighted in
every detail of God's laW. Every specific Old Testament law came directly
from God, and as such every detail calls for our respect and honor--even if
we believe that God has pat certain details out of gear for the present age.
Since these laws were to be taken by God's people as good and proper in the
Old Testament, it caanot be simply obvious that they are not good and proper
for God's people today. What was the delight of the Psalmist is not an
obVious absurdity to us. Such laws cannot be repudiated by, modern believers
without a sufficients biblical agrument to that effect. Current application
of God's law cannot be ruled out simply by inspection of the content of the
law itself, for in i'Lself that law` is the transcript of God's holiness. To
21 deprecate those laws for what they say in themselves is to disrespect the holy
character of their Author. We simply must not begin with the assumption that
The law of God was never
Old Testament laws are sOMehow funny or too strict.
too strict; had it been se, it would have been unjust, and unworthy of its
Author. It was always perfectly holy, just, and good;' and of course any
mitigation, or change, would abate-Its e,cellence, and make it less worthy of
the love and estimation of every holy soul.... We never render any acceptable
obedience to God, till we conform to his laws from a regard to his authority,
as the very ground and reason of our obedience" (Ashbel Green, Lectures on
Shorter Catechism, Vol 2, p.
Finally, before looking at the details chosen by the editor, it should be
observed that he has apparently mistaken what the theonomic perspective is
when it comes to interpreting God's word-or law. According to the editor I
attack the spiritualizing and allegorizing of the law--unlike classic Reformed
scholars who sought-to "get around" the details of the Mosaic law by spiritualizing and allegorizing them; thus on the basis of theonomic ethics the
details of that law must be taken "straight" (9-13, p. 19a). This remark is
highly misleading,-all'the more because it is entirely unclear how the editor
is using his words. We can begin, however, by observing that classic Reformed
thought does not attempt- to get around the details of God's law (as we have
seen above), nor does it advocate an.allegorical or spiritualizing approach
to Bible interpretation,' God's word. is.its own best interpreter, and it must
be understood contextually;, -according to the genre of the passage, and in a
historico-grammatical fashion. When meant to-be taken figuratively, it should
be read figuratively; when meant to be taken literally, it should be read
literally. Context and the "analogy of faith" are determinative. This classi
Reformed approach to hermeneutics is preCisoly the-approach advocated by
Theonomy. The Scriptures are neither completely figurative nor completely
literal. Therefore, contrary to the editor's comment, there is no place in
Theonomy where literalistic interpretation of God's law is insisted upon at
every point. Ix facts at:.appropriateRgints_the.... book argues for a nonliteralistid:understanding of God's command (e.g., recognizing the literary
device of hyperbole: pp. 91-92-,.97), or endorses a typological,interpretation
of some commands (chapter 9). Theonomy does not, moreover,' teach that even
the literally interpreted Old Testament laws are to be- applied literally in
the same way today.- In a culture where entertaining is not done on the roof
of the house (since it is sloped, unlike the flat rooves in ancient Israel)
Theonomy does not argue that a railing must nevertheless be placed around the
roof (pp. 540-541); it is-the underlying principle of appropriate safely precautions that is binding today (for instance, a fence around your swimming
pool)-. We see, then, that theonomic ethics is sensative to changes in application of the Old'Testament law to a newaga. and culture. Nowhere does the
book argue that everything in the Old Testament law is literally binding
today, for that would (I) assume a literalistic hermeneutic in general, (2)
ignore the typulogical element of the sacrificial system, etc., and (3) overlook the illustrative 1-1 -ture of certain laws which must be applied to different "cases" today. The editor has oversimplified the theonomic interpretation
of God's law and thereby: severely misrepresented-it. His-readers will have
been drastically misled. in their understanding of what Theonomy teachps, . Of
course, criticisms which rest on such a mistaken conception of the position
are invalid from the outset.
With these introductory remarks we can now get around to replying to the
editor's alleged applications of the theonomic position. He recognizes that
the book Theonomy in Christian Ethics sets forth a theological argument for
the general premise that God's law is fully valid today; for the most part it
••• 22
does not address partiCular laws (9-13, p. 9a)-, Indeed the Preface to the book
clearly states: "I have not attempted-to offer a commentary on the particulars
of God's law as found inthe Bible'. While such a discussion of the specific
commandments of God would follow naturally upon the conclusidnof this study,
it is not the primary purpose ofthe study itself. Instead I aim to demonstrate from Scripture that we have an ethical obligation to keep all of God's
law. It is this formal requirement, rather than the details of the law or even
the procedure Rix. activating Societyand its rulers to observe that law, that
I have taken as the subject mattek .fOr''analysis" (p. xiii). The editor has not
done anything to address the central thesis of the book at all; he.has offered
no counter argument to it. He has not shown or even suggested that Theonomy
fails to prove its particUlar point. The editor's questions about the details
of the law,'therefore, are entirely beside the'pOint. As long as he has not
undermined the general thesis demonstrated in the book, the editor's questions
about the details are without force; if the-word of God teaches:their validity
--as I believe it does--then no human objection to them can stand up, even if
they appeat odd or harsh to a twentieth-century mentality.
Having admitted that Theonomy deals with the general question of the law's
validity and not the detailed content of the law, the editor nevertheless goes
on to address the content of thelaw. He seems to realize that he is not
touching the central issue of the book at all. BUt more importantly, we must
observe that what he alleges to be the application of. God's law today does not,
with rare exception, follow at all from the teaching in Theonomy. That is, not
only is the content Of the law not the main issue here, but the editor has
mistakenly represented what the law's content' require's today.: Consequently
his critique is doubly weakened in its effect.
For instance, the editor has misrepresented what the law of God originally
required, saying that the lex talionis ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth,..")
calls for literal application: "the appropriate punishment for the man who
paralyzed George Wallace would be something done to paralyze him-in the same
way" (971,3,,p. 19a). But this is a terrible misunderstanding of the law
(found in EX. 21:23-25, and expressed again in Lev. 24119•20);'whether one believes is binding today or hbt..±As Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of
Biblical Literature says, the lex talionis "was adopted'by Moses as the principle, but not the mode of punishment" (p. 688b). Leon Morris writes that the
lex talionis "assures an even justice,..and a penalty proportidnate to the
crime" (Baker's Dictionary of:Theology, O. 430a). "The principle is not intended to be vindictive or' a basis for cruel or unusual punishment" (H.P. Hook,
in Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics, p. 556b). Patrick Fairbairn clearl;
shows that this principle was never intended for literal application, but simp
ly required appropriate compensation that was neither too lenient nor too
harsh (The Revelation of Law in Scripture; pp. 102-105); he also remarks that
'the civil legislation of all Christian countries depends on this principle of
God's law. Therefore, George Wallace deserves adequate compensation for the
injury done to:him but the-punishment is not the literal maiming of his assail
ant. I believe that it is not untoward to say that the editor ought to know
as much. Theonomy does not require us to distort the natural understanding of
God's revealed law..
Likewise, when the editor alleges that a theonomist must hold' that an
offending hand ought to beliterally cut off (Matt. 5:30), he attributes an
interpretation of Christ's command to the thecinomiSt which no evangelical
expositor finds in the passage to begin With. "These verses (Matt. 5:29,30)
are highly figurative, and we must once more be cautious about drawing inferences froli metaphors" (Plummer, Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According
- 23
to St. Matthew, p. 81). "This command ,mustnot be taken literally.... The eye
and the hand that lead a person into sin symbolize and represent 'occasions
of stumbling,' or if one prefers, enticements to do wrong, beguiling allurements" (Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel Accordi.haethew, p. 303).
In these two examples, then, the editor has distorted the Bible's original
teaching and unfairly prejudiced his hearers against theonomic ethics by
falsely suggesting that it misreads the Bible in theo same way. God's law does
not require maiming by the lex talionis nor. by Christ's injunction for personal sanctification.. The editor's misrepresentations of the application of
theonomic ethics here-are particularly distressing since the book Theonomy in
Christian Ethics happens to deal explicitly with the proper understanding of
these two details from God's law (pp. 97, 438). It seems, then, that the
editor ought to know better than to attribute this literalistic understanding
of the two commands to a theonomist. The ediA ox's criticism is actuelly
directed against a straw man.
The same must be; said with respect to the editor's allegation that theonomic ethics would require that we refrain from mixing types of cloth (9-13,
p. 19a). Theonomy does not teach that we must follow the ceremonial shadows
of the Old Testament7today, and as explained above the laws which taught and
enforced Israel's separation from the Gentiles (e.g., the law prohibiting
mixed cloth) are part of these shadows which are kept in a different manner
today after the saving work of Christ. Consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith XIX.3, Theonomy recognizes a "ceremonial" category of laws in
the Old Testament which prefigure Christ and direct the redeemed community;
these are restorative laws, and they are discussed as such in chapter 9 of my
book as well as in a previous section of this essay. Once again, the editor
has simply misrepresented the theonomic position, even when there is adequate
material in,mye book to correct his portrayal of its alleged implications. We
have seen, then, that the editor's examples of what-theonomic ethics requires
incorrectly interpret the- word of God and misrepresent the plain teaching of
Theoaomy. These two kinds of,mistake are combined. when the editor asserts
that theopopic ethics would require us to bar from the. Christian church those
who have tqSit icles crushed in an accident and those who have grandparents who
were born,as ,illegitimate children (the reference is to Deut. 23:1,2). But
in the first place the editor has misconstrued the original teaching of God's
word, as consulting the commentaries of Old Testament experts will indicate
(e.g., Keil. and Delitzsch, Driver, Kline). The law here dealt with selfimposed mutilation or castration (that is, eunuchs) and with children born of
an incestuous union--not with those injured in an accident or those simply
born out of wedlock, as the,editar suggests (9-13, p. 18c). Such laws as thes(
point to-the perfection required of God's people; they were not o be sexually
blemished, for that was contrary to the nature in which God created man. Accordingly no man could be a priest who had crushed testicles (Lev. 21:20);
such a blemish would profane the alter and sanctuary. No animal with crushed
testicles could be sacrificed unto the Lord (Lev.. 22:24), for the sacrifices
were to be perfect and without blemish. These laws are ,part of a ceremonial
system. Which typified the unblemishecLperfectioneof the,Savior, and only
through the salvation He secured can anyone become part of the redeemed community today. .As ceremonial or restorative laws, these Old Testament shadows
would not be literally binding today according to the teaching of Theonomy.
Already the Old Testament indicated that the day was coming when those who had
been formerly excluded from the congregation because of sexual blemishes (e.g.
,eunuchs)haould be gladly received in God's house (Isa. 56:3-5);. the New Testament inaugerated this joyous day (Acts 8:27-28) and no longer requires external, visible exclusion of the sexually blemished. To allege that Theonomy
calls for such exclusion is a serious errpx, one which unfairly maligns its
- 24
character and its ensativity to progressive biblical revelation.
One can now readily understand why I said earlier that the editor's purported examples of theonotic ethics in praciite are so mistaken. The original
requirement of GOd's law has been misrepresented at points, the position of
theonomic ethics has been misconstrued in crucial ways, and occasionally these
two basic errors have been combined. As a result the reader is left with no' thing remotely resembling the genuine application, of theonomic ethics today.
We must preclude any criticism of theonomic ethics which depends on the
editor's erroneous portrayal of that position, for such criticism is merely
jousting against a straw-tan. However, I have even further problems in trying
to respond to some of the editor's alleged illustrations of theonomic ethics.
His quick and easy manner of dealing with a serious and extensively reasoned
position in theological ethics--with the editor's avoidance of a detailed,
qualified, and indepth discussion or criticism--leaves me often confused as to
what he is attempting to say. For instance, at one point he claims that in
God's law those wives who were "family" before marriage had more secure rights
than wives who were "strangers" (9-13, p. - 19a). The difficulty here is that
he gives no biblical citation for this claim, and I do: not know or recognize
what the scriptural 'referentfor such an assertion would be. I am not even
sure of what the editor's assertion maintains: Thus no response is possible
(or pethapS necessary). To take another example,.at one point the editor
suggests that a probing question that could b2 nut to theonomic ethics is
whether the law's prohibition of charging interest to a brother fits the law's
function as a schoolmaster bringing us. to Christ (9-13, p.18c). The :UMculty here is that I just cannot discern what the critical thrust of such a
question would be; that is, the answer is so patent that I cannot help feeling
that the editor has not clearly communicated what he thinks is troublesome in
this illustration for an advocate of theonomic ethics. My inability to keep
this stipulation of, God's law shows me my need for Christ as Savior; when I
profit from a brother's financial distress by loaning to him on interest, the
avarice of my heart and my laCk of loVe is exposed, and I am driven to Christ
for cleansing and forgiveness. My examples here are meant to demonstrate the
dangers inherent in the hasty and undetailed manner of discussing a theoloqi.•
cal viewpoint found in the editor's treatment of theonomic ethics. At best
the analysis will be shallow, and at worst it will be confused or misleading.
We move into a different orbit of potential problems when the editor
quickly mentions. two aspectS of God's law as it touches on the institution of
slavery. Given the social history Of our nation, along with the emotional
representation of it in contemporary literature and drama, the very mention of
slavery today will usually carry negative connatations for a hearer or reader.
Too often we hastily identify the practice ofiavery in this nation's past
(focusing on its cruel features) with the institution laid out in God's law
for the Israelites. Apart from punitive slavery, the biblical notion of
slavery is closer to the practice of indentured servitude than,. it is to our
general, cultural image. The biblical concept was a most blessed one and
certainly an "ancient improvement" on the modern practice of social welfare!
Ordinarily a man would become another man's servant due to poverty (Lev. 25:
39-40). If the servant was of the same faith as the master, the master was to
be especially cautious not to rule with rigor over him (Lev. 25:43,46). The
insolvent debtor who became a servant only needed to serve a six year term
(Ex. 21:2), and upon becoming a freeman in society again he was financi411Y
well off because he was given lavish provisions by his former master (Deut.
15:12-14). If the servant was ever mistreated, he went free' (Ex. 21:26.27);
if he had to run away from his master, he was not to be forcibly returned by
those who found him (Deut. 23:15-16). I really cannot see any reason why we
should be emotionally prejudices against this biblical practice as regulated
by God's law. As John Murray wisely points out, we must take care to distinguish between the institution of slavery as presented in God's word (basically,
the convention Of having property in another persOnYS'labor) and the buses to
which thiS'institution has frequently been subjected (Princibles'of Conduct,
pp. 9598)-;-abuSes whiCh-i we must note,'viblate God's• law on slavery.
In dealing - with -the editor's examples pertaining to slavery in God's law
we should alSo Makenote of the obvious'need of 'discerning transitions from
the society and culture of'ancient Israel (in terms Of which the language of
God's law is couched) to the situation in modern America. That is, to put it
simply, the case-law literary character-of Many-bid Thstament laws must be
taken into account in applying the cOMinandMents'Aecthe contemporary world... Nobody is arguing that the.ancient- Culture of Israel . mehtioned illustratively in
the case-laws (e.g.,"fented rooves, flying axheads, goring- oxen) must be reenacted today. Our moral duty is to discern prOperlY the underlying principle
illustrateerin the CaSelaws (even'about slaVery), understand the . factsof our
own cultural situation, and apply God'S word with acturacy.- ; The transition
from Israel's culture to modern Atheii&i is'sobetimes not too easy, especially
for those of us - whohave little practice ih using''God''s word to this end. .
Those who are without experienee In the Word of righteousness, thosa—who do
not by reason of use have their Senses'eXercisedto discern good and evil, IA::
be immature in putting God's wor&to ethical use'(Heb.. 5:11-14). Yet the job
must be done--even withrespecttO'slav'ery'lawS-if we are to live by every
word that proceeds frot the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4,'Where Jesus illustrates
this very principle by quoting- the Old Testarlient'word:. at Deut. 8:3 with moral
authority). Of- course, if not all of Gcd's'law 1:4 binding today (which the
editor's discussion suggests), then we haveveryllttle incentiVeta gain competence in using Ged'S entire word in thisway. MUch of it, at least ili.etho.
ics, can be casually ignored (which,I believe, is quite contrary to Paul's
point in 2- Tim— 3:16-17). '
ReMeMbering the need . to distinguish biblical slavery from historical
abuses, and reneribering the need to make appropriate transitions from ancient
Israel's'culture'to the Modern world; we can now turn quickly to the editor's
alleged illuStrations of how strange : Or'unracceptable God's laW would be today
as it touches on Matteis of slaVerY. When all is said and done, I find very
little in it by which t,dbe,embarrass'ed dr feel awkward; the editorLhasnot
turned up anything in God's instructions pertaining. tbslavery which isreadily'subjeet tb human criticism. He first 'mentions the provision in ,Godts:.lav
that a hoUsekeeper could, at the end of his'Or her term ofservitude, thodse
to stay with the Master in perpetual servitude ,(9-13', pp. 18c.-194. We read
of this in Deuteronomy 15:12-18, and I think that three factors in this situation are noteworthy. First, the servant would not have any obvious complaint withthis situation because his or her Choice. as entirely voluntary.
Second, this voluntary decision to stay with the master'would actually be made
in the faceof being liberally furniAhed out of the master's wealth if the
servant.choSe his or her freedom. Third and consequently, such a free deCision:to stay in perpetual servitude in the face of a financially beneficial
option would obviously be made out of'a motivation of loVe for the master's
house. All three of these factors are clear in God's law, so I just cannot
see what the editor could find objectionable about such a blessed arrangement
for servants. This arrangement was a genuine expression of brotherly love-the perpetual moral.obligation of God's people toward each,other. If it is
the ancient cultural manner of indicating. the-servant's decision to stay in
perpetual servitude (viz., piercing the :earlobe) which bothers the editor, let
it simply be said that theonomic ethics would allow (but not require) that a
- 26
different kind of indication be used today. If someone wishes to argue that
the pierced-ear feature of this law is essential to obedience today, he would
need to produce a convincing exegetical argument, but more relevantly he would
be going beyond what is contended in Theonomy in Christian Ethics. At present
I believe the pierced-ear indication reflects the case-law literary feature of
the commandment, being couched in the culture of ancient Israel. It could be
used today as well, but is not itself required by the law.
The editor's other illustration from the slavery laws of the Old Testament is again, unfortunately, a misrepresentation of the law's requirement.
He says, "servants may leave their servitude as free men after seven years,
but if they do, they must leave their wives and children behind" (9-13, p.
19a). But in the first place, servants are to be released after six years
service, not seven as claimed (Ex. 21:2). Secondly, the categorical claim
that servants who are freed must leave their families behind is simply false;
this provision is not, as indicated by the editor, generally applicable.
Ordinarily the servant would leave the master's home with his family (Lev. 25:
41). Not all servants who are freed leave their families behind, but only
those servants who gained their families in a special way. If a man already
married became a servant, he left his servitude with his wife and family. If
an unmarried man became a servant and married during his servitude, he left
with his family. If the servant married another servant during his servitude,
after his term of service he would leave with his family upon completion of
his wife's term. There was only one special case where he would not leave
with his family--namely, the case where his wife was a perpetual servant of
the master and given to him by the master (see Ex. 21:2-6; the assumption must
be that she was a perpetual servant because otherwise she would be free to
leave after six years herself). Since the master owned her labor perpetually
and gave her as a wife to his other servant, it would be inappropriate for
the servant to leave with his new wife and thereby deprive his benefactor. It
should also be noted that "leaving his family behind" would not mean abandoning them; he would become a freeman in society, free to labor as he would
choose, but they would remain servants to the master. Nevertheless, this
difference in social status would not preclude the family's living together,
etc. More importantly, the law itself encourages the servant to become a
perpetual servant (like his wife) out of love for his family and love for his
master. Again, it is hard to criticize such a motivation. If the editor
finds fault with this provision of God's law, he will have to specify what it
would be. The provision appears loving, just, and fair on an accurate readinc
of it.
Although Theonomy in Christian Ethics does not set forth an argued commentary on the details of God's law but maintains the general premise that we
are obliged to honor and keep them, and although that premise cannot be defeated by a supposed test of the details of the law for today (as demonstrated above), we have nevertheless responded in some fashion to all but one of
the editor's alleged illustrations of the application of theonomic ethics.
As yet we have found no hint of a reason to dispute with the theonomic
approach to Christian ethics. The only remaining, specific illustration from
God's law to which some response should be given arises from the editor's remark that Theonomy, should not be tested by its claim that capital punishment
continues to be valid for murder, but by its endorsement of capital punishment for other crimes specified in God's law. The editor says, "What one mus
come to terms with in a decision for or against Theonomy is not capital punishment for murder but capital punishment for adultery. Or for cursing one's
parents" (9-13, p. 18c). That is, if you do not feel that the death penalty
should apply to adultery or cursing one's parents today, then you should not
- 27 endorse theonomic ethics. Of course we cannot accept the editor's theological
method here, as noted earlier. The provisions of God's law cannot be decided
for or against on the basis of one's_preconceived notions, personal feelings,
cultural traditions, or what have you. The-„editor is, not free to reject some
detail ofY.God'S law'jUst because it strikes him as somehow harsh or absurd
today; his obligation is rather to, bring his feelings and thinking into conformity with- the'vord of-God. Scripture alone should determine our theological convictions, net extraneous and unauthoritative hUman reasoning.. Therefore, it is time to protest strongly the editor's method of deciding fOr - or
against Theonomymind you, not for the sake of theonomic ethics, but for- the
sake of faithful and. God-honoring procedure in all: of our theology.
On the other hand, if the preceding ;quotation from the editor "means (wits'
out saying as much) thatthe. theonomic, thesis must be weighed against the
scriptural teaching about:the - continuation or abrogation”; of capital punibment
for adultery or cursing one's parents, then theo theonomist rejoices.forch
a remark. This is precisely the point of Theunomy in Christian
-;.o conmust explore God's word to see what it authoritatively teaches:
•Lioe of
tinuation or abrogation of God's law..evenits penal sanctionis
the New Covenant. , Yet if this is the thrust of- the editor's roy,;-.L7 ,
surely strange and abortive "that he does not follow it up gin: " it
as to how God's word teaches the abrogation of ; these penal,stipulations.
After all, Theonoray argues at:great length and with.a,large score of suppOrting-indications'froM Scripture that the penal ,sanctions are indeed binling
today. The editor has not bothered to interact with the theonomic argument
here at-all. There. are numerous reasonso(many found in the, preceding article)
why we cannot simply presume that some law ,or body of laws from the OldTestathent is invalid today.. Cie of the strongest is found inthese words Of. our
',Ord: "whosoever breaks . one of .the least of these commandments and teaCheS
men so shall be least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:19_). I cannot bring
myself* to believe that the editor may choose to rejectthe outlook . of Thebnorq
as it touches on'-the law's penal- sanctions, therefore, without some exegetica
defense for his opinions-- He_doesXlot have the prerogative of rejecting God':
lawS arbitrarily.- .Scp.then, what' reason does he offer .his readers from God's
word for disregarding the penal sanctions of God's law?. To date, none.
ACCOrdinglyithe argument-of -Theonopy is itself a sufficient answer to,the
editor's remarks.
This challenge to the editor's position canbe . further strengthened. The
editor has strongly censured a bishop for not correctly representing Christ's
10);_from this I surmise ,.that he
attitude toward capital punishment (9-20,
feels strongly-that Christians should advocate capital punishment for murder
(since the validity of the death penalty for this crime'is taken for granted
in his articla:onTheonomy, 9-13,-p.,18c). - But-how can the editor criticize
those who oppose Capitalpunishment for murder without going to the Old Testament to see what kindof "eVildOers" toward whom the magitrate "bears not
the sword in vain" (Rom. 13:4)? And if he appeals to the Old Testament penal
code as valid today, how can he be consistent and turn .around to.reject that
same penal' eode for adulterers and incorrigible _ delinquents? As a covenant
theologian, how 2woui-d the editor pick and choose which compandmentS or covenants of God he folloWs? If Capital:punishment for murder is right, why is it
not right for-adultery?,. After all, both of these laws came from the same
unchanging, holy God; the Lord placed both of these laws ,in the statute book
of Hj-J'p2ople. How can a theologian be biblically consists-:nt and reject (or
adopt) one without 'the other? Moreover; if the editor .doe 116t endorse God's
law as it pertains to the punishment ofoorimivials (othern murderers anyway), where will he find a more just, reasonable, and beneficial penalCOde
- 28
to follow? What justice would the editor mete out, for instance, to a rapist
or kidnapper? The theonomist believes that the righteous Judge of all the
earth has set down a standard for social and penal rectitude that He expects
His creatures to honor and obey. And not in a smorgesbord fashion. So then,
we can challenge the editor to make good on his assumption that the death
penalty is valid for murder today; given his assumptions, how can the editor
defend that thesis? Given a biblical defense of the death penalty for murder,
how can the editor reject the biblical social penalty for adultery or cursing
one's parents? He cannot haVe God's law both ways, valid and invalid at the
same time. (And it should be added, before someone begins to bark up the
wrong tree immediately, that we cannot pick and choose-between the covenants
of God; they are all held to be binding in the New Testament, including the
Mosaic cevenant with its emphasis on law. Every,scripture—and every jot and
tittle thereof--of the Old Testament is set forth as authoritative for the
New Covenant believer, for instance in 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Matt- - 5:17-18.)
It should not be thought that the Old Testament penal code (just as any
part of God's law) is rescinded in the New Testament unless otherwise indicated. God's commandments are continuously valid unless the Lawgiver rescinds
them, and that abrogation of the penal sanctions has not been shown. Nevertheless, there is positive New Testament teaching as well which supports and
confirms the Old Testament penal code. When Paul says that the magistrate
does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4), it is because he is deemed God's
minister who avenges God's wrath (cf. Rom. 12:19) against evildoers--that is,
against those who violate His law (cf. Rom. 13:10). The sword may not be
wielded independently of God's direction at the arbitrary desire of the magistrate or p)pulus. The sword is not used in vain when it is used in a way
conforming to the standards of social rectitude as found in God's law. It
only makes sense that God would require "the minister of God" who is "ordained
of God" to fellow the commandments of God rather than the whims of w a yward men
rIf the Old Testament penal code is deemed invalidated today, then what crimes
\are legitimately covered by Romans 13:4? The New Testament does not render an
explicit catalogue answering that question. Do we infer, therefore, that any
and all "evildoers" can be punished with death? Do we infer that the answer
i ts open to varying human deliberation, apart from directives given by God?
Or do we not rather, with Paul, find the answer to such obvious questions in
the already clear directions of the Old Testament?
The law was given, and is lawfully used, to restrain criminal behavior in
society--as Paul says in I Timothy 1:8-10. Accordingly, when many serious
accusations were brought against Paul himself by adherents of the Old Testament law, he clearly affirmed his submission to the moral authority of God's
Penal code: "If I am an evildoer and have committed anything worthy of death,
I refuse not to die" (Acts 25:11). Note the fact that Paul here again speaks
of a (supposed) criminal according to God's law as an "evildoer." He speaks
of "anything" worthy of death (and. not "the one and only thing now worthy of
death"). He uses the standard Old Testament designation for capital crimes
as those deeds which are "worthy of death" (e.g., Deut. 21:22), and he insists
that the punishment ought to be carried out if any such criminal deed is
proven. The New Testament perspective on the Old Testament penal code is
clear: "every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of
reward" (Heb. 2:2). That is why Paul spoke of capital crimes according to
the Mosaic law as deeds "worthy of" death--justice in such cases demands the
- death penalty, according to the .supreme Judge over the affairs of all men and
Do New Testament Christians want to do justice, or injustice toward trim-
- 29
inals in our society? Obviously social justice must be done. Then we must,
with Paul, be advocates of doing what the perfectly just law of God requires,
and we must praise God, as'did Ezra, whenever God puts it into the heart of
rulers (even unbelieving rulers) to have God's law enforced even to the point
of.its stipulationS for capital punishment (cf. Ezra 7:25-28). This isnot a
violation of the separation of church and state, for that separation does not
legitimately mean the separation of the state from God and His directives to
it. Both church and state are morally responsible to God, contrary to the
unbiblical and humanistic doctrine Of neutralism and pluralism in society.
The New Testament, as well as the Old, requires all magistrates to rule,as
God's ministers, following the model code of justice found insHis law (cf.
Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 51:4; Ps. 2:10-12; 119:46; Prov. 16:1-2; 20:26). Humanist
society does net have a wiser and more beneficial way of dealing with social
problems than GOd's-ras history. and present eXper- ienceJmake quite obviouS to
all but the ideolOgically blinded. (One does'well to reflect on the telling
observation that current society is undergoing its most devastating difficulties in connection with acts which are capital crimes according to God's
inspired word.)
As Dabney maintained, the precepts of God's law "guide secular laws, and
thus lay a foundation for a wholesome civil society" (§st(2matic Tkaaaayo p.
354). For Dabney that obviously indluded the penal sanctions of the law, for
instance against zdultery (p. 407). If'the sanctiOns wereabrogated, the
civil magistrate would be left with little posititedirection at all because
his key function is the punishment of eVildoers '(Rom. 13:3-4). Martin Bucer
maintained that the penal sanctions of God's law-were binding on magistrates
of his day in Onthe Kingdom of Christ (1557). Likewise John Cotton upheld
those sanctions i
in An Abstract of the Laws of New Englan' (1641). A prime,
participant in the Westminster Assembly, Sanuel Rutherford, held forth thesame outlook in Lex, Rex (1644); as did Dtplessis..Mornay in A Defense of
Liberty Again st Tyrants (1689). The conviction that God's penal code for
societies has not become obsolete or unjust or invalidated is firmly rooted
in the Reformed tradition. The Second Helvetic Confession enjoins magistrate
to use penal sanctions according to God's word, and the Westminster Confession encouraged magistrates to follow these sanctions, for instance, in executing idolaters and blasphemers. Influential Puritan authors such as Becon,
Cartwright, Perkins, Stubbs, and Shepherd Commended the penal sanctions of
God's law to magistrates. Both Cartwright and Shepherd, in England and New
England, maintained, explicitly that the "equity'of the judical laws" of Moses /
included the penal t sanctions of the law (a perspective obvious also in Cotton's work, Moses His Judicials); for them the constant validity of those
sanctions was biblically sand theologically demonstrable if anyone disagreed.
In Aaron's Rod Blossoming, George Gillespie (another prominent participant at
the Westminster Assembly) gave .his support to the conviction "that the
judicial Jaw of Moses, so far as concerneth the punishments of sins.against
the moral law, idolatry, blaspheMy, Sabbath-breaking, adultery, theft,' etc.
ought to be the rule to the Christian magistrate." Thus we can see that when
Theonomy argues from Scripture that the penal sanctions of God's law are
binding today, not adding anything astonishingly new to the history of
Reformed thought on the ,subject. (I have spoken purposely of the history of
respectable Reformed thought, not of a mythological "mainstream of Reformed
thought" because the latter is usually found by gerrymandering a canal under
one's own fest.)
So then, let,us return to the editor's remark that the acceptability of
theonomic ethics should be tied to one's view of the death penalty for adultery and cursing one's parents. The burden of proof now lies on the editor:
30 is this biblically acceptable or not? No reason has been offered to think
that it is not. Many reasons have been offered to think that it is. Accordingly, on the editor's own platform, it appears that the theonomic approach
to ethics is acceptable--as it haS been to many Reformed theologians of the
past. Many today who say otherwise will be found to avoid the crucial question of biblical warrant for their.opinion. and depend almost entirely on
emotional appeals. But our emotions ought to conform to the attitudes express
ed by God in His word (of course, as it is accurately understood). If God
sees adultery as so vile and socially damaging that it morally requires the
death penalty in civil courts, should not our emotions match. the true judgment
of God on this issue? Who are we to think that we can be more "compassionate"
or "enlightened" in our modbrn mentality than the living and true God who is
characterized by justice and love? If you will overlook modern indifference
to or encouragement of the practice of adultery, reflection can readily disclose the severe degradation.and dire consequences of marital infidelity.
Prior to our generation people have not been universally indifferent to the
social offensiveness of adultery. In Western Europe. the death penalty for it
was common in the 16th century; it was defended by Martin Bucer, upheld in
Calvin's Geneva, enforced for over a century in English law, integral to the
law codes of Puritan New England,. and supported by various Reformed theologians since then. For instance, Dabney maintained that "The laws of Moses,
therefore, very properly made adultery a capital crime; nor does our Savior,
in the incident of the woman taken in adultery, repeal that statute, or disallow its justice" (Systematic Theology, p. 407); he went on to attribute the
approach of modern nations to adultery to "the grossness of Pagan sources."
Can the editor or anyone else plainly tell us what our "enlightened" modern
scholarship has turned up in studying Scripture that was completely unknown
to, or incautiously overlooked by, previous adherents of the penal code of
God's law? What new discovery has demonstrated their previous error on this
subject? The sanctity of marriage has progressively declined in Western
culture since the abondenment of God's law regarding adultery. Biblically
and pragmatically I see no reason to prefer the viewpoint of modern secularism to that of the Puritans.
The editor's other illustration pertains to the death penalty for cursing
one's parents. In responding to it we must again set the record somewhat•
straight. The editor has suggested that on theonomic principles "A Christian
has the duty to press the state for the death penalty if he hears his neigh
bor's son cursing his father" (9-13, p. 18c). This is not quite accurate.
The state must first have a statute against cursing one's parents before any
prosecution could be contemplated; the advocate of theonomic ethics believes
in the need for proper due process and dues not preMote asilitious,. vigilante
or ex post facto use of the social laws of Goal's word. Moreover, theonomic
ethics does not teach that God's law should be imposed with force on a recalcitant people or society. Only when the majority of a society have come to
Christ as Savior and Lord, and only when those Christians work out their adher
ence to God's Son in their various life-involvements--including social and
political ethics--will the statutes of God's law become the law of the land.
Therefore, the editor is somewhat misleading when he suggests that a theonomist would presently urge civil officials to execute a son who was overheard
cursing his father. What we need at present is . revival (on the personal
front) and legal reform (on the social front) if we are to anticipate and
work toward a day in which the kingdom of our Savior will be more manifest in
the state--which is not to say that the state is the only or even most impor7
tant locus for the expression of Christ's kingdom, but it is a legitimate and
important one nonetheless..
- 31 A second way in which the recorl'must be kept accurate regarding the
death penalty for cursing one's parents is this. The law of God never did
require, contrary to:the emotional misrepresentation of some. antagonists
today, the execution of small children fDr - infrequent or minor offenses against their phrents. We must pay close attention to'what God actually commanded.
The law here actually dealt with incorrigible delinquents, not with babies
who cry to? much or small children who are naughty '(as some shamefully say
about God's stipulation). The kind of person who is brought to the elders
for possible conviction- and execution is one who smites his parents (Ex. 21:
15; this kind of blow is rather vicious, cf. v. 12), utterly and harshly
reviles and curses their authority (Ex. 21:17; Lev., 20:9), is a drunkard and
glutton who is stubborn and rebellious so as not to hearken to discipline at
all (Deut. 21:18-21). If one wishes an illustration, you should envision here
a nineteen-yearold delinquent who drinks to excess, will not work, swears in
a filthy fashiOn ai his mother; beats up his father, and cannot be made submissive or respectful by any form of rebuke• or discipline.. When matters get
that far out of hand, so that there can be no law or order with certain
individuals, Scripture requires the civil authorities to guard the sanetity
of compliance with lawful orders by enfording a just sanction against the
incorrigible delinquent. One has to have fallen asleep not to realize that
our society's neighborhoods and prisons are plagued with..this very problem
today. God's law prescribes a just:answer, but secular humanism has none
As indicated already, some opponents of God's law (or at least its social
use) seem to make a cavalier sport of this issue, attempting to persuade themselves and others that the Old Testament • commandments just could not be binding in our advanced age because those commandments call for the execution of
delinquent "children." However, it is. accordingly ironic that, as silent as
the New Testament is on specific crimes which carry. the death penalty (primarily beaause the Old Testament word-was sufficient), one which receives
explicit advocacy is the-crime of cursing one's parents! Jesus specifically
endorses this Mosaic stipulation in Matthew 15:3-9, using it to indict the
Pharisees for suppressing God's clear requirement in order to conform to their
own cultural tradition and status ma. The same Lord who warned us against
diminishing any of God'S requirements (Matt. 5:17-19) declared, "God said,
Honor thy father and mother; 'and he who speaks evil of father or mother, let
him die the death (surely die)." Far be it from us to speak in contradiction
to the authoritative pronouncement of our Lord and Savior! And if the death
penalty is valid in the kingdom age of the New Covenant for incorrigible
children (which so many see as the most emotional case of all), how much more
can, we expect the death penalty to continue valid for the other deeds defined
as capital crimes by God's holy law! When we, without biblical warrant, disregard God's just, social sanction against incorrigible children out of deference for the thinking, feeling, and ways of our own culture or tradition,
then we too will come under Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees.
It does not seem to ,the, now, that the editor has made any telling criticism of theonomic ethicslay-his "test by details." Such a test misses the
precise kind of case being made in my book, cannot theologically be carried
out, much too often misrepresents the teaching of the law and the outlook of
theonomic ethics, and has not produced even one example to which an adequate
response cannot be given. This type of critique has not stood up. Nevertheless, before going on to the next area of our discussion, the editor may stilt
wish to have some concrete examples of what theonomic ethics would mean in
practice today; such examples could not settle the question of acceptability
of the theonomic thesis, but they would give readers something to "get their
- 32
teeth into" and reflectupon. Theonomic ethics is not such an abstract point
of view that it has no clear, viable, concrete applications. Just because
God's law is endorsed by theonomic ethics and that law has undeniably relevant
and useful applications, theonomic ethics will have useful applications that
tend to illustrate its beneficial character. I hope that the following examples will be major ones, important enough to show some advantages to following God's law in the face of current problems. The novelty of these suggestions, if they be deemed novel, arises from their contrast to recent practice,
not froth their contrast to the history of Reformed thought in ethics. Since
the editor is anxious to have some theonomic examples to evaluate, I will
offer a few of my own, trusting that they are true to God's word. Study the
Bible and see if you agree with them.
Homosexuality is not a civil right (Lev. 20:13). Parents ought not to
sell their children into the pornographic trade (Lev. 19:29). Transvestite
and unisex clothing is prohibited (Deut. 22:5). Those who commit sexual acts
with animals must be punished (Lev. 20:15-16). Rapists are to be executed
(Deut. 22:23-27). A young man who gets a girl pregnant must at least pay a
heavy fine to her father (Ex. 22:17). Those who intentionally murder another .
should not be given reprieve from the death penalty (Ex. 21:14; Num. 35:31;
Deut. 19:11-13,21). Incorrigible criminal repeaters must eventually face the
most stringent of punishments (Deut. 21:18-21). Sky-jackers should be executed (Ex. 21:16). Elective abortion ought not to be a constitutional right
(Ex. 21:22-25). Prisons should be replaced with a system of restitution to
the victims of theft (Ex. 22:1-4,7-9). Those who are assulted must be paid
full compensation by their attackers (Ex. 21:1819). It is unjust to punish
homeowners who injure or kill trespassers at night (Ex. 22:2-3). People are
responsible to stop and help others who are in distress or who are facing
property loss, whether or not the person needing aid is an enemy or a brother
(Ex. 23:4-5; Deut. 22:1-4). The handicapped in particular are not to be
ridiculed or taken advantage of (Lev. 19:14). Compensation should be made by
a company for its industrial pollution (Ex. 22:6). Local building codes must
incorporate regulations that protect safety and life (Deut. 22:8). A manufacturer's knowledgable negligence about a proven defect in an automobile
which leads to the death of someone using the car should be punished with
death or an open-ended monetary ransom (Ex. 21:29); if it leads to property
damage, the full replacement value should be paid (Ex. 21:36). When a man
is guilty of damaging your property, say by destroying your car in an accident
he (or his insurance) should make restitution from his best replacement
material--for instance, purchasing a car for you and not simply paying "Blue
Book" value (Ex. 22:5). Malacious malpractice suits against doctors should
be punished with a fine equal to that the doctor would have had to pay (Deut.
19:16-21). Welfare to the poor through coercive taxation should be relieved
by the biblical system of charity, wherein the poor are protected with respect
to interest and collateral on loans (Ex. 22:25-27; Lev. 25:35-38; Deut. 23:
19-20; 24:6,10-13), can eat individual meals from the fields (Deut. 23:2425),
can collect from the fields on the seventh year rest (Ex. 23:10-11), can
glean the corners of the fields (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-22), have their
debts remitted in the seventh year (Deut. 15:1-6), and can gain financial
security and relief through indentured servitude (Lev. 19:39-46; Deut. 15:718). Immigrants should be treated with dignity (Lev. 19:33-34). The rioh
are not to be favored or given special favors over the poor in the courts of
the land (Ex. 23:6,8; Lev. 19:15), and on the other hand the financial status
even of the poor should not affect the decisions or judgments of the Supreme
Court (Ex. 23:3,6). In order to preserve just weights and measures (Deut.
25;13-15), debased and inflationary currency should be outlawed (Isa. 1:22).
Lobbying which amounts to bribery in Washington should be stopped (Ex. 23:8).
- 33
The evening news should report established facts and not dabble in innuendos
or tales of gossip that are "leaked" to it (Lev. 19:16).
Well, the examples really could go on and on. .But by now the point
should have been made, even if the reader does not agree with every one of my
suggested applications of the Old Testament law. Theonomic ethics has relevant and important alternatives to offer to humanist. opinions. If the above
examples do not strike you as pertinent to our day, then read a news magazine
for six months and consider the examples again. If the critics of the social
use of God's law disagree with the Lord's requirements in the above cases
(provided I have interpreted them correctly), then what would they propose
to do instead so as to resolve the social problems addressed? If the critics
of theonomic ethics begrudge the choice of these particular examples because
they are so obviously just and right, then they must be asked whether anything
else but just and right laws could be expected from the Lord! And finally,
if non-thr3onomists feel that some of the provisions of God's law are binding,
but not the rest, then they must be challenged to explain how and why they
"pick and choose" among God's righteous commandments (cf. Deut. 12:32).
Little remains to be said in response to the editor's misleading portrayal of theonomic ethics or in answer to his critique of the position. I
believe that the preceding discussion replies to each of the editor's remarks
about or against the view that God's law continues to be binding, in detail,
during the age of the New Covenant. One final misrepresentation of what
theonomic ethics says about the use of the law will be reserved for the discussion of eschatology below. I would again thank the editor for raising the
ethical issue of our standard for ethics today to a level of visibility for
his readers. While we at present differ in our views on the subject, I agree
with him that this question is not a touchstone of modern-day orthodoxy or
Christian fellowship; we .all must remain teachable and tolerant as the discussion continues, hopefully, to bring us closer to a clear apprehension of
the Lord's will for our life together, as believers. While defending our
convictions, let none of us draw the circle of doctrinal purity too closely
around his own feet! Finally, I thank the editor for his gracious compliment
of the book Theonomy, saying that it is "impressively Biblical in its claims"
(9-13, p. 19a) and shows massive research and exegetical scholarship (9-13,
p. 10b). He has affirmed in the same place that it would take the work of a
doctorate to reply adequately and criticize it. Seemingly he would intend
for his readers to temper his brief discussion and criticism with such remarks
and to understand his thallenges to theonomists in that light. He would want,
even as we would expect him, to produce a reasoned convincing, and biblical
counter-argument to theonomic ethics before the position would be considered
in any adverse light.
The Coming of the Kingdom
Let no now change the subject completely and turn to a consideration of
the editor's remarks about postmillennialism (9-6). Again, certain misleading
descriptions and weak criticisms call for a response so that readers will have
an adequate basis on which to evaluate and study this important millennial
position, either negatively or positively.
When Jesus our Lord ministered among men, he made it dramatically clear
that the kingdom of God had arrived (Mk. 1:14-15; Lk. 4:16-21; Mt. 12:28).
The inaugeration of that kingdom was also a theme of the apostles (Acts 2.2536; 20:25; 28:23,31; Heb. 12:28; Rev. 1:5-6). The kingdom of Jesus Christ is
here, established, and a functioning reality. Nevertheless, Jesus taught his
- 34 disciples to pray "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth" (Matt. 6:10),
and the.apostles anticipated future developments for the kingdom (Rom. 1:4-5;
I Cor. 15:2428; Phil. Z:9-11; Col. 1:3-29; Heb. 2:8-9; Rev. 10:7; 11:2,8,13,
15; 19:11-21; 20:4-6). The kingdom is deVeloping, growing, and will not be
consummated until the end of hiSiory. PostMillennialist is particularly concerned with this dynamic element of growth and development fot Christ's kingdom before the final judgment of mankind (after which, of course, the kingdom
does not increase but isfoomplete).
The Bible teaches us that although the kingdom starts out small like a
mustard seed, it will grow to large proportions (Mt. 13.:31-32). Like a
divinely cut stone which consumes the world empires, ChriSt us kingdom will
grow to be a mountain filling the whole earth (Dan. 2:31-45). All nations
will flow into God's exalted house and be instructed in His law (Isa. 2:2-4),
so that of the increase of Christ's kingdom there will be no end and justice
will be established in the earth (Isa. 9:7). The earth will be full of the
knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:1-10), with
appropriate effects being felt throughout the various departments of life-every common thing will be devoted to the 'Lord's service (Zech. 14:2021).
There will be, to speak in hyperbole, no need to evangeliie because all men
will already know the Lord (Jer. 31:34); from the rising of the sun to the
going down of the same God's name will be great among the nations (Mal. 1:11).
Christ shall have dominion--with its appropriate effects in . the daily and
social affairs,of men—from sea to sea, with all nations serving Him, and his
enemies licking the dust (Ps. 72). The uttermost parts of the earth will be
His possession (Ps. 2:7-9) as He rules in the midst of His enemies and makes
them His footstool (Ps. 110:1-3). All the ends of the earth will thus come
to praise and reverence Him (Ps. 67). He will not fail to establish justice
in the earth (Isa. 42:1-4), meaning that He will send forth judgment unto
victory as the Gentiles hope in His name (Mt. 12:17-21). ftesently the Lord
is reigning; He is progressively subduing every enemy so that He will be Lord
over all (I Cor. 15:24-.28; Col. 1:18)., All nation's' are being brought to the
obedience of faith (Rom. 1:4-5) because Satan has been bound (Rev. 20:1-3).
Since all power and authority in heaven and earth belong to Christ, who is
with the church continuously, He has commissioned it to make all nations His
disciples and to teach them to observe whatsoever He has commanded (Matt. 28:
The postmillennialist believes that these things will surely be accomplished in the power of God's Spirit piior to the great apostasy at the very
end of history which will trigger the Lord's return in fiery judgment (Rev.
20:7-10; 2 Thes. 1:7-10; 2 Peter 3:3-13). There will be no time or opportunity given for evangelism, conversion, or kingdom growth after that time;
therefore, since no word of God can fail of accomplishment, the kingdom will
increase in the ways described above prior to the Lord's return. In broad
strokes, this is the postmillennial confidence. We would gladly hear the
Spirit's word to the churches, beckoning them to "be victorious (or,' overcome)" and thereby have an open door to missionary success (e.g., Rev. 3:713) and to ruling with Christ over the nations (Rev. 2:26-29; 3:21-22). God's
"kingdom of priests,." the church (I Peter 2:9), reigns upon earth with Christ
(Rev. 5:9-10;. 20:4-6); following her Lord, the church will conquer the nations
with the preaching of the gospel (Rev. 19:11-21). The kingdoms of this world
will indeed become the ,kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev. 11:15).
The Great Commission is not a futile or impossible task laid on the church by
her Lord; it will be accomplished in covenant blessing upon "all the ends of
the earth," who "shall remember and turn unto Jehovah; and all the kindreds
of the nations shall worship before thee" (Ps. 22:27). The conversion (or
- 35 "turning") of the nations cannot take place after the Lord returns in final
judgment, for that day itself will settle the final destiny of all men (Mt.
With this brief sketch of postmillennialism (and some of its biblical
under-pinnings) in mind now, we can reply to the editor's comments about it.
The first and most important misconception that I wish to set straight is the
editor's claim that, for the theonomist and postmillennialist, "God's law (is)
the dynamic means of grace for the transformation of the nations" (9-6, p.
14c). Elsewhere he claims that for theonomic ethics, "The vehicle to accom.
plish God'S ultimate purpose for humanity on earth in God's law" (9-13, p.9c);
in particular, alleges the editor, the carrying out of the law's penal code
by the state "is how the whole world ultimately will become obedient to God"
(9-13, p. 9b). 'But this is a grotesgue counterfeit of the actual position of
theonomists and p6stmillennialists. It is so - patently false that it can be
disproved-by:simPly looking at one of the editor's quotations from me in his
own article: I'have clearly stated in print that "the church triumphs in the
preaching of the gospel and discipling the nations through the supernatural
agency of the Holy Spirit," and the editor has quoted me to that end (9-6,
p. 9c). Moreover, in my book Theonomy in Christian Ethics I have gone to
lengths to make explicit that the law of God is itself impotent to accomplish
God's saving putposes or to bring about obedience in us (chapter 4 is entirely
devoted to those truths). The editor's claims are so'terribly mistaken, I
will take the space to quote some relevant pointS from Theonomy so as to
eradicate completely this false picture. I have written: "Only the Holy
Spirit of God can bring power to obey to the sinner, and that Holy Spirit was
received not by law-works but by faith (Gal. 3:2). The- law is simply not a
quickening power; it is without power because of sin (Rom. 8:3), and therefore
unable to impait life and righteousness (Gal. 3:21). . . :- Grace grants the
power which the law fails to provide. 'But now we have been released from the
law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness
of'the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter' (Rom. 7:6). Because of the
weakness of sinful human nature the law could not overcome sin's power, but
in the believer the power of the Holy Spirit frees him from the power of sin
unto death, thereby enabling him to accomplish what• the law demands (Rom. 8:
1-4). The conclusien of the matter, then, is that a man must trust in God's
grace and Christ's righteousness rather than his own works, which only condemn him under. the law's curse; the letter is unto death, but the Spirit
gives new life and spiritual power" (Theonomy, pp. 132, 135). The same
gracious truths are reaffirmed throughout chapter 7, whose title itself tells
the story: "Sanctification by the Holy Spirit"; one subtitle in that chapter
itself declares, "God's Spirit as the Dynamic of Sanctification." •
It is a basic falsification to say that theonomic ethics or postmillennial eschatology teach that God's laW is a transforming means of grace or
vehicle for the coming of Christ's kingdom to the nations. I have taught
contrary to that portrayal in many of my publications. The power for changing the hearts of men resides in the Holy Spirit of God (in. 3:3-8; Ezek. 11:
19-20; Titus 3:3-7). The agency by which the nations will be converted and
believe the gospel will be, not God's law, but the pentecostal Spirit of
power (Acts 2:1-47; I Cor. 2:4, 14-16; I Thes. 1:5). Revival is prerequisite
for men to-come to a saving knowledge of Christ and thereby expand His kingdom; men must be born again. And the law cannot, accomplish that: "the letter
kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6). There has never been any
legitimate question about this conviction of those who advocate theonomic
ethics. The editor's unguarded and irresponsible misrepresentation is a real
low point that prejudiceS readers (quite understandably) against those who of
36 us who nevertheless praise God for His grace in our salvation and the salvation
of others (even the nations of the world eventually). The law is not, for the
theonomist or postnillennialist, a transforming means of grace for the bringing in of Christ's kingdom.
Furthermore, the way that the world becomes obedient to God is not, as .
the editor alleges, by the state enforcing the penal sanctions of the Old
Testament. While there might well be some favorable influence on it as a
pedagogical device, evangelism does not accomplish its goals through the
state's use of the sward. Paul states quite directly that "the weapons of
our warfare are not of the flesh" (2 Cor. 10:4), for we rather advance Christ's
kingdom with "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph. 6:17).
This truth is again belabored in my book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (see,
for instance, pp. 414-425 with its disdussion of "The Two Swords"). I believe
that the editor is responsible to be familiar with positions which he criticizes and ought not to paint such an obviously inaccurate picture of them as
we find here. Nowhere do I claim that the world will become obedient to God
through the use of the Old Testament penal sanctions.
The state's endorsement and use of those sanctions is the result of
Christ's kingdom spreading throughout a nation and it striving to live in
obedience to the King--not the cause for such advance. One almost gets the
picture from the editor's portrayal that theonomists would bring in the kingdom by violent means, harshly imposing an external law-code on an enemy people
who resist it in a widespread and vigorous way; they are then dealt with
according to the law's penal sanctions. HoWever the picture is pure fiction
and a complete reversal of the truth. The penal sanctions of God's law will
only be enacted in a country where there has already been widespread turning
to the gospel and an appropriate nurturing period of personal and social
sanctification; those penalties are enforced (and can be enforded) only by a
populus that loves .theyLord and His blessed direction for its well...being.
That is, the theonomist believes that there must be revival and pervasive
success in evangelism; then those who are believers will more and more attempt
to live obedient lives in gratitude to their Savior, and in time that sanctification will also be seen to call believers to a distinctive and righteous
lifestyle in social and political matters. Eventually, graciously, and willingly the sanctions of God's law will come to be obeyed, just as faithful
believers will desire to obey all of God's commandments. This will not be
harsh eternal imposition (although criminals will alwayS make such selfserving claims) but the natural outworking of an internal commitment and
When and if Christians have the positions and influence necessary to
bring about social change and establish public policy, they will naturally
desire to gain as much guidance as is available from God's inspired word.
Only at that point--at.the end of a period where God's gracious Spirit has
*brought about kingdom growth and its subsequent strengthening in righteous
living--will the sanctions of God's law be popularly endorsed and enforced.
The kingdom eventually brings obedience to the penal sanctions; obedience to
those sanctions does not bring in. the kingdom. The Great Commission requires
us to work toward the day when the nations will have been discipled to Christ
and taught 'to observe whatsoever He has'commanded, and as I have said above
as well as in many publications the Great Commission depends for its success
on the gracious and powerful work of God's Holy Spirit.
The editor's contrary representation is a serious and disheartening
misconstrual of the theonomic position--a misleading error that could have
- 37 and should have been avoided. To use but one ready example from Theonoray,
note that a fair reading of the book would have disclosed this and other
statements: "The serious alternative which the church offers to a dying world
is to turn in faith to Christ and keep His commandments; both elements are
demanded by the great commission. As obedience to it is empowered by the Holy
Spirit, the law of God establishes righteousness in human affairs and human
hearts" (p. 489). Or again: "The day is coming when, in the power of the Holy
Spirit, all citizens and relatives, from the small to the great, will know the
Lord. . . . The great commission will one day be fulfilled, a day in which all
nations (not just representative individuals in them) shall have been discipled. . . .The great commission includes the first /mentioned/ provision of the
New Covenant as well: all nations are to be taught to observe Christ's comm
andments, in other words, all the law of God (Matt. 28:19f.; cf. Matt. 5:17f.)
The power and presence of Christ is the seal and guarantee of the great coma
mission's success. • . . The New Covenant will bring with it the power to
convert sinners to God; its prosperity will be overwhelming--such is God's
promise, and if the Spirit can convert one individual sinner, why should we
hesitate to see Him having the power to effect a world-wide revival?" (pp.
192-193). There is nowhere to be found even a hint of the editor's violent
picture of imposing the penal sanctions of the law and thereby advancing
Christ's kingdom; such a representation is unfair to the thoroughly Spiritual
character of the theonomic position.
Distinguishing What Will from What Ought, to Happen
The second mistake in the editor's description of theonomic ethics and
postmillennial eschatology is his assertion that the two perspectives require
each other. According to him theonomy and postmillennialism go. "hand and
hand" (9-6, p. 3a) and are "indispensable to each other" (9-6, p. 14b). Of
course, if both positions are scriptural, then they would naturally complement
and strengthen each other as part of a unified .system of truth (just as do,
for instance, the doctrines of sin and redemption). However such a harmony
between the two positions does not mean that people must choose them in tandem
or reject them as a pair. Logically there is a distinction to be drawn bptween what will in fact happen and what ought to happen. Let me illustrate.
Someone can readily believe that Congress will increase theocial.Security
Tax, and yet not at all believe that Congress ought to do so. On the other
hand, someone could believe that the church ought to develop ,a diaconal system
for relieving the poor, and still not believe that the church will actually
do it. What will happen, and what should happen are (unhappily) very often
quite contrary to each other. Accordingly the editor has committed a logical
lapse in saying that postmillennialism and theonomic ethics,,are indispensable
to each other. Postmillennialism says that the nations of the world will be
convertetland come to enact God's law in their societies, while theorlomic
ethics maintains (among other things), that nations ought to enact God's law
in their societies. One can believe one totally without the other. Someone
might believe that nations ought to enforce God's law, but never will do so.
Someone else might. believe that nations will enforce God's law, but ought not
to do so. Therefore, the two positions of theonomic ethics .and postmillennial
eschatology are logically separate from each other. They are also pyschologically separate from each other, for as a matter of fact some postmillennialists are not theonomic in their ethical outlook--just as some theonomistS are
not postmillennial in their eschatological outlook- Many people come to these
two positions separately, as did myself, without the one suggesting or influencing the other. Again, I feel that thereis a beautiful harmony between the
two positions, for I believe that they are both the teaching of God's word.
But logically and:psychologically a person can surely hold to one without the
- 38 Another passing indication that postmillennialism and theonomic ethics
do not require each other is the existence of varying, schools of postmillennia)
eschatology. Roughly speaking I can delineate at least four distinct options
proposed through history which might be (with greater or lesser accuracy)
designated "postmillennialism." (1) Some have held that the gospel will
prosper throughout the world, bringing widespread revival so that the large
majority of people are believers; such gospel prosperity, with Christian nur.,
ture over time, is bound to have public consequences (cf. "Ye are the salt of
the earth. . . . Ye are the light of the world"). Thus revival will eventuate
beThis is,
in Christ's commandments being obeyed in all walks of
lieve, the classic Reformed version of postmillennialism (as evidenced in. my
article in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. III, No. 2). (2)
Others have maintained that the coming of Christ's kingdom is to be identified
with social progress, public refOrm, •and better relations among all men; such
goals will be accomplished through humanistic but peaceful means of persuasion
and reform movements. Here we have the typical "social gospel" version of
postmillennialism--a secularization and truncating of the Reformed perspective,
(3) Still others have laid their stress on social reformation, but have advocated the means of violent revolt, overt warfare, and external imposition of
new social conditions. This might be deemed a kind of-Anabaptist version of
postmillennialism, sometimes expressed 'in the Reformation period and condemned
by many Calvinists as "seditious" or "stupid." (4) Finally we can mention
the view that many people around the world will come to believe the gospel so
that our churches will be overwhelmingly filled with Christians and the
nations of the world will worship God aright; however .(amazingly) this; gospel
prosperity'will not have distinctive and positive consequences for social and
political righteousness. It is hard to find a fair, descriptive label.for
this position since it seems to me to truncate the Reformed view, to represent
a retreat from a scriptural world-and-life-view, and to be biblically implausible; thus to label it pietistic postmillennialism or "purely revivalistic"
postmillennialism simply reflects an adverse personal evaluation--and does
despite to the full-orbed Reformed position by suggesting that it might be
disinterested in piety or that genuine biblical revival could be restricted
to internal matters of the heart and at best the church. So recognizing the
inherent problem in choosing a fair designation, I will be content to call
this fourth option ecclesiastical postmillennialism.
Thus 'it is manifest that for the editor to make theonomic ethics and
postmillennialism indispensable to each other is unfair to those versions of
postmillennialism which--in contrast to the Puritans, who were vitally interested in missions and the social use of God's law-'-are indifferent to the
public consequences of Christian belief (ecclesiastical postmillennialism),
are indifferent - to the revivalistic foundation of social reform (the social
gospel), or are interested in altering social conditions in an antinomian
fashion (Anabaptist postmillennialism). Not all posttillennialists would
want to be affiliated with the position of theonomic ethics. This is not the
place to critique such versions of postmillennialism (which. I find biblically
and theologically weak or inconsistent),. but simply to make the relevant
observational point. Therefore, on logical, psychological, and dogmatical
grounds we must separate our consideration of theonomic ethics from that of
postmillennialism eschatology. In what folloWs I will be defending postmillennialism in response to the editor's critique of it; what I say will not be
directly germane to theonomic ethics as such.
The Final Apostasy
According to the editor the fatal weakness of postmillennialism is that
- 39 it has a problem with the idea that the world will not be righteous at Christ's
return (9-6, p. 10c). The editor says that the key question to be posed in
the millennial discussion is, "what does the Bible indeed have to say about
the state of the world at Christ's coming?" (9-6, p. 10a); he returns again
to this question 'as something which, unlike other issues, is definitely not
peripheral (9-6, p. 10c). However, the editor defeats his own criticism and
demonstrates by himself its fundamental invalidity by turning around and admitting that postmillennialism can and does (for most adherents) incorporate
and accomodate the biblical truth that the world will be apostate at the Lord'
return. That is, the editor undermines his own critique for us. Having said
that postmillennialism simply ignores this biblical teaching, the editor goes
on to indicate that postmillennialism teaches that the loosening of Satan at
the end of the age will generate widespread apostasy and set the conditions
for Christ's judgmental return upon an unrighteous world (9-6, pp. 10c-41a)-and ironically, he makes this indication by quoting from my own article on the
subject of postmillennialism (Journal of Christian RecOnstruction, Vol. 3, No.
2: Winter, 1976-1977)1 To say that some position fails to account for something, and then to turn around and quote an adherent of the position so as to
show that it does take account of that thing, is not only inconsistent, but
cripples the criticism so that no answer is necessary.
The editor lightheartedly dismisses the postmillennial understanding of
the passages which legitimately teach a final apostasy (namely, by the loosening of Satan at the very end of history), saying that this is "the best that
postmillennialism can do with those passages" (9-6, p. 10c) and that postmillennialists casually "add" this explanation as an "afterthought" (9-6, p. 11a)
But such an alleged criticism is completely without meaning and force. Here
in this case "the best that postmillennialism can do" is completely adequate
to account for the scriptural teaching, and that is surely good enough) What
more does the editor hope for? All millennial schools see the loosening of
Satan at the end of the millennium as creating the worldwide evil and apostasy
that usher us into the final judgment (cf. Rev. 20:7-10). If this understanding of Scripture is a satisfactory handling of the text (and explanation of
further texts) for other schools of eschatology, why is it for the editor
merely "the best that postmillennialism can do"? Does Mr. Taylor expect more
of the other schools of thought here? Does he have a better interpretation
of his own to offer us all?
Let me also note that it is completely beyond me how the editor could
determine that my rehearsal of this element of postmillennial thinking (taken
from his quotation of my article) is a mere "casual afterthought." In what
relevant and interesting sense is this point in postmillennial doctrine
"casual"? As long as it is true to the Bible, why should this point be condemned even if it is (in some sense) casual? What is the editor maintaining
here? Presently I find his criticism purely connotive in character--without
actual substance. Moreover, how does the editor know that this point in my
postmillennialism is merely an afterthought? He has not asked me about it.
And as a matter of personal fact, I held the view that the loosening of Satan
would create a final apostasy long before I became a postmillennialist. It
was not anything like a "casual afterthought," then; I have always taken it
quite seriously. I have duly emphasized this truth in my teaching and writinc
as well (for instance, in my tapes'on Revelation, which were reviewed in the
Presbyterian Journal a few years ago). There is no suspicious de-emphasis of
this doctrine in my postmillennial expositions. But even if there were, that
would be a personal observation and totally irrelevant to the theologiCal
adequacy of the position itself. The editor simply has no ground for cora,
plaint at this juncture. Postmillennialism'is innocent of his charge against
- 40 Before moving on it should be added that, while postmillennialism teaches
and fully accomodates the apostate condition of the world at the end of history (read, for instance, M.'Kik on Rev. 20), not all of the texts which are
cited by the editor understood as legitimately supporting that
truth.: That is, as an exegetical point (not intending to deny the theological
conclusion drawn) we should recognize that some of the texts chosen by the
editor do not after all deal with the subject of the final apostasy. For
instance, the editor mentions Revelation 13, but:this chapter deals with the
fall of the ancient. Roman beast (cf. Jay Adams, The Time is At Hand). The
editor mentions 2 Timothy 3:13; however, this text is referring to Paul's own
day, posing a limit to the personal debauchery '(not the mass numerical apostasy) of individual men (cf. the discussion of this passage in Lain Murray,
The Puritan Hope). While I agree with the editor that Christ will return upon
an apostate world, I do not agree with the interpretation offered for particular texts by the editor. (In passing, I would also wonder if the editor--or
any adherent of premillennial or amillennial thought--can meaningfully speak
of a final. "apostasy" in the world if-there has never been, as postmillennialists expect, an accomplishment of the Great Commisssion so that the world
.nations have a spiritual condition of Christian. belief from which to fall in
the generation of Satan's release. Given - the downward trend postulated by
premil and anvil writers,' the'release of Satan is almost "business as usual" best an : intensification of the already declining state of spiritual
affairs in the world. But this question must await a future discussion.)
The Question of Herdeneutics
Another alleged supreme "fatal flaw" in postmillennialism, according to
the editor, is that the scriptural support cited by this position is also the
,backbone of the other' eschatological views; this indicates to the editor that
it is one's personal theological presuppositions that make the final difference between eschatological schools and not the biblical teaching itself (96, p. 10a). The editor writes at some length, saying that this constitutes
an . "illegitimate hermeneutic" (9-6, p. 10b)--even 'giving an entire editoral
to the subject under that title (9-6, pp. 14-15). The example which he
offers to show that theological presuppositions make the difference in one's
eschatology, and to evidence that all schools of thought can accomodate the
passages cited by postmillennialists, is Psalm 22:'27. He says, "There's
nuthing in that verse which adds '...before Christ returns" (9-6, p. 10a).
What is his inference? That postmillennialists must of course add that
qualification from their system of doctrine.
Well, is that so? Must postmillennialists add this qualification from
their system of doctrine? And if so, is that to be deplored? I think the
answer to both questions is a plain no. If we look at the verse itself we
will notice that it speaks of the nations -"remembering and turning unto
Jehovah"--phraseology which typically points to conversion from unbelief and
rebellion. Therefore, since conversion cannot take place after the return of
Christ in final judgment (granted by all schools of eschatology), I believe
that the verse itself implies the qualification "before Christ returns." So
postmillennialists do not need: to read their distinctive eschatology into the
verse to make it support that distinctive eschatology in return: But, someone may challenge, do you not after all add this qualification from your
presupposed system of doctrine?: The premise that there will be no opportunity
for conversion after the Lord's return is, you see,Aaken from`jone's system
of doctrine and not the, verse itself. So now we must ask how deplorable this
factois. It all depends on what the source of one's "system of doctrine" is!
In the case before us I believe that, the verse refers to some millennial
-41 period PO-Qr to Christ's return precisely because Scripture elsewhere teaches
that there will be no. roc to insert a millennial period of successful ,evangelism between the,return ofChrist andthe lastjUdgrhent of all men. That
is, my "system ofdoctrine"--drawn from the Bible-!-will'not allow me consistently to attribute a worldwide "turning" of the nations to the Lord to a
period subsequent to Christ's return (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith
XXXII.2; XXXIII.1-2; Larger Catechism 87-90). So'then, what we have is a case
where Scripture (informing the system of doctrine) is brought to bear on
Scripture (which is interpreted in the light of the system of doctrine previously gained). This is simply an illustration, therefore, of the cardinal
rule of hermeneutics that Scripture must interpret Scripture (see Westminster
Confession of Faith 1.9). The editor's taunts about an "illegitimate hermeneutic" are thus, misplaced or without proof. This is the most legitimate of
hermeneutical procedures—sanctioned by our COnfession itself (which, in turn,
is grounded in the words of Scripture on this point).
If, however, the editor is saying something else in criticism of postnillennial hermeneutics—namely, that postmillennialism "may be reading into
Scripture conclusions drawn from his theological system of doctrine" (9-6,
p. 10b) so that it will "bend Scripture -to fit the system of doctrine" (9-6,
p. 15a)--then he would indeed be describing an illegitimate hermeneutic. But
it would also be one which no postmillennialist that I have read or .known of
propounds or approves of Reading things into the,Bible which are not' there
and distorting its teachings are deplorable theological crimes, to be sure!
But that point hardly. needs to be made generally. Is the editor actually
suggesting that such disgraceful procedures Characterize postmiilennial
expositions oft. Scripture? If not, his discussion is irrelevant. 'But if so,
his discussion is irresponsible, for he gives absolutely no proof or .,locumentation that this is the case EVed if the editor is not persbnally convinced
by the expositions offered by PostraillennialistS, he has no warrant to accuse
the school of thought (containing, mind you; such notables as Owens, Fairbairn
Alexander, Hodge, Dabney, Warfield, Terry, Murray,.and others) of being
characterized by such an illegitimate hermeneutical procedure. The allegation
would be groundless, unspecified, and frankly untrue. We must have a responsible theological method in dealing with positions which are unagreeable to
us. When criticisms are to be made, they cannot be pontificated without
supporting evidence. Since the burden of proof lies on the accuser, if he
offers no substantiation of his charges, then his critique is simply crippled
under the load. This is, it seems, the case with the editor's charge of
"illegitimate hermeneutics" against postMillennialism What does he exactly
mean, and why should he believe it is so? To date; his charge cannot stand.
Finally, I must say, that it was disheartening to see the editor make an
effort to defend a qualified "newspaper exegesis" approach to interpreting
the Bible (9-6, p. 10a). Similarly I was discouraged to find the editor
saying that the question of why postmillennialism is resurfacing at this
particular time is "perhaps more important" than the question, "Can it be
supported,by Scripture?" (9-6, p. 14b)., These are sympathies and tendencies
which unwittingly move us away from the principle of Bola Scriptura and the
imperial authority Of God's word over all hupan endeavOrs.
In his attempt to defend "newspaper exegesis," the editor has--I believe
--misconstrued the Copernican Revolution's effect on scriptural interpretation, a subject of much study for me as an apologist. Scientific discovery
forced biblical interpreters to ask themselves whether they had indeed been
letting Scripture speak for itself or whether Aristotelian physics had been
read into the Bible. The "newspaper" (we might say) made men study the issue
- 42 -
again,, and some of course gained infamy by refusing to do so honestly. However the church did,in time respond sensatively to the question of whether
the Bible was making a claim about the earth's planetary location or speaking
in figures of speech. The newspaper did not, however, determine, what the
Bible could be allowed to say--as it does when, with Bultmann, the results
of modern science experienced in an appliance like the refrigerator "make it
impossible" to believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. At the time of the
Copernican Revolution, if restudy and responsible exegesis had turned up the
same conclusions (which, of course, they did not), then God's word would have
necessarily been preferred to the word of men (cf. Rom. 3:4). As it actually
came about, however, the Bible was not abandoned to the newspaper; rather,
what had been assumed to be in the Bible was abandoned as the result of
restudy--restudy stimulated by an apparent contradiction with the "newspaper."
This is not newspaper exegesis. The newspaper exegesis that disturbs the
postmillennialist procedes to delimit what the Bible can teach on the basis
of events reported in history books or newspapers--in particular, saying that
two world ward (etc.) show that the postmillennial confidence that Christ's
kingdom will prosper prior to His return cannot be the proper interpretation
of the Bible, for the newspapers show it is not (presently) happening.
Men may be influenced by extrascriptural opinions (the "newspaper") to
,reconsider what they have claimed to be taught in the Bible (cf. Lk. 24:1827) and they may be encouraged by extrascriptural events as a confirmation of
what the word of God claims (cf. Deut. 18:22; Jn. 14:29), and not be guilty
of newspaper exegesis. The outcome of the Copernican Revolution illustrates
the first, and the assertion by the editor that past postmillennialists were
encouraged by the progress of their day (9-6, p. 9b-c) illustrates the second,
I believe. These are not examples of extrastriptural events or opinions
determining whether the 'Bible can or cannot be teaching on a particular
doctrine; for instance, the Puritan postmillennialists and the professors at
old Princeton Seminary did not insist that missionary successes in their day
precluded a premillennial or amillennial understanding of prophetic Scripture.
When men discard postmillennial teaching or will not even give it a hearing
because of unhappy world events in our century, this is a categorically
different thing; it is delimiting what God's word can say on the basis of
extrascriptural considerations.
That many modern believers have misconstrued what Reformed postmillennialism essentially teaches is illustrated and hopefully corrected in my
article, "The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism" (cited earlier).
As it happens, there is nothing in basic postmillennial premises which precludes the unhappy events of our century taking place prior to (or hypothetically, even after) an age of widespread gospel prosperity. Consequently the
"newspaper" critics of postmillennialism apparently do not realize that they
have no logical basis for their attempted refutations. Such events as those
to which they typically make reference do not contradict any legitimate inference from postmillennial teaching in the first place. There is no biblical
basis for claiming that the wonderful success of the Great Commission predicted throughout the Bible will become the case in our own generation. Nor does
the postmillennialist claim that there will be nothing but systematic,
constant, progress in the prosperity of the gospel; there is nothing to preclude up's and down's along the way. Therefore the newspaper criticism of
postmillennialism is itself invalid, even if we overlook the impropriety of
such a theological method. Again, I am discouraged to see the editor attempting to sympathesixe with it.
- 43 Conclusion
The last criticism made by the editor of POstmillennialism is that its
supporters "have unimpressive church growth statistics to support it" (9-6,
p. llc). Such a criticism is withoUt point for many reasons. In the first
place we can question'whether the editor is in a positiOn to know just who
are and who are not postmillennial preachers in the various churches of the
land; it is equally questionable whether he knows off•hand all of their church
growth statistics. Moreover we can readily point to counter-examples which
disprove the editor's allegation;. for instance, the PCA church with a post..
millennial pastor which quadrupled in two yearS time would be an embarrassment
to the editor's remark. But more importantly, even if every postmillennial
pastor to the man today had "unimpressive" church growth statistics, that
would not constitute anything like a valid criticism of their eschatological
position—since that position does not itself make its every adherent a gifted
evangelist, nor does not predict impressive church growth in any particular
locality at any particular time. It may be that the impressive growth will
take p'.aoe in non-postmillennialist churches (nevertheless in fulfillment of
postmillennialist teaching!) or in another age or generation. So how does
that undermine postmillennial eschatology in any way? Finally, contrary to
their use by some modern believers, church growth statistics are not the be
all and end all of theological disputes for those with a Reformed outlook
(sola Scriptura apparently cannot be repeated enough); statistics may be a
recent and man-pleasing fad, but they do not give us a test of truth--otherwise the rapid growth of certain heretical cults would be evidence of their
veracity. Again, the editor's critique is not credible upon reflection.
It turns out, then, that the editor has not raised a substantial criticism of either theonomic ethics or postmillennial eschatology. He has,
however, painted enough of a misleading picture of both positions that it had
taken far more space to set the record straight than to put it askew. I have
attempted to respond to each of his basic misrepresentations and to give a
reply to each of his separate criticisms. To make the long story short, his
descriptions have strayed from accuracy at important points and his critical
thrusts have not been on target. There has been no reason advanced by the
editor which should make any reader hesitant to give an open and diligent
hearing to theonomic ethics and postmillennial eschatology. The initial
biblical support that can be marshalled for both of these perspectives makes
them worthy of careful and responsible investigation by any Christian. I have
found them to be scripturally sound and theolo gically defensible after painstaking scrutiny. I have also found them to be uplifting and beneficial to
my walk with the Lord. Two very important issues in any person's life are
explicitly addressed in these theological positions: one's outlook on history
and its direction, and one's final ethical standard for the decisions and
attitudes that make up his behavior.
I am thankful for the editor's critique of the positions, even though it
may have misfired. It is valuable to examine the issues again and to think
through their theological strength, of which one can be sure only through
cross-examination and challenge. I am also thankful for the editor's insistence that these theological questions are definitely not "something over which
Christian should have reason to part company" (9-6, p. 9a). A charitable,
teachable, and tolerant spirit would adorn well all of us who have intramural
disagreements as Reformed Christians. It is a telling observation that in
those few places where these theological questions are being used to generate
dispute and broken relations, it is the opponents of theonomic ethics and/or
postmillennial eschatology who are stirring up the trouble and evidencing an
intolerance in practice. Whether or not this represents a zeal inspired by
unwitting ignorance or a reflex to being ideologically threatened, adherents
of these two positions would do well to hear again the editor's words and
heed them. Let not 'those who support the full validity of God's law or who
are convinced that the gospel will see marvellous prosperity around the world
not be party to any attitude or behavior which would unethically be an
obstacle to the harmonious relationship and work of fellow believers. Our
ethical growth and kingdom advance are corporate matters. Finally, at the
end of this response, I am especially grateful for the editor's suggestion
as to why theonomic ethics and postmillennial eschatology are thriving today.
He explains that this reflects a strong Reformed revival in our day (9-6,
pp. 12b, 14c). I can only respond that I prayerfully hope this is so!
POSTSCRIPT: (A very brief summary of the above article was published
in the Presbyterian Journal, December 6, 1978. It was
submitted as a short reply to the editor's earlier
criticisms of theonomic ethics. Since the editor
published his own response to my reply in the same
December 6 issue, and since he has endeavored to terminate
the discussion at this point by speaking "A Last Word" on
the subject--as he says in an editorial of the same
issue--I will append here an answer to his further
response. This answer expands upon a letter which I have
sent to the editor.)
As before, I appreciate the complimentary and supportive words
that can be found in the editor's most recent article and editorial.
He has said some most gracious things. Moreover, on many things we
obviously agree (for instance, that theological questions must be
faced responsibly, that believers should not become preoccupied with
nothing else but one theological point, etc.). Nevertheless certain
errors and misrepresentations in his remarks should not go unanswered
the need to respond further comes in the following areas.
(1) The editor cannot shake off his preconceived and erroneous
notion that theonomic ethics- simply "must" be offering something new.
He previously claimed this, arguing that otherwise Theonomy would not
haVe needed to be published. That is hardly cogent reasoning, as
indicated in the above article (which reminds us that sometimes books
are published to rehearse and defend older perspectives against modern
Opposition). This time around the editor insists that Theonomy "must"
be new because previous adherents of an apparently.similar view did
not create controversy in their day as Theonomy has today. Dubious
reasoning again. First, it is just historically inaccurate to claim
that such views did not preViously generate controversy; they were
disputed and debated by others, sometimes vigorously. Second, even
if they did not previOusly cauSe'controversy, the "new" controversy
today could easily be explained by the new secular environment of
opinion and society into which theonomic views have come--rather than
by the alleged novelty of such views.
The fact is that the editor is mistaken both about the originality of theonomic views and about any church-rending controversy being
caused by them. As seen in the above article, theonomic distinctives
are firmly embedded in the Reformed tradition and are expressed (sometimes more, sometimes less, consistently) by notable theologians of
Reformed persuasion. An undisputed champion of.that theological
school is John Calvin, and his ethical outlook is noteworthy here
(even if he might not agree-with every last detail of my book)--. With
theonomists, Calvin maintains that "a perfect pattern of righteousness
stands forth in the law" which is our "one everlasting and unchangeable - rule to live by"--not restricted to •the Old Testament age, "for
it is just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world"
(Institutes 2:7:13). Against those who deny .an obligation to the Old
Testament law, Calvin appeals to Matthew 5:17-18,, saying that Christ
"sufficiently confirms that by his coming nothing is going to be taken
away from the observance of the law....Therefore through Christ the
teaching of the law- remains inviolable" (2:7d4). With theonomists,
Calvin teaches that the judicial (extra-decalogical) commandments of
the Old Testament have a divestible outward form or constitution that
can be altered with circumstances, but that these commandments are
founded on an underlying "equity" in each case which expresses a
perpetual duty that must be the same for all men (4:20:15, 16): "this
equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws," he said.
All men in every nation today are obligated to obey the underlying
requirements expressed by the case-laws of the Old Testament, then,
and this explains Calvin's extensive use of those laws in explaining
and setting forth the moral duties of the decalogue. Wherever
possible and relevant, the extra-decalogical commandments of the Old
Testament must be observed by us. Speaking of two such laws, Calvin
said "Who can deny that these two things apply as much to us as to
the Jew's?" (2:8:32).
Furthermore, with theonomists, Calvin argued that the duty of
civil magistrates extends to both tables of the law--to religious as
well. as interpersonal matters touching society (4:20:9). In the
French Confession of 1559 he wrote, "God put the sword in the hand of
the state to resist not only sins against the second but also against
the first table of the law." One major function of God's law affirmed
by Calvin was to protect the community from unjust men (2:7:10), and
on the other hand the appointed end of civil government includes forming "our social behavior to civil righteousness" (4:20:3). Although
earlier writings might seem to vacillate regarding the penal sanctions
of the law, Calvin's most mature, extensive, and explicit treatment
of God's law--found In his 1563 commentary on a Harmony of the four
last books of the Pentateuch, written a few years after even the last
edition of the Institutes and only a year before his death--speaks
plainly and boldly in favor of them. For instance, he asserts
"Capital punishment shall be decreed against adulterers" (Commentary
at Deut. 13:5), and "it appears how greatly God abominates adultery,
since He denounces capital punishment agaihst it.... Conjugal faith
should be held too sacred to be violated with impunity" (Commentary at
Deut. 22:22). Calvin - is hard on Christians who do not believe the
law's penal sanction should be enforced today: "By the universal law
of the Gentiles, the punishment of death was always awarded to adultery:
wherefore it is all the baser and more shameful in Christians not to
imitate at least the heathen. Adultery is punished no less severely
by the Julian law than by that of God; whilst those who boast themselves of the Christian name are so tender and remiss, that they visit
this execrable offence with a very light reproof" (Commentary at
Deut. 22:22). He goes on immediately to answer those who attempt "to
abrogate God's law" by spurious appeal to the example of Christ, concluding that "their relaxation of the penalty has flowed from gross
ignorance." Calvin is zealous here to defend the validity of the Old
Testament penal sanction, just as he is elsewhere regarding blataht
and subversive apostasy: "in a well constituted polity, profane men
are by no means to be tolerated" (Commentary at Deut. 13:5). In that
place he openly mentions the opposition of some men to the law's penal
requirement, saying "God commands the false prophet to be put to
death.... Some scoundrel or other gainsays this, and sets himself
against the author of life and death. What insolence is this:" In
his last years Calvin's conviction that the law's penal sanctions
ought to be utilized took an obviously firm form; he defended the honor
and validity of such sanctions with vigor. Magistrates are obligated
to obey God's law, held Calvin, and God's penal commandments (just as
all of the law) cannot be altered; thus if God said that capital
punishment applied to some crime, then that settles the matter. Calvin
wrote: "What is the meaning of this madness, in imposing a law upon
God, that He should not make use of the obedience of magistrates in
this respect? And what avails it to question about the necessity of
this, since so it pleases God?... It is superflous to contend by
argument,• when God has once pronounced what is His will, for we must
needs abide by His.inviolable'decree" (ibid). With theonomists, Calvin
saw that God's just laws--when even once pronounced, in the Old
Testament--could not be arbitrarily put aside in the Christian era;
even magistrates must honor the punishments for crime decreed in the
law of the Lord.
I have taken some space to summarize at least one dominant strain
in Calvin's thought and writings to emphasize in indisuptable terms
what is already manifest in the preceding article; namely, that
whether theonomic ethics is right or wrong, its distinctives are any-thing but novel (contrary to the editor's insistant claim). Surely
Calvin stands in the classic Reformed tradition, and as we have seen,
elements of his writings openly propound theonomic themes: (1) the
whole Old Testament law is applicable today since Christ's coming
took nothing away from it; (2) the judicial or case-laws of Israel
express an underlying equity which is our perpetual duty: (3) civil
.magistrates today are obligated to obey the law of God in its civil
demands; and (4) the penal sanctions of the law are still valid and to
be enforced in the present Christian era. Calvin may not always have
been consistent with these teachings (just as I am not thoroughly
consistent with them either), but they are definitely part of his
corpus and stand in agreement with Theonomy in Christian Ethics.
Theonomic ethics is anything but new in the Reformed. tradition! Yet
the editor continues to advance his preconceived notion of its
novelty--in the absence of cogent supporting reasons and in the face
of contrary historical evidence (e.g., John Cotton's Abstract of the
Laws of New England).
Not only are the editor's remarks about Theonomy's originality
without backing, so are his claims about it causing disruptive controversy (as alleged "evidence" that its perspective must be new). He
asserts that theonomic ethics has produced controversy and problems
in the churches, tearing some apart. Is that the case? Where are
these churches? When did such disruption occur? Was it theonomic
:ethics or rather its harsh and intolerant opponents that caused the
problems? Have whatever controversies that have been generated of
the healthy or unhealthy kind? These are relevant and important
questions, but the editor has offered no answers at all; his claim
might very well crumble under cross-examination. Just where are the
churches that have been "torn apart" by unhealthy controversy
generated by advocates of theonomic ethics as such? I think the
editor's allegation is baseless--at best vague, unsubstantiated, and
an unfair argumentative devide. But even if it were true, such a
claim would come nowhere close to demonstrating that the theonomic
perspective is new-fashioned theology. Novelty and controversy are
logically separate matters that do. not require or imply each other.
Somewhat like Columbus, the editor wants to insist on his preconceived opinion even in the face of obviously contrary evidence.
Columbus insisted that the new land to which he had sailed was India;
accordingly throughout history we have mistakenly called native
Americans "Indians." Likewise the editor insists that my book must be
presenting something new, and throughout his treatment of my viewpoint
this preconceived--but equally mistaken--opinion will lead him into
further and further mistakes, as we will note.
(2)A second facet of his article which calls for a response is
the resort--always hazardous for scholarship--to presuming to know
another author's position better than the author knows it himself.
The editor claims that my article in the Journal modifies, rather
than defends, the position taken in my book--namely (according to the
editor's misreading) that the explicit details of the law are without
exception to be literally applied today as they always were. His
claim is simply false. Theonomy nowhere calls for crass literalism
in interpreting the Bible; it throughout recognizes the illustrative
and typological character of many Old Testament laws, as any adequate
study of the book will indicate. The allusions and quotations from
the book which the editor uses do not even come close to verifying
his misleading claim; He has simply misread the book with a previously
formed bent concerning it. Theonomy is not "literalistic"; it never
was. You can take the author's word for t.
When I teach the O.T. laws regarding sacrifice were preparatory
shadows of the coming Savior's work of atonement (pp. 207-209) and
are not kept today in the same fashion as before, when I teach that
O.T. dietary laws or laws against mixing seed or animals are no longer
observed in the same outward manner (pp. 209-210), when I teach the
obvious and traditional truth that the O.T. case-laws are applicable
beyond their original, literal cases to new situations (p. 26) because
such laws are meant to illustrate an underlying principle (p. 313),
how can the editor responsibly portray my view as being that every
detail of the law is to be literally applied today just as it was in
thepast? By caricaturing the theonomic viewpoint the editor only
reveals the impoverished character of his own case against it; his
criticisms apparently require a distorted view of the theonomic
position in order to survive at all.
(3)As might be expected, given the previous two errors, the
editor is nowjed to claim that he cannot "pin down" what Theonomy is
saying. .Indeed, he excuses himself from presenting a biblical
argument against it on the incredible ground that Theonomy does not
have enough substance to grasp! Numerous readers from varied backgrounds (social, educational, ecclesiastical) have accurately grasped
the substance of the theonomic position. Why shouldn't the editor be
able to do so? Contrary to his claim, Theonomy stakes out a specifiable and clear alternative in ethics, one that makes major theological assertions and has definite distinctives. Otherwise, why would
the editor be spending so much time criticizing it? Does he think it
worthwhile to shoot at nothing at all? Why previously did he claim
it was a "new" position if it has no substance or a position at all?
The editor must make up his mind on where he will stand; he cannot
have it both ways! Theonomic ethics has substance. What the editor
is finding hard to put his finger on is a biblically based, legitimate
criticism of the position.
Misguided though it is, the editor's "logic" should not be overlooked. He began with the mistaken preconception that Theonomy
simply "must" be new and literalistic in perspective. It was thus
natural that when he received an article from me which showed its
historical roots and non-literalistic interpretation of the law the
editor was forced to conclude that the (allegedly) original position
had now been "modified." And if this was the case, then finally the
theonomic position could not be "pinned down," thereby lacking substance. The whole discussion, however, has been an extended excercisc
in the "Columbian fallacy"--remaining undauntedly true to faulty preconceptions. Theonomy is no more new, subsequently modified, or
unsubstantial than native Ameii-Ens are "Indians"!
When all is said and done, we still await the editor's scriptural
refutation of theonomic ethics. Sola Scriptura must be our governing
principle regardless of the opinions (even the ridicule or persecution)
of men. Surely the editor must agree.
(4) Let me also respond to some misrepresentations or misunderstandings on the editor's part. Contrary to his objection, to
recognize the ceremonial nature of an O.T. law is not to "pick and
choose" which of God's commands we will obey today. It is to recognize
the theological nature of that particular requirement and thus the way
in which such a command is appropriately observed by us today.
The editor elsewhere misunderstands me if he thinks that I would
deny that O.T. case laws can ever be applicable today in terms of their
very wording (for instance, about rooftops). It is certainly. possible
(and thus a few years ago I put a railing around our rooftop sundeck
while living in Manhattan Beach). My point is that the language of
the O.T. case-laws, being illustrative from an ancient culture, is not
necessarily directly applicable today. People with sloped rooftops
are not required to have a railing around them, even though they are
required by the Old Testament case law (as the Catechism says at
Q. 135) to avoid all occasions which tend unjustly to jeopardize the
lives of others. This is to pay attention to the intention of the
law's jot and tittle details. My remark about ancient Israel's
"rooftops, oxen, and ax heads" in the previous article: was simply
expressing our obligation to recognize the literary nature of the laws
we seek to obey--precisely so that we can obey them correctly.
The last misrepresentation to note is the editor's paraphrase of
my understanding of the thrust of "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17. That
Jesus confirms the full measure of the law against pharisaical perversions of it--the sense I give the word--means much more than the
editor's rewording lets on. Competent New Testament scholars do not
dismiss my conclusion as somehow inappropriate or indefensible: "The
word translated 'fulfill' can mean to 'establish, confirm, cause to
stand' and need mean only that Jesus asserted the permanence of the
law and his obedience to it.... In terms of Jesus' total message
'fulfill° probably has themeaning.of bringing to full intent and expression" (George Elden Ladd, Theology of 'the New Testament, p. 124).
Moreover, the editor's alternative explanation of "fulfill" is already
dealt with in an adequate manner in my book. Nevertheless it is noteworthy that if, as the editor suggests, Jesus is here saying that He
came "to put the law into effect," then the Lord thereby presupposes
the validity of the law in exhaustive detail--precisely the point of
theonOmic ethics!
(5) Finally I must mention a few areas of direct dispute with
the editor. He is wrong to ridicule me at one point for failing to
comment on one of his alleged illustrations of the application of O.T.
law today. I did not avoid comment at that point. Rather the editor
would not grant me enough space to reply to his. every. alleged example.
That does not strengthen his attack or give support to his position.
When the editor claims that some of my own examples of the
application of theonomic ethics do not represent Theonomy because fairminded men have agreed with such:ethical points in the past, we can
only chuckle. Where does he derive the rule that, the nature of
the case, theonomic applications must be outlandish and objectionable
to fair-minded men! (Another "Columbian fallacy" is looming here.)
What else would we expect from the Lord except fair laws? The
difference between theonomists and antitheonomists is that the former
see all of God's laws {where applicable) as fair and just today, while
the latter think only some are.
Against my explanation of Deut. 23:1 as dealing with those who
are made eunuchs the editor objects that the passage says nothing
about self-mutilation. (Of course it says nothing about accidental
mutilaT either, which his interpretation demands.) In reply I need
only recommend:that he read it in the original Hebrew and consult a
few exegetical commentaries.
Contrary to what he says at another point, Romans 2:12-15 firmly
supports my earlier observation that without the law there would be
no sin (and thus no need for the Savior). The Gentiles who do not
have a written revelation of the law are still guilty before God,
says Paul, because the work of the law is written on their hearts.
They knoW the ordinance of God ITErch they violate (e.g., Rom. 1:32).
In conclusion I must dispute the editor's last remark that the
two precepts of love laid down by Christ are better ethical guidance
today than the details of the 0..T. law. The fact is that these two
love precepts are themselves precisely quotations of details of the
O.T. law! Moreover, we could not know what love requires and prohibits
without the law. (The mistake made by Fletcher's "situational ethic"
of "love" is just to overlook this fact." Scripture authoritatively
teaches that "This is love, that we walk after His commandments"
(2 John 6). And in the view of Christ and the apostles, that includes
all of God's Old Testament commandments. The popular attempt today
to restrict the continuity of the law in the.New Testament to the
ten commandments is simply contrary to biblical practice, .as an
inductive study of the New Testament use of Old Testament law will
indicate. As already noted, when Christ wishes to summarize the
entire thrust of the. law, He authoritatively quotes Old Testament caselaws, not being confined to the decalogue. Moreover, without any
excuse or apology, the New Testament writers readily apply Old
Testament laws that go beyond the decalogue as though they are
currently valid--for instance, laws pertaining to legal evidence
(Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Matt. 18:16; I Tim. 5:19), prompt pay for workers
(Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15; I Tim., 5:18; James 5:4), respect for
ruling authorities and parents (Ex. 21:17; 22:28; Matt. 15:4;
Acts 23:5), securing a livlihood to laborers (Deut. 25:4; I Cor. 9:9;
I Tim. 5:18), putting away resentment and revenge (Lev. 19:17-18;
Matt. 18:15; Rom. 12:19), and caring for your enemies (Ex. 23:4-5;
Matt. 5:44; Rom. 12:20). Any attempt to restrict the standard of
Christian ethics to the summary commands of love, or even to the
summary commands of the decalogue, is thwarted over and over again by
the patent practice of the New Testament--a practice which is but the
consistent application of the Lord's words, "I have not come to abrogate the Law or the Prophets, for until heaven and earth pass away not
one stroke of the law will become invalid; therefore, whoever breaks
the least of these commandments and teaches men so will be called
least in God's kingdom!" (Matt. 5:17-19).