Trying to understand Theonomy and its critiques

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
I'm not cutting off my wife's hand if she is helping stop a fight.

According to Rushdoony's publisher, this is a mistranslation of the verse. I can't remember what they consider the proper translation, but they believe that there is no such law in the Old Testament.

EDIT: I found the Publisher's quote.

Publisher’s note:​
Dr. Rushdoony commented that the words translator and traitor have a common root, and that a translation of the Hebrew or Greek can fail to do justice to a text’s original meaning. He was not averse to adjusting his work in terms of the best conservative scholarship available. Three years after his death, a strong case for correcting the translation of Deuteronomy 25:12a was finally put forward. It is possible that Dr. Rushdoony would have embraced the newer translation and adjusted his comments accordingly. While we do not have the benefit of his having done so, given the time frame involved, the nature of the translation change is important enough to warrant mention here.​
The words “cut” and “hand” in the translation “cut off her hand” are somewhat unusual (“hand” in particular). The word normally used for “hand” is the Hebrew yad, used in verse 11 immediately before this verse, but in verse 12 we find the more rare word kaph. Kaph, derived from kaphaph (“curve”), denotes the bowl of a dish, or the leaves of a palm tree, or even the socket of the thigh (used twice in this sense in Genesis 32), as well as the palm of a hand. Recent scholarship points out that this word is a circumlocution for the groin. The word “cut” (kawtsats, from kawtsar) is used in Jeremiah 9 and 25 for cutting off the beard, being based on an Arabic root for cutting the nails or hair, in addition to other ranges of meaning (including the reaping of a field). In sum, a defensible translation for Deut. 25:12a, in lieu of “cut off her hand,” would be “shave [the hair of] her groin.” As Semitic scholar Jerome T. Walsh phrased it, “She has humiliated a man publicly by an assault on his genitalia (presumably without serious injury to them); her punishment is public genital humiliation, similarly without permanent injury.” This translation, as Walsh points out, reduces “the severity of the punishment from the permanency of amputation to the temporary humiliation of depilation.” Consequently, the punishment addresses both the principle of the lex talionis (proportionality of punishment) and “the shameful nature of the woman’s deed.” Had actual injury ensued, the assault would have been covered by the well-known biblical laws concerning compensation for injury rather than this passage.​
If Walsh’s thesis is borne out, there would remain no scriptural support for the idea that the Bible teaches mutilation as punishment anywhere. If Walsh’s view (despite very strong support on lexical and philological grounds) is ultimately rejected by conservative scholarship, the position Dr. Rushdoony advanced in the relevant two chapters of this commentary would stand as is. In either case, Dr. Rushdoony’s thesis that pity must always be subordinate to God’s law remains perpetually true: false pity always promotes lawlessness.[*]​
–––––––––––––––​
[*] For further research on the translation of this phrase, see the Journal of Semitic Studies 2004 49(1): 47–58, copyright 2004 by the University of Manchester: the article entitled “You Shall Cut Off Her … Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11–12” by Jerome T. Walsh.​
Rushdoony, R. J. (2008). Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy (p. 426). Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books.​
 
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Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
According to Rushdoony's publisher, this is a mistranslation of the verse. I can't remember what they consider the proper translation, but they believe that there is no such law in the Old Testament.

EDIT: I found the Publisher's quote.

Publisher’s note:​
Dr. Rushdoony commented that the words translator and traitor have a common root, and that a translation of the Hebrew or Greek can fail to do justice to a text’s original meaning. He was not averse to adjusting his work in terms of the best conservative scholarship available. Three years after his death, a strong case for correcting the translation of Deuteronomy 25:12a was finally put forward. It is possible that Dr. Rushdoony would have embraced the newer translation and adjusted his comments accordingly. While we do not have the benefit of his having done so, given the time frame involved, the nature of the translation change is important enough to warrant mention here.​
The words “cut” and “hand” in the translation “cut off her hand” are somewhat unusual (“hand” in particular). The word normally used for “hand” is the Hebrew yad, used in verse 11 immediately before this verse, but in verse 12 we find the more rare word kaph. Kaph, derived from kaphaph (“curve”), denotes the bowl of a dish, or the leaves of a palm tree, or even the socket of the thigh (used twice in this sense in Genesis 32), as well as the palm of a hand. Recent scholarship points out that this word is a circumlocution for the groin. The word “cut” (kawtsats, from kawtsar) is used in Jeremiah 9 and 25 for cutting off the beard, being based on an Arabic root for cutting the nails or hair, in addition to other ranges of meaning (including the reaping of a field). In sum, a defensible translation for Deut. 25:12a, in lieu of “cut off her hand,” would be “shave [the hair of] her groin.” As Semitic scholar Jerome T. Walsh phrased it, “She has humiliated a man publicly by an assault on his genitalia (presumably without serious injury to them); her punishment is public genital humiliation, similarly without permanent injury.” This translation, as Walsh points out, reduces “the severity of the punishment from the permanency of amputation to the temporary humiliation of depilation.” Consequently, the punishment addresses both the principle of the lex talionis (proportionality of punishment) and “the shameful nature of the woman’s deed.” Had actual injury ensued, the assault would have been covered by the well-known biblical laws concerning compensation for injury rather than this passage.​
If Walsh’s thesis is borne out, there would remain no scriptural support for the idea that the Bible teaches mutilation as punishment anywhere. If Walsh’s view (despite very strong support on lexical and philological grounds) is ultimately rejected by conservative scholarship, the position Dr. Rushdoony advanced in the relevant two chapters of this commentary would stand as is. In either case, Dr. Rushdoony’s thesis that pity must always be subordinate to God’s law remains perpetually true: false pity always promotes lawlessness.[*]​
–––––––––––––––​
[*] For further research on the translation of this phrase, see the Journal of Semitic Studies 2004 49(1): 47–58, copyright 2004 by the University of Manchester: the article entitled “You Shall Cut Off Her … Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11–12” by Jerome T. Walsh.​
Rushdoony, R. J. (2008). Commentaries on the Pentateuch: Deuteronomy (p. 426). Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books.​
This is interesting. But if this is true, why has no translation whatsoever made the adjustment?
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
This is interesting. But if this is true, why has no translation whatsoever made the adjustment?
Just to be clear. I'm not making any claim as to its validity. It just got my interest sparked few years ago when I read the commentary. At first blush it sounds right because the cutting off of the hand sounds wrong. But what do I know?

The latest revision of the ASV has a footnote regarding the possible mistranslation of this verse.

Ed
 

BuddyOfDavidClarkson

Puritan Board Freshman
One of the difficulties is that Bahnsen treats the Torah like it is akin to a modern law code. It isn't. It has song, poetry, and story in it. The US Constitution does not. The Torah also doesn't address the most important issue in a desert/agricultural society: water rights. The Torah also has laws which aren't ceremonial or clearly political, but not entirely moral either. The "bitter waters" test seems to work only in the old theocratic society, but there isn't any textual reason why it is limited to that society and not applicable today (unless you want to argue that it is a primitive lie detector test).

And then there are laws which have no punishment attached, like don't boil a goat in its mother's milk.

And then there are laws which would be hard to apply. If you are defending your house and your wife grabs the guy's testicles, you got to cut her hand off.

And then there is the fact that most theonomists know zero about the historic Christian and natural law tradition.

One of the huge factors that brought me into the Theonomy camp was how much Jesus and the Apostles quote/assume the Law still stands. It's everywhere. Greg constantly said that his mission was to make the case for Theonomy but that real work was ahead on what/how it applied. You raise a number of good questions. It's the Word of God though and worth our most diligent effort. The questions bubbling up in our society are answered in the Old Testament and we need to work hard to exegete those answers.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
The questions bubbling up in our society are answered in the Old Testament and we need to work hard to exegete those answers.

While I believe the word of God is sufficient for all things it addresses, it is simply not the case that all the questions in our society are already answered in the Old Testament. I can think of a number that aren't: transhumanism, artificial intelligence, parliamentary democracy, cloning, in vitro/utero fertilization, water rights, etc.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Just to be clear. I'm not making any claim as to its validity. It just got my interest sparked few years ago when I read the commentary. At first blush it sounds right because the cutting off of the hand sounds wrong. But what do I know?

The latest revision of the ASV has a footnote regarding the possible mistranslation of this verse.

Ed
I know you weren't necessarily endorsing it, but it is an interesting note. The word choice is indeed intriguing there. I'm going to look more into it.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
While I believe the word of God is sufficient for all things it addresses, it is simply not the case that all the questions in our society are already answered in the Old Testament. I can think of a number that aren't: transhumanism, artificial intelligence, parliamentary democracy, cloning, in vitro/utero fertilization, water rights, etc.

I think I already said this, but I don't understand why not being exhaustive is a deal breaker. You yourself pointed out that it wasn't exhaustive for Israel either, yet it was still valid for them.

If the moasic law should be an example for us today, then sure there will be difficulties applying it. There would be difficulties applying natural law too (and far more subjective application, I would think), but in either case, difficulties alone don't make either view a bad standard.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I think I already said this, but I don't understand why not being exhaustive is a deal breaker.

Two points:
1) Bahnsen upheld exhaustive detail, not me.
2) The post to which I was referring said the OT answered all the questions in modern society. I pointed out that wasn't the case.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
I know you weren't necessarily endorsing it, but it is an interesting note. The word choice is indeed intriguing there. I'm going to look more into it.
I haven't read the article so I probably shouldn't comment, but this translation of Deut 25:12 seems like a big stretch to me.
1) kaph (hand) is frequently distinguished from yad as being the extremity of the limb, so it makes sense to use it here.
2) yad is certainly used euphemistically, but as far as I know only of the male member. Perhaps Walsh has some examples of the usage of kaph for female genitalia but I am not familiar with any. The "socket of the thigh" in Gen 32 is the hip, which is not exactly the pubic area, and it gains that meaning only from the addition of the word "thigh", which is not present in Deuteronomy.
3) qatsats always means to cut: it is used of amputation of body parts several times (Judges 1:6, 7; 2 Sam. 4:12); it is only used of cutting hair in the phrase "cutting the corners", which refers to a ritual form of hair cutting around the temples (see Jer. 9 and 25; hence the opposite trend in orthodox Jewish hairstyling). I don't know of anywhere where it has the meaning of "shave." When I go for a haircut, I don't expect to be shaved.
4) Finally, there is already a very clear way of euphemistically saying what Walsh wants to in Hebrew: it is "to shave the hair of the feet/legs" (galach sa'ar harraglayim; see Isa. 7:20).

None of this really affects the discussion of Rushdoony or theonomy....so carry on!
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
The post to which I was referring said the OT answered all the questions in modern society. I pointed out that wasn't the case.
To be fair, our brother never said the OT answers all modern society's questions. He just said it answers "the questions bubbling up." And it most certainly does. Regardless, we all, even Theonomists, recognize that the Law does not answer every question. But that doesn't mean that in the places which it does speak clearly it is inapplicable or invalid. It is all valid—and yes, in "exhaustive detail," a phrase Bahnsen spent hundreds of pages and multiple books fleshing out.
 

jw

Administrator
I forgot who originally said it, but I think it holds true that Theonomy is the doctrine that dies the death of a thousand qualifications. I remember reading By This Standard (Bahnsen) and finding some counterintuitive points about the role of the state, in light of what Theonomists argue with regard to civil punishments, etc. I'll echo Daniel's earlier point -and something I believe Gillespie says in -I think- Wholesome Severity (or it might be his Miscellanies, not sure) that I wish that the Old Testament laws "were more looked to," but it does not mean that they comprehensively -by way of punishments, etc. address every situation that arises in modernity. Rather -and I think the Westminster Standards (1646-7) get it right- that the moral equity that is extracted from all the laws in the Old Testament help us to address all situations rising in modernity. The punishments will vary between place, station, and time, but THAT transgressions are to be punished (for example, adultery) should not be a matter of question for the Christian.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
The punishments will vary between place, station, and time, but THAT transgressions are to be punished (for example, adultery) should not be a matter of question for the Christian.
I suppose my question, then, would be: Who gets to decide what is a just recompense for any given crime, and how will we evaluate if they are just or unjust?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
To be fair, our brother never said the OT answers all modern society's questions. He just said it answers "the questions bubbling up."

Then he needs to clarify: does it answer just some questions bubbling up or any question that bubbles up. If he says it answers just some questions, then I don't see how anyone would disagree with that, which is why I read his meaning as "all" the questions.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
While I believe the word of God is sufficient for all things it addresses, it is simply not the case that all the questions in our society are already answered in the Old Testament. I can think of a number that aren't: transhumanism, artificial intelligence, parliamentary democracy, cloning, in vitro/utero fertilization, water rights, etc.
Daniel 4 arguably has something to say to transhumanism. I'm sure there are principles that can be applied to most if not all the situations you mentioned, at least at some level. I'm not necessarily defending the proposition that the OT speaks to every issue, but at least at some level there are principles we can apply to most aspects of life.
 

jw

Administrator
I suppose my question, then, would be: Who gets to decide what is a just recompense for any given crime, and how will we evaluate if they are just or unjust?
An established church and a magistrate who work in tandem -according to place, station, and sphere of authority- to uphold the Law of God. So -for example- a magistrate calls for a council, and the church -according to the Scriptures- inform of his duty, and how to execute it. Even in the Old Testament, there was not a punishment regulated for every possible sin. Even then judges were required for discernment, judging, etc.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Then he needs to clarify: does it answer just some questions bubbling up or any question that bubbles up. If he says it answers just some questions, then I don't see how anyone would disagree with that, which is why I read his meaning as "all" the questions.
Brother, with respect, I think you're being a little pedantic.

An established church and a magistrate who work in tandem -according to place, station, and sphere of authority- to uphold the Law of God. So -for example- a magistrate calls for a council, and the church -according to the Scriptures- inform of his duty, and how to execute it.
This has more to do with process. I'm asking more of an epistemological and ethical question. In your scenario here, by what standard will the church council know their judgment is just?
 

jw

Administrator
This has more to do with process. I'm asking more of an epistemological and ethical question. In your scenario here, by what standard will the church council know their judgment is just?
Because their judgment -according to the scriptures, and by way of general equity- will reward righteousness, and punish evil. I don't really understand what you're getting at. The "exhaustive detail" is not present in Scripture with regard to how every possible transgression is punished. Also, no correction or punishment doled out in this life will ever be perfectly just, except the one that was exacted upon our LORD Jesus Christ for the sins of His people. This, too, is by design.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Because their judgment -according to the scriptures, and by way of general equity- will reward righteousness, and punish evil. I don't really understand what you're getting at.
I'm just asking how they know the punishment dispensed will meet the crime without some external, objective and infallible standard. How will they know how to punish a rapist, for example? Do they give him 15-20 years in prison? Do they put him on a sex offender registry and call it a day? Or do they give him death? These three are markedly different punishments. Which is just? And how do we know?
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
...when push comes to shove, theonomy starts its process of qualifications.
But if the qualifications are of the substance the position, and not merely accidental, then I am failing to see how these qualifications lead to the conclusion that Theonomy is false. The entire system of Christian theology is filled with qualifications. Unitarians say the same thing of Trinitarian theology: "too many qualifications."
 

jw

Administrator
I'm just asking how they know the punishment dispensed will meet the crime without some external, objective and infallible standard. How will they know how to punish a rapist, for example? Do they give him 15-20 years in prison? Do they put him on a sex offender registry and call it a day? Or do they give him death? These three are markedly different punishments. Which is just? And how do we know?
The external, objective, and infallible standard of guilt are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. The degree to which temporal punishment goes has not been given to us in exhaustive detail for every sin. There are sins that require death. Those are pretty clear. But the degree to which theft is punished, for example, is going to be a matter of debate, depending on the aggravations, circumstances, etc. This is why -even in Israel- they had judges. What you're asking for is not something God has given. He has given us a standard of righteousness, and the duty to work out judgments according to that standard, some more explicitly and immediately discernible than others. This is also why we often tell people on here to go to their session when seeking advice with regard to a crisis of conscience, or some other matter: Because many things have to be weighed, judged, and discerned.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
The external, objective and infallible standard of guilt are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. The degree to which temporal punishment goes has not been given to us in exhaustive detail for every sin. There are sins that require death. Those are pretty clear. But the degree to which theft is punished, for example, is going to be a matter of debate, depending on the aggravations, circumstances, etc. This is why -even in Israel- they had judges.
I see. I have no objections to this.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
One point that both critics and defenders of Greg Bahnsen tend to miss is that Theonomy in Christian Ethics was a seminal work. It was not meant to be the final word on the subject. I recall Dr Bahnsen saying so himself in one of the audio lectures that came with my copy of the above book. Thus, even if one agrees with the general point that he was making in that volume, there is still plenty of room for disagreement concerning specific matters of exegesis and plenty of room for modifying some of his arguments without throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Thanks Daniel,
I got that impression as well. Bahnsen tried to start the discussion and was more than willing to modify based on sound exegetical principles, but the conversation seems to have quickly become emotional and dare I say, hysterical (I'm reading the background of what happened at RTS).
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Thanks Daniel,
I got that impression as well. Bahnsen tried to start the discussion and was more than willing to modify based on sound exegetical principles, but the conversation seems to have quickly become emotional and dare I say, hysterical (I'm reading the background of what happened at RTS).

You are correct. I suffered some backlash on that point when I was a theonomist. On one hand, nobody could answer Bahnsen in a public debate. On the other hand, these issues needed to be fleshed out in a more balanced medium. I don't think RTS or Bahnsen had the emotional distance to really engage the issue.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Here is one of the statements/questions made by the professors at RTS during the examination of Bahnsen's views (from Bahnsen's "What Really Happened at RTS?") I found this quite relevant not just to this discussion but to my question about Bahnsen and confessionalism.


"23. This is an entirely new point of view which has no support in the history of theology outside of the minor exception of the New England Puritans. This view of the judicial law is out of accord with church confessions, commentaries on the Westminster Confession, and the statements of notable theologians [a sheet of quotations distributed]. So Theonomy is out of accord with the Reformed Confessions."

Bahnsen's Response: "The Westminster Confession---just like many of the quotations distributed---says that the "general equity" of the judicial law is "required" today. This means that the moral principle illustrated and applied in the case laws of the OT is binding, while the particular historical application is not binding as such today. (For example, we may not need to put railings around our roofs today, but we are responsible to place a fence around our backyard swimming pool---in both instances to protect human life.) That the Westminster divines held this view of the case laws (judicial laws of Moses) is more than clear from direct statements they made elsewhere, as well as the vocabulary and writings of the Puritans of that period. That the Westminster divines held that the moral principles of the laws outside the decalogue (which they called the 'summary' of our moral duty, not the full extent of its content) were still binding in the NT age is obvious from their proof-texting of the Larger Catechism in the exposition of the sins and duties covered by the ten commandments. Therefore, Theonomy is not a stranger to reformed theology. It is a basic point of view held by many reformed writers in the past, whether or not it has continued in popularity. Those who appeal to the 'Reformed tradition' here are usually not aware of how they have to gerrymander that tradition to make their point. Moreover, many of those who have written about the judicial law in the past leave much to be desired in their theological exposition. For instance, Peck is cited in this sheet that was distributed. Yet Peck is easily faulted for logical inconsistencies, absence of exegetical support for his premises, inadequate moral evaluations (e.g., polygamy was tolerated in the OT because it is not evil per se, and because of the uncivilized status of the people---even though he elsewhere says that the judicial law demands too high a standard of holiness for other historical nations), and arbitrariness (as a Southern theologian, he said that the judicial laws expired---with the exception of those about slavery). Further, we must note that even if the New England Puritans were the only ones who endorsed the civil ethic of Theonomy (e.g., John Cotton), they can hardly be considered a minor exception. Their impact and importance are tremendous in terms of historical influence. Finally, not only can other Reformed Theologians of the past be cited in support of the basic approach of Theonomy, but this question is really quite irrelevant to the theological work and argument of my book. Jesus indicted the Pharisees for honoring their traditions, only thereby to make void the word of God. In the end my task as a moral theologian is to be true to God's written word. That is where the argument must center and be decided, not in church history."
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Bahnsen’s ethic—his view generally—requires the cooperation of the state to implement it, whatever the “general equity” of God's Law is deemed to require by the church. It appears to me that the phenomena of establishmentarianism (or any cooperation of the state with us) is far behind us, and I know of no state willing to enact a church’s moral judgments. “Theonomists” may say “what ought be should not be trumped by what merely is”—meaning the eternal should not be displaced by the temporal—yet when this happens just execution of God’s will but awaits the day of His Judgment.

In the meanwhile, here in Time (and in our 21st century), in His wise providence, the states—indeed, the coalition of the nations—“rage, and the people imagine a vain thing….The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us” (Psa 2:1-2,3).

It would seem, in such extremity of lawlessness, the church, on its own in a revolting and mad conglomeration of satanically-infiltrated deteriorating cultures, would enact such “general equities” as spiritually mirror the actual penalties of God’s Law, such that the offenders know God’s judicial hand upon them—from the severity of excommunication (the spiritual death-penalty) to the lesser yet serious and weighty forms of church discipline.

To think in terms of the state working with the church in our time is to indulge in abstractions and wishful thinking. We are an intact kingdom and governmental entity as it is, kept so by the King of Heaven and earth.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Bahnsen’s ethic—his view generally—requires the cooperation of the state to implement it, whatever the “general equity” of God's Law is deemed to require by the church. It appears to me that the phenomena of establishmentarianism (or any cooperation of the state with us) is far behind us, and I know of no state willing to enact a church’s moral judgments. “Theonomists” may say “what ought be should not be trumped by what merely is”—meaning the eternal should not be displaced by the temporal—yet when this happens just execution of God’s will but awaits the day of His Judgment.

In the meanwhile, here in Time (and in our 21st century), in His wise providence, the states—indeed, the coalition of the nations—“rage, and the people imagine a vain thing….The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us” (Psa 2:1-2,3).

It would seem, in such extremity of lawlessness, the church, on its own in a revolting and mad conglomeration of satanically-infiltrated deteriorating cultures, would enact such “general equities” as spiritually mirror the actual penalties of God’s Law, such that the offenders know God’s judicial hand upon them—from the severity of excommunication (the spiritual death-penalty) to the lesser yet serious and weighty forms of church discipline.

To think in terms of the state working with the church in our time is to indulge in abstractions and wishful thinking. We are an intact kingdom and governmental entity as it is, kept so by the King of Heaven and earth.
Although I think you note this in your first paragraph, this seems to be a false dichotomy, as though we have to choose between 1) just civil laws and 2) just ecclesiastical censures. But God’s law requires both. You’re right: Theonomy at this point is perhaps wishful thinking. But Theonomy’s entire vision consists of societal transformation from the ground up. Theonomists have said in many places that these principles only work in a society that is already mostly Christianized (at least on the surface). So the work begins not with laws but with the church, family, and local community. But just because the greater society, for now, is resistant to such things does not take away from its validity or desirability.
 
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