Trying to understand Theonomy and its critiques

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
In view of 1 Corinthians 10:11, how did you come to know that the story of the spies has nothing to teach us about our response to, let's say, the Great Commission.

They have many things to teach us. What the passage does not teach us, is that the narrative of the spies is a template for how to interpret the other passages. One does not imply the other.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Is there any known reason why the Confession uses the term "abrogated" in 19:3 in regard to the ceremonial law, and "expired" in 19:4 in regard to the judicial law? Bahnsen noted that there was the difference but admitted he didn't know the reason and declined to build any kind of case on it but I was curious if there were any notes or commentary on that.

Active vs passive? As in the ceremonial law is done away with, but the judicial law has merely reached the end of its specified period except as much as it useful for general equity?
 
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Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Is there any known reason why the Confession uses the term "abrogated" in 19:3 in regard to the ceremonial law, and "expired" in 19:4 in regard to the judicial law? Bahnsen noted that there was the difference but admitted he didn't know the reason and declined to build any kind of case on it but I was curious if there were any notes or commentary on that.

Active vs passive?
I think Joe Morecraft comments on it in his commentary on the WLC, Authentic Christianity. But I’m certain I heard him talk about it in his audio lectures on the WLC, in which his commentary is based, found in three parts: Part One, Two, and Three. Sorry, I can’t remember which lecture he mentions it.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Since the question of the definition of Theonomy has come up here and elsewhere, perhaps it would be helpful to present before us what I think might be one of the last concise articulations of Theonomy Bahnsen ever wrote. He outlines twelve principles:

1. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are, in part and in whole, a verbal revelation from God through the words of men, being infallibly true regarding all that they teach on any subject.​
2. Since the Fall it has always been unlawful to use the law of God in hopes of establishing one's own personal merit and justification, in contrast or complement to salvation by way of promise and faith; commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God's redeeming grace.​
3. The word of the Lord is the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of all men in all areas of life; this word naturally includes God's moral directives (law).​
4. Our obligation to keep the law of God cannot be judged by any extrascriptural standard, such as whether its specific requirements (when properly interpreted) are congenial to past traditions or modern feelings and practices.​
5. We should presume that Old Testament standing laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.​
6. In regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality (thus reinforcing former duties). The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and "separation" principles, redefining the people of God, and altering the significance of the promised land.​
7. God's revealed standing laws are a reflection of His immutable moral character and, as such, are absolute in the sense of being non-arbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances (thus applicable to general types of moral situations).​
8. Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God's transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes.​
9. Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and Judge.​
10. The general continuity which we presume with respect to the moral standards of the Old Testament applies just as legitimately to matters of socio-political ethics as it does to personal, family, or ecclesiastical ethics.​
11. The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing "judicial" laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. Outside of those areas where God's law prescribes their intervention and application of penal redress, civil rulers are not authorized to legislate or use coercion (e.g., the economic marketplace).​
12. The morally proper way for Christians to correct social evils which are not under the lawful jurisdiction of the state is by means of voluntary and charitable enterprises or the censures of the home, church, and marketplace—even as the appropriate method for changing the political order of civil law is not violent revolution, but dependence upon regeneration, re-education, and gradual legal reform.​
—Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 11-13.​
 

brandonadams

Puritan Board Freshman
Logan, I would just encourage you to continue reading Bahnsen. Do your best to understand him fully according to his own system. Don't stop at his paragraph advocating general equity. In my opinion, Bahnsen started with Rushdoony's unconfessional view (Rushdoony was very open about his disagreement) of the law and then later tried to back his way into something more confessional without abandoning his thesis, but his starting point was wrong so he never got there.

As others have noted, central to Bahnsen's thesis is his interpretation of Matt 5:17. He believed it referred to the entire Mosaic law (moral, civil, ceremonial), rather than simply to the moral law (the common reformed interpretation). This led him into the tremendous (unresolved, in my opinion) tension in his thought: all Mosaic law continues to be binding in exhaustive detail... except where the New Testament explicitly repeals a Mosaic law, in which case not all Mosaic law continues to be binding in exhaustive detail. He tried to argue that the ceremonial law is still binding, but the way we observe it has changed.

It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew the fifth chapter... I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”
Has God Changed His Mind? (Lecture 2 of 6)

Note that rather than a threefold division of the law he held to a two-fold division. Also note that he did not have a category for positive law (non-eternal law that God can give at any particular time for any particular reason and can likewise abrogate at any time).

It's also important to define "theonomy." I believe the following definition is accurate based upon Bahnsen's understanding. Theonomy is the starting presumption that the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel have not been abrogated therefore all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce them (including the specific penalties) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).

Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…
Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?
[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.
Chapter 2 “A Recognizable, Distinct Position,” in No Other Standard

Here are some links that you may find helpful:
  1. The General Equity of the Old Testament Civil Laws
  2. The Divine Law of Political Israel Expired: General Equity Sherman Isbell
  3. The Theonomy Debate: Analysis
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Westminster Commissioner William Gouge, Commentary on Hebrews
"Besides the ceremonial law, the Jews had a judicial law, proper and peculiar to that polity. This law concerned especially their civil estate. Many branches of that law appertained to the Jewish preisthood; as, the particular laws about the cities of refuge, whither such as slew any unawares fled, and there abode till the death of the high priest (Num 35:25). And laws about lepers, which the priest was to judge (Lev 14:3) and sundry other cases which the priest was to judge of (Deut 17:9). So also the laws of distinguishing tribes (Num 36:7); of reserving inheritances to special tribes and families, of selling them to the next of kin (Ruth 4:4); of raising see to a brother that died without issue (Gen 38:8,9); of all manner of freedoms at the year of jubilee (Lev 25:13) etc.

There were other branches of the judicial law which rested upon common equity, and were means of keeping the moral law: as putting to death idolaters and such as enticed others thereunto; and witches, and wilful murderers, and other notorious malefactors. So likewise laws against incest and incestuous marriages; laws of reverencing and obeying superiors and governors; and of dealing justly in borrowing, restoring, buying, selling, and all mannter of contracts (Exod 22:20; Deut 13:9; Exod 20:18; Num 35:30; Lev 20:11 etc.; 19:32, 35).

The former sort were abolished together with the priesthood.

The latter remain as good directions to order even Christian polities accordingly.

1. By these kinds of laws the wisdom of God was manifested in observing what was fit for the particular kind and condition of people; and in giving them answerable laws, and yet not tying all nations and states thereunto.

2. That liberty which God affordeth to others to have laws most agreeable to their own country, so as they be not contrary to equity and piety, bindeth them more obediently to submit themselves to their own wholesome laws, and to keep peace, unity, and amity among themselves."

I found that helpful in understanding Gouge's perspective, which would certainly find value in the non-priestly judicial laws of Israel, which even if not binding in the specific laws, must still have "answerable" or similar laws in place today, and "remain as good directions".
 
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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
5. We should presume that Old Testament standing laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.
Gouge's perspective, which would certainly find value in the non-priestly judicial laws of Israel, which even if not binding in the specific laws,

Those two propositions illustrate the heart of the problem. For Bahnsen, they are binding unless otherwise rescinded. For Gouge and the rest, they are wisdom.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Those two propositions illustrate the heart of the problem. For Bahnsen, they are binding unless otherwise rescinded. For Gouge and the rest, they are wisdom.
Yes, this is where the heart of the disagreement about Theonomy lies, in my experience. However, it would be a "problem" only if Gouge (and whoever "the rest" are; we know there was disagreement even among these men) were infallible. The real question, and the question upon which every idea stands or falls, is: Does Bahnsen's thesis comport with what Scripture teaches? I believe it does. Others disagree, and that's okay. But that Bahnsen or anyone else disagrees with a divine is not in and of itself a "problem."
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Those two propositions illustrate the heart of the problem. For Bahnsen, they are binding unless otherwise rescinded. For Gouge and the rest, they are wisdom.

I don't assume yet that Gouge's view is universal. It appears there was a good amount of diversity on this point among orthodox and Reformed.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Is there any known reason why the Confession uses the term "abrogated" in 19:3 in regard to the ceremonial law, and "expired" in 19:4 in regard to the judicial law? Bahnsen noted that there was the difference but admitted he didn't know the reason and declined to build any kind of case on it but I was curious if there were any notes or commentary on that.

Active vs passive? As in the ceremonial law is done away with, but the judicial law has merely reached the end of its specified period except as much as it useful for general equity?
The "abrogation" of ceremony refers to the fact that the whole OT system of worship has been superseded, with new forms coming in their place. To abrogate is to do away with, to annul (AHCD, 3rd. ed, p.5). As correctly observed, it is an active concept, and the New Covenant inauguration required the sort of formal undoing of the Old (Siniatic) Covenant at its heart, namely the Levitical altar and everything connected to it. The only way such a massive construct could give room to a new and better way was for it to be removed. The capstone of this removal was the literal erasure of the Temple.

The "expiration" of Israelite judicials comes in the wake of the removal of that church-state. These laws are "dead," inasmuch as they have no more place (or reason) to continue. It required no more formality than the end of that constituency to bring about the termination of that portion of Israel's Constitution. Unlike the ceremony, there is no continuity between Israel of old, and an ethno-political entity of the present. Paul's employment of the law about "muzzling the ox" in a strikingly new--even peculiar--application (1Cor.9:8-10) points the way to a very different use of the residual value in those ancient regulations by the NT people of God. Here is a key example of one direct application of those statutes in the NT context.

"Expiration" means that such case-law as Israel possessed, not by way of historic development but as it were by initial fiat--is only indirectly and incidentally useful to similarly situated ministers of law in contexts outside of the NT church. In any case, someone so interested would be desirous to know first what moral basis existed for his own proposed coercive (legal) imposition or mandate, and second if some law of ancient Israel was traceable back in a similar way to the same moral basis, i.e. general equity.

My position is that it is erroneous first to go to the laws of ancient Israel there to determine whether there should be some law for today, depending on the possibility of finding a plausible analogy between today's perceived needs and judicial elements of the Israelite Constitution. This is an inverted priority with a "spiritual" justification. Besides, as BH has pointed out, the Israelite Constitution did nowhere address one top concern of ancient society (water rights); so clearly it is not exhaustive in its case-order. The article of the Book of the Covenant, and all the Mosaic legislation thrown in, is fundamentally a religious text.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
I don't assume yet that Gouge's view is universal. It appears there was a good amount of diversity on this point among orthodox and Reformed.
You can canvas the various views before and after the assembly, in Foulner and some other compilations, but my bit on the subject covers what was published during the time the subject was before the Westminster assembly, ordered by best ascertained publication date (Thomason, Stationers or if not that Baillie, the Minutes, etc.). Gouge was not published until 1655 but were thirty years of preaching on Hebrews. Unless each sermon is dated I'm not sure when that quote of his would date to. Gouge was the father figure of all the London Presbyterians which would eventually, for a while, make up the provincial assembly at Sion College, the authors of Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici. See "The Westminster Assembly and the Judicial Law: Chronology," The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009): 3-55. As far as I can tell, this was the first study of its kind for this or any assembly related topic, keyed to the individual assemblymen's writings' publication during their sitting at the assembly (at least Chad Van Dixhoorn said he thought that was the case). My conclusion was, if any works were possibly representative or influential on the topic, it would have to be JDRE and Burges' lectures on the law (Vindicae Legis), because they are so connected to a majority of the assemblymen (those of the London Provincial Assembly).
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
If we look at the William Gouge quote dispassionately, we can draw two conclusions. First, there were judicial laws that rested upon particular equity. Greg Bahnsen's thesis does not adequately deal with these. Such laws are simply expired with the end of the Hebrew commonwealth. We do not need to prove from the NT that such laws are not binding on the Gentiles, since they were never given to them in the first place.

Second, the other judicial laws "rested upon common equity, and were means of keeping the moral law". I would interpret "remain as good directions to order even Christian polities accordingly" to mean that they remain valid according to their substance - even if not in their precise form as originally given. In that regard, Gouge agrees with Greg Bahnsen, but he is careful to point out that the whole judicial law is not of abiding validity and that Christian commonwealths may have other "wholesome laws", outside of the judicial laws, as long as they are consistent with piety and equity.

I think that the Gouge quote is simply another good example of how the earlier divines formulated their opinions on the judicial law more carefully and how rhetoric such as "The abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail" creates too much unnecessary confusion - even if the intention behind such as statement was good.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Thanks Daniel,

On the other hand, I fully sympathize with where Bahnsen was coming from, where it seems that for many, the idea of "the judicial laws are not binding" is taken as a license to get rid of punishments we find repugnant, or laws we simply disagree with.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
Interestingly though, Gouge was on the committee that handled the Law of God for the confession.
I don't assume yet that Gouge's view is universal. It appears there was a good amount of diversity on this point among orthodox and Reformed.

You can canvas the various views before and after the assembly, in Foulner and some other compilations, but my bit on the subject covers what was published during the time the subject was before the Westminster assembly, ordered by best ascertained publication date (Thomason, Stationers or if not that Baillie, the Minutes, etc.). Gouge was not published until 1655 but were thirty years of preaching on Hebrews. Unless each sermon is dated I'm not sure when that quote of his would date to. Gouge was the father figure of all the London Presbyterians which would eventually, for a while, make up the provincial assembly at Sion College, the authors of Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici. See "The Westminster Assembly and the Judicial Law: Chronology," The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009): 3-55. As far as I can tell, this was the first study of its kind for this or any assembly related topic, keyed to the individual assemblymen's writings' publication during their sitting at the assembly (at least Chad Van Dixhoorn said he thought that was the case). My conclusion was, if any works were possibly representative or influential on the topic, it would have to be JDRE and Burges' lectures on the law (Vindicae Legis), because they are so connected to a majority of the assemblymen (those of the London Provincial Assembly).

If we look at the William Gouge quote dispassionately, we can draw two conclusions. First, there were judicial laws that rested upon particular equity. Greg Bahnsen's thesis does not adequately deal with these. Such laws are simply expired with the end of the Hebrew commonwealth. We do not need to prove from the NT that such laws are not binding on the Gentiles, since they were never given to them in the first place.

Second, the other judicial laws "rested upon common equity, and were means of keeping the moral law". I would interpret "remain as good directions to order even Christian polities accordingly" to mean that they remain valid according to their substance - even if not in their precise form as originally given. In that regard, Gouge agrees with Greg Bahnsen, but he is careful to point out that the whole judicial law is not of abiding validity and that Christian commonwealths may have other "wholesome laws", outside of the judicial laws, as long as they are consistent with piety and equity.

I think that the Gouge quote is simply another good example of how the earlier divines formulated their opinions on the judicial law more carefully and how rhetoric such as "The abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail" creates too much unnecessary confusion - even if the intention behind such as statement was good.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
I actually did address Gouge in the above mentioned article. I forgot; it was over ten years ago; but then, I usually forget stuff the next day, so there's that too. :hunter:
judiciallaw-gouge.png
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Yes, this is where the heart of the disagreement about Theonomy lies, in my experience. However, it would be a "problem" only if Gouge (and whoever "the rest" are; we know there was disagreement even among these men) were infallible. The real question, and the question upon which every idea stands or falls, is: Does Bahnsen's thesis comport with what Scripture teaches? I believe it does. Others disagree, and that's okay. But that Bahnsen or anyone else disagrees with a divine is not in and of itself a "problem."

No one said Gouge is infallible. I thought at this point in the discussion we were simply saying what the Reformed had historically taught. And it isn't simply that Gouge disagrees with Bahnsen. Rather, if Gouge represents what the Confession taught, and Bahnsen disagrees with Gouge, then theonomy likely disagrees with the Confession.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Thanks Daniel,

On the other hand, I fully sympathize with where Bahnsen was coming from, where it seems that for many, the idea of "the judicial laws are not binding" is taken as a license to get rid of punishments we find repugnant, or laws we simply disagree with.

With the exception of cutting off your wife's hand (which I am almost certain it was never applied), we aren't saying that God's law is repugnant. Rather, we are saying that how Bahnsen interprets the law might not be the way the law was meant to be applied (and I am almost certainly on board with Poythress here).
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
No one said Gouge is infallible.
And I never said anyone said that. ;)

Rather, if Gouge represents what the Confession taught, and Bahnsen disagrees with Gouge, then theonomy likely disagrees with the Confession.
I think this is an approach by which both sides of this issue err. I don't think it's valid argument to take a document that is produced by a group of people and say that because one or some of the group believed X, that therefore the document teaches X (and that, by extension, anyone who therefore disagrees with select group of people disagrees with the document). It's just not that cut and dry, as I believe Ferguson has been quoted as arguing in this thread. The Confession gives latitude on several issues wherein the authors disagreed with one another. Infant salvation seems to me to be one of them. After this discussion, I am beginning to wonder of the application of the judicial law is another.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I think this is an approach by which both sides of this issue err. I don't think it's valid argument to take a document that is produced by a group of people and say that because one or some of the group believed X, that therefore the document teaches X (and that, by extension, anyone who therefore disagrees with select group of people disagrees with the document). It's just not that cut and dry

It is sort of that cut and dry. The views of the people who wrote the document are probably best represented in the document itself, and I think it is really clear on the distinction between abrogated and expired, binding vs. optional.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
No one said Gouge is infallible. I thought at this point in the discussion we were simply saying what the Reformed had historically taught. And it isn't simply that Gouge disagrees with Bahnsen. Rather, if Gouge represents what the Confession taught, and Bahnsen disagrees with Gouge, then theonomy likely disagrees with the Confession.

I think it's pretty clear to me at this point that the Confession was intentionally inclusive on this point, and certainly not exclusive, of the various views on this point. So Gouge's view is accommodated for sure, but his wasn't the only view that was accommodated.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
The views of the people who wrote the document are probably best represented in the document itself...
If they all agreed on a particular issue, sure. It's apparent to me now, though, as Logan said immediately above, that there was not universal agreement on this issue.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I find this troubling, perhaps you meant to phrase that more carefully?

Several ideas (and the way God juxtaposes various genres of law under one category should also make us think this isn't a template for a modern law code).

A man's genitalia in Israelite time was tied to his passing down the family. Now that Israelite constitution is gone, that isn't necessary. That's what I mean.

If some internet theonomists took over America tomorrow, and this above situation happened, and they told me I had to cut off my wife's hand, I would at first laugh at them. If I found out they were serious, I would probably respond with violence. Towards them. Not my wife.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Is there any known reason why the Confession uses the term "abrogated" in 19:3 in regard to the ceremonial law, and "expired" in 19:4 in regard to the judicial law? Bahnsen noted that there was the difference but admitted he didn't know the reason and declined to build any kind of case on it but I was curious if there were any notes or commentary on that.

Active vs passive? As in the ceremonial law is done away with, but the judicial law has merely reached the end of its specified period except as much as it useful for general equity?
They are two different ideas. "Abrogated" connotes that the laws themselves were repealed. "Expired" indicates that the circumstances for which the judicial law was enunciated came to an end. For instance, there are still aquatic creatures with fins and scales and those without. That they are no longer characterized as clean and unclean is due to the abrogation of the ceremonial law, not a change in the nature of aquatic animals. But the position of Israel as a theocratic nation ended. This is why there is a general equity in the judicial law that does not obtain for the ceremonial law.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I think it's pretty clear to me at this point that the Confession was intentionally inclusive on this point, and certainly not exclusive, of the various views on this point. So Gouge's view is accommodated for sure, but his wasn't the only view that was accommodated.

If it were intentionally inclusive on this point, it wouldn't have begun with "expired" as the dominating category and then allowed "general equity" as an add-on.

In any case, it is a moot point. No one disputes that the Reformers appealed to the judicial laws. I appeal to them against the IRS. What the theonomist needs to prove is that the Bahnsenian hermeneutic is true and binding.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
So how then can we possibly know what the verse might mean?
Sorry. Freudian slip. I meant chapter 19.4
We know what it means by what it says and what it does not say. If it could be proved that all the men involved in the production of the document were unified in their conviction on this matter, then we could say that their other writings tell us what the Confession means. But since we know that there was difference of opinion on the matter of the judicial law, and since the Confession clearly gives latitude on the matter, then all we can logically say is that some of the divines' views on this informs us of just that: some of the divines had a particular view on the matter, and others had a differing or modified view. That is not unreasonable or illogical, nor does it entail that we cannot actually know what the Confession teaches. To make it seem as if the Confession either teaches Theonomy or teaches against Theonomy is a false dichotomy.
 
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