Trying to understand Theonomy and its critiques

Status
Not open for further replies.

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
This is an example of the "thousand qualifications" mentioned above.
I’ve already addressed this in this thread. Theonomy is hardly the only facet of orthodox Christian theology that requires qualification. Trinitarian doctrine needs qualification. Sacramentology needs qualification. The Westminster Confession is full of qualifications. That’s just what theology is. In my opinion, this repeated complaint seems like an unwillingness to deal with the position on its own terms. I’m more than happy to engage in discussion, you’re just not really giving me anything of substance to work with.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Indeed, Israel had from God a kind-of "Great Commission," though it was very much not for realization in the dispersed and leaven-like manner of the NT people of God. Israel existed in the form it did in the face and in the midst of the world, established over and against opposition, and was for a witness against that world and to call it to something better than it knew or could achieve otherwise, see Dt.4:8. According to this interpretation, the book of Joshua functions analogously to the book of Acts, where we see the NT church existing in the face and in the midst of the world, established over and against opposition, and is for a witness against the world and to call it to something better than it knows or can achieve on its present path of contradiction to God, and furthermore to the cross of Christ.

The conquest of Canaan is mistakenly taken as a symbol and sign of the church's mission to conquer the whole world, or to subjugate all nations and purge iniquity out of the earth. Quite wrong, in my estimation. We should see in the conquest: 1) the fact that God will establish his church in the world; 2) the duty of the church to seek establishment only by the will of God, both in place and in manner. And to the end of a sure and lasting emplacement, 3) the church must exercise discipline of itself to purge the evil from its midst. Is the whole world in the midst of the church? No (and if so, woe betide her), but the church is surrounded (as Israel once was) in the midst of the world. It was not Israel's job to purge Egypt of its idols, or to take over Egypt and then proceed to purge it. Nor is it the NT church's job to purge the USA or elsewhere of its idols, or take over to that end; but to purify itself, 1Jn.5:21.

In Mt.28:19 is the command, "Make disciples of all nations;" where "all nations" is accusative, i.e. direct object of the verb "to disciple," or alternatively, "make disciples." The essence of the command is that the church is to be a calling-out and allegiance-making enterprise, through gospel proclamation--and that, when it is popular and when not, 2Tim.4:2. It is not the case that this command contains an implicit promise of "national" success, i.e. that one or many nations, or all of them, will take the church's teaching to heart generally, as a kind of natural or supernatural cause/effect. From the command there is only the expectation that in taking the gospel to ALL the nations God intends to use that means to bring his elect into his supranational kingdom from out of every secular nation.

The impression some have that the command ordains the transformation (Christianization) of one nation after another as a nation is radically false. Obedience to the command does not envision any particular outcome, beside the baptizing and teaching of the called into citizenship--not of their native country, but of the kingdom of heaven. In fact, aggregate percentage of one nation's elect is variable, and ought so to be expected. There are innumerable factors accounting for variation in transformation of societies into which the church has been sown. Moreover, in places where visible transformation came and is attributable to the church's presence, the long term effects are so mixed as to defy accurate evaluation.

It's hardly controversial to say that the presence of Christians and the church make ethical effects on the wider world around them. Jesus' call to be salt and light implies those expected effects. However, men love darkness rather than light; and natural men have no regard for the preservation (delay of judgment) effect of spiritual men in their midst. But in spite of the world, the church's impact is felt on it. The witness forces the world to deal with the church, and often changes are made that accommodate the church with respite and produce a general social-benefit. Still, the after-effect of widespread nominal Christianity is typically barren fields, "burned over districts," and increased resistance to conversion. That's a rather large price to pay for a period of extra influence, where the social benefits of Christianity are used successfully as selling points and encouragements to "faith."

What is T/theonomy selling? Is it selling that product to the church? If so, to what end? Is it selling that product to the world? If so, to what end? If it's selling "correct law" to the world as a solution to its problems, I can't think of a bigger failure of spiritual utility. It is another version of the prosperity gospel, that by dedication to "obedience God's way" one will either find success through (true) faith, or because of failure will see one's way to more faith, thus more obedience resulting in more success. The law will solve nothing. Law only ever increases the trespass, Rom.5:20.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I’ve already addressed this in this thread. Theonomy is hardly the only facet of orthodox Christian theology that requires qualification. Trinitarian doctrine needs qualification. Sacramentology needs qualification. The Westminster Confession is full of qualifications. That’s just what theology is. In my opinion, this repeated complaint seems like an unwillingness to deal with the position on its own terms. I’m more than happy to engage in discussion, you’re just not really giving me anything of substance to work with.

Trinitarianism doesn't need all that many qualifications. It only had to qualify itself in response to heresies. Theonomy qualifies itself from the outset. It starts with the bold thesis of exhaustive validity only to find that it really doesn't mean that.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
From what I recall, Greg Bahnsen modified his exegesis of Matthew 5:17ff in Five Views on Law and Gospel. While I do not have the references to hand at present, I seem to recall him arguing that the text referred to the moral law, not to the ceremonial laws. It is clear from various things that he said and wrote that in practice he did not believe that the whole judicial law was binding in exhaustive detail. He also did not follow R. J. Rushdoony in some of his idiosyncratic views. The problem is, however, that when you start with the premise of "The abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail" you are leaving yourself a hostage to fortune and need to qualify your thesis to death in order not to be misunderstood. It is much easier just to admit that stating the thesis in this manner was a mistake. A better approach would have been to argue for the abiding validity of the judicial laws of common equity.

To be fair, though, I believe that most critics of Greg Bahnsen need to remove the unconfessional beams from their own eyes before removing the speck from his. Do you agree that the magistrate is duty-bound to uphold both tables of the law? Do you believe that the civil ruler ought to punish idolaters, blasphemers, heretics, and gross Sabbath-breakers? Would you be willing to accommodate nearly the entire Reformed tradition (16th to 18th century) in ministerial communion given their views on the OT judicial laws? If your answer to these questions is "no", then you are unconfessional on these points. I do not mean that as a personal swipe against anyone here, but you are not in a position to criticise someone else when your own views are so far removed from those of the Westminster Standards.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Sinclair Ferguson (An Assembly of Theonomists? pg 345-46):

"No single position on every aspect of the doctrine of the law was held by the Divines at Westminster. They represented a variety of hues within a conservative spectrum, on many doctrines, and specifically on the doctrine of the law of God. Hence their protracted and difficult discussions. Here, as elsewhere, part of their genius lay in their ability to state doctrines clearly, yet not so narrowly as to exclude brethren among themselves who likewise were committed to generic Calvinism. Their response to Parliament's demand for proof-texts, the known theological diversity among the commissioners, and indications in the minutes that they themselves were prepared to express things in an accommodating fashion all suggest that Chapter XIX is a fine example of their Reformed inclusivism. It would have satisfied those Divines, like Gillespie, who wished that more attention would be given to the Mosaic penology; it satisfied others who did not believe that the Mosaic penology as such was necessarily binding, in all of its details, though the Mosaic prescriptions generally speaking were."

"Essentially Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it."
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
"Essentially Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it."

Does the death penalty only apply to murder? The historic Scottish Reformed answer. Amazingly, you would have a hard time getting ordained in some otherwise very conservative denominations, which subscribe to the original WCF, if you held this position today.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Gillespie, CXI Propositions Concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church

"47. It is one thing to govern the commonwealth, and to make political and civil laws; another thing to interpret the Word of God, and out of it to show the magistrate his duty, to wit, how he ought to govern the commonwealth, and in what manner he ought to use the sword. The former is proper and peculiar to the magistrate (neither doth the ministry intermeddle or entangle itself into such businesses), but the latter is contained within the office of the ministers.

48. For to that end also is the holy Scripture profitable, to show which is the best manner of governing a commonwealth, and that the magistrate, as being God's minister, may by this guiding start be so directed, as that he may execute the parts of his office according to the will of God, and may perfectly be instructed in every good work..."
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Gillespie, CXI Propositions Concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church

"47. It is one thing to govern the commonwealth, and to make political and civil laws; another thing to interpret the Word of God, and out of it to show the magistrate his duty, to wit, how he ought to govern the commonwealth, and in what manner he ought to use the sword. The former is proper and peculiar to the magistrate (neither doth the ministry intermeddle or entangle itself into such businesses), but the latter is contained within the office of the ministers.

48. For to that end also is the holy Scripture profitable, to show which is the best manner of governing a commonwealth, and that the magistrate, as being God's minister, may by this guiding start be so directed, as that he may execute the parts of his office according to the will of God, and may perfectly be instructed in every good work..."

I don't dispute that. What is under consideration is whether Gillespie is advancing a proto-form of Bahnsen's hermeneutic.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Rutherford, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience

"The word of God is as perfect in teaching for what sins the Ruler should not punish, as for what he should punish.

"The express law of God, and of nature written in the hearts of all, proveth that the seducer should die (Deut. 13). If a prophet or a Dreamer arise, and say, let us go after other gods, he shall be put to death. That is no temporary law obliging the Jews only.

"Our adversaries are obliged to give us precept, promise or godly practice. Why a moral sin forbidden and severely punished in the Old Testament, should yet remain a moral sin in the New Testament, and yet not be punishable by men or churches."
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Herbert Palmer (member of Westminster Assembly) The Glasse of God's Providence Towards His Faithfull Ones sermon before Parliament, August 13, 1644:

"this general rule gives me leave to assert and commend to your most serious considerations and consciences: That whatsoever Law of God, or command of His, we find recorded in the Law-book, in either of the volumes of God's statute, the New Testament or the Old Testament, remains obligatory to us, unless we can prove it to be expired or repealed. So it is with the statute-law of this nation, or of any nation."

This last quote is quite striking to me.

These quotations can be multiplied, but I think it is amply shown from quotations from Palmer, Rutherford, and Gillespie (all Westminster commissioners), that Ferguson is essentially correct that the WCF appears to accommodate the views of these men as well as a view like Gouge's.

The question I initially wanted answered in this thread is whether Bahnsen was outside the Confession or not. After this discussion and the quotations given by myself and others, I don't believe he is. In fact I think he sits comfortably with many of the commissioners, even if he expanded them more fully. That is not to say I yet agree with Bahnsen, but it is helpful to know.
 
Last edited:

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
This is a very interesting discussion, where we get to see “Theonomic” strains in the original Reformed Confessions and their divines, and so much of the concern pertains to the views of Mosaic penal punishments carried over into the NT nations’ civil codes. As well the principles of OT Law carried over into NT times. So far, no problem as I see it.

But then, as pastor Bruce brings out, we are not called to “Christianize” the nations and their governments as if our great commission called for this — bettering the world by the power of the Gospel in the political and cultural arenas, as well individual lives in the “grass roots” — preparing it for the return of the Lord, but rather calling the elect out of the nations into the transnational holy nation of God’s people that shall people the renewed earth of the eternal age to come. While the nations and cultures of the world shall, according to Scripture, darken with wickedness and violence.

This is why the WCF was altered in America to partially remove the establishment view of the older Confession, and in the Confession I subscribe to, the Three Forms of Unity (3FU), I adhere to the view of Prof. / Pastor David J. Engelsma of the PRCA, who, by permission of the Protestant Reformed Churches has been relieved of his obligation to submit to the teaching of the Belgic Confession’s Article 36 regarding the ‘office’ of the magistrates and their power over the church. (See the “Degree of confessional adherence” section in my PB account for further detail).

What the civil authorities do or do not do with regard to God’s Law — and yes, one could desire they observed and enforced it over their respective jurisdictions — the church’s mandate is to a) conform itself to the character of Christ and the word of God, b) bear witness to the world — speaking God’s truth to those in power — of the coming Day of Judgment where all shall give account to the Almighty for their conduct in their respective vocations, and c) to proclaim the mercy of God in Christ whereby through His atoning death He has obtained forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who will put their trust in Him.

The discussions of “Theonomy” and relevance of Mosaic Law for the nations, while of interest to the godly, are abstract and hypothetical, and distract us from the real tasks at hand — the bearing witness and strengthening of the church. The postmil hope for better days to come — without Scriptural warrant — while the amil look to Christ for strength and wisdom to endure the coming flood, according to Scripture.
 
Last edited:

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Rutherford, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience

"The word of God is as perfect in teaching for what sins the Ruler should not punish, as for what he should punish.

"The express law of God, and of nature written in the hearts of all, proveth that the seducer should die (Deut. 13). If a prophet or a Dreamer arise, and say, let us go after other gods, he shall be put to death. That is no temporary law obliging the Jews only.

"Our adversaries are obliged to give us precept, promise or godly practice. Why a moral sin forbidden and severely punished in the Old Testament, should yet remain a moral sin in the New Testament, and yet not be punishable by men or churches."
Rutherford (and I thoroughly love Rutherford!) is here entangled in the matter of establishment. It is so part of his world and life view; and yet not part of ours, nor a part of Paul the Apostle's. That he appears to speak of secular power is evident, under the term Ruler.

But it may be answered in the second paragraph, that certainly the seducer should die; but should a state not covenanted with God (as Israel alone was legitimately bound) be obligated to deal death to those of an unapproved religion? Does the Islamic state have half the correct view: that proselytizing Christians being a threat to their social order, according to the law of nature they should be executed? If an Islamic power should kill the blasphemers (i.e. Christians), are they no legitimate government? Or should they simply change their religion, and still kill the blasphemers (i.e. now the Mslms)?

Is not the death promised, Dt.13, such that God himself will surely visit his just sentence in due time? Surely, he will requite the blood of his servants at the hands of the persecuting power. What should his answer be, to them who protest that in their ignorance they only did what the law of nature upon their hearts instructed?

On the other hand, churches do inveigh against the seducer, and pass sentence on them as heretics, and pronounce them damned who persist in their error. Thankfully, it does not fall under the powers proper to the NT church to take further than spiritual condemnation the order to execute condemnation of the body. Nor, thankfully, does it pertain to the church to turn such condemned persons over to the state to exact capital penalty. Though, once upon a time (as our martyrs attest) they did.

Therefore, Rutherford's last question is answered affirmatively: that this sin is justly punished by churches. Only, I suspect he remains entangled in the matter of establishment; and the church's excommunication may be insufficient for him.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
It starts with the bold thesis of exhaustive validity only to find that it really doesn't mean that.
Again, it is important that we define terms. What does it mean that a law is "valid"? Does it mean it is still in force? Does it mean it out to be practiced the same manner as when it was given? Does it mean nothing has changed? Well, it depends upon which type of law of the threefold division we are talking about. The moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws are all valid today, and in exhaustive detail, but each in different ways. The moral law is valid in a completely and uniquely unchanging sense. The judicial law is valid in that it shows us the proper civil application of the moral law, although the precise circumstances and manner in which they are applied may have changed. The ceremonial law is valid in that we still need a priest and a sacrifice. That fact has absolutely not changed. What has changed is who the Priest and Sacrifice is.

So, it is not true to say that Bahnsen says on one hand that the law is valid, and then goes on through qualification to render the thesis null. No, the law is valid in exhaustive detail. But that it is not the same thing as saying that the law is binding in exhaustive detail precisely as when the law was given, as if there has been no change in dispensation.

Again, we have to deal with Theonomy on its own terms. The thesis and the exposition of that thesis are simply no contradictory. So far, this has merely been asserted, but not defended. I am willing to entertain that notion but, again, I need more to work with. All I have gotten so far is, "Theonomy has too many qualifications," and, "I'm not cutting my wife's hand off." I haven't gotten anything substantial, brother.
 
Last edited:

Jerrod Hess

Puritan Board Freshman
I think it's important to flesh out the similarities and distinctions between the Puritans, and postmodern "big T" Theonomists. The slew of quotes posted above, I could agree with a lot of them, even the Puritans believed in defending both tables of the decalogue; this however does not mean Rushdoony, North, or Bahnsen/etc. walked in the same spirit as they.

The judicial laws are only worth defending insofar as their underpinnings and foundation were of the Law of Nature, that is, the moral law summarized in the 10 commandments. To think that the "moral and judicial law remain" is to have a low view of the moral law; and to merge the two into one is confusion. The whole point of chapter 19 in the Westminster is the abiding supremacy, perpetuity, and validity of the moral law alone; seeing the moral law "doth for ever bind all", whilst the ceremonial laws were "abrogated", and those judicial laws "expired"; paragraph 5 is written in contrast to the utter inferiority and insufficiency of those two.
 
Last edited:

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Again, it is important that we define terms. What does it mean that a law is "valid"? Does it mean it is still in force? Does it mean it out to be practiced the same manner as when it was given? Does it mean nothing has changed? Well, it depends upon which type of law of the threefold division we are talking about. The moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws are all valid today, and in exhaustive detail, but each in different ways. The moral law is valid in a completely and uniquely unchanging sense. The judicial law is valid in that it shows us the proper civil application of the moral law, although the precise circumstances and manner in which they are applied may have changed. The ceremonial law is valid in that we still need a priest and a sacrifice. That fact has absolutely not changed. What has changed is who the Priest and Sacrifice is.

So, it is not true to say that Bahnsen says on one hand that the law is valid, and then goes on through qualification to render the thesis null. No, the law is valid in exhaustive detail. But that it is not the same thing as saying that the law is binding in exhaustive detail precisely as when the law was given, as if there has been no change in dispensation.

Again, we have to deal with Theonomy on its own terms. The thesis and the exposition of that thesis are simply no contradictory. So far, this has merely been asserted, but not defended. I am willing to entertain that notion but, again, I need more to work with. All I have gotten so far is, "Theonomy has too many qualifications," and, "I'm not cutting my wife's hand off." I haven't gotten anything substantial, brother.
I have offered substantial responses that go to the heart of the matter. You just disagree with them
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
I'm listening again to Joe Morecraft's exposition of the WLC on this matter. For those interested in concise definitions of the theonomic position, his is even more concise and simple than Bahnsen's:

1) Only God can infallibly distinguish between good and evil, and he has done so in the Bible.​
2) Only God can infallibly define what is criminal and what is not, and he has done so in the Bible.​
3) Only God can infallibly define how crimes are to be justly punished, and he has done so in the Bible.​

The lecture wherein these principles are found can be heard here, at roughly the 9:00 mark.
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
1) Only God can infallibly distinguish between good and evil, and he has done so in the Bible.2) Only God can infallibly define what is criminal and what is not, and he has done so in the Bible.3) Only God can infallibly define how crimes are to be justly punished, and he has done so in the Bible.
Serious question: Do you then think all Sabbath breakers should still be put to death (Ex. 35:2)? Have you or a loved one ever broken the Sabbath?
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Serious question: Do you then think all Sabbath breakers should still be put to death (Ex. 35:2)?
This is a really difficult question, I confess. There's no other way to say it. It really depends on this particular law, whether it was purely judicial, how it filters through the "general equity" grid, etc., etc. I'll admit that just don't know at this point. Of course, I recognize some will read this and perhaps scoff, saying that because of this difficulty the Theonomic thesis does not hold. But the fact that I as an individual am still figuring this out does not invalidate the entire thesis, just as my wildly inferior grasp of the mystery of the Trinity does not invalidate that doctrine. Furthermore, no Theonomist that I am aware of argues that every single law is applied in the exact same way without any nuance whatsoever. I know the critics would make it seem to be that simple, but it's not. That's not what "validity in exhaustive detail means." If that's all it meant, there wouldn't have been a small library of books written on this. Nobody ever said the application of Theonomy is easy.

I'll do some digging and perhaps get back to you. As I skim the literature, the common thread seems to be that the Sabbath, while still in force, and while still one of the ten commandments and thus part of the moral law of God, yet has a particular relation to Christ's fulfilling of the Law that the other commandments do not have. That seems to me to be a start toward dealing with your question. But I will not pretend this isn't a complicated one.

Have you or a loved one ever broken the Sabbath?
Of course, I'm sure you recognize that this is an appeal to emotion. That I or a loved one has ever broken the Sabbath (both of which are true) has nothing to do whatsoever with whether or not biblical law should be carried out. Whatever our answer is, and whatever the difficulty we perceive in it, our standard for navigating the matter should not be whether or not we would have this law's sanctions exercised on those we know and love. Rather, the standard is God and his Word alone. What does he say? In the end, if he says something we do not like, whatever it may be, the problem is not with him, but with us. Similarly, I would also urge that we not seek to invalidate anything using the method of "what about this" and "what about that." Again, what does God say? That's all that matters.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
using the method of "what about this" and "what about that."

That's literally the whole point of casuistry. As I've suggested earlier. Torah wasn't meant to be applied like the US Tax Code (find law here, apply there). That's why these modern difficulties are arising. Another example is what Poythress said: per Deut. 13, would you have your army besiege a covenant-breaking city and burn it to the ground?
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
I think I was one of the first if not the first to publish this when this debate and use of these sources started going on in the early 1990s. Rutherford brings up the death penalty for Sabbath breaking in this passage of Divine Right of Church Government.

That this Author saith, God commanded those that transgressed his holy Law with an high hand, and presumptuously to be killed lest they should live and prophane his holy things; I defend not: But sure Erastus erreth, who will have all such to be killed by the Magistrate under the New Testament, because they were killed in the Old: Then are we to stone the men that gathereth sticks on the Lord’s day ; the child that is stubborn to his Parents, the Virgins, daughters of Ministers that committeth fornication are to be put to death. Why, but then the whole judicial! Law of God shall oblige us Christians as Carolostadius and others teach?​
I humbly conceive that the putting of some to death in the Old Testament, as it was a punishment to them, so was it a mysterious teaching of us, how God hated such and such sins, and mysteries of that kind are gone with other shadows. But we read not (saith Erastus) where Christ hath changed those laws in the New Testament. It is true, Christ hath not said in particular, I abolish the debarring of the leper seven days, and he that is thus and thus unclean shall be separated till the evening; nor hath he said particularly of every carnal ordinance and judicial law, it is abolished.​
But we conceive, the whole bulk of the judicial law, as judicial, and as it concerned the Republic of the Jews only, is abolished, though the moral equity of all those be not abolished; also some punishments were merely symbolical, to teach the detestation of such a vice, as the boring with an aul the ear of him that loved his master, and desired still to serve him, and the making of him his perpetual servant. I should think the punishing with death the man that gathered sticks on the Sabbath was such; and in all these, the punishing of a sin against the Moral Law by the magistrate, is moral and perpetual; but the punishing of every sin against the Moral Law, tali modo, so and so, with death, with spitting on the face: I much doubt if these punishments in particular, and in their positive determination to the people of the Jews, be moral and perpetual: As he that would marry a captive woman of another religion, is to cause her first to pare her nails, and wash herself, and give her a month, or less time to mourn the death of her parents, which was a judicial, not a ceremonial law; that this should be perpetual because Christ in particular hath not abolished it, to me seems most unjust; for as Paul saith, He that is circumcised becomes debtor to the whole law, sure to all the ceremonies of Moses his law. So I Argue, a pari, from the like, He that will keep one judicial Law, because judicial and given by Moses becometh debtor to keep the whole judicial! Law, under pain of God’s eternal wrath. Samuel Rutherford, Divine Right of Church Government, 1646, pp. 493-494.
 
Last edited:
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top