Trying to understand Theonomy and its critiques

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
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's interesting. Weren't some of the theonomists known for not being exceptionally strict in their observance of the Sabbath?

On this point it might be worth remembering that when Nehemiah acted as civil magistrate, he punished for Sabbath breaking but not with the death penalty.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
If personal disgust is a good reason, then sure.

That wasn't the reason (and I note that you dodged many tough questions that I and others have raised). It was the fact that the laws in Ex. 21-23 are random and apparently haphazard, whereas modern legal codes are fairly precise ordered. I stand by my earlier claim that validity in exhaustive detail means exactly that and can't be squared with 19.4's primary emphasis on expired.

And Morecraft's three questions are open to numerous problems:
1) Should weed be legalized (this had a bad application in Wilson's New St. Andrews school)?
2) If cloning is a crime (and Morecraft would be hard-pressed to demonstrate such), what is the biblical punishment?
3) What is the general equity of punishment for boiling a goat in its mother's milk?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
That's interesting. Weren't some of the theonomists known for not being exceptionally strict in their observance of the Sabbath?

On this point it might be worth remembering that when Nehemiah acted as civil magistrate, he punished for Sabbath breaking but not with the death penalty.

North and Rushdoony wrote against Sabbatarianism. Bahnsen did hold to it. Most recons didn't. I also thought of the Nehemiah incident. Nehemiah refutes Morecraft's claims.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
That wasn't the reason...
You literally said here the law in question is "repugnant." I find no other reason you've given. And (since you bring up dodging questions) you wouldn't even answer me when I asked you if you would resist such a law even if you could be convinced that it should be enforced. (Also, I dodged no question. I answered all of them. Saying, "I don't know right now, I'm still learning," is not dodging a question, but being honest.)

That's interesting. Weren't some of the theonomists known for not being exceptionally strict in their observance of the Sabbath?
I read Gary North on the Sabbath, and I find him on that issue to be wildly inconsistent and, frankly, annoying.

Should weed be legalized (this had a bad application in Wilson's New St. Andrews school)?
I think it should. I'll never use it, but I can't find any biblical reason why someone should receive civil sanctions for smoking a joint, unless of course their abuse of it causes another harm or loss.

If cloning is a crime (and Morecraft would be hard-pressed to demonstrate such), what is the biblical punishment?
Honestly, I don't know. I'm sure it's been written about somewhere. It is, after all, a very new issue. I'll do some digging, because now I'm curious.

What is the general equity of punishment for boiling a goat in its mother's milk?
I've heard several expositions of this. What's your opinion?
 

Phil D.

Puritan Board Junior
Of course, I'm sure you recognize that this is an appeal to emotion.
Sure, but it's nonetheless an entirely legitimate means to get one to really consider their position (cf. Matt. 7:1-2, 12). Do we have any indication that the apostles or the apostolic church killed or advocated killing adulterers and homosexuals as commanded in the OT? Quite the contrary (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; cf. John 8:3-11; James 2:13). Why is this? Morecraft's 3 points, of which you seemed to approve, are in themselves, at least as represented, far too simplistic.
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. ... So I Argue, a pari, from the like, He that will keep one judicial Law, because judicial and given by Moses becometh debter to keep the whole judicial Law, under pain of God’s eternal wrath. Samuel Rutherford,
Exactly. Gal. 5:3, James 2:10
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I've heard several expositions of this. What's your opinion?

It was a trick question. There is no punishment in the text. My point in asking it is to show that Torah isn't a legal code in the way we think it is. What kind of law code passes a law that doesn't have any punishment attached? Only a law code which is designed--in this instance anyway--in teaching wisdom.
Honestly, I don't know. I'm sure it's been written about somewhere. It is, after all, a very new issue. I'll do some digging, because now I'm curious.

I don't think theonomists have written about it. I get the newsletter from Mark Rushdoony and most of those are attacking socialism in healthcare. I'm not aware that Selbrede has written on it. The only other major theonomist who is publishing write now is McDurmon, and most of his stuff is about how the punishments don't apply anymore (his so-called cherem principle).
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
These are all things to consider. As I've said a couple times now, I'm still learning. At the end of this thread, though, here is where I'm at. On the one hand, I am even more convinced of the theonomic thesis. Though I am still learning, one does not need to wait until they have every possible facet of a position figured out in order to see its biblical validity. Faith seeking understanding. On the other hand, one place I think I'm actually backing off on is how strongly I previously thought WCF 19.4 necessitated Theonomy. I can now see that, at the very least, WCF 19.4 makes perfect room for it. I still think Theonomy is the best and the biblical option, but I can accept that the WCF, as a fallible human document, gives latitude for the various view that were clearly present among the Divines.

That's all I've got for now. I'm thankful to all you brothers for engaging (even you, Jacob). :)
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
These are all things to consider. As I've said a couple times now, I'm still learning. At the end of this thread, though, here is where I'm at. On the one hand, I am even more convinced of the theonomic thesis. Though I am still learning, one does not need to wait until they have every possible facet of a position figured out in order to see its biblical validity. Faith seeking understanding. On the other hand, one place I think I'm actually backing off on is how strongly I previously thought WCF 19.4 necessitated Theonomy. I can now see that, at the very least, WCF 19.4 makes perfect room for it. I still think Theonomy is the best and the biblical option, but I can accept that the WCF, as a fallible human document, gives latitude for the various view that were clearly present among the Divines.

That's all I've got for now. I'm thankful to all you brothers for engaging (even you, Jacob). :)

No problem. I was a theonomist at RTS, so I know what it is like to be attacked on this point. My taking off point was when Bahnsen (in the history of ethics chapter in Theonomy in Christian Ethics) recommended reading Alasdair MacIntyre's Short History of Ethics. That's what broadened my horizons and made me aware of all the tough questions in the study of ethics.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
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?

If it is shown that this is a perpetual punishment, then yes, of course. Just because it has fallen out of practice today is no argument that it shouldn't be done (speaking from a purely logical point of view). God's law and its punishments shouldn't shock or horrify us (if they do, then we ought to seriously question ourselves why). Also my guess is that this would be for hardened offenders. Note that I'm not convinced it is perpetual at this point, I say this for the sake of fair argument.

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.

Hmm, well one reason these "modern difficulties" could be arising is that we have simply disregarded God's law for far too long and put our own untrustworthy feelings in its place. When there are difficulties with God's law in a modern context, we ought to give at least some consideration to whether it is the law that is the problem, or whether it is our modern context that is the problem.

Regardless of whether Bahnsen was close to Rutherford, Gillespie, Palmer, etc., or not, it does appear that we ourselves, as a nation or even as Reformed Christians, are quite far from them ourselves, to the point where we often conveniently dismiss God's law, "general equity" and all.

At the very least, I've realized that this is a worthy thing to consider.
 

nathanstenzel

Puritan Board Freshman
3) What is the general equity of punishment for boiling a goat in its mother's milk?
I've heard it argued (can't remember where, sorry) that the general equity principle behind "boiling a kid in its mother's milk" is that we ought not to kill with that which is designed to nourish life. An example that comes to mind is the seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Jesus castigates the Pharisees for their use of the Law; He does not criticize the Law itself. The Pharisees have turned the Law into a "heavy burden, hard to bear" (Matt. 23:4), instead of obedience to the Law being an outworking of its weightier matters ("justice, mercy and faith"). Take the example of tithing. That which was supposed to be a blessing (Mal. 3:10) is turned into a "heavy burden, hard to bear." The problem is not with the tithe itself, but rather with the manner in which a life-giving command is turned into a soul-crushing burden, as well as, of course, the Pharisees own failure to measure up to the standards which they set forth.

Just my two cents. Willing to be redirected if I'm wrong here!
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
I came across an interesting quote from Robert Rollock on The Heidelblog:

It is true, indeed, a prince should be loath to put out that life that God hath put in, and should beware, to judge rashly in capital crimes. It is no small matter to make a crime capital; but if the crime be capital and deadly, the prince hath no power to hold his hand aback from execution, and to forgive. Indeed, for weighty and great considerations, a prince may mitigate the punishment, but to say he may let the man go free, he hath no power. But yet they will insist further, and say, Is not this one of the judicial laws that was given to the Jews—then what have we to do with it? I answer, these laws, seeing the Jews, and their commonwealth, and laws politic, are abrogate, in so far as they concerned that people, we have nothing ado with them—they are abolished; but for as much as they are grounded upon nature, and natural law, we have ado with them. As for this law, it is natural. Ye know, that natural men, ethnics, who had never the law of the Jews, they executed the murderer.

Robert Rollock, Lectures Upon The Passion, Resurrection, And Ascension Of Christ (Edinburgh: The Wodrow Society, 1616), 87–88.
 

Schoolman

Puritan Board Freshman
Has any of the authors discussed published a model law or other specific product of the theory?
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Senior
Has any of the authors discussed published a model law or other specific product of the theory?
Most of these authors have a distaste for the common evangelical tactic of speaking out against something but offering nothing better to take its place, so I think they have. Some good resources I can think of are of course Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, and North’s Tools of Dominion. These are not perfect, obviously. But at least they are trying to wrestle with the Law of God as it relates to modern society, which is far more than I can say for the vast majority anti-theonomists, frankly.
 

Schoolman

Puritan Board Freshman
Most of these authors have a distaste for the common evangelical tactic of speaking out against something but offering nothing better to take its place, so I think they have. Some good resources I can think of are of course Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law, and North’s Tools of Dominion. These are not perfect, obviously. But at least they are trying to wrestle with the Law of God as it relates to modern society, which is far more than I can say for the vast majority anti-theonomists, frankly.
Thanks. I just bought a few of those recommendations online.

Is anyone aware if a model legal *code* has been prepared? It would be several volumes, if it exists. A century or so ago, model law codes were common. Many states consulted them when streamlining their own codes. If a Christian model law code exists based on the work of Bahnsen, North, et al., it would represent quite an undertaking and expense.
 
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BuddyOfDavidClarkson

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.
While those topics you mentioned are obviously not addressed specifically, the Book speaks to all of life in principal.
 

XianRecon

Puritan Board Freshman
Edit: I meant to note in the title that this is specifically about Bahnsen's writing on theonomy, no one else.

Since the Bahnsen Project liberated Bahnsen's recorded material from CMF, I've been listening to a good bit and got into one of Bahnsen's series on ethics.

Now background: I would consider myself Establishmentarian and certainly Confessional. I've always been a bit wary of Theonomy just because of the cult that seems to surround Rushdoony, although I admit my personal knowledge is very slim. For this reason I was wary of Bahnsen when he started talking about theonomy.

However, in listening to it, it seems to me to be more of a logical extension of the WLC's exposition of the decalogue. Example: how do we know that "thou shalt not murder" means preserving life, protecting the weak, if not from the OT case law which expounds the decalogue? Bahnsen seems to be arguing for a philosophical foundation for ethics and law as being what God has revealed and himself expounded, although those laws might be applied in different ways today (about which I'm sure wise and godly individuals will disagree as to the specifics).

This is contrasted to a purely "natural law" view, which leads people like the humanists to form erroneous conclusions and leads to seeming arbitrariness. It's hard for me to see how natural law, without divine revelation to interpret it, can be a standard.

Regardless of one's definition of "theonomy" (which seems to be fluid), is Bahnsen saying more than this? And what was the controversy, historically, with this view? Is Bahnsen at odds with Confessionalism? Or is it primarily Americanism or American Presbyterianism that has an issue with this view?

I'm hoping to get a better grasp and understanding on a topic that apparently has a lot of history and baggage for a lot of people.
This has been a very enjoyable thread to go through, and thank God for His providence that The Bahnsen Project has liberated the incredible scholarship of Greg Bahnsen, and that theonomy is once again trending in the evangelical community.

You are certainly not alone in your innocent misinterpretation of strict theonomy and I thank you for seeking understanding rather than reviling as has been in vogue since at least the 1980s when Westminster came together to “answer” theonomy.

That said, I think you, and many others, may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what theonomy •really• is at it’s core: it’s the belief that the whole law handed down at Sinai is morally binding to all men today, insofar as it hasn’t been abrogated (i.e., the ceremonial distinctive). There are very few people within the Church who would argue the moral law (the Decalogue) isn’t binding, but the civil law, and the penal requirements therein are nothing more than the application of the moral law. It’s as if God has said, “here is my law, and here is how I want you to abide it.” As God does not and cannot change, why should we expect the requirements he has given to all people to change? If you’ve listened to or read Bahnsen’s theonomic works at any length, you’ve seen how he demonstrates that never was the Mosaic law meant only for Israel.

The question of how that applies today is ambiguous, and Dr. Bahnsen never pretended to have all the answers, and no one here should either. We should all be teachable people and open to correction when presented with solid Biblical arguments. But the simple fact we don’t have •every• answer doesn’t mean that our position can’t answer anything.

Romans is clear that the law of God is written on the hearts of all men - that’s the law. All of it. So when the argument is made that secular leaders must rule by general revelation/natural law, you’re arguing that man must rule by the entire Mosaic law - but the sin-tainted version. The special revelation isn’t tainted by sin, and, thus, like the rest of scripture, is useful for teaching, correction, etc…

Finally, in response to BayouHeugenot, I would caution you in saying the Mosaic las is silent in the most important issue of any ag. society - as though God himself hadn’t considered that. As it is, the theonomic position is that the civil law has told the magistrate all that they can do. If indeed the mosaic law is silent on water rights (which, if you consider property rights, it isnt), then God has not permitted the magistrate to make laws regarding it. I’d also caution you against saying things like “I’m not going to cut off my wife’s hand if she’s helping a fight.” If God has commanded you to, and that particular distinctive is still binding, then you must do it, lest you attempt to counsel God on right vs. wrong. I say that in love, not to be demeaning or mean-spirited.
 

XianRecon

Puritan Board Freshman
Per the National Covenanting link:

1) Bahnsen saw (1) as a nice idea but not necessary to theonomy.
2) If (2) implies a specific denomination, Bahnsen rejected that.
3) Bahnsen agreed with (3). Most recons reject (3). North is very, very clear on the Sabbath.
(5) That's a given. Most Theonomists are preterists. Rushdoony was an idealist. All reject historicism.
(7) The whole point of Reconstructionism is to get our man elected to office. McDurmon literally wrote a book on that topic.
8) North mocks natural law. Rushdoony rejected it. Bahnsen didn't deal with it.
I really have to suggest that if you think Bahnsen didn’t deal with natural law, you aren’t very familiar with him. Bahnsen discusses natural law many times, but doesn’t consider it any different than general revelation.
 

XianRecon

Puritan Board Freshman
While those topics you mentioned are obviously not addressed specifically, the Book speaks to all of life in principal.
It’s important to remember too that the Church and its offices are called to judge ethical matters based on the principles of scripture (transhumanism, artificial intelligence, etc…). It’s not within the purview of the magistrate to do anything apart from what God has explicitly told it to do as God understands that natural man is sinful and would rule sinfully if not equipped with the proper tools.
 
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