by Raymond O. Zorn
In 1982 I wrote an extended review of Dr Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics which was subsequently published in the May issue of Vox Reformata, the theological journal of the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia. In this review I took note of Bahnsen’s threefold definition of theonomy, namely, that “God’s Word is authoritative over all areas of life (the premise of a Christian world-and-life-view), that within the Scripture we should presume continuity between Old and New Testament principles and regulations until God’s revelation tells us otherwise (the premise of covenant theology), and that therefore the Old Testament law offers us a model for socio-political reconstruction in our day”.
From the above definition there would appear to be little to fault about theonomy; in fact, shouldn’t it be wholeheartedly welcomed by Reformed Christians? This is especially the case when in developing the thesis of his book Bahnsen devotes worthwhile chapters on such things as: the unjustifiable legalism of the Pharisees, the integrity of the law even though it is unable to justify and empower, messianic obedience and atonement, sanctification by the Holy Spirit, covenant unity between the Old and New Testament dispensations, etc. A closer examination of Bahnsen’s position, however, especially in the area where he proposes that Old Testament law should serve as a model for present socio-political reconstruction, reveals questionable factors that invite various criticisms.
Since theonomists “presume continuity between Old and New Testament principles and regulations”, they maintain that the Old Testament penal sanctions are still in force. Bahnsen says that “Scripture lists the following capital offenses against God [which therefore warrant the death penalty]: murder, adultery, unchastity, sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, rape, incest, incorrigibility in children, sabbath breaking, kidnapping, apostasy, witchcraft, sorcery, false pretension to prophecy, and blasphemy” (Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p.445).
In my review I sought to point out (in agreement with Meredith Kline’s article, “Comments on An Old-New Error”, Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1978, pp. 172-189), that Israel as a theocracy had unique features in connection with regulations of the law, some of which as moral aspects still apply to people generally, but some of which as ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ’s redemption and no longer apply. While Bahnsen agrees that ceremonial laws no longer apply, he rejects my next point that, since some laws were geo-political, they no longer apply, for they were bound up with Israel’s dwelling in the land of Canaan. As the Westminster Confession puts it, “To them [Israel] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (XIX, 4). In other words, the Confession, contrary to Bahnsen, teaches that judicial as well as ceremonial laws are no longer applicable today except where they may embody moral aspects which remain abidingly valid.
1. Are Old Testament case laws to be enforced today?
The most controversial aspect of theonomy is the insistence by its exponents that the Old Testament case laws2 with their penal sanctions still apply today and are to be enforced by the civil magistrate. In maintaining their continuing validity Bahnsen says that if this were not so, “One would have to conclude that the penal sanction of capital punishment for murder has also been abrogated since it is not reaffirmed [in the New Testament]” (p.461).
As a consequence, Bahnsen has maintained that there is New Testament evidence that case laws together with their penal sanctions are to be regarded as continuingly valid. In my review I sought to show that the verses Bahnsen cites as evidence (i.e., I Cor. 9:9, Mark 10:19, Matt. 15:4 and Heb. 2:2) do not support his conclusions. A brief reworked presentation of my previous comments on this so-called evidence follows, since it takes into account Bahnsen’s reply in his No Other Standard.
In I Corinthians 9:9 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 which says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” But is Paul referring to this ordinance of the Mosaic economy to establish a law for oxen that applies equally in this present era? Is he not, rather, simply referring to this ordinance by way of an example that has an a fortiori application, i.e., if God in the old economy made provision in his law for oxen, how much more will he provide for his servants in the service of the gospel now? As a matter of fact, Paul himself tells us that this is exactly what he means, for in this same verse he goes on to say, “God is not concerned about oxen, is he?” And then he adds, “Or does he say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who ploughs should plough in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope [i.e., a sharer of the crops].” Then his application follows in verse 11, “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?” Paul then goes on to use another example from the Old Testament to reinforce his point. In verse 13 he points out that, since the priests of the old economy in the performance of their temple duties were entitled to eat of the food of the temple and had a share in the sacrifices of the altar, support from God’s people for his ministers should still be true today. If Bahnsen agrees that the priesthood, belonging as it did to the ceremonial aspect of the old economy which has been fulfilled and superseded by Christ, therefore no longer applies today, though Paul could still use it for illustrative purposes in making his point; why should not the same be true of his reference to Deuteronomy 25:4? I Corinthians 9:9 therefore in no way supports Bahnsen’s advocacy for the continuance of case law in the present era.
Bahnsen holds that in Mark 10:19 the Lord Jesus, in adding “Do not defraud” to the commandments of the Decalogue he cites to the Rich Young Ruler, was casually inserting a case law from Deuteronomy 24:14, and thereby showing that he viewed the case laws to be on a par with, if not undifferientiated from, the Decalogue. Therefore, according to Bahnsen, if the latter is still valid, why should not the former? But is Bahnsen’s contention valid? Isn’t the command, “Do not defraud” so closely related to the commandments of the Decalogue that it could be considered as an explication of the moral law? And if this is so, then isn’t our Lord simply teaching “the general equity” of a case law where it agrees with the moral law? This aspect of the case law would indeed have abiding validity for our day. But this does not mean that its Old Testament accoutrements also apply, any more than do even the accoutrements of the ten commandments (e.g., that of the fourth commandment’s seventh day observance) apply today.
In addition to the above alleged examples of case laws in the New Testament which we have seen do not support Bahnsen’s contention, he gives a further two examples of penal sanctions from the Mosaic economy which he alleges prove that penal sanctions are still valid for today.
In Matthew 15:4, the Lord Jesus reproves the Pharisees for setting aside the law of God in favour of their own interpretations. In citing the fifth commandment Christ also adds the penal sanction originally found in Exodus 21:17, “He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” Of this Bahnsen says, “It was not simply the fifth commandment that Christ cites as binding, but even the penal sanction specifying capital punishment for incorrigible children is held forth by our Lord as an obligation” (p. 256). We concede that the Lord may have regarded the penal sanction as of valid application for Israel in the old economy of which he and the Pharisees were still a part, though evidently he did not insist on it for the woman taken in adultery who was brought to him (John 8:11), nor as a matter of fact did Joseph when he learned that Mary was pregnant, though he was “a just man” (Matt. 1:19). Such examples of the possibility of relaxing case law penalties already in the old economy support our contention that these penal sanctions are not to be regarded as applicable today.
Bahnsen feels that even to suggest that a change of economies might bring with it a change in the application of penal laws would be “a trivialization of Jesus’ teaching here (after all, the Pharisees were ignoring a law which within months God would have them ignore anyway) if such laws could thus be set aside after Christ’s resurrection.”3
An immediate response to this assertion would be to point out that such an assertion is hardly valid when it is remembered that, regardless of what the various aspects of the old economy were, they would have been in force right up to its end, including the Levitical priesthood, temple worship, sacrifices, the Mosaic regulations, etc. Therefore, not to expect Jesus to teach in a way in keeping with the current demands of the old economy because some aspects were to pass away after the new economy had come, would be anachronistic to say the least. In fact, in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24-25), Jesus gave a prophetical warning about persecution and his people’s flight from it, and in a specific instance related to their time warned that they should pray that their flight be not on the Old Testament sabbath (Matt. 24:20), which, since it had been abrogated with the inauguration of the new economy (Col. 2:16-17), would no longer have applied to them when the destruction of the temple occurred in 70 A.D.
The fourth example which Bahnsen gives as an alleged evidence for the continuance of the Mosaic law-code for today is Hebrews 2:2-3. Bahnsen puts great reliance upon this passage as an evidence for his position. In No Other Standard he lists some nine references to it (p.330). He takes notice of the fact that the writer in Hebrews 2:2 uses an a fortiori argument in pointing out that if in the old economy “every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we [in the new economy] escape if we neglect so great a salvation” provided by Christ. Bahnsen’s point in maintaining the present validity of old economy penal sanctions is, “It is precisely because those (lesser) civil sanctions are valid and just that one must see that the (greater) eternal sanction will be valid and just. The eternal is not put in place of the civil; it is argued on the basis of the civil! If the civil sanctions could be mitigated or set aside in any way, one might perhaps hope that the eternal penalty might also be avoided; if the civil sanctions were somewhat arbitrarily harsh, then perhaps the threat of eternal damnation might turn out to be likewise overstated” (p.179).
But is Bahnsen here making a proper assessment of the writer’s point? Is it not simply this: if a temporal Mosaic law because God-given was certainly enforced, how much more will eschatological punishment be enforced on those who presently despise the gospel? Bahnsen maintains that in order for the latter to be true, the former must also presently apply (hence, the continuing validity for case laws). But why must this be so? Cannot what was valid in the old economy be used for illustrative purposes in the same way as the apostle Paul does in I Corinthians 9:9? Why then must this mean that, unless case law is still valid, that of which it was illustrative (the eschatological) would be bereft of force? Bahnsen makes an application here which neither logically follows nor is ethically necessary and therefore, once again, does not with this New Testament reference establish the continuing validity of case laws and their penal sanctions.
2. What does “fulfil” in Matthew 5:17-20 mean?
Even more to the point is a correct interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20. What did Jesus mean by fulfilling the law (v. 17)? Bahnsen maintains that, basically, Jesus meant that he came to confirm or establish the law, hence, the continuing validity of the Mosaic law-code for this present era. Moreover, he claims that he learned this interpretation of “fulfil” (pleroo) from John Murray (p.318). Bahnsen devotes a number of pages in defense of his view and goes to some length in his attempts to oppose those who disagree with him about the meaning of “fulfil” (e.g., Johnson, Poythress, Banks); but the fact remains that some of those he cites who allegedly agree with his view (e.g., Murray in reality have a different meaning for “fulfil” than he does. For example, let us see what Murray actually teaches at that place in his book (Principles of Conduct, p.150), to which Bahnsen refers (p.318). Murray says:
We have quoted Murray at some length so that the places in the passage which we have italicized may be seen in their context. It should be obvious that Murray puts a different definition to pleroo than does Bahnsen. In fact, just because Jesus has fulfilled that in the old economy which was ectypal, far from being “established”, it has now achieved its purpose and can therefore be discontinued. While it yet remains to be proved that what applies to Jesus’ redemptive work also applies to the discontinuance of the case laws, especially the penal sanctions, we can see why elsewhere Murray maintains that “when there is no scriptural warrant repeated in the New Testament for certain regulations of a preceptive and punitive nature, then they do not bind us today.”4
The Dutch ethicist, J. Douma, of the Reformed Churches (Liberated) seminary in Kampen, also gives a definition of pleroo that agrees with Murray and disagrees with Bahnsen.5 Again we quote extensively in order to do justice to the context.
3. Theonomy’s attempt to make Moses still binding after all
Douma also has comments to make about the views of Bahnsen, Rushdoony, North, etc. concerning theonomy.
This, however, is neither scripturally valid nor, as Calvin points out (Institutes IV, xx, 16, p.1505), practically feasible. By way of summary, therefore, the major points which Douma makes against theonomy and for which he gives abundant scriptural evidence may be listed as follows:
1. Because the law has been fulfilled in Christ, the worship of the old economy, together with its many and varied prescriptions, is no longer binding for Christians in this era.
2. As Christ makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount, the spiritual significance of the Mosaic law transcends its merely external letter and, in fact, makes it impossible to maintain that holding to this outward aspect is a fulfilling of its minute “jots and tittles”. This is to say that the intention of Christ’s teaching is to show that fulfilment of the law’s “jots and tittles” is beyond man’s ability. Like that of the law as a whole, their purpose is that of a tutor to lead the sinner to faith in Christ for salvation (Gal. 3:24).
3. Since Christ’s fulfilling of the law has brought an end to Old Testament Israel’s exclusivity as a holy people and nation, ceremonial and civil laws which applied to them as a theocracy no longer possess juridical authority for the present era.
4. The relevance of the already/not yet aspect of the present era
Bahnsen reveals another misunderstanding of a point I made in my earlier article. There I sought to point out the present already/not yet character of this age in contrast with the old economy.11 The Old Testament prophets, in viewing and delineating the coming messianic age, saw it as an undivided whole, instituting the grace of salvation but also ushering in divine eschatological judgment. And the Lord Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, true to the character of an Old Testament prophet, likewise spoke of grace and judgment in connection with the Messiah’s ministry (cf. Matt. 3:1-12). Later, however, after John had been shut up in prison, he began to doubt the judgment aspect of Jesus’ ministry; so much so, that he sent some of his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3). In reply, Jesus pointed out the gracious aspect of his ministry (v. 5) and invited John to accept this and not be offended because of what he anticipated was not coming to pass according to his Old Testament-oriented expectations (v. 6).12 I then wrote in my earlier article: “John needed to learn that this present age is principally one of grace, with the eschatological judgment put off until Christ comes again. In that very chapter (Matt. 11), Christ answers John by pointing to the grace aspects of his ministry (which were such in abundant fulfilment of that which had been announced about him by the prophets of the Old Testament so that no one had an excuse for stumbling in unbelief about him). He then goes on to speak of judgment, calling down “woes” upon Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, cities in which he had wrought miracles which left their inhabitants without excuse and under an impending judgment far worse than that for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom (vv. 21-24). He likewise makes it apparent that the judgment he is speaking of refers to the time of the great eschatological assize, which will occur at the end of history (cf. Matt. 25:31-46), long after these currently flourishing cities will have gone the same way of the flesh as had the formerly great cities of the past he here mentions by name” (p. 23).
In assessing my presentation, Bahnsen mistakenly concludes, “Zorn’s discussion is completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Theonomists do not confuse civil punishment with eschatological judgment. It is rather Zorn who, by this mistaken use of Matthew 11, does so — trying to press a point about eschatological judgment from God to refute the theonomic position on civil punishment from the magistrates during this age” (No Other Standard, p.225). Bahnsen’s point here, however, is not my point at all, for I make no mention of “civil punishment from the magistrates during this age.” Of course I believe in civil punishment by magistrates. Who doesn’t? But is that punishment to be the enforcement of the penal sanctions of old economy case laws? That is the issue. My mention of the postponement of the eschatological for this age had for its purpose the pointing out of a difference between the old economy and the new, so that what was true of the former does not necessarily apply to the latter.
Bahnsen repeatedly appeals to his critics to indicate how magistrates are to make and enforce laws if the case laws of the old economy no longer apply. Of course they do have their answers, not the least of which is Calvin’s13, but Bahnsen apparently rejects all their answers and even goes on to say, “those who have criticized theonomic ethics... have no other standard to offer which can deal with the problems theonomy addresses... If we are not supposed to be governed by God’s law, then what other standard do the critics seriously set forth? I cannot see that they have offered any credible, biblical alternative whatsoever” (No Other Standard, p.270).
5. Divine law in relation to the present era
I am under no illusions whatever that the reply I now seek to give to the above challenge will be satisfactory to the exponents of theonomy. But the following comments are offered in the interests of biblical truth, and will hopefully be in line with Calvin’s insights about the relevance of natural law for the civil magistrate in this present era (cf. Kline’s advocacy of common grace as the realm in which the civil magistrate operates). By natural law we of course do not mean an autonomous type of law that mankind may to some degree have in common. Rather, we refer to the law of God as it has been written on the hearts of men and which, though obscured by man’s sinful depravity, nevertheless remains “the work of the law” (Rom. 2:14-15). Of this Calvin remarks in his commentary on Romans:
Calvin admits that men, because of their depravity, do not live up to even that light which the law written in their hearts gives them. In fact, in the state of sin they busily seek to obscure the law in their rebellion against God. But because of God’s common grace they do not completely succeed in doing this and this light that remains in them, and to which their consciences testify, makes them responsible to God. Our interest at this point, however, is to notice that Calvin appeals to common grace, by which we mean non-redemptive grace, as the basis for the universal validity of the moral aspect of the law. He says:
Calvin is able to have this regard for natural law because of the threefold use of the law (which is not to be confused with the threefold division of the law). He discusses the former in detail in the Institutes II, vii, 1ff. Berkhof defines the threefold use as follows: 1) the usus politicus or civilis, which refers to the law as an external rule to restrain sin and promote civil obedience, i.e., it is the basis of civil law; 2) the usus elenchticus or pedagogicus, which refers to the law as that which brings man under the conviction of sin as he becomes increasingly aware of his inability to fulfil its righteous demands. When this takes place the law becomes a tutor to lead the convicted sinner to Christ as the remedy for his need of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God; and 3) the usus didacticus or normativus, which is also referred to as the tertius usus legis (or the third use of the law), as a rule of life for believers in gratitude to God for their salvation by grace through union with Christ.15
While the second use of the law in large measure presupposes the added light of special revelation, i.e., Scripture (otherwise, how could it be a tutor to lead the convicted sinner to Christ?), the third use is wholly dependent on the light of Scripture and only applies to the redeemed community of God’s people. Unredeemed sinners neither love God’s law nor do they live thankful lives in gratitude to God for the experience of his great salvation in Christ.
The first use, however, would at least in some measure by reason of God’s common grace be universally present with fallen mankind. And it is to this that both Luther and Calvin appeal for the legitimate law-making ability of the civil magistrate according to Romans 13:4 even if it is not God-honouring. Moreover, whether the civil magistrate recognizes it or not, he is still “God’s minister”, for his office as state governor has been instituted by God. It is, according to Luther in connection with his “two-kingdom-teaching” (Zweireichelehre), the kingdom of Christ’s left hand.16
While in its practical outworking, Luther’s teaching seems to have encouraged the development of secular autonomy, with the state increasingly being permitted to go its own way (a case in point would have been Hitler’s Nazi state); Calvin had a more biblically balanced view of the relationship between church and state, which Kuyper developed. The church is not just the kingdom of Christ’s right hand (the regnum gratiae or reign of grace); it also exists within the society governed by the state (the regnum potentiae or reign of power). Where possible it is to influence society and the state with a Christian interpretation and application of the law.
In their pagan condition civil magistrates will hardly do an adequate job in promoting justice and providing security for all citizens. While natural law might well go a long way in enabling the state to perform its duties properly according to the divine mandate (whether that is recognized or not), man’s fallen condition is constantly present to complicate and corrupt the processes of law-making and law enforcement. For a proper application of the first use of the law would ensure that the rights of all be protected and that retributive justice be enforced where crime has been committed. And where the equity of justice is consistently enforced (the lex talionis, i.e., an eye for an eye, etc.), the taking of life, even unborn life, would merit the guilty party’s life being forfeited (Gen. 9:6). The corruption of man, however, is such that the rights, influence, wealth, etc., of one party is maintained at the expense of the other, with the consequence that injustice rather than justice is done. Examples of injustice can be multiplied. Bahnsen mentions many, e.g., No Other Standard, p.186.
But the state’s answer to “the Satanic human sacrifices of Santeria,17 the absurdity of allowing a Hitlerian view of the state, the absurdity of protecting deviant lifestyles of abortionists and homosexuals (in the name of privacy-rights)” is not to be the enforcement of the penal sanctions of the Mosaic law-code unless they express the justice of moral law already embodied in natural law. Exponents of Santeria have no more right to take the life of anyone than others have to take their life, even if they do advocate homicide in the name of their religion. As for the so-called rights of homosexuals, does the apostle Paul not say that even natural law condemns their practices, so that they are unjustifiable (Rom. 1:26-27)?
The problems of lawlessness in our society today stem not so much from the lack of the enforcement of the penal sanctions of the Mosaic law-code as from the state’s lack of a recognition and consistent enforcement of the equities of justice. Here is where God’s people, individually and collectively, must fulfil their prophetic role of being a proper leavening influence in society. They have the light of Scripture which informs them of the proper way by which the law is to be applied. With this light, they are by example, vote and office-holding to exert the influence of their proper application of the law. They agree with Calvin:
In this connection Christians might do well to promote the reinstitution of capital punishment for incorrigible offenders, together with making more use of the biblical principle of restitution rather than the alternative of incarceration which, with its overcrowded prisons and failed programmes of rehabilitation, restore the criminal to society where he repeats his crimes against the innocent.
The same principle of natural law should apply even in matters of religion. Theonomists may rail against a position that suggests that the state cannot be trusted to enforce the first table of the Decalogue. For example, Bahnsen not only defends the state’s right to execute blasphemers, he considers it an obligation.18 But Bahnsen’s optimistic postmillennial presuppositions govern his position here, namely, states will increasingly become Christian, with the law thereby also being applied in an increasingly theocratic way. Scripture, however, paints a different picture of increasing lawlessness and godlessness for this age, especially as Christ’s return draws near.
Scripture describes the end-time state in terms of the supreme dictator who embodies it. He is “the beast” (Rev. 13), “the Man of Lawlessness” and “the Antichrist” (II Thess. 2). Will such a state correctly enforce the first table of the Decalogue even if it had the competence to do so?
Even before the events of history have advanced to this stage, would it be wise even at the present time to give a state such power? Even in a democracy where majority vote rules, are the laws of the true God honoured? Is it not possible that, before too long — with the way events are presently developing — Christians might well be executed for “blasphemy” against a false god, as they are in some Islamic countries today?
A more scriptural position for the state in keeping with the divinely-given mandate as well as with Scripture’s eschatology is to let the state see to it that all religions within its boundaries be given the freedom of justice for all, and since God’s people know that truth is stronger than error, let the truth of Christianity be permitted freedom of promulgation by the church in the market place of competition for people’s minds and hearts. For God’s people know first hand the power of the gospel to bring about change in people’s hearts and then in the practices of society. This in effect would bring into play the second and third uses of the law, not as something enforced by the state (for the state can just as easily enforce false religion), but as a factor achieved by the leaven of righteousness where the gospel is increasingly believed and its truth is ever more consistently put into practice. This is both the teaching of Scripture and the testimony of history.
Raymond Otto Zorn was born in Brush, Colorado, in 1924 and trained for the Christian ministry at Gordon College, Boston, and Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He served congregations in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Churches of New Zealand before becoming Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Australia in 1976, where he was also Principal, 1978-1989. Professor Zorn is a minister of the Reformed Churches of Australia. Since his retirement he continues in the work of preaching, or writing, notably in Vox Reformata, and of aiding seminaries in both Australia and the United States as a visiting Professor of Theology.
This article is taken from his book, Christ Triumphant, pp. 180-201, published by the Banner of Truth.
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board