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:

The inclusiveness of Jesus’ statement requires us to regard ‘the law’ as comprising more than those aspects of the law of Moses which have permanent application and sanction. Jesus is saying that he came not to abrogate any part of the Mosaic law. What we call the ritual or ceremonial comes within the scope of his declaration as well as the moral. We ask, of course, how can this be? Did Jesus not come to abrogate the ritual law of the Pentateuch? He did come to discontinue the observance of the rites and ceremonies of the old economy. But it is not correct to say that he came to abrogate them. The process of redemptive revelation embraces the Levitical economy of Moses and it is this process of increasing and accumulating disclosure that reaches its culmination and consummation in him who is the image of the invisible God, the effulgence of his glory and the express image of his substance. Hence the Levitical economy must never be viewed in abstraction from the sum total of God’s redemptive action and revelation. This is just to say that the ritual ordinances stand in the most intimate organic connection with Christ and his work. In the circumstances of Israel’s history they are ectypes of an archetype; they are adumbrations of an archetypal reality that received its historical accomplishment in the fulness of the time when God sent forth his Son. Particularly when we think of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself upon the cross, and his high-priestly entrance into the holies of the heavenly sanctuary, must we think of the Levitical sacrifice as anticipatory accomplishments of the same great redemptive facts. Jesus himself as the great high priest, in his finished work and in his continued high priestly activity, is the permanent and final embodiment of all the truth portrayed in the Levitical ordinances. Strictly speaking the Levitical ritual did not serve as the pattern for the work of Christ; rather, the high-priestly work of Christ provided the archetype by which the prescriptions of the Levitical law were fashioned and patterned (cf. Heb. 9:24-25). The Levitical were the ectypes and models drawn from the heavenly exemplar. It was for this reason that they possessed meaning and efficacy. And it is for this reason that Jesus could say, even with reference to the ritual ordinances, which as regards observance have been discontinued, ‘I came not to abrogate but to fulfil.’

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.

2.9 Fulfilment in Christ (1). The significance of Christ for our moral reflection is not exhausted by using the example provided by his life. We cannot employ Scripture very well in ethics unless we also know him as the Fulfiller of the Old Testament law and prophets. For this fulfilment brought with it a significant alteration, so that we can no longer use the Mosaic law-code, for example, as a guide in the sense outlined in 2.2. Regulations dealing with Israel’s sacrificial worship no longer specify our worship. This applies even more to the Mosaic penal code which stipulates capital punishment for more than twenty crimes. Prescriptions in the area of economics (dealing with property, ceasing work during the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee and the like) are nowhere enforced today. But our use of Scripture as a guide would be quite arbitrary unless there were some basis in Scripture itself for viewing these kinds of prescriptions as no longer binding.

Christ has come not to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfil them, so completely that not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away (Matt. 5:17-20). But this word ‘fulfil’ means something a bit different than ‘establish’ in the sense of: whatever the law meant for Israel is what it still means for us. For pleroo means that this law and these prophets which are not full (filled-out) Jesus is going to make full or fill them out. And this fulfilling involves a significant alteration. Because the law was fulfilled in Christ, the Old Testament worship, along with its multitude of prescriptions, has fallen away [italics added]. Jesus himself relativized the regulations governing ceremonial purity (Matt. 15:1-11). Later Peter learned clearly that he was permitted to eat foods earlier forbidden as unclean (Acts 10:9-16). With regard to eating and drinking, feasts, new moon or sabbath, all of which served as shadows of the reality of Christ, Christians were supposed to enjoy more freedom than was formerly permitted the Jews (Col. 2:16). In connection with the fourth commandment, ‘not destroying but fulfilling’ means for us that we find the Israelite sabbath in the Christian Sunday.

‘Fulfil’ means also that Jesus brings the finishing or capstone revelation [italics added]. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount he shows how far-reaching the Old Testament commandments are. If not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away, this means that the law must be taken seriously to its very deepest parts. Jesus didn’t abolish the law but made it transparent all the way to its real essence. Not murdering and not committing adultery mean more than the letter of the law indicates. Many jots and tittles of the law would pass away [in that they would be unfulfilled] if one were to violate the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ by being bitter against a fellow believer and insulting him by calling him ‘dummy’ or ‘idiot’. Similarly, many jots and tittles would pass away if one were to evaluate divorce, after the instruction of Christ, on the basis of Deuteronomy 24 and not by going back to the situation at the beginning (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:1-9). Similarly, one shortchanges the law in its ‘fulfilment’ by insisting, as the Judaizers did, on something like bloody circumcision in order to obtain forgiveness of sins (Gal. 5:2-6). The spiritual reading of the Mosaic law often renders it impossible to hold to the letter, or merely to the letter, of the law [italics added].6

2:10 Fulfilment in Christ (2). This fulfilling has consequences not only for what we term ‘ceremonial’ laws but also for the ‘civil’ ordinances belonging to the Mosaic legislation [italics added]. It is not easy to answer the question as to where the boundary line between ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civil’ law lies. Are regulations pertaining to the years of sabbath and jubilee, to the quarantine of lepers, to sowing seed in a field, ceremonial or (also) civil? Identifying what is embraced by the ceremonial element in the Mosaic law-code is not possible. Nor is it necessary. [And then Douma next makes the same point that Kline in his own way makes in his essay, “An Old-New Error”]. Through Christ’s fulfilling of the law an end has come to the exclusivity of Israel as a holy nation and a holy people (Rom. 9:25-26, Gal. 3:29; 6:16, Eph. 2:11-15, Heb. 8:1-6; 11:13-16). Therefore we may say that the ceremonial and civil laws no longer possess juridical authority for us [italics added]. Calvin (Institutes IV, xx, 15f.) says that the freedom is given to all nations to make laws which they deem profitable, as long as they agree with the precept of love?7 We may prefer other laws than those in the law of Moses, says Calvin, because they correspond better to the circumstances of time, place and people. He makes the cynical remark that in such a case a nation isn’t casting off the Jewish law, since it was never given them anyway (Institutes IV, xx, 16f.)8

This last observation appears already in the Old Testament. Yahweh gave His law to Israel and not to other nations (Psa. 147:19-20) [italics added]. He placed the Israelite under other commandments than the non-Israelite living among Israel. Foreigners and children of sojourners might be kept as slaves and might remain part of someone’s inherited property, something impermissible for Israelite slaves (Lev. 25:39-43; 47-49). Interest might not be charged to poor fellow Israelites, but could be charged to foreigners (Deut. 23:19-20). Israelites might not eat carrion but sojourners within the gate were permitted to do that; carrion could be sold to foreigners as well (Deut. 14:21).

The end of the temple ministry and the decision of the ecclesiastical gathering in Jerusalem ‘to lay upon you [Gentiles] no greater burden than these necessary things’ (Acts 15:28) brought the Christian church, out of inner necessity, to the point of having to distinguish among Mosaic laws between what still needed to be observed and what no longer needed to be followed. Although in the ancient church various distinctions tended toward the triad familiar to us, it was Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae II/I, 99.2-4) who crafted the distinction between moral, ceremonial and civil laws.

There is no objection against maintaining this distinction as long as people use it merely as a guideline and avoid the notion that these are watertight compartments [italics added]. We must remember that this distinction never functioned among Israel and (put more strongly) never could have functioned. For the Israelite there was across the whole land, with its tabernacle or temple, with its administrative structures and penal codes, only one law. The ‘civil’ and ‘moral’ commandments were religious ordinances just as much as the ‘ceremonial’ commandments. Israel was a theocracy, in which the ‘civil’ and ‘religious’ aspects of life were not distinguished (pp. 2-4) [italics added].

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.

2.11. Is Moses still binding after all? An entirely different opinion regarding the validity of the Mosaic law-code is promulgated by the school of Rousas J. Rushdoony, Greg L. Bahnsen, Gary North, and others, who are attracting to the Christian Reconstruction movement a significant number of Protestant Christians, especially in the United States. This school believes that the entire Mosaic law-code remains valid for us and should be reinstated in modern civil life. Idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and rebellion against parents should be punished today with execution. What Calvin wrote about the freedom of nations to make their own laws is called by Rushdoony ‘heretical nonsense’.9

The opinions of the school of Rushdoony and his associates serve in a postmillennial context: contemporary society is going to collapse; the human race will perceive that only the return to biblical (Mosaic) law brings rescue. After that a golden age will dawn for the whole world. The new and dominant element in this form of postmillennialism is the plea for the fully integrated reinstatement of the Mosaic law-code. The only exception is the ceremonial laws, which have obtained ‘permanent validity and embodiment in Christ.’10 This position brings us back beyond the fulfilling of the law by Christ, and makes of Golgotha a second Sinai and of Christ a second Moses (p. 4) [italics added].

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:

We cannot conclude from this passage that there is in men a full knowledge of the law, but only that there are some seeds of justice implanted in their nature. This is evidenced by such facts as these, that all the Gentiles alike institute religious rites [even if to idols], make laws to punish adultery, theft, and murder, and commend good faith in commercial transactions and contracts. In this way they prove their knowledge that God is to be worshipped, that adultery, theft, and murder, are evils, and that honesty is to be esteemed.14

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:

The law of God which we call the moral law [Calvin accepted the threefold division of the law in moral, ceremonial, and judicial categories, though he considered the moral alone as abidingly valid] is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws [italics added]. [Then Calvin goes on to add] Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves (Institutes IV, xx, 16, p. 1504).

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:

For, together with one voice, they [different nations in different times] pronounce punishment against those crimes which God’s eternal law has condemned, namely, murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. But they do not agree on the manner of punishment. Nor is this either necessary or expedient. There are countries which, unless they deal cruelly with murderers by way of horrible examples, must immediately perish from slaughters and robberies. There are ages that demand increasingly harsh penalties. If any disturbance occurs in a commonwealth, the evils that usually arise from it must be corrected by new ordinances.

In time of war, in the clatter of arms, all humaneness would disappear unless some uncommon fear of punishment were introduced. In drought, in pestilence, unless greater severity is used, everything will go to ruin. There are nations inclined to a particular vice, unless it be most sharply repressed. How malicious and hateful toward public welfare would a man be who is offended by such diversity, which is perfectly adapted to maintain the observance of God’s law (Institutes IV, xx, 16, p. 1505) [italics added].

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.


  1. This excursus is largely a response to and evaluation of Greg L. Bahnsen’s book, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991). My earlier article, “Theonomy in Christian Ethics”, Vox Reformata, May 1982, pp. 11-24, was a review of Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley: The Craig Press, 1977). Other worthwhile evaluations of theonomy are the following: William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1990); Walter J. Chantry, God’s Righteous Kingdom (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980); T. David Gordon, “Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy”, The Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 56, No.1 (Spring, 1994), pp. 23-43; H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1988); Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error”, The Westminster Theologica1 Journa1, vol. XLI, No. 1 (Fall, 1978), pp. 172-189.
  2. Case laws refer to law principles which were applied in terms of very specific Old Testament cultural details (e.g., goring ox, flying axehead, rooftop railing, etc., as given for example in Exod. 21-22). See further, Bahnsen, No Other Standard, p.46.
  3. This quotation is taken from Bahnsen’s book, No Other Standard, p.222. In this book Bahnsen answers his literally dozens of critics in number (Kline, C hantry, the Westminster Seminary faculty, House, Ice, Harris, Lightner, Dager, Geisler, Bibza, Carl Henry, Neilands, Lewis, Schrotenboer, O. Palmer Robertson, Sider, Skillen, Spykman, Dunkerley, Robert Strong, Zorn, etc., etc.). This book is an effort both to answer and refute the positions of theonomy’s critics. For Bahnsen, dialogue appears to be a virtual impossibility. He considers Kline’s critical article “scandalously bad”, p.8, with “defects in ... logic, lack of Biblical citation to support it, and the conspicuous misrepresentations of the theonomic position [which has] thoroughly discredited his attempt at criticism” (p.116). Moreover, he professes to be hurt by Chantry’s “vitriolic name-calling under the guise of Christian scholarship” (p.41). However, he gives as good as he gets. Waltke’s article contains “hit-and-miss criticisms” (p.93); Muether “tries simplistically to dismiss the theonomic outlook for its alleged ‘unwillingness to make important redemptive-historical distinctions’” (p.48); Gaffin, Lightner, House and Ice, Kline, make the “error” of identifying theonomy with postmillennialism; in fact, Neilson goes so far as to devote “one-fifth of his booklet...[to being] against postmillennialism” (p.52); “the muddled character of Zorn’s reasoning should be apparent” (p.224), etc. On the back cover of the book Bahnsen’s critics are accused of “hit-and-run attacks when they think their readers and listeners will never read Bahnsen’s response. But, we are told, Bahnsen “corners them all, and one by one, [like a prize-fighter?] floors them.” One has only to read this book, therefore, to understand why Bahnsen’s critics are reluctant to reply to his attacks. For in his book Bahnsen makes it obvious that his critics are not the only ones who may be guilty of acid criticism and perhaps even misrepresentation of “opponents”‘ positions.
  4. This is found in a small monograph by Murray, The Sabbath Institution (London: Lord’s Day Observance Society, 1953), pp. 9-10, and is quoted by Bahnsen in Theonomy, p.458. (Murray also makes reference to this point in his Collected Writings, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, vol. 1, pp. 211-212). Of course Bahnsen disagrees with Murray and even charges him with inconsistency in the maintenance of this principle. It is interesting that Bahnsen in his later book makes no mention of this disagreement he has with his former teacher. Obviously it is because he now wishes to claim Murray’s support for his views which, if the truth be known, Murray would not have agreed with. But to return to Murray’s view, does he not state a valid point of exegesis which applies for example even to the Decalogue? Notice how the Heidelberg Catechism interprets the Ten Commandments (Lord’s Days 34-44), especially the fourth commandment (Q. & A. 103) by which it gives the reader the continuing relevance of the moral aspect while at the same time stripping away old economy accoutrements which no longer apply.
  5. Douma’s book in the Dutch language is entitled, Het Schniftberoep in de Ethiek, to which I no longer have access. The portions to which I refer come from a nine page document which has been translated by N.D. Kloosterman, which he has entitled, The Use of Scripture in Ethics, and which is for use in Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana, USA.
  6. Gordon in his article (cf. footnote, p.180) points out a fourfold deficiency in Bahnsen’s interpretation of pleroo. “First, he ‘washes out’ the prophetic half of the ‘law and the prophets’, effectively leaving only the ‘law’ under consideration. Second, he misunderstands the use of pleroo in the passage [Matt. 5:17-20] to mean ‘ratify’ rather than ‘fulfil’. Third, if he proves his thesis regarding ‘exhaustive detail’ he proves too much, and would be required to conclude that the Jerusalem Council [Acts 15] and the apostle Paul should be called least in the kingdom of heaven [for changing the old economy law regarding circumcision]. Fourth, he fails to appreciate the genuinely temporal character of the parallel temporal clauses, ‘until heaven and earth pass away’, and ‘until all things come to pass’” (pp. 28-29).
  7. Calvin’s actual statement is, “Therefore, as ceremonial laws could be abrogated while piety remained safe and unharmed, so too, when these judicial laws were taken away, the perpetual duties and precepts of love could still remain [italics added]. But if this is true, surely every nation is left free to make such laws as it sees to be profitable for itself. Yet these must be in conformity to that perpetual rule of love [cf. Rom.13:4 which might otherwise be interpreted to mean that law-making and law enforcement by the state is merely for the purpose of justice], so that they indeed vary in form but have the same purpose.” [Calvin then adds the further significant comment which might well serve as an indictment of some present-day so-called laws]: “For I do not think that those barbarous and savage laws such as gave honour to thieves, permitted promiscuous intercourse, and others both more filthy and more absurd, are to be regarded as laws. For they are abhorrent not only to all justice, but also to all humanity and gentleness” (Institutes, IV, xx, 15, pp. 1503-1504).
  8. In this connection Gordon’s comment is to the point: “How could the Gentiles, described by the apostle Paul as ‘outside of the [Mosaic] law’ (i.e., anomos) possibly be obliged to the law? How could it possibly be meaningful for Paul to distinguish Jews from Gentiles because ‘to them belong... the covenants, the giving of the law’ (Rom. 9:4), if the covenant and its laws oblige non-Jews equally with Jews?” (“Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy”, p.40).
  9. The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1973), p.9.
  10. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, N.J.: The Craig Press, 1977), p.207.
  11. Vox Reformata, May 1982, p.23.
  12. Incidentally, it is striking to note that Jesus’ disciples, even after his resurrection, still entertained old economy theocratic notions as is evidenced by their question just prior to Jesus’ ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And this after the forty days following Jesus’ resurrection during which time he had been teaching them about “the things pertaining to the kingdom of God”, i.e., the present gospel age. How persistent the mistaken thinking of the disciples was in terms of the old economy’s continuance, and how often they needed repeated teaching even up to Pentecost and beyond (cf. Acts 10:15; 15:19-21) concerning the differences between the old economy and the new.
  13. Cf. W Robert Godfrey’s fine chapter (13), “Calvin and Theonomy”, in the Westminster Seminary Faculty Symposium, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, William S. Barker & W. Robert Godfrey, eds. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1990). Cf. also my review of this book which appeared in the 1991 issue of Vox Reformata, pp. 66-69. It is rather striking that Bahnsen has little, if anything, to say about Godfreys chapter or Calvin’s view. In a footnote (24) on p.10 he does, however, claim Calvin, the Westminster Confession and the New England Puritans for theonomy, apparently also ignoring two other chapters in the above volume, i.e., Sinclair B. Ferguson’s, “An Assembly of Theonomists? The Teaching of the Westminster Divines on the Law of God”, and Samuel T. Logan Jr.’s, “New England Puritans and the State”, which also effectively counter his claims.
  14. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, The Epistles of Paul to the Romans and Thessalonians, eds., D.W. and T.F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p.48.
  15. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint), pp. 614-615.
  16. Cf. Chapter 11, p.170, footnote, for quotations from Luther.
  17. A cult in the United States.
  18. Cf. No Other Standard, pp. 136, 171, 182, 184, 229, 233, 263.


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.

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