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Answering an objection about theonomy

The following is from author Peter Otajian.

Dear Friends,

As you know, I am far from being an expert in theonomy and Christian Reconstruction and still have much to learn and grow before I ever catch up to many of you. Ergo, I request your help in answering the objections of one of my Deacon friends from my church to whom I emailed Rev. Paul M. Raymond’s sermon on:

The Biblical View of Culture and Social Theory 11.

http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=129072330332

Below is my good Deacon friend’s response:

Hi Peter,

Thanks for the sermon audio – it is a polemical sermon and includes a swipe at the amillennialist position. I am sympathetic to the frustrations and concerns, but overall I think there is need for greater exegesis from Scripture to be convincing. Also he appeals to section 23 of the WCF, but I do not think that the WCF as a whole supports Theonomy and Reconstructionism (see WCF sect. 19.4).

Friends,

I truly appreciate all of your time and consideration in answering this serious objection if you can. It should be very educational to all of us and it will buttress and re-enforce us in what we believe.

Your comrade in Christ,

- Peter

It’s an ironic position to take that England, Scotland and America were not theonomic and Reconstructionist in the mid-1600s when the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) was adopted.

For some hard data on this, I’d recommend Iain Murray’s The Puritan Hope. The fact is that not all Puritans and Presbyterians were postmillennial. In fact, that term did not exist then. There was no distinction between amillennialism and postmillenialism until later. Premillennialism existed on the fringes, but was viewed as aberrant. The so-called “Fifth Monarchy Men” were akin to the modern “end-times” prophets. The problems they caused served as a lesson for us today. However, Murray does a good job showing that what we now call “postmillennialism” was the dominant eschatological view among those who adopted the Westminster Confession. It was the “Puritan Hope.”

In addition to the solid optimistic eschatological outlook among the Puritans and Presbyterians, theonomy was the order of the day. If you read John Knox’s interviews with Mary Queen of Scots in The Reformation of Scotland they both appealed directly to the Bible in their arguments about civil policy.

When John Knox, a student of John Calvin, defended Protestantism in the court of Mary Queen of Scots he did not shrink back from the binding nature of the Law of God. He even openly proclaimed in these debates that the death penalty should be carried out in accordance with the prescribed biblical sanctions. These debates demonstrate conclusively that Knox was a theonomist in the sense that he believed in the continuing binding validity of Old Testament penal sanctions.

Knox wrote:

This we have not by profane writers only; but the Holy Spirit taught us this infallible truth, that where iniquity reigns in a commonwealth, and none is found boldly and openly to reprehend the same, that there shall sudden vengeance and destruction follow.

Knox then quotes from Ezekiel 22, and says that the moral Law of God, as reiterated by the prophet, is for every nation.

Advert, madam, for these are not the words of mortal man, but of the eternal God, and were not spoken against Jerusalem only, but against every realm and nation that so offends.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Bible shaped civil law either by direct application or by principle. Whether Puritan, Presbyterian, Anglican or Roman Catholic, biblical law formed the basis for determining the civil law. When Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragorn he appealed to the prohibition against marriage to his now deceased brother’s wife, which was forced on Arthur and then Henry when they were still youths in order to secure an alliance between Spain and England.

Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness (Leviticus 18:16).

Here was the question posed to the Catholic Church: Since Arthur and Catherine did not have sexual relations during their brief marriage, did the the injunction of Leviticus still apply? Catherine claimed the marriage was never consummated and therefore the marriage to Henry was legitimate.

The Catholic Church argued that the case law here applied only to Levitical priests and that Henry had no right to have the marriage annulled based on the precepts of Leviticus. And in fact, that is what the WCF means when it says that certain laws are no longer applicable – either they were for the priests specifically or described the civil structure of the twelve tribes. Those laws obviously passed with the passing of civil Israel.

To them 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 (WCF 19.4).

But it is shortsighted to say that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches did not try to apply the law of God to civil, ecclesiastical or familial polity. The modern theonomic movement does not teach that we do not need to adapt the case laws to our modern culture

  1. The Ten Commandments are binding and have not passed (no Christian and certainly no Calvinist would argue that we don’t need to obey the Ten commandments). Cursing God is still wrong, Sabbath breaking is wrong. Murder, adultery, theft and lying are still wrong.
  2. The case laws where they are specific and applicable still apply and, in fact, they are part of our law code. Today, we differentiate between first degree murder and homicide based on biblical law. Biblical law also gives us the parameters for incest, when a rape is a capital crime and why a “date rape” might involving some culpability on the part of the woman. It describes why pollution laws may exist and that cruelty to animals is forbidden.
  3. Some civil laws may be derived from the case laws in principle. For instance, the law requiring a rail around a rooftop (Deut 22:8) may be applied to tort law that makes a property owner responsible for injuries that take place around unsafe construction works.
  4. The aspect of theonomy that most moderns oppose are the capital cases, that is, those laws that carried death by stoning as a penalty. Here again, we only need to look at the civil laws during the centuries surrounding the Reformation to see that adultery, homosexuality, sorcery were considered capital offenses. It makes no sense to say that the general equity clause of the WCF describes the abrogation of these punishments. If anything, biblical law would have reigned in the abuses of medieval justice in punishing witches without two or more eyewitnesses and without due process.

I have always thought that this argument over whether the Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians were being “non-theonomic” when they wrote the WCF is both myopic and stunningly stupid. This point of view is foisted by Reformed people who are squeamish about applying the civil sanctions of the moral law of God — especially the death penalty in any case except premeditated murder.

But the fact of the matter is that England, Scotland and America had all sorts of capital sanctions on the books for rape, adultery, witchcraft, and so on, at the time of the signing of the WCF in 1646. For example, in 1650 England’s Parliament passed laws making adultery punishable by death.

However, it was not the WCF that brought these laws to bear. All of Christendom had more capital laws than we do today. Sometimes they even superseded the recommended penalties of the Bible and were far more harsh than the Mosaic Code could ever be interpreted — especially as perceived by today’s humanistic standards.

For instance, we had death penalty laws on the books in some states for horse thieves until the 20th century. Calvin sided with those who would execute Servetus, but thought that beheading rather than burning was the way to go. Cromwell advocating cutting off the king’s head “with the crown upon it.” And so on.

So in reality, a “theonomic” interpretation of the law actually softened the harshness of the civil penalties for most crimes of that day.

For evidence of this, see my article here:

Theonomic Find Surprises Historians

See also yesterday’s USA Today article here:

Adultery, in many states, is still a crime

Your comments are welcome!

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