In a recent blog post, Frank Schaeffer offers a diatribe entitled:
“If America wanted to prosper and compete instead of waiting for Obama to walk on water and fix everything, we would …”
Conservatives will agree with most of the list here. One of the bullet points is:
“Child molesters and rapists would be locked up for life without parole.”
This is what makes Frank Schaeffer so perplexing and infuriating at the same time. Sometimes he makes complete sense. He often stands up for positions that conservative Christians must applaud. Many other conservative icons I admire fare about as well when we apply their positions to a rigorous biblical perspective. But here is the difference. Frank often does an about face and contradicts everything he said just weeks before. Each contradiction is yet another example of the existential malaise he celebrates and laments in his writings. Frank is constantly telling “fundamentalists” that they err because they fail to embrace the paradox. The problem is that a “paradox” is a “surface contradiction that reveals a deeper truth when it is examined more closely.” When I examine Frank’s contradictions more closely it just makes me more confused as to where he stands. He seems to take any old contradiction and assume there must be an underlying, deeper truth or else he simply denies that truth exists altogether – depending on what week it is.
For example, compare Frank’s wise statement above about pedophilia and rape with what he writes a few weeks later:
Nothing illustrates the danger we face from our own Taliban better than the way American “Christians” are now tangled up with the homophobic—now potentially gay murdering – Ugandan Christian/political leadership. The Ugandan Parliament is considering a bill that would impose the death penalty on gays.
Note that the Ugandan bill does not call for the death penalty for homosexuals. In fact, the Ugandan bill has since been softened in its call for the death penalty in favor of prison terms. Several well-known American ministries have opposed the UN’s push for special rights for homosexuals in Africa. Other laws are now being considered where the UN has promoted the “gay agenda” in several socially conservative African nations. The bill, which criminalizes homosexual rape, is seen as a backlash against the UN and other such groups seeking to impose social change from the top-down.
Further, the Ugandan bill does not criminalize all homosexual behavior. The bill instead calls for criminal sanctions against those homosexuals who rape and molest young children. It also imposes penalties on known AIDS carriers who engage in homosexual behavior and knowingly infect their victims with a deadly disease.
Now let’s compare again Franks’ diatribe against the Ugandan bill to the more recent statement:
“Child molesters and rapists would be locked up for life without parole.”
A contradiction? Yes. But such contradictions don’t bother great minds of renowned “Christian existentialists.” The Ugandan law is all evidence of a hidden world-wide theonomic conspiracy. According to Frank:
Others with ties to violent groups are also striving to turn America into our version of a “Christian” Iran. Reconstructionism, otherwise known as Dominionist Christianity, and the Republican Party are one and the same thing these days….
Rushdoony who [Erik] Prince, [Mike] Huckabee and others follow said the Bible must replace civil laws and constitutions with the Old and New Testaments, including the revival of the death penalty for homosexuality, incest, adultery, losing virginity before marriage and apostasy…. These are core beliefs among several leading figures including Huckabee, Sarah Palin and the inner core of George W Bush’s far right “crusader” religious circle….
George Grant is one of the far right/theocratic mentors. He appeared with Rushdoony in the video, “God’s Law and Society.” Grant was the co-author for Huckabee’s 1998 book, Kids Who Kill: Confronting Our Culture of Violence. That was the book where Huckabee and Grant said homosexuality and pedophilia, sadomasochism and necrophilia were all “institutionally supported aberrations.”
But wait … didn’t Frank just say that pedophilia ought to be criminalized with the sanction of life imprisonment? Again, to this Christian existentialist, “that was so last week!”
R.J. Rushdoony: The Liberals’ “Bogeyman”
In my last post, part 5 of this series, I showed that the charge that Huckabee, Bush, Palin and others are “Dominionists” or “Reconstructionists” is impossible. They simply don’t adhere to any of the major tenets. The insistence that they are nevertheless “secret Rushdoony-ites” shows that Frank Schaeffer either has a huge gap in his understanding of the foundation of Reformed theology (and especially Puritan Covenantal theology) in the Christian Reconstructionist movement, or he is simply lying through his teeth.
The usual ploy of the detractors of theonomy is to emphasize the case laws of the Old Testament that call for capital punishment (as Frank does here) with the idea that these are outmoded, harsh and barbaric. The problem for the Christian making these claims is that this necessarily implies that he believes the God of the Old Testament is outmoded, harsh and barbaric. It puts the detractor in the position of using scriptural truth to attempt to refute scriptural truth. I have always been at a loss to understand how well-intentioned Christians can live with this level of cognitive dissonance. While I myself struggle with the implications of theonomy, I have never been able to accept the arguments against it.
Whenever I see an argument opposing the validity and relevance of biblical law, it has always come off as sounding pagan and anti-Christian. That is why it is of great concern when I see Christians railing against “theonomy,” which is in fact just the idea that the Law of God has abiding validity and relevance in the life of the Christian and the society at large.
Confronting the Detractors of Biblical Law
To be intellectually honest, theonomists should not downplay the specter of capital punishment as described in the Old and New Testament that frightens liberals so much. We need to address this issue head on. A few years back, I wrote a “Frequently Asked Questions on Theonomy” article entitled Theonomy FAQ, in which I dealt with the questions of capital sanctions quite frankly. These questions and answers grew out of numerous debates and discussions I had had on various email discussion groups in the mid- to late-1990s. This dialectical exercise later became the basis for the God’s Law and Society video, which Frank Schaeffer also lambastes, but has probably never seen, although I’ve offered to send him a review copy if he promises to review it. Later I was asked to do an on-line Theonomy Debate sponsored by the Caledonian Fire website.
Theonomy FAQ was written in a few minutes “on-the-fly” although I later revised and expanded it. I don’t consider it to be a definitive or scholarly piece, but more of a polemic. When I posted it on my website back in the 1990s, it quickly got noticed by hundreds of websites – mainly anti-Christian liberal groups – and more importantly by the search engines. Now many years later, if you Google “theonomy,” this is the first web page that comes up (after Wikipedia’s entry, that is, the bane of serious researchers!)
Just try it: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=theonomy
Here I want to address what I consider the major points of the theonomic viewpoint. These are important to understand no matter what side of the argument one comes down on.
The Whole Bible is the Law of God
Orthodox Christians don’t believe that the only last one-third of the Bible is the Word of God or that the New Testament causes the Old Testament to become invalid. The Old Testament does need to be interpreted in light of the New, however, so in one sense the revelation of the New Covenant is superior to the Old. Yet this does not make the Old Testament Law invalid or wrong.
In addition, it is important to understand that the Law of God is also revealed in the New Testament. Theonomists are not those who would enforce the Law of Moses in society. A theonomist is one who believes in God’s Law – all the statutes of both the Old and New Testament. We look as well to the numerous case laws and examples of how the Law of God was applied throughout all of scripture.
Jesus himself said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17). However, there has been a “covenantal shift” in the manner in which the Law is fulfilled. For instance, since Jesus died on the cross it is no longer necessary to sacrifice animals for atonement for sin as the Old Covenant required. Since the Gentile nations have been grafted into the covenant people of God, there is no longer any reason to observe the ceremonial law that was in place to distinguish between the clean and the unclean. The law was not abolished in these instances, but fulfilled by Jesus who fulfilled the ceremonial and sacrificial laws in our place.
So when detractors begin to spew this nonsense that theonomists advocate the death penalty for eating lobster or wearing polyester (as Barack Obama once did when he mocked the Old Testament in a campaign speech) we simply need to point them to the book of Hebrews and emphasize that the Law of God includes the filter of the New Covenant.
Now one could apply this principle of “covenantal shift” to the moral law as well and argue that it is no longer necessary to execute those who commit murder, kidnapping, adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality and a few other crimes. Whether or not we ought to judge these offenses in the civil sphere under the dispensation of the New Covenant, it is obvious that the moral law has not been rescinded. The just penalty is still the same – death.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul lists some of the crimes of the Mosaic law and writes that “those who practice such things deserve death” (Romans 1:32). It is significant too that Paul mentions not only the capital offenses enumerated by Moses, but also lesser sins such as gossip,
So whether or not a court should impose the death penalty on an adulterer or a sodomite, if we accept the New Testament, then we must agree that those who practice such things at the very least deserve death even if we do not impose it by a civil sanction. In other words, a law can be imposed “on the books” to remind us of an eternal truth – that we deserve death every time we disobey even if God is merciful and does not enforce the death penalty through a civil magistrate.
Christians also need to grapple with another logical question that arises from the question of theonomy. If we don’t have God’s Law on the books, then whose law do we have? For instance, if we put man and man’s reason as the all-wise lawgiver, then by what standard do we judge man’s law when it becomes tyrannical. How can we judge a Muslim country that executes “infidels”? How can we judge an atheistic communist nation that seizes land and puts landowners who resist to death? How can we judge a fascist regime that decides that homosexuals, Jews, communists and other” anti-German” minorities can be put to death? How can we judge the nation of Uganda for deciding to execute child molesters?
Frank Schaeffer claims child molesters should be put in prison for life. Christians in Uganda say that death is fitting. Who is right?
Capital sanctions of the Old Testament were rarely enforced
According to the Talmud, which is an ancient Jewish commentary on the law, a death sentence had to be approved unanimously by a panel of 24 judges (or jurors). Death was not a standard penalty, but a maximum one. Further, there had to be “two or more witnesses” in order for case to be heard. In other words, the standards for actually imposing the death penalty were so stringent as to be nearly impossible to achieve in cases when there was no physical evidence. The death penalty for “invisible crimes” – such as sorcery, necromancy, soothsaying, idolatry, and apostasy – was probably rarely if ever imposed. At least there is no record of it in scripture.
In fact, whenever we see a capital case being judged in scripture, we always see a lesser penalty than death imposed. When David was found guilty of adultery, he suffered loss of his rulership, but was not executed. When several of the kings of Israel judged the homosexual temple prostitutes, they did it through banishment, not execution. When the woman caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, the witnesses who sought to try her did not see fit to bring charges against the man as well. As a result, Jesus forgave her and commanded her to “go and sin no more.”
However, we do see God’s sovereign judgment in the book of Acts bringing swift judgment in the form of sudden death against Herod’s idolatry and the false witness of Ananias and Saphira.
We have to take the capital cases in context. Human government is limited in wisdom, scope and power, but God’s government knows no bounds. While it is true that it would be difficult to prove a case of homosexuality “in the closet” without the testimony of two or three witnesses, it is not wrong to remind sex offenders who violate the sanctity of marriage that such behavior is deserving of death, and they could in fact be subject to the sovereign judgment of God himself through some fatal disease or sudden accident. In fact, we see this so often among celebrities whose brazen lifestyles bring them to an untimely end. Sadly, the church rarely speaks of the connection between unrepentant sin and death.
Theonomy is imposed through voluntary self-government
Theonomists believe that all sin is eventually dealt with in some way by God – sometimes through forgiveness provided by Christ’s sacrifice and sometimes through temporal judgments – but we do not believe that all sin must be punished by the civil government. Some sin is dealt with by private institutions, some by churches and some by families. Ultimately we want to see a society where each individual is self-governing under the Law of God. We want the individual to examine himself and to be dealt with directly by the Holy Spirit who is able to lead sinners to repentance. We don’t ever want the civil government to move beyond its role of punishing evil doers described in scripture with specific limits.
In fact, if we followed the Bible, the civil courts would have far less to do than they do today. We create the potential for tyranny whenever we exalt the role of the civil state through man’s law beyond what God’s law prescribes.
For instance, everyone agrees that our state and federal prison system is a mess. For years, conservatives and liberals have been calling for the reform of the prison system. If we used the standard of theonomy, we could actually do it. There were no jails or prisons in ancient Israel. Those convicted of non-capital crimes were instead forced to pay double restitution to the victim. Who wants non-violent convicted felons serivng long prison terms at the taxpayers’ expense exposed daily to the example and tutelage of other criminals? Such institutions do little to rehabilitate. But someone who is forced to work to pay for his crime is given the satisfaction of knowing he has satisfied both his victim’s restitution and for his own rehabilitation. This is one example of a theonomic reform regarding crime and punishment that most people would agree with if it was ever put on state ballots. It is just one of the numerous examples of how God’s Law is just, merciful and wise all at the same time.
Theonomy is imposed in a covenantal context
Another point that is often overlooked is the voluntary aspect of theonomic community government. God imposed a system of law with potentially fatal consequences on a nation that nevertheless came willingly and embraced the law with all its postive and negative sanctions. In Deuteronomy 28 and 29, Jehovah spoke through Moses all the blessings and curses that came as sanctions on Israel for obeying or disobeying the Law.
While I understand the animosity that non-believers have toward God’s Law, I have always had a difficulty understanding why believers — who supposedly know Jehovah’s goodness, wisdom, mercy and love — would oppose a civil law system based on God’s Word. Since God knows everything, He certainly knows what is best for us.
Further, we are told in the Bible that if we study the Law and approach it with an attitude of love and submission, then God will bless us. When Israel covenanted with God, they were given also a promise of the blessings they would receive when they kept the Law.
‘If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments, and perform them, then I will give you rain in its season, the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall last till the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last till the time of sowing; you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none will make you afraid; I will rid the land of evil beasts, and the sword will not go through your land. You will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. ‘For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new. I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; I have broken the bands of your yoke and made you walk upright (Leviticus 26: 3-13).
If we believe that this was the case for Old Covenant Israel, then it is not too big of a stretch to think that New Covenant believers can expect to receive an even greater blessing. In a covenantal context, this is how theonomy works: When we become Christians, we share the Gospel with those around us. Our neighbor might become a Christian. Even our whole neighborhood might become Christian. Even our whole state might become predominantly Christian. Even in fact the whole nation! To take a quote from Frank Schaeffer’s father: “How should we then live? What laws should we then have?”
If we follow the Law prescribed by God himself, then we can expect to have the blessings of God as well. Heathen nations get the law system they deserve, which is man’s law. To the nation of Israel, it was far more attractive to live by God’s law than to live under the yoke of the laws of a pagan nation. Why should we desire to live under laws that are essentially pagan, that not only allow, but encourage and provide subsidies for behaviors that defy God and bring curses on the whole society?
Theonomy is imposed in a postmillennial context
Likewise, theonomists do not expect to impose the whole law of God as it applies to civil sanctions on Americans within the next election cycle. This is the point that fear mongers such as Frank Schaeffer too often miss. True theonomists are necessarily postmillennial in their worldview. That is, we are not expecting the soon return of Jesus Christ in our lifetime. We expect things in our culture to get better and better as we are obedient to God. But this cannot happen overnight. It happens little by little. We don’t seek to seize control of the federal government and impose drastic social change with legal penalties imposed through the courts for non-compliance. That is what liberals do. We believe in peaceful social change that comes voluntarily and progressively over many generations. Although we must self-consciously work for that change to the best of our ability within our own generation, we do that by the pattern of God’s Law-Word — as individuals, families and local communities progressively come to a better understanding — not through a top-down imposition of judicial tyranny.
Theonomy is imposed in an eternal context
To so-called “progressive Christians” such as Frank Schaeffer, I ask a simple question. Do you believe there is punishment for sin in the afterlife? Christian orthodoxy teaches that there is an eternal penalty for sin, which is eternal separation from God and all the suffering that hell entails. It is a contradiction to suppose that God imposes a penalty in the afterlife for living a life of disobedience and yet to suppose theonomists are “hateful” or “dangerous” merely because want to stand for God’s moral law and even punish those who disobey.
Currently our political, educational and entertainment culture his teaching an entire generation that living in gross sexual immorality is a normal lifestyle choice. However, the moral law of God codified in civil law and taught through schools and cultural institutions, such as the arts and entertainment, may actually serve to impress on our culture a knowledge of own own sin and in turn lead some toward salvation. In an eternal sense, God’s Law is the “law of love.” The Law will serve to lead many to a knowledge of a loving, gracious, merciful and kind God whenever and wherever we properly apply it.
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