Theonomy: A Debate Round One Argument against Theonomy


Since Rogers did not provide me with much in the way of exegetically based argumentation (he merely referenced a few texts) I will take some liberties in this round by addressing miscellaneous issues.

I) To Bind or Not to Bind: That is the Question

Rogers expressed a concern that I might attack a straw version of Theonomy; hence his lengthy introduction in his opening argument. So when I encountered his claim that “The NT has rescinded certain aspects of the Mosaic Law…” I was quite shocked, for Rogers himself had thereby put forth a straw man. For according to Bahnsen, “the ceremonial law is not abrogated but fulfilled in Christ for us” (TICE, 215; italics his). Since the words “rescind” and “abrogate” are synonyms, [1] I’m tempted to conclude that Rogers either does not understand Theonomy (as standardized and popularized by Greg Bahnsen) or else he chose his words poorly—a strange thing considering the importance of that word for this debate. But perhaps there is a third option. Perhaps he has not stopped to think through his theology from a sufficiently analytical standpoint. By way of confirmation I would note his use of the phrase “not binding” with regard to certain elements of the Law. That is about as clear a denial of the Law’s obligatory status as one can make (the word “obligation” comes from a Latin term meaning “to bind”). Yet he later says that the entire law is “still valid.” What exactly is the distinction? Whatever else he means by “valid,” it clearly does not mean “binding,” and that’s the problem. I would appreciate some clarification on this point.

II) Concerning the Common Charge of “Antinomianism”

The masses are always moved more by rhetoric than reason. This weakness plagues the Christian masses as much as the great mob of pagans. Hence the psychological force of the term “antinomian.” It is sad but true that, from a psychological standpoint, Rogers need only tag me with that title to win this debate, at least in the minds of some.

The meaning of the word “antinomian” (against-law) is always relative to the law which one is supposedly against. I am an antinomian with respect bad laws (e.g., affirmative action). Indeed, all of us are antinomian with respect to some laws. In fact, the absolute antinomian does not exist. For even if one should reject the laws of everyone else, he would thereby subject himself to his own law—that is pure autonomy.

A Theonomist might argue that antinomianism is good only if the laws we oppose are bad. Since the Mosaic Law is “good and holy” (Rom 7) it cannot be opposed. This reasoning is valid but unsound; the premise is false. For we can also be opposed to a law if it is not as good as the one we embrace. Paul argued that the old covenant\law came with a “passing” glory and was thus good, but the new covenant\law came with a “surpassing” glory and was thus better.The author of Hebrews likewise argued that the new law system was “better” than the old one. So we are not simply disregarding a good law, we are embracing a better law.

Recall that Paul himself spoke of some Mosaic laws as “weak and worthless elemental things” (Gal 4:9, also v.3); they were a “shadow” of the substance found in Christ (Col 2:16-17). Paul was obviously against these laws in some sense. The author of Hebrews called the old law system “faulty.” Were these pillars of the church antinomians also?

Paul explicitly rejects the Theonomic inference that the abolition of the old law entails Christian antinomianism (1 Cor 9). Having explicitly denied being “under the Law,” Paul then, anticipating the charge of antinomianism, affirms just as clearly that he is not “without the Law of God.” How can he say this? Because he was “under the Law of Christ.” Since Christ was God and since Paul was under the Law of Christ, it follows that Paul was still under the law of God.

Paul was not against laws prohibiting murder or adultery, for example. But it was not the Mosaic formulations of those laws with which he fed his flock, for that code was abolished. Rather, he admonished his converts to emulate the life of Christ. Because Paul saw himself as bound to love as Christ loved, he knew that only the highest degree of love and personal holiness was acceptable. In charging them to love as Christ loved, there was no need to make reference to the Tablets. For Christlike love excludes all the actions prohibited by those stones. Those prohibitions are unnecessary for anyone following Christ’s law of love. For such a one will automatically do all that Moses required and more. If one is going above and beyond Mosaic duty his actions will necessarily be above reproach. If we consider our relation to Moses from that standpoint we ought to call ourselves “supranomians”! Paul makes this very point to the Galatians. He teaches us that a Christlike life, a life lived by the power of the Spirit of Christ according the law of Christ, will necessarily yield “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23).It is with this point in mind that Paul went on to boldly assert “against such things there is no law” (24). Martin Luther rightly considered it futile to prohibit an apple tree from producing oranges.

If one does not understand how Christ’s superior law is the highest possible standard of ethics—though the point should be self-evident—I do not know how else to prove that claim. But I must make one more point: The only ones who can dare call this “lawless” Christianity must themselves be committed to Christless Christianity.

III) The Voluntaristic Character of Theonomy

Voluntarists teach that the explication of ultimate moral concepts, e.g., “ought,” “good,” “right,” “just,” &c., can only be made sense of by referring them to the pure will of a legislator. What is right is what is legislated; what is legislated is what is right. There cannot be such a thing as an “unrighteous law” because righteousness itself is defined as that which is legislated. Therefore, had God so willed it, murder and adultery could have been right while kindness and humility could have been wrong. Christianity could have been evil and Machiavellianism could have been good. Now then, let’s see why Theonomy is dangerously close to being charged with this heresy.

1) Bahnsen’s Bestiality Argument Is Self-Defeating

Of all the Theonomic tactics I find people succumbing to most it is Bahnsen’s question of bestiality. He asks something like this: Since only the Mosaic Law prohibits bestiality, and since that law is no longer our standard, is bestiality wrong? This question is designed to trap us into admitting our need for the Mosaic Law—and it often succeeds. But the question retains force only as long as we do not respond to it with a question of our own, namely, Was bestiality known to be wrong before Mosaic Law? If a Theonomist answers in the affirmative he would betray his own rationale. For then men would know bestiality is wrong while ignorant of Moses. But if a Theonomist denies that pre-Mosaic pagans had such knowledge, they would be tacitly committed to voluntarism.

Men living prior to Mosaic Law knew bestiality was wrong or they did not. If they did know, they knew it apart from knowing the Law. If they did not know, they could not have been condemned for having engaged in that act—for one cannot be held accountable for failing to avoid what they did not know ought to be avoided. Bahnsen’s argument implicitly denies that men could have that knowledge apart from Mosaic Law. Hence men could have engaged in that perversion without being condemned. But surely Theonomists would deny this too. Yet they cannot logically deny both consequences. If they want to avoid suggesting that bestiality was an innocent delight before the Law, they must admit that men knew it for what it was before and thus apart from Mosaic legislation. But that admission would undermine the bestiality argument.

In point of fact, the bestiality argument (and ultimately Theonomy as a whole) is a tacit rejection of the Pauline doctrine of natural law (Rom 1:26; 2:14-15), i.e., that conscience convicts men of what is “unnatural” (contra phusis). This natural and inherent power of ethical discernment is precisely what Paul assumes in order to establish his condemnation of the Gentiles. He clearly stated this much: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…”(italics mine). Paul said that men know homosexuality is wrong by conscience alone. Indeed, by conscience alone men know gossiping and dishonoring parents and a host of other actions are wrong as well. To suppose that conscience is silent on the matter of bestiality is absurd. Such an act cannot be any more contrary to human nature.

In short, the bestiality argument can get off the ground only by assuming the very thing that will blow it out of the air, i.e., that men cannot know right from wrong apart from a personal acquaintance with physical, written code of Moses.

2) “What Then? Shall We Sin?”

Whenever I tell someone that the Decalogue has been abolished I meet with this response: “So can we go out and murder and steal now?” This question can be expected from the laymen who typically do not think through the implications of their theology. But I’m utterly floored when I hear the Church’s intellectual leaders posing it. For in order to seriously ask that question one must assume what cannot be assumed, namely, that murder and stealing are wrong only because the Mosaic Law commands it. If true, this assumption should instill terror and spiritual paralysis within any thinking person; that is pure voluntarism. Note well that I do NOT believe my Theonomic brothers are voluntarists; I am arguing only that their objection presupposes that doctrine. Theonomists would be the first to admit that sinful actions are intrinsically wrong, being inherently contrary to the imageo dei. However, this admission betrays the logic behind their initial objection. For if murder and stealing are wrong because of what they are in themselves, then obviously the Law does not make them wrong. But if the Law does not make them wrong, then the abolition of the Law cannot make them right. The objection is therefore groundless and potentially self-defeating.

3) A Problem With The So-Called “Moral Laws”

Rogers (like all good Theonomists) thinks we need the moral laws of the OT in order to have a standard for knowing right from wrong. But what are the “moral” laws of the OT? Neither the OT nor NT makes such a distinction. [2] Indeed, the Israelites were bound to them all and were punished for breaking any. Even the scribes’ so-called “weightier matters” are left unenumerated by Jesus—which among the 613 laws were they?

Now consider this: If Scripture itself does not provide a sure guide for picking out the moral laws from among the 613 laws to be picked through, then “by what standard” do we pick them out? Obviously we would need some standard independent of Scripture to identify them. But that is (according to Theonomists) pure autonomy! Moreover, our prior ability to isolate the moral laws within the code would render those laws superfluous. For if we already know what is morally right and wrong—which we must if we’re to pick them out—then we do not need them after all!

If we cannot determine right and wrong without Mosaic assistance, then Voluntarism is true after all. The doctrine of conscience and the correlated view of man as made in God’s image would then be false. But should we reject the latter consequence, we would thereby need to reject the assumptions needed for all the aforementioned objections and concerns.

IV) Some Problems In Penology

Many non-Theonomists argue that Theonomy is impractical and thus false. That is limp reasoning. If the current civil magistrates are bound to implement the Mosaic penal code then the current civil magistrates are bound to implement the Mosaic penal code. Call it impractical if you will—as I, in fact, do—but do not consider it incorrect on that account. That pragmatic argument needs to be thrown out once and for all. Even so, there are other, far more devastating criticisms that can be leveled against Theonomic penology.

1) The Theonomic Confusion of Penal & Moral Laws

A stereotypical moral law is “Thou shall not murder.” A penal law would be “Thou shall not let murderers live.” The former is addressed to men as men. The latter is addressed to men as magistrates. Yet Theonomists insist that penal laws are moral laws, and this is an important part of their theory. For if the moral law binds in a universal and invariable way, and if the penal law can be subsumed under the moral law, then the penal law also binds in a universal and invariable way. But their attempt as welding the two distinct kinds of law is simply untenable.

Bahnsen rightly states that the moral law “defines sin” (TICE, 214). He also considers the penal law a moral law. But these two assumptions are incompatible. For a penal law does not define sin. A penal law merely prescribes punishments for actions that have already been defined as

Moral laws bind all men regardless of their station in life. But penal laws bind only the civil magistrates. Even if we suppose that sinners are obligated to be punished—a supposition I consider well nigh unintelligible—that obligation would be contingent upon a sin rather than absolute, as moral laws are. The fact is that Israel’s criminals were not obligated to receive punishment; rather her magistrates were obligated to give punishment. But this obligation was not upon all men, as is the obligation to refrain from murder, for example. Hence it was not a moral law.

Since natural moral laws govern men as men, it follows that all men are at all times bound to obey them. For these laws require what is proper to the imageo dei (which is an extension of God’s own character and will). Therefore, if penal laws were moral and thus unvarying in their application, they would have necessarily applied to the prelapsarian man. But penal laws presuppose sin, and there was no sin before the fall. Hence penal laws were not binding before the fall. Therefore, being historically contingent upon the entrance of sin into the world, penal laws are not moral laws.

2) Mosaic Penal Law Was Not Binding On Gentile Magistrates

For the sake of argument, even if Theonomists could prove that the OL is still binding in its entirety, this would not imply that today’s Gentile magistrates are bound to apply those sanctions until it can first be proven that they were bound to do so during the Mosaic economy. In an article entitled “For Whom Was God’s Law Intended?” Greg Bahnsen did not provide a shred of evidence that the penal sanctions extended outside the bounds of Israel’s civil jurisdiction. Much to the contrary, there is solid evidence that at least some of Israel’s laws were not binding on Gentiles.

For example, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the Lord established between Himself and the sons of Israel” (Lev 26:46, italics mine). Recall Moses’ rhetorical question: “Of what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4:8). He elsewhere stated “The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all of us alive here today” (Deut 5:3, italics mine). [3] Likewise we read: “Moses charged us with a law, a possession for the assembly of Jacob” (33:4, italics mine). Nehemiah confirms the claim: “You came down also on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. You made know to them your holy Sabbath, and commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, by the hand of Moses your servant” (9:13:14, italics mine). The psalmist makes the point crystal clear: “He declares His words to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His ordinances, they have not known them” (Ps. 147:19, italics mine). Paul said the Jews held an exclusive relation to the Mosaic Law (Rom 2:14ff). In answer to the question: “What advantage then hath the Jew?” Paul said: “Much in every way. First indeed, because the words of God were committed to them” (Rom 3:1,2). Later, when he’s speaking of his “kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites,” Paul says, “…to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the services and the promises…” (9:3-5). In light of these claims there is no room for suggesting that the penal Law was binding on the Gentiles. But perhaps it was binding on them naturally, by means of conscience, as Theonomists suggest.

3) A Natural Knowledge of Israel’s Penal Laws?

According to Theonomists, Paul taught that men possess a natural knowledge of Israel’s penal laws. For after listing off a host of sins, Paul said that men knew instinctively “the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Rom 1:32). But Paul says “ordinance” (singular), not “ordinances“ (plural). Moreover, the word dikaioma, translated here as “ordinance,” can be (grammatically) and should be (contextually) translated as “sentence of condemnation.” For after stating that Gentiles know the dikaioma of God,” Paul explicitly identifies that knowledge, i.e., “that those who do such things are worthy of death.” The Gentiles are said to be cognizant of only God’s general sentence that the soul who sins is the soul who dies.

Clearly Paul was not thinking of Israel’s penal laws here. For the context mentions envy, gossiping, boasting and slandering as offenses worthy of death (1:29-30). Yet these were not to be punished by execution under the OC. If Theonomists are correct in their view of this passage, then Gentile magistrates can put gossipers to death. But that would be unjust according to Theonomists, for that would be adding to the OC standards.

V) Some Textual Problems

Here I will address two texts cited by Rogers and two used often by his mentor, Greg Bahnsen. I will first respond to Rogers’ two texts. (I will address other texts in later rounds)

1) Hebrews 10:28-29

Here we read: “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” This text is no proof for Theonomy.

I argued in my opening that the author considered the OC (and thus its law) abrogated. That author’s conclusion in chap 8 serves as a premise in 10. Simply put, if a violation of that fading system ratified by the blood of animals was severe enough to warrant death, then how much more the permanent system ratified by the precious blood of Christ! The author is using an a fortiori argument, i.e., he’s reasoning from the lesser (i.e., “faulty” covenant) to the greater (i.e., “better” covenant). The argument acquires its very force from the supposition that the former system has been abolished! If the faulty, abolished system was to be treated with such reverence, the faultless system is to be revered far more still.

2) Matthew 15:3,4

Jesus asked the Pharisees: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” Does this question imply that the Law is still our stand for ethics? Not at all. I demonstrated in my opening argument that since Jesus was “under the Law,” He was living under its jurisdiction—unlike Paul. Hence any appeals to His relation to the OL are of no force against my position.

Paul here wrote: “Now whatever the Law says it says to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God.” Theonomists read this as though it said “all the world” is “under the Law,” i.e., that the Mosaic Law was binding on all men, not just Jews. But Paul did not say this.

Paul says only that the entire world is accountable to God, because all are “under sin” (9). Theonomists suppose this fact is due to the universal jurisdiction of Mosaic Law. But Paul had just finished contradicting that supposition—“all who have sinned without the Law…” (2:12, italics mine). The Gentiles sin against conscience—“they do instinctively the things of the Law…their conscience bearing witness” (2:14-15). Gentiles have been made accountable to God by means of natural law—not the Mosaic; they are not even under Moses (2:12-15)!

These points serve within the context of a larger argument. Paul is dividing the world into Jew and Gentile. Having demonstrated that the Gentile portion was under sin though they were not under the Law, Paul now moves to the Jewish portion. He shut the mouths of the Gentiles, now he will shut the mouths of the Jews. Having prosecuted the former (1:18-2:16), Paul poses a series of devastating rhetorical questions to the latter: “But if you bear the name ‘Jew,’ and rely upon the Law…?” (2:17ff). Paul’s argument is highly ironic. He goes on to demonstrate how the very Law upon which the Jews relied was actually condemning them! This is precisely why he proceeds to quote the psalmist’s indictment against universal mankind, both Jew and Gentile—“There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God; all have turned aside…” (3:10ff, italics mine).

We are now ready to understand 3:19. If we bear in mind that Paul occasionally spoke of the Psalms as God’s nomos—as did other writers—we can see how that quotation (vv.10-18) served as a premise for the conclusion “Now whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law…” According to the passage here cited, the Law “says” that all men are under sin and condemnation, including the Jew! Since the Jews knew themselves to be the only ones under the Law, they knew the passage spoke to them. Hence they could conclude that their own written Law was indicting them along with the Gentiles’ natural law. Paul thus closed the mouths of all men; God has made all men accountable to Himself but by different means.

“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” According to Theonomists, Paul is here denying that the Law’s binding force has been nullified. This is (allegedly) a clear affirmation of our perpetual obligation to the Law. But once again they have ignored the context. Paul is not talking about the Law’s obligatory status here, but rather its prophetic role in testifying about the righteousness of Christ received by faith. Paul is insisting on the more restricted fact that his gospel does not nullify or contravene that prophetic witness. Recall that Jesus Himself said that the Law “prophesied” of His gospel ministry (Mt 11:13). This point is the object of Paul’s concern here.

It is important to bear in mind Paul’s reason for writing the Roman Christians. He had not yet gone to Rome. He makes it clear that he plans to do so on his way to Spain (compare 1:11 with 15:22-24). Just as in every other Mediterranean region in which Paul’s name was being discussed, so too in Rome there were many Jews slandering his message (see 3:8). This letter, therefore, is a clarification of the doctrine that he will bring to the Romans on his way to Spain (read chap 1). It is a justification of his gospel and ultimately of God’s righteousness. Paul’s apologetic spirit permeates the letter, especially in this immediate section.

Now then, throughout 2:17-29 Paul argued that with respect to their moral status before God, the Jews were no better off than the Gentiles. This led him to anticipate the question: “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (3:1). Paul’s answer is telling: The Jews possessed the “oracles” of God (3:2), i.e., the prophetic word. Paul later says that to the physical Jews (“my kinsmen according to the flesh”) belongs “the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises…and from whom is the Christ” (9:4-5). The advantage of the Jews was not in their possession of a generic moral code—for the Gentiles shared the same principles by means of natural revelation (1:18-2:15)—but rather in the prophetic information tucked away within that code (which Nature is silent on). Though Jew and Gentile had the same knowledge of right and wrong, only the Jews had salvific knowledge. The Jews alone knew about the promise of divinely circumcised hearts (compare Jer 31 with Rom 2:29) and of faith-based righteousness. In fact, the Jews privileged status was so great that Paul was led to ask a virtually opposite question than the initial one: “What then? Are we [Jews] better then they [Gentiles]?” (9).

This point about the testimony or witness of the Law to a faith-based righteousness is explicitly brought out in 3:21-22: “But now apart from the Law a righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (italics mine). Contrary to the common Jewish assumption, the Law could not make one right with God. It served only to condemn them (20). The Jews should have realized that fact by studying the very Law upon which they relied. They should have thereby learned about their need to find another source of righteousness. More specifically, they should have identified that other means of righteousness to which the Law testified as the principle of faith. For although this righteousness came “apart from the Law,” the Law itself bore witness to it. Yet many Jews missed this; concerning them Paul said:

“For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end [4] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith…” (Rom 10-2-6).

It is with all these points in mind that we must consider 3:31. Paul’s question here is not whether the Law’s binding force has been nullified; that issue is not even in view in this context! The question pertains rather to the Law’s testimony or witness concerning justification. The question is this: Does Paul’s gospel of justification by faith contradict what the Law itself said about justification? His answer is a resounding NO! Much to the contrary, the Law itself testified to Paul’s gospel! This is why he says that faith “establishes” the Law. Paul’s gospel of faith-based righteousness confirms what the Law itself said concerning a righteousness to be received apart from it.

As he did in Galatians, Paul then goes on to argue (chap 4) that since the principle of faith-based righteousness preceded the Law itself, the Law could not have contradicted that principle. Just as Paul’s gospel did not contradict the Law, the Law itself did not contradict the Abrahamic promise: “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.”

Had the law taught what the Jews claimed it taught, there would have been a nullification of that promise: “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified” (15, italics mine).

Though Paul does not treat the point here in Romans, it may be noted that since the Law served merely to lead the Jews to this faith based righteousness, the coming of that righteousness resulted in the abrogation of the Law (as Paul made clear in Galatians). So by witnessing to this coming righteousness, the Law bore witness to its own temporal role. The Law itself testified to a time when it would be put out of commission.

[1] Webster provides two definitions of “rescind.” (1) to abrogate; annul; revoke; repeal (2) to invalidate (an act, measure, etc.) by a later action of a higher authority

[2] The following point holds regardless of whether we’re speaking of “linguistic” or “conceptual” distinctions.

[3] This point holds even if we do not assume that “our fathers” refers to the Patriarchs.

[4] Those who’ve argued that the Greek telos (translated “end”) must be taken in either a terminative sense (e.g., the end or finish line of a race) or the teleological sense (e.g., the purpose of a race) have made a false dichotomy. The Greeks often used it to connote both senses; and that is common sense. For if the (teleological) purpose of the Law was only to lead mean to Christ, then His coming marks the (terminative) end of the Law.

ROUND Jay Rogers Brad Finkbeiner
Opening Arguments proopening.htm conopening.htm
Round One pro1.htm con1.htm
Round Two pro2.htm con2.htm
Round Three pro3.htm con3.htm
Round Four pro4.htm con4.htm
Closing Arguments proclosing.htm conclosing.htm

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