Review: Theonomy in Christian Ethics

Greg Bahnsen, Covenant Media Press, 2002, 610 pages; 3 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 6.00.36 AMI first heard of Greg Bahnsen in relation to his cult classic debate with atheist Gordon Stein. I’ve listened to that exchange a couple dozen times. When it comes to presuppositionalism, the doctrines of grace, and a high view of God’s Word, he and I are in lock step. Theonomy—the teaching for which he is most known—is another matter.

This work by Bahnsen is probably the most scholarly defense of Theonomy (i.e. Christian reconstructionism), the presumption that there is moral continuity between the New and Old Testaments. It teaches that “the Christian is obligated to keep the whole law of God as a pattern of sanctification and…this law is to be enforced by the civil magistrate where [Scripture stipulates].” (36)

Before getting into the text, John and Paul Feinberg’s brief summary of the four views of the law may help. (1) Theonomists hold a continuity position whereby all the OT applies today. (2) The moderate continuity position believes the OT applies generally but must be adjusted in relation to the NT. (3) The radical discontinuity position believes all law has been abolished and Christians should follow the leading of the Spirit. (4) The moderate discontinuity view believes that while there is great overlap between OT and NT laws, Christ and his teaching ultimately fulfills the law and thus determines which OT laws are valid.

Summary of Bahnsen’s Work

Mathew 5:17-20 is the key text pertaining to Jesus and his view of the law. Bahnsen’s interpretation of this passage is also the title of his second chapter: “The Abiding Validity of the Law in Exhaustive Detail.” That is, Jesus did not come to rescind any of the OT commands but instead came to confirm and restore them (plēroō) in full measure and these laws will not be invalid until the world comes to an end. Bahnsen’s exegesis of this passage is lengthy and vital to his position.

Assuming for now the tripartite division of the law (moral, i.e. The Ten Commandments; civil, i.e. Sabbatical Year; ceremonial, i.e. animal sacrifices) and acknowledging both sides of this debate generally agree that the ceremonial law is no longer binding but the moral law is, this issue really comes down to the civil law. Theonomy argues nations should be ruled by the standards of the Old Testament civil law. When it comes to difficult passages that imply Christians are no longer under the law, Bahnsen maintains the law is being renounced as a means to save, not as an obligation to obey.

Ten Points of Critique

Bahnsen should be commended for his exhaustive study. I agreed with many of his points,  including his chapter on the functions of the law. He was careful in his exegesis and insightful in his applications. Nonetheless, I did not find his arguments convincing. Here are ten reasons.

  1. He offers more than he can deliver. Bahnsen’s assertions are direct and clear: believers must obey every word of the OT. “The New Testament Christian is obligated to every jot and tittle of the Older Testamental law” (215) and “the extent to which men must follow the law of God is exhaustive” (472). This is misleading. In reality, theonomists believe all of the OT ceremonial laws are wiped away as fulfilled in Christ. Bahnsen needs to tone down and better qualify his statements.
  2. His separate domains of church and state are unclear. Bahnsen acknowledges Scripture’s teaching on the separation of church and state. The sword belongs to the state only. But then he says this dichotomy was also in the OT, arguing for example that executions never took place in the temple. But what about Samuel, the prophet of God, who took capital punishment into his own hands and struck down Agag with the sword and with God’s approval? Why can a pastor not do this today?
  3. He puts too much emphasis on the tripartite division of the law. Scholars often divide the 613 OT laws into three categories to help the Christian know which laws are applicable today. While this division is appealing for several reasons, there are a number of difficulties. The NT does not directly distinguish the different aspects of the law in this way. Paul speaks of “the whole law” (Gal. 5:3) and James states that a simple violation of a single law makes one guilty of all (James 2:10). Furthermore, this division is often arbitrary. Is it not inconsistent to choose Deuteronomy 22:5 as binding on Christians (“a woman shall not wear a man’s garment”) but not Deuteronomy 22:12 (“you shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself”)? The command for brotherly love (moral) precedes a ban on mixed breeding (civil; 19:18-19) and the holiness dictum (moral; “be holy, for I am the LORD your God”) comes just before the law on executing rebellious children (civil; 20:7-9). Bahnsen presents the categories as too nice and tidy. You wouldn’t expect theonomists to espouse this division since they believes all of the OT is valid, but this is exactly what they do. Without this division, the system would crumble.
  4. His interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18 in unconvincing. Bahnsen’s arguments that “fulfill” means “confirm” is based too much on it being the antonym of “abolish.” The Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon gives seven definitions of “fulfill” and attaches the sixth (“to give the true meaning”) to the usage in Matthew 5:17. I agree. Jesus was demanding that the law be read in light of his coming and the inauguration of the New Covenant.
  5. The NT acceptance of all foods is left unanswered. Bahnsen said the food law passage in Mark 7:19 “hardly needs comment” and only works if “wrenched from its context” (225). But isn’t Mark rescinding an OT dietary law from Leviticus 11? Paul’s position on clean and unclean food in Romans 14 and 15 affirms the end of the law. While many laws in the Old Testament forbid certain food, Paul says “everything is clean” (Rom. 14:20) and “nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Rom. 14:14). By calling clean what the OT law specifically called unclean, Paul was confirming that the laws associated with the Mosaic covenant were no longer in force.
  6. He fails to see implications in Galatians and Hebrews. I agree with Bahnsen that Paul is renouncing the law in Galatians as a means to justify. But if circumcision is not mandatory to become a Christian, then Bahnsen has failed to see that Paul can only say this if the law has been eradicated. Thus, Paul can say the law was temporal (Gal. 3:19). Bahnsen fought valiantly in his “Alleged Negative Passages” chapter but met his Waterloo in Hebrews 7:11-12. Paul says there is a “change in the law.” Bahnsen’s brief, abstruse language wasn’t convincing.
  7. Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13-15 show that the NT Christian does not live in a theocracy, thus making the civil law invalid. He needs to spend more time here.
  8. Second Corinthians 3:14 speaks of the “old covenant” in contrast to the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). The old covenant is linked with the OT laws, referred to as “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone” (3:7). Thus, if the Mosaic covenant is no longer in effect (Jer. 31), so too are the laws within that covenant.
  9. His applications of OT law make too big a jump. I agree that civil authorities (and everyone!) are bound to obey God’s commands. But then he argues they must enforce as normative the penal laws that the Hebrew theocracy proposed. Moreover, the death penalty is sometimes attached to ceremonial laws; Bahnsen waves these off. The OT lists 18 capital offenses (e.g. Sabbath breaking, bestiality, sodomy, murder, sorcery, child rebellion, idolatry). Today I believe homosexuals and rebellious children are not to be given the death penalty because the NT never stipulates this (contra the death penalty for murder), not because the New Covenant is more lax.
  10. His arguments on the Sabbath. The abrogation of the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16 seems to show discontinuity, but Bahnsen says this passage only “looses us from the ceremonial elements of the Sabbath system” (227). However Paul makes a distinction in this verse between festivals and the Sabbath day.
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