Monday, January 01, 2007

A CRITIQUE OF THEONOMY, part 1: Calvin's Thoughts

Greetings once again to my blog readers. I have not yet blogged on the issue of theonomy, so I thought I would go ahead and do so. This will be a three-part series, and I welcome interaction in the comments section. Feel free to invite other brothers and sisters to interact in this discussion as well. I hope and pray that this will be a fruitful discussion.
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Does God intend for the state to enforce His civil laws found in the Mosaic Covenant today? This is the question of theonomy. We are defining theonomy as the view (found in small numbers in Reformed circles) that God will hold the civil magistrate accountable to enforce His civil law, and in fact desires or intends for them to.

Part 1 of our series here will simply be quotes from the great Reformer, John Calvin, with short commentary by me. I recognize, of course, that Calvin was not infallible, but of course I think what he says should not be dismissed flippantly.

Part 2 will be some of my own thoughts on the theonomic thesis. I have much respect for our brothers who are theonomists, but I remain unconvinced of it. In part 2 I will tell you why.

Part 3 will be my answers to common theonomic arguments, with some brief final thoughts to sum up this series.

So . . . get yourself some popcorn and a drink, and cuddle up with your loved one, and come enjoy part 1. I will place Calvin's thoughts in italics, and then my commentary will be in regular print below them. The quotes come from his Institutes, Book IV, chapter 20, sections 14, 15, and 16, in order.

Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for our teacher on the theonomy issue, that great Reformer, that non-theonomist himself, John Calvin!!!

(Crowd cheers.)

Let us hear what Calvin has to say:
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"This I would rather have passed in silence, were I not aware that many dangerous errors are here committed. For there are some who deny that any commonwealth is rightly framed which neglects the law of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations. How perilous and seditious these views are, let others see: for me it is enough to demonstrate that they are stupid and false."

Well, here the great Reformer makes no bones about it. He says that theonomy can lead to dangerous ideas, that the view itself can be dangerous. He then declares that it is a view which is "stupid and false." Calvin certainly had a way with his pen, didn't he? Although I would give more respect to our theonomic brethren than that, I find it interesting, nonetheless, that he thought it can be dangerous. Let's hear from him again:

" . . . And as that exercise in ceremonies properly pertained to the doctrine of piety, inasmuch as it kept the Jewish Church in the worship and religion of God, yet was still distinguishable from piety itself, so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself. Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual."

Here Calvin argues that Israel's holiness demonstrated itself in its ceremonies, but yet their holiness was not intrinsically tied to the ceremonial laws; likewise, he argues that the judicial or civil laws were not necessarily tied to holiness. These laws helped keep Israel in the religion and worship of God, but were not so vitally necessary to do so. Moreover, for those reasons, even as the ceremonial laws can be abrogated and not interfere with true holiness, so can the civil/judicial laws be abrogated and not interfere with true holiness.

Finally, Calvin says:

" . . . The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws."

Here the great Reformer is very clear, and I think has a good message for our theonomic brethren. Many theonomists accuse us of moral relativism if we do not embrace the theonomic ethic. In fact, I have heard them tout, "God is not a moral relativist." This kind of talk is extremely unhelpful. No one is saying that God is a moral relativist. Calvin is clearly saying that, just because we speak of a new law in the New Covenant, and just because we may argue that the law of Moses was only for Israel, does not make us moral relativists. In fact, he is clear that these laws were not for us, and that it was not God's intention that it be enforced in all countries, but only for Israel. I will give my thoughts on this specific point in part 2.

Until next time, may our Lord strengthen our understanding according to His Word.

3 comments:

BJ said...

Josh,
Its good to be back home safe and sound. We had a great time in the land of fruit and nuts! Anyway . . . are we suppose to interact with Calvin's thoughts, or with your inability to see the usefullness of The Standard by which God will judge the world?:) I personally think Calvin's last qoute is supremely stupid! Lets look a bit closer.

The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd.

What new laws are preferred to it? Laws that say laws are irrelevent when Christ fullfilled them? Is it absurd that I am opposed to a preferred law that is contrary to God's Law? For instance, abortion? Absolutely not! It is because of the continuing relevance of God's law that I grieved when people prefer new laws to those revealed by the Standard Himself. The only option is autonomy.

Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us.

What! Is Calvin advocating Reletivism?


The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws."

WOW! No wonder antinominism is alive and well today. Then what laws are we to live by since the Church is not Old Testament Isreal? I know...Grace... we will just sin, and sin until we cant sin anymore, but wait, how can it be sin if the law isnt binding anymore? I guess Calvin would say that the "New Laws" cant be violated, or else you are sinning.

Paul Manata said...

Yeah Calvin!

"The let us not think that this Law is a special Law for the Jews; but let us understand that God intended to deliver us a general rule, which we must yiled ourselves... Since, it is so, it is to be concluded, not only that it is lawful for all kings and magistrates, to punish heretics and such as have perverted the pure truth; but also that they be bound to do it, and that they misbehave themselves towards God, if they suffer erors to rest without redress, and employ not their whole power to shew greater zeal in behalf than in all other things. - John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy 13:5, Banner of Truth, 1987, p. 537

With respects to your use of Calvin's Institutes, I'd suggest that you read the entire sections, or post them for all to see.

It's quite clear from the context that Calvin argues that the *particular administration* of the judicial laws have passed, but that the abiding moral principle which undermines them stays the same. So, rather than a railing around the roof, you have fences around the pools.

And this is *precisely* what theonomists argue. Bahnsen states, "Theonomy thus teaches that we should presume that Old Testament laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation."

Calvin states in the section you quote:

"The moral law, then, (to begin with it,) being contained under two heads, the one of which simply enjoins us to worship God with pure faith and piety, the other to embrace men with sincere affection, is the true and eternal rule of righteousness prescribed to the men of all nations and of all times, who would frame their life agreeably to the will of God."

This is what Theonomists have taught, though!

Greg Bahnsen writes,

"This leaves open the question whether the underlying moral principles of those judicial laws are still required today. And the Puritans unmistakably believed that they are since they are readily cited in the Larger Catechism's exposition of the sins and duties encompassed in the Ten Commandments. As 19.4 explicitly says: this "general equity" is today "required."

Look at the historical context in which these words were written by the Westminster theologians.

Like John Calvin himself, the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger had held that "the substance of God's judicial laws is not taken away or abolished." This was a commonly held view both prior to, and in the generation of, the Westminster Assembly. Thomas Cartwright wrote about the judicial law that the magistrate should "keep the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow)," though he might "change the circumstance of them as the times and places and manners of the people shall require." Thomas Pickering held that witches may be punished with death "by the law of Moses, the equity whereof is perpetual." Henry Barrow saw them as "the true exposition and faithful execution of [God's} moral law," asserting that these "laws were not made for the Jews' state only.' Philip Stubbs upheld the penal code of Moses, saying "which law judicial standeth in force to the world's end."

Shortly after the Westminster Assembly, in 1652 John Owen preached before Parliament: "doubtless there is something moral in those [Old Testament] institutions, which being unclothed of their Judaical form, is still binding to all in the like kind." Thomas Gilbert in 1648 argued that the judicial law "is still the duty of Magistrates."

And Calvin, in the sections of the Institutes which you cite, says:

"...so the judicial form, though it looked only to the best method of preserving that charity which is enjoined by the eternal law of God, was still something distinct from the precept of love itself. Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual. But if it is true that each nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges to be beneficial, still these are always to be tested by the rule of charity, so that while they vary in form, they must proceed on the same principle. Those barbarous and savage laws, for instance, which conferred honour on thieves, allowed the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, and other things even fouler and more absurd, I do not think entitled to be considered as laws, since they are not only altogether abhorrent to justice, but to humanity and civilised life.

16. What I have said will become plain if we attend, as we ought, to two things connected with all laws, viz., the enactment of the law, and the equity on which the enactment is founded and rests. Equity, as it is natural, cannot but be the same in all, and therefore ought to be proposed by all laws, according to the nature of the thing enacted. As constitutions have some circumstances on which they partly depend, there is nothing to prevent their diversity, provided they all alike aim at equity as their end."

And therefore we can see that Bahnsen's theonomic position agrees EXACTLY with what Calvin said, but, strangely, you're using Calvin to argue against Theonomy.

So, either you haven't studied Calvin, theonomy, or both.

I'd appreciate a retraction of some sort.

Kazooless said...

Found this through a Google search. Right on Paul!

What Josh? No retraction?

:)

Kazooless