The Presbyterian Journal, December 6, 1978, Vol. 37, No. 3, Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938

The Authority of God’s Law

By Greg L. Bahnsen



The editor of the Journal has in four recent issues (Sept. 6, 13, 20; and Nov. 1) introduced his readers to two significant issues: 1) theonomic ethics, which says that God’s law is fully valid today; and 2) postmillennial eschatology, which says that the Gospel will be successful in converting the world prior to Christ’s return.


In two lead articles and in three additional editorials, the editor has charitably expressed his own negative opinion regarding these two outlooks – both of which I espouse.  As a teacher of theology, I rejoice at such healthy interaction over our doctrinal commitments.  In a Berean spirit (Acts 17:11), let us “prove all things: hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:2).

Although it is impossible in the space of the one article to which I have been limited to answer each of his points, I can summarize here the main problems I find in his remarks.

Two things stand out.  First, the editor has given a noteworthy misrepresentation of theonomic ethics and of postmillennial hermeneutics.  Readers are certain to be misled if their evaluation of the two theological positions is based only on the editor’s portrayal of them. A mere straw man has been attacked.

Second, I find no reasoned argumentation and Biblical interpretation from the editor to counter the teachings.  He has made unsubstantiated suggestions of illegitimate hermeneutics against postmillennialism and merely ridiculed a caricature of theonomic ethics – without answering either one with Biblical arguments.

Let me in this article seek to accomplish three things: First, to show the Reformed heritage of the theonomic position; second, to set the record straight with respect to some of the editor’s remarks; and third, to reply to the editor’s “test by details” approach to theonomic ethics.

Contrary to the editor’s reasoning, the simple fact that Theonomy was published rather recently in no sense proves that is author intended to say something astonishingly new and different or that the Westminster Confession does not suffice.  Given the antagonism to God’s law today, however – even among some Christians – a book like Theonomy provides a much needed contemporary exposition and defense of the Confessional position.

The theonomic position has been acknowledged in classic Reformed thought from the beginning.  It offers nothing essentially new.  Its apparent novelty is created only by the backdrop of modern secularism and theological decline in our culture and churches.  Humanist leaders and neutralist theologians are disturbed by a full and specific Biblical world and life view.

Theonomic ethics does not then ask that something new be added to the Confessional understanding of God'’ law, but simply that we be consistent with its outlook – as were the Puritans.  It is therefore inaccurate to speak of theonomic ethics as “the latest approach to the law.”  It is among the oldest, and therein lies its modern offense.  It is unpopular to support the Puritans in a secular age.

The Westminster Confession conveniently views the law of God according to three classifications:

1)                The summary or general precepts, as found in the Decalogue.  The Old Testament decrees, “Thou shalt not steal” (Exo. 20:15), and the New Testament agrees (Rom. 13:9).

2)                Illustrative applications of those precepts.  The Old Testament decrees, for example, that we are not to muzzle the ox as he treads (Deut. 25:4), and the New Testament teaches the same underlying principle to be binding today, even though applied to a different case in point (I Tim. 5:18).  The Puritans called such an underlying principle the “general equity” of the statute (a usage still evident in the Oxford English Dictionary).  The illustrative applications were “judicial laws” (see John Cotton’s Moses, His Judicials, printed in 1641).

3)                Instructions for redemption and the holiness of the redeemed community, or “ceremonial law” as it is still called by many people today.  Even here, the continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament is preserved.  The Old Testament decrees the need for shed blood in redemption (Lev. 17:11), and the New Testament maintains that requirement in the redemption accomplished by Christ the Savior (Heb. 9:22-24).  The “holiness” (literally “separation”) of the redeemed community is seen in the Old Testament separation of Believers from unbelievers (II Cor. 6:14-17).

The ceremonial laws are valid today, but not kept in the same manner as in the Old Testament, for the reality has replaced the shadows (Heb. 10:1, 4, 12-14; Eph. 2:14-19).  A careful reading of the Confession of Faith (chapter 19), along with its proof texts, demonstrates its support for this theonomic perspective.

It is not a “unique thesis” – to use the editor’s words – for Theonomy to claim that every bit of God’s law is binding on believers as well as on unbelievers.  Such a claim is rather the expression of classic Reformed thought, found in the Westminster Standards.  Christ is Lord over every department of life (Matt. 22:37-38; Larger Catechism 75, 104), and over all men and nations (Eph. 1:20-22; Matt. 28:18-20).  Therefore, all men owe Him obedience in all departments of life (Larger Catechism 45, 54, 91, 93, 95, 99, 191-192).  A thorough study of the Confession and Catechisms shows that there is no guilt between them and theonomic ethics which needs, in the editor’s words, to be “leaped.”

This important truth applies equally to the question raised by the editor: Is the entire Mosaic law binding on the state today?

All magistrates are “ministers of God” (Rom. 13:4) who owe obedience to Christ as ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5; Psa. 2:10-12).  When God blessed Israel with His law, it was intended as a model for all nations (Deut. 4:5-8; Isa. 51:4; Prov. 14:34).  The moral standards for all nations are uniform and found in God’s law (Rom. 1:18-3:20).  Thus the Canaanites were punished for violating God’s law in precisely the same way that Israel was when she broke the same law (Lev. 18:24-27).

God’s law was meant to be spoken before kings (Psa. 119:46).  The political figure who replaces it with his own humanistic laws (Rev. 13:16-17; cf. Deut. 6:8) is condemned in Scripture as “the beast” or “the man of lawlessness” (II Thess. 2:3), and stands over against those who “keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17; 14:12).

No magistrate can gain exemption from the standards of God’s law by making the spurious plea that its stipulations are Old Testament commandments “intended only for Israel.”  God requires that magistrates be avengers of his wrath (Rom. 13:4; cf. 12:19) against those who do evil by breaking His laws (Rom. 13:4; cf. v. 10).  Indeed, God’s law was laid down for the restraint of the unruly in society (I Tim. 1:9-10).

Accordingly, both the Westminster Confession and the Larger Catechism set forth the details of God’s law as a guide to magistrates so that they might punish evildoers to the glory of God (WCF 23:1, 3; 20:4; Larger Catechism 129, 130, 145, and the Scripture texts given).

Baillie and Gillespie, two prominent Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, explained in a further publication that “The orthodox churches believe, and do willingly acknowledge, that every lawful magistrate [is] by God Himself constituted the keeper and defender of both tables of the law.”  Theonomic ethics agrees with their view that God’s law binds all present-day magistrates, even with respect to just penal sanctions against crime.

In Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, Gillespie supported the conviction “that the judicial law of Moses, so far as concerneth the punishments of sins against the moral law, idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, adultery, theft, etc., ought to be a rule to the Christian magistrate.”  God’s law is a perfect standard of social righteousness and should never be narrowed in validity to just one nation in one previous age.

God says, “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, for the throne is established by righteousness” (Prov. 16:12), and “Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34).

If, then, the basic principles of theonomy are not new, why are they seen as new by so many today – including the editor of the Journal?  Clearly, there is either a basic misunderstanding on such people’s part of theonomy’s most important principles or else a disagreement with historic confessional teaching.

For example, theonomic ethics does not teach what the editor says it teaches, that God’s law takes on a new dimension after salvation, with obedience becoming a “must.”  Obedience to God’s law is always a “must” for all men – believers and unbelievers.  No man ever gains permission to sin, and sin is a transgression of God’s law (I John 3:4; Rom. 7:7).

Without God’s law, there would be no sin, and thus no need for the Savior.  In that case, the Gospel would be expendable.  So Christians will be the last people to deny the necessity of the law’s validity.

When a man comes to Christ for salvation, he does so in repentance and faith – which means that he yields obedience to and endeavors to walk in all the ways of God’s commandments (Westminster Confession, 14:2 and 15:2).

Similarly, the editor says that the disciplined or discipled life is not a matter of a written code of specifics, but one of proper motivation and direction.  But the motive and direction (goal) should not be pitted against the detailed standard of ethics; all three come from God, who never contradicts Himself.  The “discipled” life obeys whatever the Lord has commanded (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).  To His disciples, Christ said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).

Although the editor alleges that theonomy substitutes a different content for the psalmist’s exclamation, “O how love I thy law,” he offers no evidence for the claim.  What law, we might ask, is the psalmist referring to if not the Old Testament law in particular? What law is it we are to love today?

Because God’s Word and Spirit indwell the believer, he is brought to the practice of holy living or sanctification (Westminster Confession 13:10.  In order to follow the transcript of God’s holiness (Lev. 19:3; 20:7-8; I Pet. 1:15-16), to imitate Christ (I John 2:5-6; John 15:10), and to led by the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), the believer desires to obey the law of God in its specifics, as Scripture requires.  Those who are saved by Christ will live in obedience to Him (Heb. 5:9), and “he that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4).  With the psalmist, theonomy teaches that we must meditate in, delight in and love the law of the Lord (Psa. 1:2; 40:8; 119:970.

The editor suggests that life under God’s grace is not conscious of the law.  Is that consistent with Paul’s words in Romans 7:22 and 25?  “I delight in the law of God after the inward man . . ..  With the mind I myself serve the law of God.”  Even under grace, the believer is to be forever conscious of the law so that his decisions will be made according to that standard (e.g., I Cor. 9:9; 14:34).  We must hear the Word, and do it (Jas. 2:22).

The law is a transcript – a writing out of the details – of God’s moral perfection (Matt. 5:48; Psa. 19:7). As such, the law can no more be changed, abrogated, or improved upon than can God’s perfection (Deut. 12:32; Psa. 119:160).

In the Gospel, Christ strengthens our obligation to the law of the Lord (Westminster Confession 19:5), saying: “think not that I have come to abrogate the law or the prophets . . ..  For truly I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter or stroke shall by any means pass away from the law” (Matt. 5:17-18).

The New Testament has precisely the same morality as the Old Testament because God does not have a double standard of right and wrong.  His moral perfection never changes.  Therefore, historic Reformed principles teach that the New Covenant has not altered our obligation to God’s law.  That covenant law itself is unaltered (Psa. 89:34) and not contrary to God’s promise (Gal. 3:21).  Indeed, the very terms of the New Covenant call for the Old Covenant law to be written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8;10).

Yet the editor of the Journal claims that the believer’s relationship to the law is not to a list of specific regulations, but rather to a generality expressed in the two love commandments.  Such a viewpoint would seem to downgrade the importance of the very details of God’s law which Christ was so concerned to uphold.

While it is true that love summarizes the law (I John 5:2-3), Scripture nowhere teaches that love takes the place of the law.  A summary does not abrogate what it summarizes.  The summary tells us to love our neighbor; the law which is summarized tells us in detail how to love our neighbor (e.g., by not committing adultery with his wife).

Disastrous moral consequences may well follow any attempt to treat the summary of the law out of this context.  The believer should not settle for the editor’s “spiritually defined generality” as a standard for his ethical decisions.  We simply cannot agree with the editor that after Christ some details of the law “might never again matter at all.”  Christ’s fulfilling of the law had everything to do with a check list of specifics – or, to use His words with every “jot and tittle’ (Matt. 5:18).  He plainly taught that even the minor specifics of the law ought not to be left undone (Luke 11:42).

Every single Old Testament law offers instruction in righteousness, without which we would not be thoroughly equipped for all good words (II Tim. 3:16-17).  So not one point of the law is to be violated (Jas. 2:10).

Not even the summary of the law found in the Ten Commandments is the limit of our moral obligation before the Lord.  The Catechisms clearly demonstrate how inadequately we understand the Ten Commandments if we take them apart from their rich context.  The standard for sexual purity, for example, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” likewise prohibits incest and homosexuality according to Old Testament law – and this is sustained without hesitation or excuse in the New Testament (I Cor. 5:1; Rom. 1:26-27, 32).  The Larger Catechism, then, in expounding the list of sins and duties summarized by the Decalogue (questions 98 and 99), proof-texts extensive details throughout the Old Testament and new Testament (questions 103-148).

The editor’s primary method of criticizing theonomic ethics is to offer practical examples of what he thinks Old Testament law – and thus the application of theonomic ethics – would require.  He suggests that because some examples appear outrageous or horrendous, theonomy’s basic thesis should be rejected.

It is, however, after all, this questionable theological procedure that must itself be set aside.  By what standard do we decide that a requirement laid down by God is reasonable or satisfactory today?  The issue is not whether we like the details of God’s law, but whether God’s Word itself teaches that those details are binding.  If God says it is so, then so be it – whatever modern secular society may say about those ethical details.  The basic question is, “what does the Bible itself say about God’s law?”  It is not, “How do you feel about it?”

The problem with the editor’s critique is worsened by the fact that he has been to hasty in his examples, for they are pervasively false.  Three primary mistakes have led to the editor’s erroneous applications of the theonomic thesis.

First, even though theonomy recognizes and discusses the figurative, typological and illustrative nature of some Scriptural commands, the editor has misleadingly said that theonomic ethics requires some kind of literalistic approach to Biblical interpretation.  He suggests, for example, that theonomists take the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” passage (Ex. 21:23-25 or restated in Lev. 24:19-20) in a literal way, calling for the physical maiming of a guilty assailant.  Actually, a theonomist recognizes that such a law lays down the principle – not the mode – of proportionate criminal punishment.  Even Old Testament keepers of the law understood it this way.

Second, the editor misinterprets in some places what the law of God itself originally dealt with and required.  For instance, he says that theonomists, to be consistent, should bar from church office a man whose testicles had been crushed in an accident – on the basis of Deut. 23:1.  On the one hand, it is commonly understood that the passage deals not with accidents but with self-imposed, deliberate mutilation, so as to become a eunuch.  Such sexual blemishes were inconsistent with the redemptive system: see requirements for priests (Lev. 21:20) or for animals sacrificed (Lev. 22:24).  On the other hand, the Old Testament itself indicates that in the Messianic age eunuchs would be welcomed in God’s house (Isa. 56:3-5).  And the New Testament example of Acts 8:27-28 (the Ethiopian) demonstrates the ceremonial and temporary nature of the law before us.

Third, the editor fails to see the distinction drawn by theonomic ethics between moral laws (general precepts and their case-law applications) and ceremonial laws (redemptive-restorative laws).  He speaks of the Old Testament prohibition of mixing types of cloth as something which theonomists should find obligatory.  But this law is part of that system of laws which taught the redeemed community its “separation” from the Gentile world.  It was no longer kept in the same fashion in the New Testament when the ‘”shadow ordinances” have been put out of gear (Eph. 2:11-19).  In the New Testament, we note again, the holiness separation is fulfilled in the division of the Church from the world (II Cor. 6:14-18).

These points admittedly suggest the need for great diligence in studying the details of God’s law, so that believers may accurately discover what kind of law each ordinance is intended to be and how it is to be applied.  It is exactly that kind of diligence – practically unknown to most believers – which theonomy seeks to encourage, so that we may live by every word from God’s mouth (Matt. 4:4).  It is the diligence required by Christ’s references to jots and tittles.  Without experience in the word of righteousness our senses will not be exercised to discern good and evil – that is, to make ethical application of our ethical standards (Heb. 5:13-14).

Nobody argues, for example, that the ancient case laws governing fenced rooftops, goring oxen and flying ax heads are themselves directly applicable today.  Instead, theonomists argue, they have a literary character which requires us to discover how the general principles illustrated by those ancient laws should be applied in contemporary culture.

The editor has asked for examples of practical application of theonomic ethics today.  Let us close with a few, and with a challenge of our own.  Here are a few suggestions; study God’s Word and see if you agree.

·                  Homosexuality is not a civil right (Lev. 20:13).  But readers should be careful here.  No one should claim this part of God’s law to be applicable today if he is not willing to claim the same for the rest of the Biblical context.

·                  Prisons should be replaced with a system of restitution (Exo. 22:1-4, 7-9).

·                  Compensation should be made for industrial pollution (Exo. 22:6).

·                  Malicious malpractice charges against doctors should be punished with a fine equal to that the doctor would have had to pay (Deut. 19:16-21).

·                  Elective abortion is not a constitutional right (Exo. 21:22-25).

·                  Skyjackers should be executed (Exo. 21:16), as should rapists (Deut. 22:23-27).

·                  Loan sharking to the poor should be forbidden (Lev. 19:9-10; 25:35-43), along with favoring the rich in the courts of the land (Exo. 23:6, 8; Lev. 19:15).

·                  Debased, inflationary currency should be forbidden (Isa. 1:22) so as to gain just weights and measures (Deut. 25:13-15).

If critics of theonomic ethics find these requirements inapplicable, on what other basis do they presume to speak to such social ills today?

If critics object to this choice of examples because they are so obviously just and right, we ask: What else would you have expected from the Lord?  Let us go on with the rest of His law, applying its rich details to all our lives.

And if critics feel that some of the law’s provisions are binding, but not others, then it is their task to explain the principled basis on which they pick and choose among God’s righteous commands (Deut. 12:32).  What did Jesus mean when He warned believers against teaching the breaking of even “the least of these commandments”?

We cannot get to the heart of the issue until serious attention is paid to the extensive Scriptural support, theological reasoning and confessional insights set forth by advocates of theonomic ethics.  Critics of the position have not responded in kind, at either the book or the article leave.  Until they do, what professor John Frame wrote in his review of Theonomy in the Journal (Aug. 31, 1977) still holds: “For those who disagree with Bahnsen’s position – well, the ball is in their court.”

I hope this important discussion will continue in a charitable, teachable and tolerant spirit – and yet with accuracy and substance.  And then let our discussion produce mutual edification, not intolerant factions.