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Theonomic Ethics and the Westminster Confession

By Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.


There is an unfortunate recurring opposition to theonomic ethics among many reformed Christians. It is unfortunate because reformed Christians operating under the Westminster Standards ought to be the first to recognize the legitimacy of theonomy. I have prepared this brief and somewhat sketchy paper to provide some insights into why reformed Christians, particularly within my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America), ought not be opposed to theonomy. I hope that these ideas, laid out in brief form, might be helpful to those reformed Christians who need to provide a response to their reformed brethren who find it necessary to resist theonomy.


Theonomy in the PCA


1. The General Assembly of the PCA has dealt with theonomy on several occasions and on each occasion has allowed adherence to theonomy:


M7GA, "Report on Theonomy," p. 194-195: The last paragraph of text: "Our suggestion is that the General Assembly consider this subject a matter of liberty at this time....  Since varying views have been held by Reformed people in the past on this subject, no particular view of the application of the judicial law for today should be made a basis for orthodoxy or excluded as a heresy."


M9GA, "Review and Control of Presbyteries Report," Section IV: Minutes recommend for approval with exception," Entry 7 (p. 145): "Evangel -- June 10, 1980, p. 5., Items 19A.4.C&D -- examinations of candidates on theology were postponed for 'issue of Theonomy'.  This is contrary to the Sixth General Assembly instructions...."  Entry 9 (p. 146): "Gulf Coast Presbytery... Theonomy made an issue and test of orthodoxy in examining candidate for transfer of licensure contrary to Seventh General Assembly pronouncement."


M10GA, "Case 1: Complaint of Stephen M. Lee, et al., against Gulf Coast Presbytery.... [The presbytery] failed to sustain the theological examination of Raymond Bradford Fell because of his particular view of the application of God's Law for today, that view being what is commonly referred to as 'theonomy.'  Reasons for the complaint: 1. The action of the Gulf Coast Presbytery is contrary to (a) the guidelines of the Seventh General Assembly..., and (b) the report of the Ninth General Assembly admonishing Gulf Coast Presbytery for making an issue of 'theonomy in the licensure examination of Raymond Bradford Fell." [Sustained, p. 55]


M11GA, Recommendation 29 Addendum: "Since there are differences of opinion with regard to the application and 'general equity' of the various penal sanctions, this declaration shall not be used by the courts of the Church to bind the conscience of elders in the PCA."


2. Morton H. Smith (letter of recommendation for a theonomic pastor, written to Allen C. Harris, May 30, 1989): "The PCA has taken the position that theonomy is not to be used as a means of judging a man to be heretical or orthodox." 


Interestingly, theonomic ethics critic Dr. Meredith G. Kline (WTJ, Fall, 1978) has lamented:


Chalcedon [sc. theonomy] is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition.  It is in fact a revival of certain teaching contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith -- at least in the Confession's original formulations.  These particular elements in the Confession... have been subjected to official revision.  The revision, however, has left us with standards whose proper legal interpretation is perplexed by ambiguities, and the claim of Chalcedon is that it is the true champion of confessional orthodoxy.  Ecclesiastical courts operating under The Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny.


3. I have been a minister of the PCA for twelve years and in two presbyteries, having never had any theonomic problems or allegations of error charged against me. Generally (though not always), where theonomy has been a problem in a PCA church is when those who oppose it stir up trouble.


The Meaning of "General Equity" in the Standards


4. As Donald Remillard noted in his A Contemporary Edition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (p. v):


The initial text of the Westminster Confession of Faith was presented to the English-speaking people in 1646.  This occurred only thirty-five years after the publication of the King James version of the Bible in 1611.  Consequently, its original grammar and vocabulary reflect a mode of communication long dated and 'foreign' to contemporary forms and styles of English usage.


The Assembly wrote the Confession of Faith in Elizabethan English identical with the KJV, even (1) employing its phraseology and (2) using it as the text for the Scripture proof texts.  It may be reasonably concluded that the employment of the term "equity" in WCF 19:4 would have the same linguistic function as when it appeared in the KJV.  The word "equity" appears ten times in the KJV:


Psalm 98:9 (KJV):

"Before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity." (Heb., mesharim, "uprightness")  Notice the parallel of "righteousness" and "equity."


Psalm 99:4 (KJV):

"The king's strength also loveth judgment; thou dost establish equity, thou executest judgment and righteous­ness in Jacob." (Heb., mesharim, "upright­ness") Notice the parallel of equity with judgment and righteousness.


Proverbs 1:3 (KJV):

"To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity." (Heb., mesharim, "uprightness") Notice the inclusion of equity with wisdom, justice and judgment.


Proverbs 2:9 (KJV):

"Then shalt thou understand righteousness, and judgment, and equity; yea, every good path." (Heb., mesharim, "uprightness")  Ibid.


Proverbs 17:26 (KJV):

"Also to punish the just is not good, nor to strike princes for equity." (Heb., yosher, "uprightness")


Ecclesiastes 2:21 (KJV):

"For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil." (Heb., kishron, "right, benefit)


Isaiah 11:4 (KJV):

"But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked." (Heb., mishor, "uprightness")


Isaiah 59:14 (KJV):

"And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter."


Micah 3:9 (KJV):

"Hear this, I pray you, ye heads of the house of Jacob, and princes of the house of Israel, that abhor judgment, and pervert all equity." (Heb., yashar, "right, uprightness")


Malachi 2:6 (KJV)

"The law of truth was in his mouth, and iniquity was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity." (Heb., mishor, "uprightness")


5. We should notice, as well, that there is remarkable difference in the treatment of the "ceremonial law" and the "judicial law" in the Confession. 


(1) Without equivocation the ceremonial law is declared "abrogated" (19:3).  But the judicial law is said to have "expired," except for the "general equity."  Why was it not declared "abrogated" and reference made to the New Testament for judicial principles? Or to pre-Mosaic directives, such as the Noahic Covenant?  And why do the judicial laws appear in the proof-texts for the Larger Catechism exposition of the Ten Commandments?  Samuel Willard (1640-1707), pastor at Boston's Old South Church, in his Compleat Body of Divinity (posthumous, 1726):  "With respect to the Judicial Laws, we must observe, that these were Appendices, partly of the Moral, partly of the Ceremonial Law: Now such as, or so far as they are related to the Ceremonial, they are doubtless Abolished with it.  As, and as far as they bear respect to the Moral Law, they do, eo Nomine, require Obedience perpetual, and are therefore reducible to Moral Precepts."


(2) Throughout the exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Larger Catechism, we find reference to numerous case laws.  We must remember that the division of the Law by the Confession is three-fold: Moral (which involves only the 10 commandments), ceremonial (which involve symbolic, redemptive laws), and judicial (which involves all the rest, many of which are cited in the Larger Catechism). Interestingly, even one of the more difficult capital punishment laws (Deut. 13) appears several times in proof-texting the second commandment. 


(3) At WCF 20:1 we read: "But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected...."  No mention of the moral or judicial divisions of the law are noted here.


6. "Equity" in the Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary: "1. justice; impartiality; the giving or desiring to give to each may his due.  With righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity."  In the Oxford English Dictionary the word "equity" is dealt with thus: "equity of a statute according to its reason and spirit so as to make it apply to cases for which it does not expressly provide."


In the original WCF 23:3 we read: "all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed" and they cited Lev. 24:16 and Deut. 13:5 as proof-texts.  How could "general equity" exclude the notion?


For instance, Puritan Thomas Cartwright his Second Reply (cited in Works of John Whitgift [Parker Society ed., Cambridge: University Press, 1851], I:270):


And, as for the judicial law, forasmuch as there are some of them made in regard of the region where they were given, and of the people to whom they were given, the prince and magistrate, keeping the substance and equity of them (as it were the marrow), may change the circumstance of them, as the times and places and manners of the people shall require.  But to say that any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, and such like, which God be his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death, I do utterly deny, and am ready to prove, if that pertained to this question.


The Records of the New Haven Colony (1641-1644):


The judicial law of God given by Moses and expounded in other parts of scripture, so far as it is a hedge and a fence to the moral laws, and neither ceremonial nor typical nor had any reference to Canaan, hath an everlasting equity it, and should be the rule of our proceedings."  "It was ordered that the judicial laws of God, as they were delivered by Moses... be a rule to all the courts in this jurisdiction in their proceedings against offenders.


Puritan William Perkins (cited in Rossell H. Robbins, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology [New York: Crown, 1959], p. 382):


That the witch truly convicted is to be punished with death, the highest degree of punishment, and that by the law of Moses, the equity whereof is perpetual.


Puritan Thomas Cartwright, according to Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1764):


Cartwright, who had a chief hand in reducing puritanism to a system, held, that the magistrate was bound to adhere to the judicial law of Moses, and might not punish or pardon otherwise than they prescribed.


English theologian Thomas Scott (1747-1821) in his Holy Bible with Notes (at Ex. 21:1) wrote:


Making some allowance for the circumstances varying in different ages and nations, there is a spirit of equity in these laws, which is well worthy of being transfused into those of any state.... A full investigation of the subject would evince, that the laws enacted by [Moses] were uniformly more wise, equitable, humane, mild, and salutary in their tendency, than the complex body of laws, even of the most civilized nations....


Robert L. Dabney, The Practical Theology, p. 513:


The application of the lex talionis made by Moses against false witnesses was the most appropriate and equitable ever invented.


7. A leading criticism of the Puritans of the Westminster Assembly and of the 1600s is their endorsement of the application of capital punishment in accordance with the Old Testament law.  The 1640 Massachusetts Civil Bay Code in America is an example of the Puritan view, and it applies the specifics of God's penal codes.


Reformed Basel theologian Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629), in his Compendium of Christian Theology, (cited in J. W. Beardslee, Reformed Dogmatics [1965], p. 10) wrote:


Propositions: I. As the ceremonial laws concerned with God, the political was concern with the neighbor.  II. In those matters on which it is in harmony with the moral law and with ordinary justice, it is binding upon us.  III.  In those matters which were peculiar to that law and were prescribed for the promised land or the situation of the Jewish state, it has no more force for us than the laws of foreign commonwealths.


Leading Westminster Divine, George Gillespie in his Aaron's Rod Blossoming (1646, I:1):


I know some divines hold 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; and, for my part, I wish more respect were had to it, and that it were more consulted with.


Puritan John Owen (Works, 8:394):


Although the institutions and examples of the Old Testament, of the duty of magistrates in the things and about the worship of God, are not, in their whole latitude and extent, to be drawn into rules that should be obligatory to all magistrates now..., yet, doubtless, there is something moral in those institutions, which, being unclothed of their Judaical form, is still binding to all in the like kind, as to some analogy and proportion.  Subduct from those administrations what was proper to, and lies upon the account of, the church and nation of the Jews, and what remains upon the general notion of a church and nation must be everlastingly binding.


Puritan Thomas Shephard (1605-1649) (The Morality of the Sabbath, rep. 1853, III:53f):


The judicial laws, some of them being hedges and fences to safeguard both moral and ceremonial precepts, their binding power was therefore mixed and various, for those which did safeguard any moral law, (which is perpetual,) whether by just punishments or otherwise do still morally bind all nations.... As, on the contrary, the moral abiding, why should not their judicials and fences remain?  The learned generally doubt not to affirm that Moses' judicials bind all nations, so far forth as they contain any moral equity in them, which moral equity doth appear not only in respect of the end of the law, when it is ordered for common and universal good, but chiefly in respect of the law which they safeguard and fence, which if it be moral, it is most just and equal, that either the same or like judicial fence (according to some fit proportion) should preserve it still, because it is but just and equal that a moral and universal law should be universally preserved....


8. That which is "expired" in the judicial laws are those elements that structured it for Israel as a nation (the particular land arrangements which allowed for cities of refuge, blood avengers, elders in the gates, stoning [as typological of God's crushing judgment], levirate marriages, and the like) or are applicable to the peculiar ancient circumstances, the accidental historical and cultural factors of Israel (fences around rooftops, goring oxen, etc.). 


R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology, p. 412, re: Lev. 18 law against incest:


We hold that this law, although found int he Hebrew code, has not passed away; because neither ceremonial nor typical....  We argue also, presumptively, that if this law is a dead one, then the Scriptures contain nowhere a distinct legislation against this great crime of incest."  The same would be true of bestiality and other crimes.  On page 402 he states: "The laws of Moses, therefore, very properly made adultery a capital crime.... 


On page 403 Dabney lists capital punishment laws for murder, striking a parent, adultery, etc., without any disapprobation.


In fact, English theologian Thomas Ridgeley, in his 1855 A Body of Divinity (II:307), noted that the following laws were seven kinds that "expired" with the coming of the New Testament: (1) Levirate and inalienability of property; (2) jubilee; (3) six year limit on slavery; (4) sabbatical year; (5) usury prohibitions; (6) annual festivals; and (7) cities of refuge and blood avengers.