Theonomy and the Westminster Standards (1)

PMT 2014-028b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In 1977 Greg L. Bahnsen released a work designed to shed light on a distinctly biblical view of ethics: Theonomy in Christian Ethics. In Theonomy was presented a rigorous exegetical argument for the Christian’s “ethical obligation to keep all of God’s law” (p. xv) including “the public obligation to promote and enforce obedience to God’s law in society as well” (p. xvi). Theonomy was “a lengthy, affirmative answer to the question of whether the moral standards (laws) of the Old Testament dispensation were still morally authoritative today, along with New Testament teaching, and if so, whether they provided the Christian with socio-political norms for modern culture.” (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, 3)

Although the theonomic thesis has been attacked from a variety of angles, among Presbyterians its compatibility with confessional theology has become an issue of great debate. Though tertiary to the exegetical and the theological arguments, the historical-confessional defense is important for two reasons:

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Historically, Presbyterianism has affirmed a confessionally based theology. Presbyterian ministers are ordained upon their solemn vow of commitment to that confessional theology.

Ecclesiastically, Presbyterian opponents tend to wield WCF 19:4 against theonomists. For instance, the Nov., 1988 Reformed Fellowship’s journal Outlook cited WCF 19:4 against theonomy as one evidence that “Reformed scholars” have long held that only “the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, has been considered binding on the New Testament believer.”

In a paper presented to the Social Science History Association in 1994 by Reformed Theological Seminary professor J. Ligon Duncan, theonomy is accused of “ignoring the context of 19:4. . . , abstracting the meaning of ‘general equity’ from its historic legal and theological context, and failing to appreciate the biblical, theological genius of the Assembly’s categorization.”

In this series of articles, I will present a three-fold historical argument for the Confessional compatibility of theonomic ethics based on (1) theonomic admissions by our opponents; (2) theonomic specimens from the divines; and (3) theonomic explanations of our Confession.

Theonomic Admissions by our Opponents

As it so happens, theonomy’s confessional compatibility is so strong that some of the most noteworthy theonomic opponents from the reformed community will even grant the confessional argument and move to other considerations. Note the following few samples.

Meredith G. Kline

Surely one of the most vehement and best-known reformed opponents of theonomy was Old Testament scholar Meredith G. Kline, who calls theonomy the “Chalcedon aberration” (based on the influence of R. J. Rushdoony’s Chalcedon Foundation). In his remarkably vehement attack Kline admits that theonomy is the “old-new error,” that is, an error “new” to our time though found in the “old” Confession itself:

“At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith — at least in the Confession’s original formulations. These particular elements in the Confession, long since rejected as manifestly unbiblical by the mass of those who stand in that confessional tradition (as well as by virtually all other students of the Scriptures), 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. (Kline in Westminster Theological Journal 41:1 [Fall, 1978]: 173)

In this article, Kline even calls for a revision of the Confession of Faith to root out these theonomic elements. Ironically, were Kline’s call for a revision followed, the remarkable result would be to exclude the original framers of the Confession from Presbyterian churches!

R. Laird Harris

Another respected opponent of theonomy is the noted Old Testament scholar from the Presbyterian Church in America, R. Laird Harris. Although he does not offer as much on the confessional question, he clearly works from the same assumption as Kline:

“Theonomy was until recently a little-used word. It is Greek for God’s law. Etymologically it refers to an idea which all Christians have always accepted — that the law of God is a wonderful revelation of himself and of his will to his Church and is to be prized by us all and obeyed. But the word is now being used to designate a new idea gaining ground in some circles, particularly those emphasizing Reformed doctrine, that the governments of the world today should be guided in their judicial decisions by al the legislation of the Old Testament and, in particular, should assess the Old Testament penalties for an infraction of those laws, where civil or religious. Dr. Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, is an extended explanation of and defense of this theory. Due to the radical nature of the theory, its important consequences, and significant following, the view deserves extensive treatment.
The view is not really new; it is just new in our time. It was the usual view through the Middle Ages, was not thrown over by the Reformers and was espoused by the Scottish Covenanters who asked the Long Parliament to make Presbyterianism the religion of the three realms — England, Scotland and Ireland.” (In Presbuterion: Covenant Seminary Review, 5:1 [Spring, 1979]: 1)

Sinclair Ferguson

In the important full-length reformed critique of theonomy, Sinclair Ferguson of Westminster Theological Seminary engages the confessional question in his chapter titled: “An Assembly of Theonomists?” Interestingly, he admits the influence of theonomy on the Confession: “Essentially, Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it.” (In Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: An Informed Critique [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 323-324]).

Indeed, he asserts:

“It should be noted that in many instances the practical implications of theonomy may not necessarily be a denial of the teaching of the Westminster Confession. The words of Chapter XIX, iv can be understood to include the view that the Mosaic penalties may be applied by the Christian magistrate (if “general equity” so dictates). We have already noted that such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy.” (Ferguson, 346-347)

To be continued!

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One thought on “Theonomy and the Westminster Standards (1)

  1. Paulo Caproni February 20, 2016 at 3:29 am

    Looking forward to hearing more on this topic.

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