Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Denominational Disconnects among Baptists (baptism) and Presbyterians (theonomy)

Surely all denominations have disconnects. Furthermore, exactly what constitutes a disconnect is no doubt in the eyes of the beholder. For example, I see a major disconnect in the Baptist position on baptism. To wit: Baptists teach that baptism is purely commemorative, however they also demand that it must be done in a precise way—even though nothing actually happens during the ordinance—it, after all, being purely commemorative.

In reading about theonomy (from pro-theonomy writers) I am struck once again by a Presbyterian disconnect. To wit: the Westminster Confession (WC) is not inspired, honest—we really do acknowledge that—no kidding. However you (as a Presbyterian) must affirm the WC.

Now the Westminster Confession is probably the greatest confession ever penned by men. However, it is not a creed—it does not summarize the simple basics of the faith like, say, the Nicene Creed. It is a rather comprehensive treatise. Just due to its size and breadth of coverage, the odds are it commits an error now and then.

A major flaw, in my opinion, among the pro-theonomy crowd (who, the intellectual ones at least, tend to be Presbyterian or Presbyterian-like) is that they often defend theonomy on the basis that it is consistent with the Westminster Confession. There is no acknowledgment that the Westminster divines lived at a time when the intertwining of church and state was the norm. Instead, what they wrote is considered, for all practical purposes, gospel.

If that weren’t bad enough—it is not so much what the WC gives unequivocal support to theonomy—it is what the divines wrote privately. In other words, certain nebulous paragraphs (see below) which on the surface are not at all “obviously” pro-theonomy are interpreted as such because the same men who wrote them also, privately, wrote pro-theonomy position papers and hence they must have intended the WC to be pro-theonomy. Therefore, the logic continues, the Presbyterian Church should adopt a pro-theonomy position—even though the WC is not inspired—really it’s not.

The key paragraphs from the WC:

XIX.III. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.

XIX.IV. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

Now, a reasonable person reading these paragraphs might conclude that the divines intended this, in summary: In the Old Testament we had ceremonial law, judicial law, and moral law. In the new covenant, the ceremonial law is abrogated, the judicial law has expired, and we still have the moral law.

Such an interpretation leaves no room for theonomy, which, in effect, is merely the statement that the judicial law still applies.

To make room for theonomy, you have to argue that paragraph XIX.IV teaches that the distinction between the judicial law being “expired” and the ceremonial law “abrogated,” is critical, and furthermore that the expiration of the judicial law applies only to the nation of Israel. How do you support this? By finding writings of the divines (which are no more inspired than the WC itself, honest) that suggest a pro-theonomy position—ergo that must be what they meant when they wrote the WC.

So what did some of the divines write concerning theonomy, and how compelling are their arguments? Consider a problem passage for theonomy, from the words of our Lord:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Matt 5:17)
Now, if you are a theonomist, you must argue that (a) this includes the judicial law (but not the ceremonial law) and (b) given that, Christ has so–stated, he must have fulfilled the judicial law.

Well, that’s a problem, because on a number of occasions Christ violated or at least ignored the judicial law. The most famous example being the woman caught in adultery (cf. John 8:1-11.) The law was clear regarding her punishment—but Jesus let her go with a command to sin no more. How then can this be reconciled?

Westminster divine George Gillespie (1613-1648), considered a theonomist, in Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty, explained:

Christ's words, Matt. 5:17, Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill, are comprehensive of the Judicial law, it being a part of the law of Moses; Now he could not fulfill the Judicial law, except either by his practice, or by teaching others still to observe it; [but it was] not by his own practice, for he would not condemn the Adulteress, John 8:11, nor divide the Inheritance, Luke 12:13,14. Therefore it must be by his doctrine for our observing it.

But this is classic (if not exceptional) begging of the question. Gillespie assumes that Matt. 5:17 includes the judicial law, argues that Christ could either fulfill the judicial law by practicing it or teaching it. (Wouldn’t you actually and reasonably expect both?) Since, Gillespie admits, Christ does not fulfill it by practice—given that he did not condemn the adulteress, he must fulfill it by his doctrine, including presumably, Matt. 5:17.

This is faulty logic.

The bottom line is that theonomy, if it is true, must be defended by scripture, not by the WC let alone the twice-removed private writings of the divines.

Now trying to prove theonomy by New Testament teachings is a very difficult task. And you do have to explain why Jesus ignored the judicial law. And you have to explain why, given so much opportunity, neither Jesus nor any of the apostles presented any clear teaching that could be viewed as pro-theonomy.

In addition to the adulteress woman, Jesus encountered unspeakable heresies and blasphemies from the ranks of the Pharisees. He never called for any judicial enforcement of those capital offenses.

So far the pro-theonomy books I am reading fall far short of defending their position.

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