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The cutting edge

August 2003 | by Darren Middleton

Two hundred years ago it was legal to own a slave but illegal to have an abortion. Today it is legal to have an abortion but illegal to own a slave.

It raises a very real question – is there an absolute law to which Christians can appeal to counter the relativism of our post-modern, post-Christian, pluralistic society?

Let us imagine for a moment that the providence of God has swept you and your Christian political party into office in a stunning electoral victory.

Christians all over the nation rejoice. At last, a truly Christian government rules our land! So what will you do?

What does a truly Christian nation look like? What would its laws be?

For example, homosexuality is sinful, but will it now be illegal? And if it is, what should be the punishment for the offender?

And what about sexual relations outside the covenant of marriage? All such relationships are deemed sinful in the Bible, but will they now be illegal? And if they are, how would you punish the fornicator or adulterer?

These are complex questions and it would be difficult to find a Christian consensus – especially since our understanding of the Old Testament covenant and its relationship to New Testament believers is still a vexed issue.

Theonomy

Emerging from the lack of clarity and cohesion comes the voice of theonomy, based on a twofold division of the Mosaic law. It declares with certainty the answer to the dilemma.

Theonomists believe they are on sure biblical ground when they argue that there is no other standard of justice for a nation approved of God apart from God’s law as revealed to Moses under the old covenant.

In other words, why suffer and tolerate the relativism of man-made laws when we already have the divinely inspired law of the Old Testament?

Their fundamental hermeneutical principle is to assume that any OT civil law not clearly abrogated in the New Testament is still binding as God’s law. This contrasts directly with the key dispensational hermeneutic – that what is not clearly repeated in the NT is no longer binding.

It is also contrary to the confessional understanding of Old Testament law, where only the moral law is considered binding on Christians.

Unclean food

Traditionally, Reformed theologians have argued that the ceremonial aspects of the law are abrogated or fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ.

For example, specific cases of ceremonial law have clearly been abrogated because they have been fulfilled – such as the unclean food laws (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:19) and ceremonial regulations concerning the earthly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:1-10; 10:1).

By good and necessary consequence, Reformed exegetes apply this abrogation principle to the whole class of ceremonial laws.

Theonomists agree with this, but part company in relation to the ongoing validity of the civil (case) laws.

Theonomy argues that civil laws are merely an outworking of moral laws, so that, rightly understood, civil laws are part of the moral law. Consequently, the moral law and its sanctions (as laid out in the Old Testament) are the only standard of law ordained by God and are binding on all.

This of course departs from the confessional understanding of a threefold division of the Mosaic law into ceremonial (now abrogated), judicial (now expired), and moral law (still binding).

Fulfilled

Hence, theonomists (and others) argue for a two-fold division of the law in which God’s righteousness and justice are displayed in the moral/civil law while God’s mercy is found in the ceremonial law.

Obviously the ceremonial law was fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where shadow and type gave way to reality. However, they contend that the moral/judicial law remains normative for the individual as well as the nation.

It must be said that many theonomists do not believe that the Mosaic law is binding in its exact form but rather in the ‘general equity thereof’ (Westminster Confession 19:4). Nonetheless, their basic commitment is that the judicial law of the OT is still binding.

Arguments for theonomy

Theonomy rests on the plausibility and strength of the argument identifying the moral and civil laws as one and the same class.

Consequently, any argument used to support the binding nature of the moral law is (according to theonomists) an argument in favour of the civil law – since one is just the application and extension of the other.

Just as Reformed theologians argue for the abolition of all ceremonial laws on the grounds that some ceremonial laws are abrogated in the New Testament, so theonomists argue that the New Testament’s approval and citation of specific civil laws prove the ongoing validity and authority of the whole class of laws (Mark 10:19; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:18; etc).

The theonomist also argues that Jesus himself came not to abolish the law but to ‘confirm’ it (Matthew 5:17; see below). As a consequence, we should expect an ongoing validity for all the law – with the exception of the ceremonial, which Jesus fulfilled through his priestly ministry.

Finally, if we reject the moral/civil law found in the Mosaic legislation, by what other standard shall we govern – since we will be left groping in the darkness of subjectivity and relativism?

A response

Nowhere in Scripture is the Old Testament law divided into moral/civil and ceremonial. In fact, both the twofold and threefold division (heuristically helpful as they are) are not biblical distinctions.

Furthermore, of over 600 laws in the Old Testament, how do we decide what is ceremonial and what is judicial?

The so-called ‘moral law’ is certainly definable, but to clearly define the boundaries of ceremonial and civil law is far more complex. Theonomists themselves have no universal or absolute criteria by which they can classify a law as one or the other, and must rely on subjectivity when making such judgements.

Furthermore, the strongest rationale for the expiration of the civil and ceremonial law comes from a redemptive-historical reading of Scripture. The New Testament manifestation of the Kingdom of God (and his rule) is the church, as opposed to the Old Testament manifestation, which was a nation.

This redemptive-historical shift is the obvious reason why the judicial laws that governed Israel are now, in the words of the Westminster Confession, expired.

Applying the laws

But if the Mosaic civil law has expired, why does the New Testament cite some of them in teaching how Christians should act?

The answer lies in the way the New Testament authors use the civil laws. For example, Paul applies the civil law to a non-judicial situation – the law on not muzzling an ox, ostensibly designed for the welfare of animals, is applied to the ecclesiastical situation of paying gospel workers (1 Corinthians 9:9-10; 1 Timothy 5:18).

It is instructive that the New Testament uses the Old Testament judicial law in a non-judicial situation, for this is the central issue concerning theonomy.

If theonomists cannot offer a convincing argument that the judicial law should be understood as moral law and therefore remain binding, then whatever other arguments they may muster, their position is lost.

Fulfilled

Theonomists’ use of Matthew 5:17 in support of the ongoing validity of the judicial law is particularly weak. Firstly, their exegetical argument that the Greek word pleroo should be translated ‘confirm’ instead of ‘fulfil’ is certainly doubtful.

Indeed, apart from theonomists themselves, almost all scholars maintain that ‘fulfil’ is the best rendering.

Secondly, the whole argument is quite superfluous, since theonomists themselves acknowledge that some aspects of the Mosaic law (whether ‘confirmed’ or ‘fulfilled’ by Christ) are no longer binding.

Thus although Christ did not come to abolish the law but rather to fulfil or confirm it, both sides agree that at least part of that law is no longer binding. Consequently, Matthew 5:17 adds no weight to the theonomic position.

Golden age?

Their last argument is a pragmatic one – if we do not have the Old Testament judicial laws as our standard, then we are left in a sea of subjectivity regarding laws for our nation.

But this assumes that Israel was meant to be a standard for all nations and governments for all time. This is an un-argued presupposition of theonomy and – if the truth be known – it is driven by eschatological imperatives; that is, theonomists expect a golden age of gospel influence (post-millennialism) where the church will govern nations. So they must ask the question: ‘By what standard shall we rule?’

Our response might be that, even if such a golden age did occur, laws would best be defined both by the ‘light of nature’ and by ‘good and necessary consequences deduced from Scripture’ (Westminster Confession 1:6). This is exactly what has happened via common law in the Western world.

So then, is the law of Moses binding on Christian magistrates today? Is the law of Moses the answer? The history and confession of the Church – and I believe the witness of Scripture – give a definitive ‘No’.