Friday, March 13, 2015
The Theonomy Debate
Paul wrote to Titus nearly 2,000 years ago, saying, “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” I cannot help but think about the theonomy debate when I read Paul’s imperative to Titus. Surely, it is a controversy and dispute about the Law. The Greek word translated controversy is zeteseis, and it means to express forceful differences of opinion without necessarily having a presumed goal of seeking a solution—‘to dispute, dispute.’ Someone recently said that theonomy was not necessarily something anyone wanted to implement, but was more or less just a way to argue. Of course I think the person was joking a bit, but at the same time, there is probably some truth in what he said. Already a lot of digital images have been organized and sent on their respective missions over the recent theonomy debate between JD Hall and Joel McDermon. I am not really interested in providing my thoughts about how the debate went, who won, nor do I desire to get into the finer points of theonomic theology. What I do want to discuss is the reaction and attitudes I have read since the debate ended.
Theonomists believe that the Mosaic Law, except for the ceremonial portion (depending on who you talk to) applies to Christians and cultures and governments today. In other words, when we read Exodus 21:15, He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death, or, He who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death (21:17). Theonomy would have us turn such a person over to a Christian-ruled theocratic system, so that they can be stoned. In other words, Christians and modern governments are bound to keep the Law of Moses. Well, they should keep the Law of Moses except for the ceremonial section (depending on which theonomist you read). I am not going to get into the details of the differences between a dual or tripartite understanding of the Law in this post. What I am going to do is examine the basic comments found in the New Testament regarding the relationship of the Law to the New Covenant and what a subsequent Christian response should be to those who would mingle Moses with Christ. Additionally, I am going to point out that much of the language used to describe the Law of Moses in the NT must be understood to be talking about the judicial or civil requirements of the Law more than they are the ceremonial aspects. You will see what I mean when we get to those texts.
Paul informs us in Eph. 2:14-16 that the Law of Moses has been abolished now that Christ has come:
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
In this text, Paul is saying that the Law, which was a dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, has been abolished in the flesh of Christ. Paul also refers to the Law here as enmity. The Law is viewed is placing us in a hostile position. It is set over against us. I understand that commentators interpret the echthra. Hoehner believes Paul refers to the hostility between the two groups, Jews and Gentiles. O’Brien seems to consider that it could mean both, the hostility between the Law and man and the additional hostility it created between the Jew and Gentile. The problem with this view is that Chris is said to have put to death the enmity in v. 16. Additionally, the reconciliation of v. 16 is not between Jews and Gentiles but between both groups and God. Colossians 2:14 provides additional support to my interpretation of Eph. 2:14-16 since Paul says,
“having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
Both Greek words describe a similar relationship. Hence, the ordinances, which is dogma, describes the Law of Moses. Now, we are told by theonomists that any language in the NT that talks about the Law becoming obsolete only refers to the ceremonial laws under the Mosaic Covenant. Not only is such a move exegetically suspect, it makes very little sense. Of all the Laws contained in the Mosaic Covenant, the ceremonial laws are the least indicting, and the least difficult to uphold. After all, they are ceremonial in nature. How difficult is it to offer up a sacrifice? But there are other laws, such as the one about committing adultery that as Jesus explained it, is not at all so easy to abide by. The language in Acts 15 explicitly describes the requirements of the Law as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” (Acts 15:10) Obviously the ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant were least of the difficulties as it relates to the Law. Moreover, how many times are we told in the NT that the Law cannot be broken up, but that if you are attempting to live according to the Law, you must live according to the whole Law? Galatians clearly places everyone who desires to live by the Law under obligation to keep the whole law. (Ga. 5:3) Romans 2:25 does the same.
Those with the Law Argument 1 Corinthians 9
In 1 Cor. 9:21 Paul says,
“to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.”
If Paul thought like a theonomist, he would have argued this way. Paul says that he become “as without law” to those who were “without law” but he did not become with the “law of God” but was always under the law of Christ. The point here is that there are people groups who are not without law, the Jew, and those who are without law, the Gentiles. Paul would adopt the customs of each insofar as they did not violate the law of God and of Christ.
The Law Courts
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul equates the law with the unrighteous. It is here that we see the Mosaic Code clearly replaced with a new and different process. The language used in this text is really quite interesting. Paul points that that the saints will judge the world and even angels in the end. How much more are we fit to judge matters in the church? Paul says
So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?
In other words, the apostle Paul casts shame upon the Corinthian community because they are relying on law courts to settle matters that ought to be settled with the community. The point is that Paul’s statement make little sense in a theonomic arrangement. His attitude toward law courts, his ipso facto classification of them as unrighteous, and his point that the judgment of the church is much wiser than any law court could ever hope to be. The presumption is that unregenerate, unrighteous men are not qualified to interfere in such matters in the church. Now, that being said, this does nothing to detract from Paul’s perspective that Christians are still to submit to civil governments. The point here is that Paul did not view the practices of the NT Church in a similar vein, as do theonomists. Moreover, it seems clear that he had no interest in teaching the Corinthians that they must do all they can to establish a theocracy in Corinth.
The persecution predicted by Jesus seems to preclude the view that the Church must subdue the governments of the world in order to pave the way for the glorious return of Christ. Beginning with Christ and all throughout the NT we see that Christians are persecuted and slaughtered for the name of Christ. Yet, nowhere do we see the Church instructed to take up arms against the government authorities and put an end to this unjust practice. Christians are commanded not to resist the evil and so they obey all the way to their death in many cases.
Paul says in Romans 7:4-6 that we have been released from the Law who are in Christ:
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.
But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
The writer to the Hebrew (8:6-7) says
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.
Clearly, the Old Covenant was given to a particular people at a particular place for a particular time and for a very particular reason. And it had a very particular and unique purpose. That purpose was to govern a people that as a nation were a type of the NT Church that was to come. Secondly, the Old Covenant was not only the reconstituted covenant with Adam, but it was a further revelation of the New Covenant promise given in Gen. 3:15 and again to Abraham.