Thoughts on Theonomy – A Brief Response to Jeff Durbin and Joel McDurmon

DurbinRecently in a Reformed Facebook group I am a part of I have engaged in discussion regarding Theonomy a few times. One of these discussions will apparently be leading to a radio broadcast on Apologia Radio. If that happens, I will provide an appropriate comment and response. However, I wanted to give my readers a bit of a primer on Theonomy and sort of response to a previous broadcast, which I think will help orient people to some of the questions and issues. Go ahead and listen to it over at the Apologia. The show is hosted by Jeff Durbin and in this broadcast he interviewed Joel McDurmon of the American Vision.

Now, before I start my critique I want to list out a few disclaimers:

  • I am not an expert on theonomy. In fact, I have read no primary sources by the seminal figures. I would like change this, as I see this as an area of inter-Reformed dialog that desperately needs to be addressed, as it may be one of the primary areas of discord and bad-blood within the American Reformed tradition.
  • I am not interested in a prolonged internet slug fest. My goal in discussing these issues is to learn more about Theonomy and to move everyone involved toward a more robust and biblical understanding of God’s intention for his Moral Law, the Mosaic Law, and the connections between the two.
  • I am basing my reactions and responses to Theonomy primarily on interactions with lay and popular Theonomists. McDurmon is an academic to be sure, and if he wants to send me a copy of his book I will read it. However, my only interaction with him thus far as been listening to this broadcast and various interactions in the above mentioned group.
  • I don’t hate Theonomists. I don’t have any desire to present or further straw man arguments against them or paint them in a light that they would not paint themselves, unless logic and scripture compels me to do so. However, my previous interactions with them have not been pleasant or productive, and that will probably influence my interactions.
  • Although I haven’t in the past taken a position in the discussion, I would most closely align with Michael Horton and so-called Reformed Two Kingdoms ethics. Like Theonomists, this does not mean that I share agreement with Horton (or anyone else) in every area of this discussion or that application of these ideas ends in the same place.
  • I am not attempting to pick nits. That is, I am only critiquing or responding to substantive issues that I see. I am going to keep things high level and avoid too much detail.
  • Finally, I welcome discussion and debate, but for this post I am going to be much more aggressive than normal on posts I deem inappropriate. As I said, this is probably one of the most contentious areas within the core of the Reformed Tradition (Excluding fringe Reformed movements like the Federal Vision, the New Perspective, etc.) I want to avoid what usually entails in these kinds of conversations.

I don’t want to do a full analysis, since it appears that there will be a broadcast directed at my comments. I will invest my time and energy there if such a time comes. However, there were a few main points I wanted to discuss in response to McDurmon’s interview.

Definitions and False Dichotomies

Lets start with a definition:

The belief that God’s Law provides norms for modern society, that is in family, church, and state. – Joel McDurmon (Identified as the “technical” definition)

I have no beef with that definition, however I think that it is incomplete. As we’ll see, there is a bit of a word game that I think is happening with this rhetorical move which I will get to in a moment. Here is what I would add to the definition in order to make it represent more clearly what I see when I discuss issues with Theonomists.

The belief that God’s Law, which is synonymous with the Mosaic Law, provides norms for modern society, that is in family church, and state… unless abrogated, or modified in the New Testament.

Theonomists hold that various Old Testament Laws are explicitly repealed or modified in the New Testament. For example, the ceremonial and sacrificial laws were no longer applicable (e.g. dietary restrictions, the rite of circumcision, general purity laws). Other laws are modified (e.g. Sabbath observance is moved to Sunday for Christians, some laws are intensified, some are elaborated and clarified).

However, during the introductory definition phase of the discussion there were a series of fallacious elements that I want to point out. One common move of rhetoric that happens in these discussions is a combination of a false dilema, a loaded question, and a bit of equivocation.

The first move is to break down the word theonomy into component parts (We’ll ignore the etymology fallacy for now). When broken down we have θεός | theos and νόμος | nomos. The statement is then usually made in some form, as it is in this interview, that all Christians believe in Theonomy in some way, because Theonomy is simply God’s Law. This is where the equivocation comes in. If a critic is not careful, they will be forced to agree with this statement. However, what the critic does not disagree with is the TECHNICAL definition given above. Even the technical definition by McDurmon (unmodified) subtly employs this kind of equivocation rhetoric, as the premise that God’s Moral Law and the Mosaic Law (application) are one and the same concept is obscured by the equivocal use of the phrase “God’s Law.” This is the premise that is in dispute, and thus there is a little question begging going on too.

Second, McDurmon employs somewhat of a false dichotomy. Now, classically a false dichotomy or dilema is false because there is a third option. Another, less common, way that a false dichotomy is fallacious is when the two options given are not mutually exclusive. In this false dichotomy the dilemma set so that you either have Theonomy (God’s Law) or “Someone else’s law.” They label this second option as “autonomy.” However, these two options are not mutually exclusive if we keep in view God’s providential sovereignty and how it determines our outcomes without violating our freedom. This concursus is central to the Reformed understanding of the interplay between God’s will and action, and creaturely will and action. Given this doctrine, there is no reason God’s universal Moral Law cannot be providentially present in “someone else’s law.” For example (and just as an example), we could say that the civil laws of the Code of Hammurabi were actually providentially God’s Law since it was by God’s providence that they came to be, and in so far as they reflect (or do not contradict) the revealed instance of God’s Moral Law in the Mosaic Law they are just. Since we know that God does not contradict himself, such laws which are contradictory to what God revealed in the Mosaic Law are not God’s Law, even though they arise providentially. In such a scenario, there is no mutual exclusion between Theonomy and so-called Autonomy.’

Third, an implied (and often explicit) loaded question comes into play. By setting up the contrast between their position (Someone who believes in God’s Law as opposed to Someone Else’s Law) with the equivocation and false dilemma identified above, the question is raised “Why do you reject God’s Law?” This loaded question also presents a type of straw man argument, since no Reformed Christian that I know of is going to say that they reject God’s Law. So you are either forced to say “I don’t” and concede the argument, or to defend a premise you never asserted in the first place.

Irrelevant History

Now, this is going to cause a fight, but I’m just going to call it like I see it. Theonomists have a tendency to play the victim card. This happened in two ways, one of which I will address now and one later. The first way this happened in the broadcast was in a long discussion of the history of Theonomy. Now, I’m a Church Historian as well as Theologian, so the discussion was interesting. As it was recounted by McDurmon (I have no reason to doubt the veracity, but I also have not been able to verify it), there were a series of underhanded moves made by various members in the Reformed academic world. Most egregious if true, was that a critique was published in the Westminster Journal of Theology of the work of Greg Bahsen under the condition that Bahsen would not be allowed to publish a response. There is no place for that kind of academic subterfuge, and it only confuses the discussion and provides distraction fodder for both sides to employ. I want to publically make the strongest statement against this kind of action as I can. If it is true it is sinful and dishonorable, and those involved ought to be ashamed.

However, this background history, interesting as it is, is absolutely irrelevant to discussion at hand. I understand that Durbin had to fill a 90 minute radio broadcast, and that this kind of thing is red meat for his Theonomist audience. I got no problem with that. However, as I proceed with any debate that ensues I simply don’t have time to engage in irrelevant issues. These kinds of things are red herrings, and they don’t help anyone get closer to understanding the actual issues at hand.

The same can be said of a rather lengthy discussion involving the actions Todd Friel, Phil Johnson, and John MacArthur. Words like “cowardly” and “unmanly” were dropped, repentance was called for, and I don’t want to make a comment on the veracity of those claims… but I don’t think I would have made them. Either way, I’m not associated with Friel, Johnson, and I don’t even really like MacArthur. What happened with them doesn’t get us to the issues. I promise I won’t quote them or use their arguments as support.

McDurmon also said at one point that he didn’t believe that major theologians like Michael Horton has even read the primary sources, which is demonstrably false (and patently ridiculous). This is especially hard to believe given that there has been extensive response to John Frame’s (Arguably one of the biggest modern academic proponents of Theonomy) the Escondido Theology (a critique of the Westminster Seminary California’s Reformed Two Kingdom theology) as well as with Frame himself. You can read the WSCal response and Horton’s response which demonstrates that they don’t just have their fingers in their ears. Furthermore, much was made over the division between Westminster Philadelphia and Westminster Escondido, which I simply have not seen bear out. Ironically, immediately before listening to this broadcast I was reading an article in Modern Reformation (Michael Horton’s magazine) written by Carl Trueman (On Faculty at Westminster Philadelphia). The assertion that “they never work together” seems to me to be manifestly false, and imminently irrelevant.

(Note: I have since been corrected regarding Frame, even though he at times has spoken positively of Theonomy, and has also critiqued the opponents of Theonomy on grounds similar to how Theonomists critique them, he is not in fact a proponent of the position)

The Big Bad Straw Man

The second way that the victim card is played is by crying Straw Man. Now, I haven’t read the critiques so I can’t comment on if they have or have not been straw manish. However, I’m committed to not employing straw men. I have never said that they want to kill homosexuals, claimed that they advocate for the reinstatement of purity laws, or any of the common straw man arguments they object to.

However, I want to make public a discussion I had privately with Colin Pearson. Lest they claim that this is not representative of their view, the hosts actually mention Colin in the intro to the show.

Conversation started Tuesday

Tony Arsenal

Tony Arsenal

I know a Christian woman who works 7 days a week to support her family. I can readily provide 3-4 witnesses, and she would not deny that this is the case. Should she be executed for her violation of the Sabbath?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

Not necessarily. First of all, it may not be clear to her what God’s word says concerning the Sabbath. I know many churches that would excommunicate her if she continued unrepentant. Furthermore, righteous punishment is not meted out by the church but the state, so until it becomes law here, there is no means by which this would take place. Finally, you must understand the law in a biblical framework of government. The church discipline mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 18 was not new to the NT. He drew principles present from the beginning:

First, repentance is sought. If none, then the church. If none, theme excommunication. And if the state honors God and the church deems it necessary, complaint may be filed thereto, but ALWAYS with charges established by two or three witnesses.

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

If it were made law such that the magistrates would punish for it, there would be no businesses open on Sunday and so no means by which she could break the commandment. See what I mean by assuming statism?

Tony Arsenal

Tony Arsenal

She is self employed

Do she could still work on Sunday

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

Okay, let’s put this in a theonomic context. If it were against the law to work on sabbath, would she still be doing it?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

Who witnesses her working.

Tony Arsenal

Tony Arsenal

My wife and I, her adult male child

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

Would you call her to repentance?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

And she refuses?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

Then you take it to the church?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

And she is excommunicated?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

At that point, it would be your decision whether to press charges or not.

That is how the law works.

Do you see what I mean by assuming statism now?

Tony Arsenal

Tony Arsenal

And if I press charges?

Colin Pearson

Colin Pearson

If charges be established by two or three witnesses, then she would suffer the penalty.

Tony Arsenal

Tony Arsenal

And that penalty would be?

Colin Pearson
Death.

That is the conversation. I’m not going to add any commentary. There was no private discussion before, and the conversation afterwards quickly spun into the kinds of Straw Man accusations I mentioned above. The only reason this was a private conversation was because Pearson refused to have it publicly.

Assigning Motivations

Another common theme that I have seen, and was loud and clear in this interview, is that the Theonomists commonly assign motivations and intentions to their opposition that really has no basis. McDurmon did everything from saying that critics are employing hatred, that they reject Theonomy out of jealousy that they didn’t come up with it, that they don’t want to do the hard work of obeying the Law, and that they were afraid of the implications. Let me clear this up: I’m not jealous, I don’t hate Theonomists (and certainly not McDurmon or Durbin), I care deeply about personal sanctification and holiness, and I’m certainly not jealous.

I explained my motives above, and to say I have other motives is to say that I am deluded or a liar. If you’re going to say that about me, then be a man and say it directly.

Final Thoughts

As I said earlier, I don’t want to engage in a lengthy critique or response here. I suspect there will be a time for that later. However, I want to reaffirm that I am committed to honest and open dialog with figures like McDurmon and Durbin. I will do my best (with the limited time I have) to honestly interact with the sources they provide and the statements they make. However, I think that “Reformed theology which prefers literal, specific, and detailed applications of Mosaic civil laws to modern civil government.” (Frame’s definition of Theonomy) is an improper heremenutic and leads to unhelpful and unbiblical applications of God’s Moral Law. Furthermore, I think it paints over the redemptive-historical purposes in the Mosaic Administration of the Covenant of Grace and obscures the fact that the Mosaic Law was meant to point us to Christ rather than establish specific norms for all people at all times.