A Lover, not a Fighter

A while back, I quoted John M. Frame’s review of Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law. Buried in another comment thread, I recently provided a link to Frame’s article “Machen’s Warrior Children”. I highly recommend that all (Reformed Christian) readers of this blog go and read that article. Here is the abstract, to give you a flavor of what it is about:

From 1923 to the present, the movement begun by J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Theological Seminary has supplied the theological leadership for the conservative evangelical Reformed Christians in the United States. Under that leadership, conservative Calvinists made a strong stand against liberal theology. But having lost that theological battle in the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., they turned inward to battle among themselves about issues less important—in some cases, far less important—than liberalism. This essay describes 21 of these issues, with some subdivisions, and offers some brief analysis and evaluations. It concludes by raising some questions for the Reformed community to consider: Was it right to devote so much of the church’s time and effort to these theological battles? Did the disputants follow biblical standards for resolution of these issues? Was the quality of thought in these polemics worthy of the Reformed tradition of scholarship? Should the Reformed community be willing to become more inclusive, to tolerate greater theological differences than many of the polemicists have wanted?

I still have not read all 21 topics myself, but I have read those that touch on topics hotly debated on this blog (I’ll give you a hint: it starts with T, and it rhymes with Sheonomy), and in other areas that I occasionally butt heads with brothers (NPP, FV, …). If you go read #8 of that article, I think you will get a sense of Frame’s abilities (calling?) as a peacemaker, a fair and unbiased arbiter who seeks to reconcile theological disputes by dispelling misunderstandings, establishing commonalities, and minimizing unimportant differences. And if the prospect of peace and unity among God’s covenant children is not enough of an incentive for you to go read the article, then maybe you can consider it to be a concise summary of the 21 best topics that you and your brothers can fight about!

The other day, I discovered the source of both of those Frame articles, http://www.frame-poythress.org/, which (as the name suggests) is a website run jointly by Frame and his protege Vern Poythress. I felt like Jed Clampett when up from the ground came a-bubblin’ crude (black gold, Texas tea)! There are (at least) two more articles about Theonomy, both of which I found very insightful. Before I dive into those, however, I want to take a brief detour for readers who are not interested in that particular topic.

This is an interesting and very short article on a topic about which I have a whole series of blogs planned (and kind of in progress…). There’s also a section of the website where you can find three whole books by Frame, including Theology at the Movies. I think his reviews do a great job teasing out the worldviews behind movies, and analyzing a properly Christian perspective, without killing the edifying enjoyment that can be gotten from just watching a good movie. Check out his reviews of The Apostle and Nightmare Before Christmas. I’d like to share a screen and a bucket of popcorn with Frame sometime. But in the meantime, I’ve got a lifetime’s worth of free Frame (and Poythress, for instance this is up my alley) writings to digest!

Now for the two Theonomy articles. The first is “Toward a Theology of the State“, in which Frame steers a moderate course between Bahnsen’s Theonomy and Kline’s Intrusion Ethic. Frame posits a novel (to me, anyways) concept of the biblical state as a “mega-family”, an extension of the progression from individual to nuclear family, extended family, clan, tribe, … It is a rather long read, so I give you some choice quotes.

Meredith Kline’s “intrusion ethic,” while containing much biblical insight, argues for a religiously neutral state based on inadequate biblical premises and a too sharp dichotomy between the Mosaic and the New Covenants.

I have a strong initial attraction [to Theonomy], because of its earnest adherence to sola Scriptura and its willingness to wrestle seriously with the details of biblical law in formulating its positions. However, I believe that theonomists sometimes underestimate the complexity of the continuities and discontinuities between Old and New Testaments and thus often jump to wrong conclusions about the present-day applications of Old Testament laws. Also, I find their actual view of the state inadequate…

The traditional distinction between moral, civil and ceremonial law is still useful as a catechetical device, but not helpful in resolving concrete problems of application. In asking how a particular law applies to us, we do not assign it first to one of those three categories and then deduce from that its applicability. Rather we ask first concerning its applicability, and on the basis of that conclusion we then assign it to one (or more) of the three categories.

Some have found divine warrant for the state in Gen. 9:6, where God commands Noah’s family to return bloodshed for bloodshed. But this is a command given to a family. There is no indication here of any new institution being established. And in the law of Moses, the execution of murderers was carried out, not by the state as such, but by the “avenger of blood,” kin of the murder victim, Num. 35:19, 21, Deut. 19:12. The family, here, is the instrument of justice.

God established Old Testament Israel as a holy nation, distinct from all the nations of the earth (Ex. 19:5f, Deut. 7:6). A holy nation is ruled differently from other nations.

… It is likely that the special holiness of Israel influences to some extent the penalties required for transgressions under the Mosaic law. For instance, Deut. 14:21 bases a prohibition of eating creatures already dead upon the fact that “you are a people holy to the Lord your God.” Indeed, Israel is permitted to give or sell such food to aliens and foreigners, an odd qualification if eating such things were morally wrong. Most likely, then, eating such food is not wrong for everybody, but only for God’s holy people, for whom he has provided a great bounty of food in the land flowing with milk and honey. Another example: Vern Poythress has argued persuasively from the language of the passages that the penalties for false worship in Deut. 13 and 17 are also based on the special holiness of Israel.

… I agree with Vern Poythress that these death penalties [for false worship and seducing others to false worship] are based upon the special holiness of Israel. When God condescends to live in the midst of a nation as did God in Israel, it is particularly insulting to permit people to commit idolatry. It pollutes the holy land where he dwells. That rationale for the punishments of Deut. 13 and 17 does not apply to modern states. I agree with Poythress, therefore, that the simple acts of publicly worshipping false gods and of inciting others to do so should not be punished by the state.

I just want to briefly note that Frame’s conclusion that I boldfaced right there echos exactly what I argued here, concerning Paul’s reinterpretation of the rationale language of O.T. death penalty laws. I could quote from this article all day, but if I quote any more, then I might as well just paste the whole article! If you are intrigued by these quotes, then you should go read the whole article, to see how Frame conceives of a Christian state that tolerates false religion. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but it is more fully thought-out than anything I have heard from the Theonomist camp.

If you don’t have the stomach for that long article, you might be interested in the more compact “Penultimate Thoughts on Theonomy,” which is less about the doctrinal specifics or accuracy of Theonomy, but more about lessons learned from the debate. I close with a few choice quotes:

Both Bahnsen and Kline make broad, bold programmatic statements which they modify considerably in their detailed discussions. This happens to such an extent that in my opinion their bold programmatic statements do not really or fairly represent the views they are presenting.

There is some confusion in theonomy between present and future application of the law. Often when Bahnsen is pressed as to the difficulty of enforcing theonomy in today’s world, he argues that the Mosaic laws should not be enforced today. … Sure: if the postmilennial hope is realized and the world-society with its institutions becomes largely Christian, then most of us would find very attractive the prospect of living under something like the Mosaic civil law. … We need not only to determine how literally the law is to be applied in the ideal situation; we must also determine how it is to be applied in the non-ideal situation of today.

After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that theonomy (like Dooyeweerdianism in the 1960s) is a good case study of how theological ideas should not be introduced. … The sharp polemics of the theonomic movement (and, to be sure, of its critics in return) have been in my view quite unnecessary and indeed counter-productive to its own purposes. People have a hard time seeing the important truths that theonomy communicates; it is hard to learn from someone who is always accusing you of something. Reformed people have always had a high regard for God’s law. They are not, on the whole, antinomians and should not be stigmatized as such.

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One Response

  1. As a brand new Christian, I attended the men’s fellowship meetings at the Grosse Pointe CRC. These men would be discussing all sorts of deep doctrinal issues. I remember one such meeting where the issue of supralapsarianism was contrasted with infralapsarianism. On returning home that evening I was completely blown away. These men are truly highly commited Christians. I was soon to learn that on a Sunday afternoon there was no playing catch with the kids in the yard. Sunday afternoons were reserved for reading the Banner or study of doctrinal matters.

    I have a book “The Faith of George W. Bush”. The author asks him his viewpoint about doctrine. His reply is something along the lines of, ” It doesn’t interest me much, too intelectual.”

    After reading some of this Theonomy stuff I am tending to drift toward George. And that is quite a drift. Mind you I haven’t drifted all the way.!!!

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