Review of Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics

By John Frame

THEONOMY IN CHRISTIAN ETH­ICS, by Greg L. Bahnsen. The Craig Press, Nutley, N. J. Paper, 620 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by the Rev. John M. Frame, associate professor of apolo­getics and systematic theology, West­minster Theological Seminary, Phila­delphia, Pa.


Greg Bahnsen is a former student of mine. He is now teaching apol­ogetics and ethics at Reformed Semi­nary, Jackson, Miss., while finishing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Southern California.

The author insists that the whole Old Testament civil law, including the penalty structure (execution for adultery and so on) is binding up­on present-day civil governments. His is the most thorough and cogent defense of that position so far pub­lished.

In a 50-page exegesis of Matthew 5:17-19, he argues that for the New Testament dispensation Jesus de­clares “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.” In later chapters he clarifies this thesis: Though law is in no sense a basis for justification before God, and though law has no power to cleanse from sin, it serves as the permanent and absolute standard of right and wrong.

The “ceremonial law” (e.g. an­imal sacrifices) is no longer literally binding, but even that is “con­firmed,” not “abrogated”; still to­day we must approach God bearing sacrifice—the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.

The “civil law” which governed the political and judicial institutions of Israel is still in effect, Bahnsen argues. During the Biblical period itself, he notes, God required govern­ments outside Israel to rule justly— justice being defined always accord­ing to the law.

Might the civil law be analogous to the ceremonial law, fulfilled in Christ in such a way as no longer to be literally applicable? Bahnsen finds no Scriptural basis for such suggestions, and he criticizes such ideas as presented by John Murray, Meredith Kline and others.

In Bahnsen’s view, this thesis does not require any union of Church and state, for Church and state were dis­tinct even during the Old Testament period (this is the distinction be­tween priestly and kingly offices). This position does not require that the state enforce religious conver­sion, nor does it give civil officials power over the Church.

The civil government must, how­ever, carry out its distinctive func­tions under the authority of Bibli­cal law. In appendices, Bahnsen ar­gues that this is the position of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and he documents the use of these principles in Puritan New England.

The book is somewhat wordy; Bahnsen sometimes engages in overkill by multiplying references and arguments. At times he lapses into language unintelligible to those not trained in philosophy. But on the whole the book is well organized and easy to read; it is easy to skip cer­tain sections for future reference and to pick up the train of argu­ment later on.

This book performs a great ser­vice. It takes the whole controversy out of the “shouting” stage and pre­sents solid arguments which must be soberly discussed. The work shows impressive exegetical and logical skill. Bahnsen here has established himself as one of the very best younger theologians of our time.

For those who disagree with Bahn­sen’s position—well, the ball is in their court; they must come up with an answer. Perhaps indeed they will. Someone may question whether Bahnsen has oversimplified the ways in which a law may be said to be “replaced,” “supplemented,” “confirmed,” “fulfilled,” or “given a new application” from one age to another.

I would suggest that Bahnsen con­front more directly the reason why many people consistently resist the continuing use of these civil laws distinctive to the Mosaic covenant, namely that the Mosaic covenant, in contrast with previous covenants and with the New Covenant, identifies the kingdom of God with a specific earthly political unit. The unique­ness of that Old Testament theoc­racy needs closer examination.

But even if Israel is unique, even if its legal structure is not as such to be reproduced by modern govern­ments, still Christians will have to address the question of what consti­tutes political justice today. The al­ternative is political impotence. Bahnsen is right in saying that a “smorgasbord” approach is inade­quate; we cannot merely pick and choose what we like and what we don’t like; we must choose on prin­ciple.

Where is such political wisdom to be found? It might turn out that our search will lead us after all to a closer imitation of the old covenant order, not out of Biblio-theological necessity, but out of a general Chris­tian political wisdom; for “what na­tion is there so great, that hath stat­utes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you (Israel) this day?” (Deut. 4:8).



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