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).
PAGE 18 / THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL / AUGUST 31, 1977