Todd Friel of Wretched Radio recently revisited the issue of Theonomy. He posed us a few respectful and genuine questions. I would like to offer him a few answers.
I respectfully asked the question of my theonomic friends: those people who believe that somehow, in some way, shape, or form, Jewish law from the Mosaic Covenant—pretty much the stuff you read about in Exodus, Deuteronomy—all of those laws—and I mean all [of] it—eating, dietary laws, civil issues, ceremonial issues—that they somehow should be brought forth and applied to America.
I would like to thank Todd for asking questions (to be seen in a moment) rather than starting with accusations and assertion that are indefensible as so many do. I appreciate him approaching the subject earnestly and respectfully, rather than with a hidden “gotcha” agenda. And I appreciate his viewing us as friends rather than heretics, like some other people.
The preface to the question here, however, does carry an assumption doesn’t it? By “theonomic friends” he says he means those who want to apply “all of those laws—and I mean all of it,” including “dietary” and “ceremonial issues” in America today. This, of course, is not our position. No theonomist believes in imposing the ceremonial laws. No theonomist believes in “all of those laws” continuing today. No theonomist believes—contrary to popular belief!—that the dietary laws remain binding laws today (more on this later).
There may be some in the Christian Hebrew Roots movement that believe in these things, but they are separate and distinct from theonomists.
That cleared up, then what are the questions exactly? Todd says,
My question was along the lines of, ok, well then what about adultery? Do you get stoned for adultery? What about naughty children? Do we stone those? And if Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, said, “You’ve heard of old, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ I say if you look with lust you commit adultery in your heart.” Then should we stone people who lust?
As will be clear below from the answer someone else submitted to Todd, while these are valid questions, it is not clear where Todd’s emphasis is. Is he asking about stoning as a method of execution, or is he asking about whether the death penalty still abides for certain crimes? Or both?
A Kinder, Gentler Penology
One person who responded, according to Todd, assumed the former: is stoning still required as opposed to other forms of execution. Todd related:
I asked the question genuinely. I received an answer from “Tom,” who said regarding stoning: “One theonomist advocates stoning as continuing; that somehow, stoning should be the punishment because if God instituted [it] then it must be the best thing.”
Todd answered the guy:
And I would answer that and say, I would agree with that at that time—under that Covenant. You see, stoning at that time was about the kindest thing that you could do—maybe not for the guilty person, but for the executioner. Because, you see, to have to kill somebody is a tough thing. This is why firing squads—everybody would shoot; some would have blanks, some would have bullets, so that you wouldn’t know who actually killed the person. Because that can weigh heavy on an individual. The same thing was true with stoning: if everybody threw a rock from the town—demonstrating, by the way, it was also a crime committed against your people—you wouldn’t know who threw the death stone, if you will. So, at that time it was kind, but I think there are kinder ways of executing people.
Todd’s answer is interesting, but it confronts us with an unusual hermeneutical principle: in any given historical era, God institutes penal sanctions according to that which is “the kindest thing you could do . . . for the executioner.” There are several problems with this assumption. First, the concept of “kindness” is subjective. Much like how the romantic idea of “love” as a feeling devalues marriage and relationships, so introducing such an emotive basis for penology undermines social ethics and law, too.
Later in his discussion, Todd restates the point by saying today’s methods are more “humane”? Again, this is merely subjective, and it throws the discussion outside of God’s will and into the realm of human valuations. In short, autonomy instead of Theonomy.
Second, there is no Scriptural warrant for Todd’s position. Where in either Old or New Testament does God reveal to us that criminals shall be punished by whatever sanction can be deemed “kindest” for the executioner(s)? Where is this penological or heremenutical principle in the Bible? Where is that standard in Scripture? Indeed, by what standard do we determine what is more loving, kinder, or more humane? Does God’s Word tell us, or do we decide based on creaturely sentiments, reason, and emotions? If not God’s Word, then what? Without a Scriptural standard, the only answer to that question is a humanistic one by default.
This is why we see most Christians today—despite whatever degree they would otherwise assert God’s absolute sovereignty over every area of life and affirm sola Scriptura for every area of life—turning to humanistic answers for government, penology, economics, education, etc. What’s worse than abandoning God’s standards in these areas is the fact that these Christians, and Christian leaders, honestly believe humanistic standards should be preferred because they are “more humane.”
Third, there is Scriptural warrant against such a view. The law specifies, in certain circumstances, that the primary executioners be the witnesses against the criminal (Deut. 13:9; 17:7). In some, perhaps many, there would have been as few as two witnesses, which means it would be absolutely clear who threw the stones—possibly the fatal ones. The principle here is not “do whatever is kindest for the executioner,” but that the executioner must be the witnesses for the prosecution, that they be up front and foremost in the act, and that they bear extra and even primary responsibility for the execution.
Fourth, Todd’s particular analogy to firing squads does not hold up. Maybe firing squads were designed with some gunmen shooting blanks so as to disguise who in fact fired the actual shots, but this can hardly be true with throwing stones, can it? Did some people throw pretend stones? Were some stones replaced with Styrofoam rocks? No, everyone threw a stone-stone—a real rock—and that rock hit skull and flesh. It was a visceral, upsetting, and difficult experience, and it was meant to be. And no executioner escaped it.
Granted, you could still say that even though people are all throwing stones, you cannot tell exactly whose stone did the actual killing. Nevertheless, each stone still did damage. If the intent was, as Todd says, to prevent the psychological burden of having killed someone, that is only a matter of degree less than knocking the sense out of them with a stone, or injuring them corporeally. Those engaged (and some required) to throw stones could not escape the existential moment. The analogy just simply does not hold up here.
Fifth, Todd’s “kindest” principle is not only subjective in general, but specifically subjective per historical era. He repeatedly emphasizes “at that time.” This is the classic liberal progressive argument—one which, unfortunately, Christians buy into all the time. Currently, the thin edge of the wedge is homosexuality and homosexual marriage. Fifty years ago, it was women’s ordination and no-fault divorce. A hundred years ago it was government schooling and welfarism. If judicial and ethical values change per historical era, will we see Todd defending homosexual marriages in ten years? Women’s ordinations? Why not? A lot more could be said pro and con in regard to this point, no doubt, but there is also no doubt that appeals to “that Old Testament principle is outdated” are fraught with dangers which we have realized over and over already in other areas.
These problems aside, there is still a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the mode of capital punishment. Note that Todd’s respondent said “one theonomist” holds the view regarding stoning as “best.” This is hardly a widely accepted view among theonomists, so it is hardly the touchstone (no pun intended) position to address. The legitimacy of the discussion, however, should not revolve around unbiblical and humanistic concepts, but an attempt to ascertain the biblical reason for certain punishments, and it should seek to replicate those biblical principles in modern settings as closely as possible.
The more important issue, however, is whether certain crimes such as adultery should indeed still receive capital punishment. It seems this is what Todd originally wished to address anyway. So let’s hear it.
Capital Punishment for Adultery
Toward this end, Todd continues,
Now what about for the different—what about for the naughty child? What about for the adultery? I just don’t think that those laws should be forced on to our government. Now we say to them what we think is wisest, but for us to say those things should be taking place now—those people, that time, for a particular reason—to be a set-apart people so that the nations would look to them and want to know who their God is, because God promised to bless them for obedience to whatever laws He put in place, whether it was a fence around roof, whether it was how you dealt with an ox that gored somebody. God said I’ll bless—you follow these rules, I’ll bless you. And they were moral, because anything God does is moral because what He says is right. But that does not mean that those need to be laws for—in perpetuity. We don’t have a lot of issues of ox-goring these days. . . .
But that still does not answer the question, “For what laws would the theonomist say somebody should be stoned?” Look, I get that really naughty child can wreak havoc on a culture. I get that. I also believe that putting somebody in jail for the rest of their life is a barbaric thing to do—if they’re not a threat to culture directly. If they are, would there be possibly more humane ways of dealing with people like that, maybe with mental issues, emotional issues? I just don’t see us being underneath that system anymore.
These are essentially the same arguments used against stoning above: the Old Testament penalties were for a special people, special time, and were fitting only for a distant culture and time in the past, and we have more “humane” ways of addressing crime today. There are actually two separate arguments intertwined here. One is about ancient Israel as a special typological and eschatological people. The other is more simply chronological or “progressive,” as already addressed.
Among these arguments, only the “for a special people” argument is new. We have already seen that appealing to emotion, humanistic standards, or historical relativism (what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”) in order to argue that Old Testament laws are outdated and inhumane fails on several grounds. The “special people” argument at least has some biblical warrant. But it has its own problems as well: I assume Todd still accepts the Ten Commandments as abiding. I assume he accepts the “love” commandments (Duet. 6:4; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:37–40) as still abiding. Yet these are just as much part of that special. typological Mosaic Covenant given to that “special people” “at that time” as anything else. It is easy to draw shock from modern culture by referring to the Mosaic death penalty for adultery, but this penal sanction is in the exact same category as widely accepted laws such as the death penalty for murder and rape, or restitution for theft. So why choose some to accept and not others? By what standard do we choose which Mosaic laws are good and which “inhumane”?
Either God’s Word itself tells us the standard, or we impose our own standard on God’s Word in order to decide what we shall pick and choose from it, and what we shall discard. If we are to look for a biblical answer to this question, we shall find that the New Testament clearly and openly sets aside the ceremonial law due to Christ’s coming to replace it (Hebrews), yet it says nothing at all about setting aside the civil standards of that law. It would seem from this that, if we are to avoid imposing humanistic reasons to pick and choose, we must accept those civil standards as applicable today. While these may not cuddle certain modern sentiments all warm and fuzzy, and may put us in a position of defending an unpopular truth, Christians need to ask what their ultimate standard will be: modern sentiments or God’s Word. In this consideration, I am afraid Todd’s personal musings of “I just don’t think. . . .” and “I just don’t see. . . .” just don’t approach a biblical standard.
Todd refers to what is certainly one of the most notoriously-cited passages from Old Testament Law: the execution of a rebellious son. The first problem here is that Todd seems to adopt a common secularist misconstruction of the passage. He asks, “What about naughty children? Do we stone those?” The problem is, Deuteronomy 21:18–21 is not talking about “naughty children.” It is speaking of a habitually incorrigible son, most likely of late adolescent or early adult age.
Jordan Hall made this same exegetical mistake in his early criticisms of Theonomy. In a podcast from September 30, 2014, he claimed that theonomists want to “start killing children” because “little Johnny disobeyed his mother,” and we want to “suddenly start killing people through cruel and unusual punishment and stoning . . . ten-year-olds when they’re disrespectful or insolent to their parents.”
What many non-theonomists and anti-theonomists don’t realize is that this is not a rebuke of Theonomy, but an open insult to God Himself. This is not a refutation of God’s Law in the modern world, but a mocking of God’s Law itself. God’s Law did not call for little children to be executed for back-talk or disobedience. The relevant law involves, for example, the following complaint from the parents against their rebellious “child”: “This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard” (Deut. 21:10). This is obviously not talking about a little child, and obviously not speaking of simple disobedience of a ten-year old. It is speaking of a grown son who is absolutely incorrigible.
Even strongly non-theonomic resources like MacArthur’s Study Bible acknowledge this. Its comment on this passage says, “The long-term pattern of rebellion and sin of a child who was incorrigibly disobedient is in view. No hope remained for such a person who flagrantly violated the fifth commandment (Ex. 20:12), so he was to be stoned to death.”
Once we get the actual meaning of the passage correct, we can make a better analysis. Should such a law remain in effect today? I have heard that was not so long ago in our nation’s history that repeat criminals, once determined “incorrigible,” could receive the death penalty. One could simply ask whether humanistic standards of life-imprisonment—which Todd agrees is barbaric—meets God’s view of how a society should deal to deal with true incorrigibility. The many evils of the unbiblical prison system deserve their own treatment. It is enough to draw the obvious comparison here. God could have called for imprisonment or some attempt at remedial detention for incorrigibility even in those ancient days. He did not.
Again, however, once we realize that the passage is not about a “child” or mere disobedience, the liberals’ attack on Scripture—for which so many Christians like Todd have succumbed on this point—totally loses its sting. Folks, let’s just do some exegesis to start, shall we?
Adultery of the Heart
Finally, Todd raises the seemingly hairy issue of “heart sins” in a theonomic society. Are we going to institute a “thought police” to charge people with heart sins, and then execute people based on that? Or as Todd puts it, “If Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, said, ‘You’ve heard of old, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” I say if you look with lust you commit adultery in your heart.’ Then should we stone people who lust?”
One very simple way to answer this question would be to ask if “heart sins” or “lust” were likewise punished in the Old Testament. Even though there was an obvious commandment (the tenth) against lust, was there a criminal sanction enforceable by the civil government against it? Obviously, no. While the act of adultery itself warranted the sanction, breaking the tenth commandment did not. So why would this change in the New Testament? (Remember, Jesus was not adding anything new in Matthew 5. He was merely explaining the true meaning the law had always had, and which the Pharisaical glosses had popularly neglected.)
In a modern theonomic society, the answer is just as simple as that. Lust itself was never penalized by the civil government under Old Testament law, and it would never be so in modern theonomic government. Nevertheless, the act of adultery should still remain a criminal offense. Thus, heart-sins are dealt with in the church, and criminal acts dealt with by the civil government—two separate and distinct jurisdictions and sanctions.
But I wonder if Todd would be open to this biblical distinction. He does not seem to be based on his reaction to his respondent:
Now he goes on to say regarding adultery and lust: “the civil code has to do with sin that was externalized, and that not only demonstrated outward rebellion against God, but rebellion against the people of God. This would be why belief in another god was not punished, but worshipping another god or proselytizing for a false religion was punished.” You know what? That’s. . . I would have to say my friend, that’s clever, but I don’t think that I would go digging into the Bible to say, “See, that’s why we don’t stone people for thoughts.” Because I think a part of believing in your god is worshipping your god. So I think that you’re drawing a pretty fine line there that just doesn’t exist.
It is one thing to argue whether “belief” and “worship” are so equivalent, but note the real problem here. Todd’s criteria shows the following contrast: he calls a distinction based upon biblical law “clever,” while his own methodology would begin by departing from Scripture. He says, “I don’t think that I would go digging into the Bible” for such judicial criteria.
Again, where else shall we go? Any other standard is humanistic. To the degree that we neglect digging into God’s Word, we depart from His standards of justice.
And irony of ironies, it is when we depart from God’s standards of crime and punishments that we begin to see humanistic standards imposed even on things like alleged thoughts and lusts. We see heightened “hate crimes” imposed for racial or sexual speech. We see Christians in business forced by law to bow to the homosexual agenda. We see “the rich” taxed disproportionately because they are allegedly “greedy,” among other things. We see guilt, fear, and pity used as political levers to redistribute billions, start wars, and erode freedom. In short, what we see are endless permutations of the things these anti-theonomists claim to despise in civil government, yet they condemn the only position that has any biblical answer to oppose it: Theonomy. Instead, they fight God’s Law, flee Scripture in this area, and as you can expect, the liberals take over.
Todd closes his position by making the same argument against Theonomy that liberals have made against the Bible in general for a long time:
I think the theonomist finds himself in a challenging spot to try to institute those laws on our culture today in a consistent way that makes sense. I just don’t think that you can do that. And I don’t think there’s a need to do that when we understand for those people, at that time, underneath that Covenant. And I grant you, those laws were best—for those people, at that time, underneath that Covenant, because they had a specific purpose. It was to be a schoolmaster to lead people to Jesus. We already have Him. It was for those people, at that time—stoning versus, say, a firing squad? They didn’t have the option. Furthermore, it was to be a light to lighten the Gentiles—a nation that was different, that would be blessed by God, so that people would want to know who their God was, so it was evangelistic. We don’t have that necessity anymore. We have the Gospel, and we’re supposed to go and make disciples not by asking our government to impose laws from the Old Testament on a twenty-first century people, but by using the law and using the Gospel.
In short, as we noted above: those laws are old. Those laws are outdated. This is the twenty-first century. We have better options. Anyway, those laws pertained only to that people in that time. They were only a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. We are no longer under the law anymore. Christ freed us from it.
Now, there are still major exegetical problems lurking under these arguments. I will deal with them separately later. For now it is enough to see that Todd has provided nothing here that really challenges the Theonomic thesis. He has provided little more than emotional arguments that do nothing but make the case, ultimately, for liberal progressivism. It is no wonder, then, that after a century or two of Christians arguing like Todd we have the liberal progressive society we do.
I am glad Todd asked some serious questions about Theonomy. I am glad he has addressed it genuinely. I think it would have been far more instructive to bring such questions to someone like me instead of first making a show about it, but at least this is a genuine start.
I hope he will as genuinely be able to see that his answers don’t move much beyond the facile, though admittedly powerful, emotional appeals made by liberals. I hope he would be willing to consider looking into something more exegetical in regard to biblical standards for society, crime, and punishment. God spoke clearly. He did not rescind what He spoke regarding civil law like He did ceremonial law. Time and chance, people and technology simply cannot change God’s Word so easily, no matter how much modern sentiment may pressure us to say so. What God hath enjoined, let no man put away.