Two Cities, Two Laws?

Here at American Vision we believe that faithful Christians must apply Biblical thought to every area of life. Our Vision is “An America that recognizes the sovereignty of God over all of life and where Christians apply a Biblical worldview to every facet of society.” This is why it was so refreshing for me to read the article, “Breaking Boundaries” written by Andrew Hoffecker in the June 2008 issue of Ligonier Ministry’s periodical Tabletalk. After discussing the effects of humanistic pluralism in modern churches, Hoffecker prescribes a Biblical vision: “The most pressing need of the church in the light of these developments is the articulation of a distinctly biblical worldview—unified, coherent and comprehensive in scope. It would address, in principle, all areas of life and thought in utilizing biblical content.”

Bravo! This is the kind of thinking that inspires us at American Vision, and which we welcome whole-heartedly. Hoffecker concludes, “Our worldview must extend to all of life, or all of life is religious.”

Unfortunately, just as Hoffecker notes in his article, liberalism has succeeded in promoting pluralism in mainline churches, and this pluralism has extended far into evangelical churches, too. To this we should add Reformed churches as well, for two of the most outspoken cheerleaders of this humanistic trend are both Reformed scholars: Michael S. Horton and T. David Gordon. And sure enough, both have sounded off, opposing a Biblical worldview, in the most recent edition of Tabletalk.[1]

Now it should be noted that these two scholars have a history of attacking those of us who believe in Biblical law and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. If I would have been asked to predict who today would have written these articles, Horton and Gordon would have been on my short list.

Since these men are Reformed scholars, we would expect the highest standards of scholarship; but this is not the case. To give you an idea: Gordon once published a critique of the Biblical law view, particularly claiming to target Greg Bahnsen’s book Theonomy and Christian Ethics. This article in the Westminster Theological Journal in the span of twenty pages actually quotes Bahnsen only three times, and then never even a complete sentence (except once, buried in a footnote). To anyone even remotely familiar with Bahnsen’s book, Gordon’s treatment of “Theonomy” in that article is a museum of straw men and an embarrassment to scholarly discourse.

This kind of treatment of Biblical law advocates has been the only thing consistent among our critics: they don’t actually read the works, they won’t quote us when they respond, they won’t respond to our actual arguments, and yet they continually smear our position in mainstream Reformed publications.[2] So it continues.

Horton has revealed his own motivations toward an anti-Biblical law view: he wants a “reformation witness” which unites Lutherans and Calvinists. Anyone familiar with the main divisions between these two groups can figure out that in such a union the Calvinistic view of Biblical law must go. So Horton spends his article in Tabletalk appealing to the natural law view—the one area on which the Reformers (at times) agreed because they never consciously broke from Rome in this area. (Calvin later did make the break as his Sermons on the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 27–28 make very clear.) Horton is content to pigeon-hole Biblical law as “theocracy” and its application to the civil arena as a medieval error. More on this in a moment.

The two scholars collaborated in the January/February 2002 issue of Modern Reformation (edited by Horton) to publish Gordon’s defamatory and careless article “The Insufficiency of Scripture.” Gordon resorted to labeling a comprehensive Biblical worldview “the characteristic error of an unwise generation. . . . the proof-textual, Bible-thumping, literalist, error par-excellence,” and “not merely the view of the unwise, but the view of the never-to-be-wise.” [3] The article displayed such dishonest sucker-punching and a disgusting abuse of media influence that I never renewed my subscription.

Horton has been challenged on his views before. After the release of his Putting the Amazing Back into Grace (1994), Gary DeMar challenged Horton’s selective use of A. A. Hodge as well as his unfounded rhetorical attacks on the Biblical law viewpoint. DeMar quotes Hodge in context to show that the Reformed scholar believed that it is a Christian duty to “organize human society and all of its institutions and organs upon a distinctly Christian basis. . . . The Bible, the great statute-book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise.” DeMar concludes, “I think I’ll stick with Hodge over Horton.”[4]

From the start, the strategy of our unprincipled critics has been to portray the “Reformed tradition” over against “Theonomy” as if the latter were distinctly non-reformed. The scholarly replies including quotes from Reformed theologians throughout history almost always prove the opposite, just as Hodge does above. When we prove this point time and again, our critics never admit their error. They have been given the chance to correct their fault, and yet they keep repeating it.

I do not have the space here to deal with these recent articles in as much detail as I would like, only to lament them as the latest permutation in anti-Biblical law, pluralist propaganda. However, a couple of representative notes are in order.

In his recent Tabletalk article “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” Horton brandishes his militant amillennialism: “The earthly city will never be transformed into the city of God this side of Christ’s return in glory.”[5] In order to maintain his high level of cultural retreatism, Horton appeals to Augustine and Calvin and tries to maintain a “two cities” distinction which forces the Bible to pertain only to the Church and personal salvation, leaving civil society to fend for itself in the area of law.

Horton implies that an appeal to the Mosaic law is the very medieval error which fueled the crusades, and which Calvin and Luther reacted against in returning to Augustine’s “two kingdoms” view. This argument is misleading in its representations of the Reformation and of Augustine. For example, such appeals to Old Testament law for civil society were not absent from the Reformation either. As just one example, when the English Reformer Thomas Cranmer preached at the coronation of Edward VI, he looked forward to a national Reformation away from the Roman Catholic bent of Henry VIII. Cranmer said,

Your majesty is God’s vice-regent and Christ’s vicar within your own dominions, and to see, with your predecessor Josiah, God truly worshipped and idolatry destroyed, the tyranny of the bishops of Rome banished from your subjects and images removed.  These acts be signs of a second Josiah, who reformed the church of God in his days.  You are to reward virtue, to revenge sin, to justify the innocent, to relieve the poor, to procure peace, to repress violence, and to execute justice throughout your realms.  For precedents, on those kings who performed not these things the old law shows how the Lord revenged His quarrel; and on those kings who fulfilled these things, He poured forth His blessings in abundance.[6]

Cranmer quotes Augustine as well, showing Horton’s interpretation to be selective and partial. For national rulers, Cranmer prescribes that

they should make it their care to ensure the observance of the law of God and the Christian religion—as Augustine plainly teaches, when he says, ‘Kings as regards their kingly office, serve God in accordance with their divine commission if in their kingdoms they command what is good and forbid what is evil, with respect not only to society in general but also to divine religion.’[7]

While there is much scholarship to be done and many questions to be answered relating to civil law in the Reformation, this is enough to show the short-coming of Horton’s claims on this point.

Horton further states that God’s new society” is “inserted into the heart of the secular city as a witness to Christ,” where its only functions are “its administration of Gospel preaching, baptism, the Supper, prayer, and discipline.” This view has very important implications which Horton has left out. Is “God’s new society” confined to the walls of the church and private home? The church is indeed God’s new society, but societies have laws to live by which give them their peaceful and prosperous nature. This is why the church can administer “discipline,” which is a ministry of helping members conform to obedience—obedience to the law. This is all well and good. But to pretend that this is the totality of God’s new society ignores the fact that God’s law reaches across all religious, social, political and geographical boundaries. There is one divine law for the saved and for the unsaved, for the church, the world, the government, schools, jails, coffee houses, criminals, and seminary professors. This, just as well as the sun shining on the just and the unjust, is an aspect of common grace.

Thus, Horton’s “new society” view ignores that the law not only serves as the standard for church discipline, but for the statutes of civil society. God calls all men everywhere to repent and obey, and this includes the institutions of men. As individuals we are called to obey God’s law. Under Horton’s view this requirement apparently disappears when several individuals join together and write a civil constitution. No longer is God’s law required in this scenario! The Word of God is annulled by a few men who have joined hands with an ink pen!

Of course this is absurd. God’s requirements for public behavior apply to individuals and to all groups, institutions, and civil States of individuals. There is one law for all. Christians should endeavor peacefully and lawfully to conform modern civil law to these Biblical standards. He who says otherwise is obligated to show us his alternative standard of law.

This obligation is never fulfilled by our critics. When asked “by what standard,” having denied God’s law, they cannot answer without sounding pagan. So they avoid the question. Horton continues this studied silence. He writes that as citizens of both the earthly and heavenly cities, “we carry out our vocations in the church and the world in distinct ways through distinct means.” He defends, therefore, that we must be active in “the world”—in other words, he does not want to have to admit that his view is no different from “retreat from society” cultural pessimism—and yet he, as he always does, refuses to give the slightest hint of an alternative standard. He leaves us with nothing but separatism. By what standard shall we engage in political or social action? Silence.

Horton’s silence is bad enough, but Gordon goes further. Gordon argues vigorously against what he calls coercion in the public sphere by Christians. He argues that it is impossible for Christians to win a culture war, because a “culture war” in by definition an unchristian thing! To make laws conformable to Christian principles, he argues, would be to exercise “coercion,” and thus to adopt the “totalitarianism” of the unbelieving world. This apparent dilemma which Gordon promotes, he apparently thinks makes it imperative that Christians avoid political reform entirely.

What Gordon unfortunately fails to see is that liberty is not promoted by keeping Biblical law out of the public institutions. Rather, Biblical law is the only expression of “the law of liberty” (See James 1:25–2:12). The proportions of freedom in Biblical law make modern society look like the Gulag Archipelago. If American statutes were today replaced by Biblical standards, civil taxes would be cut almost entirely, the oppressive and the modern prison system would be entirely overhauled, financial accountability would be enforced upon robbers and thieves, businesses would be released from huge measures of bureaucratic government control, control of education would be returned to the family, churches and charitable organizations would no longer limp by financially, almost the entire banking system would be exposed as fraudulent and criminal (thereby ending many, though not all, avenues of excess debt).

What critics such as Gordon refuse to acknowledge when they rail against “coercion” is that when we are talking about civil law, we must inescapably discuss coercion. No law is law at all unless it is enforced. Civil laws carry civil penalties for those who break them. It is not the least bit wrong, unchristian, or unbiblical to speak of penalties for lawbreakers as coercion. It is, in fact, explicitly biblical. To pretend that all coercion is unchristian is to deny the very function of civil magistrates, and thus is to legitimize “public evil” of all kinds in the public square. If we are to avoid this civil absurdity, we must have some standard of law and of legal penalties. The Bible provides these. Horton doesn’t want them. Gordon says they’re a waste of time. Both are wrong.

Anti-law theologians such as Gordon and Horton extenuate the same tired old criticisms of Biblical law because they apparently don’t understand it. This is a charitable conclusion, because, if they do understand it, then they are refusing to be honest in addressing the issues. The value of life and the virtue of liberty are neither the inventions nor the domain of the secular State, they are the dogma of Biblical law. If this tenet is denied, we may—may—continue to value life and liberty for a time, but this esteem will be in name only and not in substance. Abortion, unjustified warfare, forced indoctrination and exorbitant taxation already deny the existence of that substance in the eyes any discerning person. To refuse to call for the “coercion” of Biblical law in these areas of life is to refuse life and liberty to the millions oppressed by humanistic standards. This refusal by so many modern theologians is the greatest ethical-religious evil of our times.

Horton and Gordon have, since they first addressed it, continued to present the public with a base and biased treatment of this issue. It is a level of scholarship with which Calvin and Luther would certainly be ashamed. It should be received as an embarrassment to the entire Reformed world.

Why do they continue to prosecute the same shoddy case? I have no idea. Perhaps they really have not read our works, have not traced the footnotes, have not really challenged themselves on the issue, and at last, really believe what they say. One might speculate, however, about fear of the reaction of their secular peers at those peers’ flawed perception of an alleged monster labeled “theocracy.” Thus, Horton, Gordon and their like turn their rhetorical fire upon those of us who do call for government to be trimmed to Biblical proportions. Out of a revulsion and a belief shared with liberal theologians, these scholars try to publically distance themselves from our view. We take the undue shame so they don’t have to.

But you can bet that someday, if it occurs within our lifetimes, that Christian law triumphs greatly enough to have a positive visible impact on society, these guys will be writing about the new liberty and hailing the victory as if they agreed with it all along. They will love it when it comes. Until that day comes, however, they are only fighting against it.

Michael S. Horton, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” Tabletalk, Sept. 2008, 10–13, and T. David Gordon, “Life & Liberty,” Tabletalk, Sept. 2008, 15–17.
Compare Gary DeMar, “Theonomy as an Extension of Calvin’s Judicial Theology,” in Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991) 24–25.
[3] Gary North amply responded to Gordon in a July 3, 2003 ICE Newsletter.
[4] Gary DeMar, “Hodge over Horton,” copy from Gary DeMar’s personal archive.
Michael S. Horton, “A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” Tabletalk, Sept. 2008, 11.
Thomas Cranmer, Works, Vol. II, p. 126ff, quoted in P. E. Hughes, Theology of the English Reformers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1966), 246.
Thomas Cranmer, De Rebus Civilibus, quoted in Hughes, 240–241.
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