I have, as you can imagine, been asked several times who I thought won the debate. While one party to the debate has been making clear suggestions as to his victory in the name of not chest-thumping, I have remained quiet on this point, until the video’s release. The listener or viewer will now be able to see for themselves, although, I admit, it may slip by unnoticed if you don’t pay close attention (something most of the critics associated with my opponent seem unwilling to do). But the winner is absolutely crystal clear for those with an ear to hear.
And the winner of the Theonomy Debate is. . . .
Theonomy and the Westminster Divines
That’s right. William Perkins was the unexpected star of this show. Here’s how:
In an effort, I suppose, to show that theonomy is unconfessional and aberrant from the Reformed tradition of biblical understanding, Jordan did what many critics of theonomy have done: he referred to the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 19 section 4, which says:
To them [“the people of Israel”] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
To the modern reader, divorced from the context of the Divines themselves, this sounds like a cut-and-dried case. But not so fast.
Like many of our modern critics, Jordan emphasized “not obliging under any [State] now,” and only when later called out on it, explained the obligation through “general equity” (quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary, a late-nineteenth century standard, in an attempt to prove what the Divines meant by the term “equity” (not even the whole phrase “general equity”) two hundred and forty years earlier in a different context) in a pietistic, spiritualized way. Those of us who know the background, however, know this will not do.
For this reason, in cross examination I asked him if he was familiar with the views of certain men who wrote or influenced the writing of the Confession. The first name on the list was William Perkins, the man who taught theology to many of the Divines. Out of a list of about 25 or more names (and we could add more), he admitted he was not familiar with any except one, Samuel Rutherford.
In my closing for the first segment, I therefore related how these Divines really understood the judicials and general equity. It was not a phrase that reduced Old Testament laws to vague, general principles, denuded their penal sanctions, and limited them to church and personal-piety applications only, as Jordan seemed to argue. Instead, the Divines argued for a distinction within the category of judicial laws: those that had “general equity” (meaning that they are expressions of moral law in general, and therefore apply generally to all peoples of all times), and those have merely have “particular equity” (meaning, they were tied particularly to aspects of Israel’s position in the land, such as the land itself, the temple, priesthood, tribal separations, etc.), and these latter alone are those which expired with the State of Israel. These latter were also referred to by the Divines as judicial laws which were merely “Mosaical,” as opposed to other judicial laws and punishments which had universal scope (even though these too were mostly exclusively revealed through Moses).
It was with a couple chuckles, then, that I sat listening to his closing statement after that very cross-examination: Jordan pulled out his pre-prepared notes and began to quote Divines in an effort to show they believed only in a pietistic “general equity” as he defined it. The first chuckle came when the men he began to quote were mostly Divines of whom I had just asked if he was familiar (more on this disconnect momentarily). The second and real chuckle came when he actually quoted William Perkins stating exactly the view I had just argued theonomists believe, and yet he thought he was offering it as a refutation of our views.
That quotation says this:
Therefore the judicial laws of Moses according to the substance and scope thereof must be distinguished. . . . Some of them are laws of particular equity, some of common equity. [ . . . ] Judicials of common equity, are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men: and these in respect of their substance, bind the consciences not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles: [ . . . ]
Note that even from this it is clear that Perkins was expressing my view not Jordan’s. Perkins is not distinguishing between judicial laws and moral laws as separate categories (with the former now gone and the latter only remaining), but rather a distinction within the sole category of “judicial laws of Moses.” Within these, there are some that have only particular equity and others that have common equity, apply to “all men,” and are binding upon both Jews and Gentiles.
That should be enough in itself to establish that it is not that theonomists have introduced a new distinction or view of Mosaic judicials, but that modern critics like Jordan have not understood what the Divines actually taught in this regard. Indeed, they have been so far off as to read these very distinctions thinking they refute theonomy when they in fact establish a view perfectly consistent with a theonomic thesis.
What’s even more amazing, however, is that Jordan provided only part of the quotation from Perkins, and it still elucidated my view clearly. The rest of the quotation (with the parts Jordan neglected appearing in bold) makes my theonomic view even more obvious:
Therefore the judicial laws of Moses according to the substance and scope thereof must be distinguished. . . . Some of them are laws of particular equity, some of common equity. Laws of particular equity, are such as prescribe justice according to the particular estate and condition of the Jews’ Commonwealth and to the circumstances thereof: times, place, persons, things, actions. Of this kind was the law, that the brother should raise up seed to his brother, and many such like: and none of them bind us, because they were framed and tempered to a particular people. Judicials of common equity, are such as are made according to the law or instinct of nature common to all men: and these in respect of their substance, bind the consciences not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles: for they were not given to the Jews as they were Jews, that is, a people received into the Covenant above all other nations, brought from Egypt to the land of Canaan, . . . but they were given to them as they were mortal men subject to the order and laws of nature as all other nations are.
There you have it: some judicials are particular to Israel, others are common and binding to all nations. Thus the truth about what the Divines taught is clear, and thus the truth of what their language in WCF 19.4 originally meant as well. And therefore, theonomy is vindicated in relation to it, for this is what theonomists have generally taught all along, and exactly what I argued in the debate.
The only question left for us, then, in the big picture, is not whether the Mosaic judicials are obligatory, but which ones are obligatory as being common laws. Thus, the task is to determine which laws are particular and which common—not an easy task admittedly, though a necessary one—and then to proceed to preach and teach those obligations of the state in regard to Old Testament judicial law.
The Dangers of Quote-Mining
Because Jordan initially said he had no familiarity with the views of Perkins (and the others), it seemed funny to me that he almost immediately turned around and quoted them. I don’t believe he was directly lying to me in cross-examination. He had obviously at one point compiled anti-theonomic notes which included this quotation from Perkins. It is also obvious he did not bother to study much the actual context and meaning of Perkins (and all the others). But he apparently, therefore, assumed that the anti-theonomic source from which he retrieved the quotations accurately reflected what they meant. This is always a risky mistake. That aside, he was surely as surprised by his own notes as I was when he brought up Perkins confidently after he just said he was not familiar.
It became clear to me in the debate that Jordan had done some quote-mining leading up to it. Quote-mining is when you search the internet for keywords and phrases hoping to find material you can use against an opponent. The great danger of quote-mining is that if you don’t read the context of the original source yourself and try to ascertain its meaning, then you are relying on 1) the limitations of the quotation as presented by the secondary source from which you got it, and 2) that assumption that the secondary source is presenting the meaning accurately.
Considering that Jordan presented five names in that rebuttal—Samuel Bolton, William Gouge, Samuel Rutherford, Paul Baynes, and William Perkins, in that order—I think I have found the source he relied on. It is this article from an anti-theonomic, Free Church of Scotland, website. It has a section in which the author gives the exact same quotations from Bolton, Gouge, Rutherford, and Perkins, and in the same order, as presented by Jordan—with only Baynes being out of order, but nevertheless present. The article also actually introduces Rutherford the same way Jordan did, as a “Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly.” It even goes on to define “equity” by recourse to the Oxford English Dictionary, just as Jordan did in his talk. I think we have a hit here.
Now, I don’t know if plagiarism is as frowned upon in debates as it is in general scholarship, but at least I know where Jordan got his material. The benefit of this is that I can see why Jordan misunderstood WCF 19.4: he relied upon the work of others, uncritically, not checking the original sources himself, and those others had already misunderstood the works themselves. As the old saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.
Moreover, since I am fairly certain of the source Jordan used to derive the quotation from Perkins, I know he had to have read the whole quotation as presented. The question is, why did Jordan feel the need to drop out part of the Perkins quotation? I won’t speculate as to why, but that he did is clear, and that the final product per Jordan still supports the theonomic thesis and he didn’t even realize it, is equally clear. Either way, the result is still damaging to the case he tried to impress upon us.
In another post we will discuss further details in relation to the distinction between judicial laws of particular equity (applying to Old Covenant Israel only), and those of common equity (those of universal and timeless application). We will see how writers subsequent to the WCF era applied the same understanding, although not necessarily using the phrases “particular equity” and “common equity.” We will also discuss how modern theonomists have applied almost exactly the same distinctions—including, though in different ways, Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and especially North, who provides the only thoroughly exegetical model along these lines.
For now, the substance here should work to clarify some of the comments made in the debate, and to show which side was more correct in their understanding of the biblical, systematic theology of the Westminster Divines. As such, it should be clear who was right in the debate in regard to the continuing obligation of the civil laws of Moses.
And from that, it should be clear who won. It was William Perkins—and thus, since we both relied on his explanation of the distinction, it was the one who understands the judicial distinction in the way Perkins did. This will become even clearer as we proceed in the next installment. It will also be just as clear as you watch the debate for yourself: