As promised, today I intend to continue to examine for veracity the many referenced quotations from Theonomists that were used in apparent condemnation during my recent debate on the topic. I know some of you would like me to move on the other material. Trust me, that will come in due time (probably in book form). For now, the classic and enduring misrepresentations of our position must be thoroughly established in print for this generation. This will be helpful to a lot of people—and we’ve got all the time in the world here. I saw someone say something about this debate being the last word on the issue—to which a whole generation of young inquiring souls with things called “internet connections” responded, “LOL!” So let’s get to it.
In both of his opening statements—segment one and segment two—as well as in cross examination and rebuttals, Jordan Hall quoted from theonomic authors to establish certain points ranging from noncontroversial claims (a few) to declarations of heresy against theonomy. I don’t have an exact count on me, but there were several substantial quotations given. I have already addressed two of them, here and here. Today I begin addressing the remaining one I see as outstanding in their severity (though this varies among each misrepresentation as well). The first arises in reference to Bahnsen’s view of “latent antinomianism.”
In his first opening statement, Hall stated: “Theonomists, though, as you are aware, tend to think of a two-fold division [of categories of the law]. As a matter of fact, according to Bahnsen, to think of a division between the civil code and the moral law, he says, is quote, ‘latent antinomianism’ (Theonomy in Christian Ethics [TICE], 310).”
Here Jordan was arguing, as he did later as well, that theonomists only see two categories of law (moral and ceremonial) and apparently strongly disallow a three-fold distinction (moral, ceremonial, and civil/judicial). The claim here is that Bahnsen called the attempt even to “think of” the latter view, in which the civil law is also divided out apart from the moral law, “latent antinomianism.”
The passage in question is actually found on page 304 of the latest printing of TICE, under a section heading called “Unwarranted Compartmentalization.” Bahnsen wrote,
Latent antinomianism expresses itself in different ways. Sometimes it comes in the form of multiplying distinctions and qualifications which are not enumerated in God’s word. Some people (e.g., Charles Hodge) try to draw a line between “moral” and “civil” laws with the intention of giving the impression that the latter class are mere matters of time-bound administration which are irrelevant today; in this way they can shave off those laws of God which have social and punitive application. Yet Scripture recognizes no such demarcation. God’s law does and should have public implications, for He alone can be the sole legislator with respect to issues of crime and punishment. When people get so accustomed to doing things in a secular way because they live amidst a secular society, they bring themselves to believe that there simply is no other way to do things; it is not surprising, then, they are recalcitrant to having God’s law transform the society and its traditionalism or “progress” (take your pick). The concealed presumption in eliminating commandments from God which directly apply to social matters (e.g., the execution of certain types of criminals) is that a law from God is only valid if I can find a good reason for it or if it does not shock my general “Christian” feelings. Such an approach does not live under the sovereign authority of God but is a reversion to rationalism and inclination.
While it is clear that Bahnsen did speak of an expression of “latent antinomianism” in relation to a particular unwarranted compartmentalization of “civil” apart from “moral” law, it should be clear to any reader that this was not an absolute statement in any regard. Instead, Bahnsen is speaking specifically of people to make such a distinction for a particular purpose unwarranted by Scripture: that is, “with the intention of giving the impression that the latter class are mere matters of time-bound administration which are irrelevant today.” In other words, people who categorize the law in this way for the purpose of denying their application today entirely.
Well, I don’t see why Jordan would actually disagree with this description since not even he holds that position. After all, remember, he opened the debate by arguing that he believed the civil code of Old Testament Israel was “thoroughly relevant” to every nation today (even if not therefore, according to him, obligatory). This qualified statement from Bahnsen, then, not only does not apply as a general statement to all people who make a three-fold distinction of the law, it does not even apply to Jordan himself.
It is clear from this then that Jordan once again misunderstood and misrepresented what Bahnsen wrote.
Further, it is not true that Bahnsen held only to a two-fold distinction, nor is it true that most theonomists do. This would have probably been clear to Jordan had he considered what Bahnsen wrote elsewhere concerning a three-fold distinction. For example, in the Preface to the Second Edition of TICE, page xxx, Bahnsen created a list of common misconstructions which had been answered in various ways already, and by which he considered it “mean, illogical, and inexcusable propaganda” to dismiss theonomy. Among this list was misconception #3: “denying any distinction between moral and judicial laws.”
Likewise, Bahnsen has a whole chapter on “Categories of Old Testament Law” in his book No Other Standard (pp. 93 ff.). On page 94, he writes:
The second line of criticism comes from the opposite direction. It not only recognizes the legitimacy of a ceremonial category of Old Testament laws, but it wishes to assert a further classification of laws which, just like the ceremonial laws, are categorically abrogated under the New Testament—namely, the civil or “judicial” laws of the Mosaic revelation. Therefore, according to this thinking, the only Old Testament commandments which would remain binding in the New Covenant would be the “moral law,” which is allegedly only the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Theonomic ethics challenges this understanding of the Old Testament civil or judicial laws, arguing that they are theologically distinct from the ceremonial laws, that the moral law cannot be reduced to the decalogue (its summary), and that the difference between judicial laws and the moral law which they apply is not principal but literary in character. Theonomy taught that we need “to apply the illustrations given in the Old Testament case laws to changed, modern situations and new social circumstances.” For instance, with respect to the requirement of a rooftop railing “Thus the underlying principle (of which the case law was a particular illustration) of safety precautions has abiding ethical validity” (pp. 540-541).
Thus you see again that Bahnsen is not denying a distinction of a “judicial” or “civil” category in general, but rather the use of that distinction in such a way as to abrogate totally the judicial law as a whole category.
It was this irresponsible practice which Bahnsen labeled “latent antinomianism”—not the mere position of a three-fold distinction in itself, as Hall mistakenly stated. Toward this end, it would be further helpful to ask what exactly Bahnsen meant when he used the phrase “latent antinomianism.” He did provide a whole chapter by that title TICE (pp. 301–308). In distinction from “outright” antinomianism, which sees any recourse to God’s law in the Christian life as repugnant (see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 615), Bahnsen describes “latent” antinomianism like this:
The latent brand of antinomianism is also quite prevalent today among Christians. Although there is an evident concern for God’s law, this attitude still feeds upon the polluted stream of autonomy. Latent antinomianism gladly accepts the place of God’s law in the Christian life, and so on the surface it does not appear—and in many cases is not intended—to be antinomian in its outlook. Then enters the difficulty. Having paid courtesy to the law of God, the latent antinomian proceeds to arbitrate which of God’s laws he deems appropriate to the Christian life today. That is, the latent antinomian agrees that a Christian must follow God’s law, but he looks to himself to choose how much of God’s law he will consider as binding. In the final analysis the latent antinomian is actually his own moral authority; in taking upon himself to delimit the extent to which the Older Testamental law applies to him he is not really submitting to God’s will but rubber-stamping it where it parallels his own feeling. This brand of antinomianism is subtle, for its proponent will defend the sanctity of God’s law; however, he will not recognize all of God’s law as his obligation. Without clear scriptural justification he will presume to nullify portions of that law. This is eventually (even if unwittingly) nothing other than self-law; the difference between it and non-Christian autonomy is that “latent antinomians” take their moral principles from among the set of commandments given by God, but they take a smorgasbord approach to that set.
What’s even more helpful is that Bahnsen goes on to qualify this even further: he says we should be careful not to be too cavalier in applying this label:
[T]he type of antinomian we are referring to here should be distinguished from Christians who legitimately see that not every ordinance of the Older Testament applies in the same manner to the New Testament Christian (i.e., the ceremonial law). These two are distinguished by the fact that the latter bases his qualified circumscription on the immediate teaching and direction of God’s word, while the former goes beyond this and uses the razor of his own ratiocination to shave off further demands of God’s revealed law.
With the exception, perhaps, of those holding strongly to a classic dispensational ethic or New Covenant theology, I think we can all agree that anyone entirely and categorically dismissing the validity of the judicial laws should indeed be considered guilty of “latent antinomianism.” And again, since Jordan Hall himself holds a view in which the judicial laws are seen as “good,” “righteous,” “God-breathed,” and “thoroughly relevant, and always has been, to America and to every other nation under the Sun,” we can rest assured that his position actually, in large measure, agrees with Bahnsen on what “latent antinomianism” is, as well as how and to whom the label should be legitimately applied.
Now, as I can see that just this one refutation has taken a good space, I suppose I will have to address others in serial fashion over the next few days.