I don’t know what else to say folks, the title says it all—except, I don’t think it’s really that awkward at all. It’s only uncomfortable, I presume, if you’re a certain Reformed Baptist critic of Greg Bahnsen (and theonomy) who considers Spurgeon a hero and Bahnsen’s exegesis of Matthew 5:17 to be a “danger.”
During my recent debate on theonomy, my opponent Jordan Hall attempted to corner me on Bahnsen’s exegesis of Matthew 5:17. In the midst of a line of questioning during cross examination, in an attempt to show Bahnsen’s rendering novel, peculiar, incorrect, Jordan stated, “So Jesus fulfilled the law—pleroō—it would not mean therefore He came to establish and confirm the law.”
The thinking here is a bifurcation: if Jesus “fulfilled” the law then He absolutely could not have “established” and “confirmed” the law. Thus, by implication, Bahnsen’s interpretation of Matthew 5:17 is wrong, and, it is assumed, Theonomy suffers a significant blow. But Jordan went further than this even. In an obscure podcast soon after the debate, he actually said this alleged error of Bahnsen’s is “The best example I can give you of the danger of theonomy” (my emphasis). Indeed he characterized Bahnsen’s view this way:
Bahnsen says—looking to . . . not the Bible . . . but looking to the Mishnah and the Greek Septuagint—this word, he says, can be translated “establish.” So he says Jesus didn’t fulfill the law for us, he established the law.
Jordan goes on to argue that, based on this interpretation and a later quotation, Bahnsen believed in “works righteousness.” I will deal with this misrepresentation later. For now, let us focus on just the alleged wrong interpretation of the word pleroō.
Does this word mean “fulfill,” or “establish” and “confirm”? We could also ask the attendant question: Are the two concepts absolutely mutually exclusive? I would contend they are not, as the traditional “three uses of the law” in Reformed theology indicate. But here, let us focus on the narrow subject, as Jordan introduced it in cross-examination, of the interpretation of the word itself. Is it really so novel, peculiar, straining, desperate, unprecedented, unwarranted, and/or incorrect as Jordan’s attack on it suggests?
To answer that question, I turn to Jordan Hall’s greatly respected (and respectable!) hero, Charles Spurgeon. What was Spurgeon’s view of Matthew 5:17? Let us turn a relevant work of Spurgeon’s mature thinking: his commentary on Matthew entitled The Gospel of the Kingdom. In it, Spurgeon introduced 5:17–20 by saying:
He [Jesus] took care to revise and reform the laws of men; but the law of God he established and confirmed (p. 52; my emphasis).
What?!? What was that? He came only to fulf— Not according to Spurgeon. He came to “establish” and “confirm.”
Now, granted, this does not mean Spurgeon was a theonomist. This is not the point I am making. I am simply saying that Spurgeon interpreted this word in the exact same way for which Jordan impugned Bahnsen. This alone should make critics like Jordan at the very least to pause and reconsider their hasty attack upon Bahnsen in this regard.
Spurgeon continues to exegete verse 17: “He establishes in its deepest sense all that is written in Holy Scripture, and puts a new fullness into it” (p. 53; my emphasis). He continues into verse 18: “Not a syllable is to become effete. Even to the smallest letters, the dot of every ‘I’, and the crossing of every ‘t’, the law will outlast the creation” (p. 53). What’s that? Sounds more than a bit like he is speaking of “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.”
Again, I am not calling him a theonomist, but it is instructive that such a great theologian, completely off the radar of the modern theonomy debate, would speak the same way as Bahnsen when exegeting Matthew 5:17–20. We should take this seriously.
Continuing on to verse 19, Spurgeon reiterates his interpretation: “Our King has not come to abrogate the law, but to confirm and reassert it” (p. 53).
It is clear, then, what view Spurgeon held of this word. And had Jordan paid very close attention, he would have noticed this before the debate. He says he read Bahnsen’s book Theonomy and Christian Ethics, and I believe him. He just didn’t read very closely, apparently: for Bahnsen quotes this very passage from Spurgeon on page 73 (most recent printing).
Also contra Jordan’s suggestions and statements, Bahnsen also shows that such an interpretation of the word pleroō is demonstrated in other places in the New Testament (James 2:23; Rev. 3:2; Rom. 15:19–20; Col. 1:25), as well as other examples of Greek from the era, for example the Greek Septuagint and Apocrypha (3 Kings 1:14; 13:33; 1 Macc. 2:55; 4 Macc. 12:14; 1 Kings 20:3; Song 5:14; Num. 7:88; Judg. 17:5, 12; 2 Chron. 13:9; Sirach 45:15). Other passages that contain a similarly nuanced meaning of the word are listed as well (Cf. 1 Kings 2:27; 8:15, 24; 2 Chronicles 6:4, 15; 36:21-22; Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9; Mark 14:49; 15:28; Luke 1:20; 4:21; 24:44; John 12:38; 13:18; 15:25; 17:12; 18:9, 32; 19:24, 36; Acts 1:16; 3:18; 13:27).
Having established that the uses of “confirm,” “establish,” etc., are in fact have strong precedent throughout Scripture and other Greek contemporary with the era, Bahnsen then turns to past theologians who have interpreted specifically Matthew 5:17 this way, just as he does. On page 73 of TICE he cites John Calvin, Hans Windisch (1937 posthumous), George Campbell (1837), and David Brown (1864).
Notably, Bahnsen also finds more modern interpreters such as W. C. Allen, John Murray, and Herman Ridderbos who accept and teach this very interpretation. These men are top-notch exegetes, and yet their conclusions support Bahnsen’s view.
And of course in the midst of this chorus of excellent expositors stands our subject today, Charles Spurgeon. Rightly, then, Bahnsen could conclude:
Therefore, the sense of “confirming, validating, ratifying, establishing” has been recognized as applying to “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 by past and present biblical scholars, and this thesis is not setting forth a brand new suggestion for handling that verse (TICE, 74).
So is this interpretation “dangerous” as Jordan Hall would have you believe. If so, then some of the greatest preachers, expositors, and exegetes in Christian history have been every bit as dangerous as us theonomists regarding Matthew 5:17. I would counsel Jordan to reconsider his strident attack based on this passage. Rather, he should adopt, like theonomists do, the sound interpretation given by one of his greatest heroes, if not the greatest, Charles Spurgeon: Jesus Christ came not to destroy the law, but to confirm and establish it.
Tomorrow we’ll see that Spurgeon actually confirms Bahnsen’s view further than just the meaning of the word.
 See Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd Ed. (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), 70–72.