An uproar occurred recently when James White addressed theonomists in two partial segments of his show The Dividing Line. The upset occurred when many people listening thought they heard a comparison made between theonomy and Islamic Sharia. Since such a simplistic misrepresentation is not only false but seemingly increasing in popularity among the generally less knowledgeable of our critics, the backlash White (who is not less knowledgeable) received to such an apparent comparison was understandable. He, however, then used that uproar to further condemn theonomists for a variety of faults (mostly not worth detailing here for various reasons).
I am including here two transcripts from the Dividing Line: first the explanation James gave on 3-6-2015, followed by the original statement on 3-4-2015. The reader can take what he or she desires from these. My point is only to get to the heart of James’ concern regarding Acts 15 and the difference between Christianity and Islam, and how that compares (or doesn’t) to Theonomy. I am providing transcripts only to make sure to have James’s actual words and context included for consideration. I do not wish to misrepresent or misunderstand him in any way. If you already are familiar with these statements from White, you may desire to skip them.
James’ Concern and Explanation
I tried to raise an important issue on Wednesday [3-4-2015]. I think I did so fairly. I think I did so with clarity. I am deeply concerned that one theonomist—one, singular—even bothered to listen to what I said. Every single other one that has responded missed it completely—completely! [His emphasis.] Folks, that should not oughta be. What did I say? Well, I used the term “sharia.” *Gasp*—“you’re saying we’re like Muslims!” I even got an email from a leading theonomist: all it said was “Sharia? Really?” That’s all it said. [That was me.—JM.]
If you go back and listen, I spent a fair amount of time explaining one of the key issues that I have been explaining to audiences globally for years. And I asked the question, I said, it seems to me that some theonomists—I used the term “some”—doesn’t seem to matter to most, if you say one, I mean, talk about wagon-circling—persecution complex again—oh! can’t disagree at all . . . you’re going after . . .C’mon! Think! I said, it would seem that some theonmists, given their perspective, would have to disagree with the fundamental assertion that I’m making, and that is that one of the primary differences between the approach of Christianity in the proclamation of the Gospel to all the world, and Islam, because of the centrality of sharia—they’d have to say I’m [James White is] wrong. I’m saying because of Acts chapter 15, we do not bring cultural artifacts, or we shouldn’t, and if you fail to recognize that there are certain aspects to the Mosaic code that only had application to the theocratic state of Israel, the you are bringing cultural artifacts along with it and forcing that upon any culture that you encounter. That’s what you’re doing.
So, what would be the proper response to that statement? From thinking people? From truly Reformed Christians? What would be the proper response? Knee-jerk reaction? “How dare you”? Is that the proper response? No, it isn’t. What would be the proper response? Here’s the proper response:
A) You might want to learn something about Sharia—and maybe not depend on Fox News for it.
I haven’t seen one person that has criticized what I said about that that has this much [inch between fingers] knowledge of what Sharia actually is in any fair fashion at all. In any fair fashion at all. . . . I had conversation with an Islamic scholar—I was actually defending him because he was being misrepresented, I knew he was being misrepresented—and as we were going back and forth he said, well I really wouldn’t put it that way, and I said, well, explain to me how you would understand this. And so, he recommends to me an entire book on Fiqh—Islamic jurisprudence—I had it within a week and read it. My critics don’t do that. Not a one of them that I’ve seen would have any earthly idea what I just said—they just don’t. They might pretend to, but they don’t.
What you might want to do is, first of all, learn something about Sharia and its centrality to Islamic thought, the relationship that exists in Islamic thought between Sharia and the very essence of Islam, and what it means to be in submission to Allah. . . .
If you were offended by my statement, then it would have been, “Well, what do you mean by Sharia?” And, “What do you see as the problem with your statements about Acts chapter 15?” “What do you mean by ‘cultural artifacts’?” That would’ve been the proper response—would’ve been, well, you know, We need to look at how God’s Law represent God’s being, and then that means we’re going to have to make proper distinctions between, well, the moral law represents His perfect will, and it cannot be separated from that; and one of the key differences with Islam is the fact that God’s law can be separated from His being because He can forgive sins without the reparation of His law—without atonement, without punishment of sin. . . . And you know one of the places you can go to learn about these things? My opening statement in the mosque in Erasmia, South Africa because that’s what I was talking about. It actually might have started some meaningful discussion getting to the key issue: and that is being able to map what was given to the theocratic nation that could only be relevant to them and could only be practiced by them without fundamentally warping and twisting the intention of the law in the first place. That would’ve been good. Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen.
This was all in reaction to the reaction to his original comments, which went like this:
I have, for years now, been giving as an illustration of the fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, the fact that we had Acts 15, and they never have. [Explanation of Jew-Gentile relations, ceremonial law, etc.]. . . . And the application I’ve made is, one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam is that because of Acts chapter 15, we do not bring a cultural context with the Gospel and identify the two together. That has happened [i.e., English imperialism]. . . . Because we had Acts chapter 15, the Gospel can cross every linguistic, geopolitical boundary and border that man can put up. And so, we don’t have to bring Sharia, but Islam has to. Because Islam is a religio-political system, there are certain elements of Islam that are fundamentally cultural but have been enshrined within Sharia, and that’s what’s causing the problem. We don’t have to do that because we had Acts chapter 15. But listening to some theonomists makes me wonder just what they think happened in Acts chapter 15. . . .
I think some people are sensitive to the fact that the Muslims have this concept of Sharia, and we don’t want that. What are the differences? And I did look at an article online of someone who was saying, “What’s the difference between theonomy and Sharia?” And I’ll be perfectly honest with you: the article that I read missed the point completely—maybe due to a lack of understanding of Sharia? I don’t know. . . . I think there’s a great danger in missing the freedom the Gospel has to enter into every possible context of the world. We’re to go into all the world. And we’re not called to turn them into Jews before we turn them into Christians—that’s what Acts 15 said. Well, what does that mean when it comes to such things as exhaustive penology and all the rest of that stuff? So there are some things that concern me. . . .
Now, there is obviously a lot that could be addressed in all of this. I do not intend to get sidetracked with certain issues—for example, the concern that we need a detailed understanding of Islamic jurisprudence before we can understand James’ concerns about Acts 15. I just don’t see why that is necessary to address the simple concern regarding the exegesis of Acts 15 and, for example, the concern of turning people into Jews before we make them Christians. Considering Islam did not exist at the time of the Jerusalem council, what makes it relevant to the biblical understanding of that passage and biblical law? Seems like more of a distraction and complication to me—which is not to say that understanding differences between sharia and fiqh, etc., aren’t helpful in other ways. (And for the record, I never watch Fox News. I don’t even have cable.)
One thing that needs to be pointed out, however, is that I attempted to conduct a private discussion with James about these concerns before his second DL. After backing up and making a transcript for his approval of that original DL so that it would be clear that I was working only with exactly what he said, he decided for some reason not to pursue the discussion and instead went the following day on the DL with the public rebukes above.
Noteworthy in this regard is James’ argument that the “proper response” would have included questions like, “What do you mean by ‘cultural artifacts’?” He said this type of response “Didn’t happen.” Very noteworthy, then, is the fact that I, in the early morning before he did the DL that afternoon, continued our private dialogue in an email with that very question: “I would only ask you to define exactly what you mean by ‘cultural form.’”
That email was never answered or acknowledged.
Now, I don’t know how he can say, therefore, in blanket fashion, “Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen.” I tried to have this discussion just as he says would have been proper. It did happen.
Now, what about Acts 15 and Theonomy? If the “proper response” to controversial issues is to ask questions and seek knowledge, then why not seek an answer to the question of what theonomists think about Acts 15 before even speaking about it? Before suggesting that “some” theonomists appear to . . . what (?), violate it, ignore it, require “cultural artifacts” (whatever that may mean)? Why not ask the question before dragging in a context—sharia—alien to biblical law, whether any direct comparison was intended or not? Why even risk the confusion that could result, and did, among both theonomists and anti-theonomists alike—especially when it is a common misrepresentation engaged-in among anti-theonomists?
(As an aside, I see anti-theonomists, fans of James White, having listened to James White’s DL on this issue, responding to that very DL in ways like this: “I agree with White too. And I was surprised that he brought up Sharia. I have often thought to myself that if the Theonomists goals were realized that they would look like the radical muslims… Hunting down sinners and killing them all. That pretty much leaves nobody left alive.” Apparently, theonomists were not the only ones who understood White to be making such a simplistic comparison, whether he meant to or not. And if theonomists are to be blasted for understanding White this way, will he level the same heightened rhetoric and rebuke to his own sympathetic followers?)
Stated within a context in which Acts 15 Christianity is set primarily against Islam and the dragging of “cultural artifacts” into the spread of the Gospel, what is any serious, thinking person supposed to take away from this? Especially when it itself is an assertion and not a question seeking knowledge?
Why not, instead, seek an answer to the question before launching public suspicion—“listening to some theonomists makes me wonder just what they think happened in Acts chapter 15”—?
So let’s seek the answer to the question.
Bahnsen and Rushdoony on Acts 15
Those who do desire the answer to James White’s concern need only to use that profound modern invention called an “index” to find a ready answer. The passage is addressed in both Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law (pp. 732 ff.) and Greg L. Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (which James was holding and reading at the beginning of the second DL quoted above).
Let it be understood clearly that both of these works agree on the fundamental principle of Acts 15: circumcision is not required for Gentiles to become Christians and salvation does not come through works of the law or cultural trappings. In other words, we all agree 100 percent with White: we don’t make people Jews before we make the Christians. Both Rushdoony and Bahnsen clearly agreed on this, clearly stated it, and included these passages in their Scripture Indexes. Why this should be a question suspected against theonomists all of the sudden is therefore a surprise to us.
Due to the lingering influence of the Pharisees among Christians, especially as manifest in the teaching of the Judaizers, the New Testament Scriptures gave a great deal of space to refuting the view that the law is a way of justification, especially in Acts 15, Galatians, Hebrews, and Romans 8. The first general assembly of the Christian Church was occasioned by the heresy of the Judaizers (follow Acts 15). These false teachers were requiring observance of the ceremonial law for salvation; in particular, they taught that the Gentiles had to be circumcised (v. 1). Justification must be by the law according to the Pharisaical converts (v. 5); this squares with what we know about the doctrine of the Pharisees elsewhere. Reminiscent of our Lord’s words in Matthew 23:4, Peter says that the Pharisees are known to lay heavy and grievous burdens on the people; but neither the believers under the Older Testament nor the New Testament Christians were able to bear this load. So since these believers had not been able to justify themselves by the law, why should this yoke be laid upon the Gentiles (vv. 10-11)? James sums up the issue by saying that they must refuse to require legalistic justification from the Gentiles. All men who are saved must be saved by God’s free grace; the only yoke they must accept is that easy one given by Christ (cf. Matt. 11:29 f.).
But there was still a practical problem to be dealt with: how can the Jewish Christians who were brought up to detest certain things cope with Gentile believers who do not share this disapprobation? In order to facilitate harmony among believers, therefore, James recommends that the Gentile converts respect their Jewish brethren’s scruples. The things which James says should be avoided, then, are not to be viewed as the only portions of the law which are still binding on New Testament Christians. These things would not be morally binding at all due to their ceremonial nature. Yet expediency called for the Jerusalem Council to request the Gentiles to avoid meat which had idolatrous associations or which was not drained of its blood as well as to conform to the Jewish social code respecting the relation between the sexes. That is, while neither Jew nor Gentile are required to keep the ceremonial law as a way of justification, in Acts 15:20 three stipulations are set forth in order to improve social relations between believers of widely divergent cultural backgrounds. Therefore, the Judaizers who had taught that the Gentiles must keep the ceremonial law in order to be saved were unorthodox; they subverted and unsettled these Christians (v. 24). On the other hand, at the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and in order to smooth the path of fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, the Gentiles were requested by the Jerusalem Council to abstain from certain things (vv. 28–29). This is wise and expedient advice, but it does not imply that believers are obligated to keep the ceremonial provisions of the Mosaic law as such, much less that justification requires it. With respect to justification, the Jerusalem Council ruled out the works of the law as its proper ground.
Now, James White can attest for you that this is nothing more and nothing less than the consensus view among commentators on Acts 15 as to how Acts 15 Christianity looks. And you can read for yourself right here how Bahnsen’s theonomic outlook upheld that same view—forty years ago.
Rushdoony has a different take on the four requirements for Gentiles, but he was also just as absolutely clear on the basic meaning of the council’s issue and decision: “The issue was justification. . . .” And the decision included this:
There is a significant change, however. In Acts 15:5, the demand of the Pharisees in the church was also for circumcision. This demand, the Gentiles were told in the encyclical, was “subverting your souls, saying, ‘Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment’” (Acts 15:24). Circumcision was thus dropped, and Peter’s baptism of the Gentiles sustained, as the mark of the renewed covenant; the keeping of the law in pharisaic sense of being justified by the law (Acts 13:39) was rejected. . . . The issue was plainly raised by the Pharisees in the church with a false view of law and of justification.
Personally, studying Rushdoony’s view, I believe more discussion needs to be had regarding the nature of four criteria as well as the discussion of so-called “cultural artifacts” or “cultural forms.” Since such terms will need to be defined going forward, there is plenty of work to do—as theonomists have always said. Then again, since such terms can only be defined as arising from a process of exegesis and application of the law, provided any systematic definition up front would likely prove unhelpful in the long run. Such a process will need to be an ongoing discussion—a discussion I already tried to start with James.
Whatever else may be made of this in extended discussion, one thing is clear: theonomists have for 40 years already had an explanation of “what happened in Acts chapter 15.” Theonmists’ view of the Gospel transcending all cultural and geopolitical boundaries is the same as the bulk of all other Evangelical Christian commentators on Acts 15. I think this would be a great place to start in discussing the nature and application of God’s law—a great place to start, especially since theonomists already started it 40 years ago.
 Note, these are partial transcripts: I believe I have included all that is relevant to this particular discussion. If you feel I have left out anything relevant, then please let me know and I will consider it. I don’t think I have done so, however. My point is to include all that is relevant and especially to let it be included in James’ own words. Secondly, these are also rush transcripts. Please forgive any typos. If you feel they are inaccurate in any way, please bring this to my attention and I will try to amend it asap.
 Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Third Ed., 132–3.
 Insititutes, 732.