You may remember my recent review of Rev. Dewey Roberts’s claims that the principles of Theonomy taught by Greg Bahnsen lead directly to “Federal Vision.” I criticized Rev. Roberts for his lack of definition, context, and consistency. Rev. Roberts has supplemented his previous effort with a new offering of lack of definition, context, and consistency in his “Part 2.”
It was helpful to see The Aquila Report allow Rev. Larry Ball to provide a brief balance to the strident axe grinding against Bahnsen. The rejoinder is short, simple, and to the point in exposing the necessary fallacies.
The reader may also recall how I previously complained that Rev. Roberts’s lack of definition and context left us with nothing more than his bare ipse dixit condemning Theonomy as, for example, “legalism.” Rev. Roberts apparently did not take such an observation too seriously, for his reply seems to be only to give me more bare ipse dixit in return: “I want to assure them that the inconsistencies are endemic to the theonomic views of Bahnsen himself” (my emphasis).
Blessed assurance, that.
He then moves on to a second round of criticisms of Bahnsen, based upon the fact that in certain places in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Bahnsen appears to speak of things such as objectivity to baptism, real effects of disobedience, and other things that one could construe as the distinctives of the undefined Federal Vision monster. Rev. Roberts concludes, based on things said by Bahnsen almost in passing, and because he allegedly does not “emphasize” their contraries, that Bahnsen therefore “made several statements which laid the foundation for the development of the Federal Vision theology.”
As I mentioned already, Rev. Ball has adequately exposed the rather simplistic fallacy of such strained argument. His piece is worth quoting in this particular conclusion:
Just because a person speaks highly of the law of God in one place in one book does not make him a legalist or the father of legalism. Just because a person has a high view of the efficacy of baptism (as does the Westminster Confession of Faith) in one place in one book does not mean that he denies the work of the Holy Spirit or that he is the father of sacramentalism. Just because someone believes that apostasy is real does not mean that he is the father of the heresy of conditional election. Just because a person believes that the covenant has an objective quality does not mean that he is a proponent of Federal Vision.
In his zeal to demonstrate how Bahnsen taught “too legalistic and non-evangelical” conclusions, Rev. Roberts has neglected to tell you a few important things. Whether this is because he simply missed the obvious (which would be rather hard to do, as you shall see) or because he chose not to relate the rest of the truth is hard to tell. But in hesitance to assume the latter, we’ll provide this info as an opportunity for Rev. Roberts to acknowledge the whole truth.
Bahnsen and Calvin on Uses of the Law
This problem is illustrated in one particularly egregious passage in Rev. Roberts’s article:
Concerning the law both before and after the fall, Bahnsen says:
The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious. Subsequent to salvation the law shows us how to respond to God’s grace and love.
In the context of this quote, Bahnsen emphasizes that the law reveals the redemptive work of Christ, but his caricature of the law’s work is too optimistic. He does not distinguish between the grace of God before the fall and after the fall, particularly its effect on the unbelieving conscience. In comparison, Calvin represented the law very differently:
Because observance of the law is found in none of us, we are excluded from the promises of life, and fall back into the mere curse. For since the teaching of the law is far above human capacity, a man may indeed view from afar the proffered promises, yet he cannot derive any benefit from them. Therefore this thing alone remains: that from the goodness of the promises he should the better judge his own misery, while with the hope of salvation cut off he thinks himself threatened with certain death. On the other hand, horrible threats hang over us, constraining and entangling not a few of us only, but all of us to a man. They hang over us, I say, and pursue us with inexorable harshness, so that we discern in the law only the most immediate death.
What then are Bahnsen’s fundamental flaws with respect to the law? His emphasis on being obedient to the law in exhaustive detail brings about a possible conceit that such obedience is actually possible for the believer. The whole of Scripture testifies otherwise, as Calvin so eloquently stated above.
The great problem here involves a particularly inadequate use of the sources, and confusion of two different uses of the law. On the latter point, Bahnsen is simply speaking of the third use of the law, while Calvin is addressing what has come to be understood as the second. The difference is, as we’ll see, quite important. The former point is just as poorly composed because Bahnsen elsewhere in the book dedicates an entire chapter to the second use, and likewise Calvin openly addresses the third in the relevant places.
In short, Rev. Roberts does justice to neither Bahnsen nor Calvin, but his thesis could only be sustained by such injustice.
Most readers will know that this second use of the law is its use in exposing our sinfulness and driving us to Christ for salvation. The third use is that of providing a rule of righteousness that already saved and spirit-filled Christian should follow as a pattern of righteous living. Both of these uses are standard Reformed theology, as all the confessions and standards make clear, and are not at all a distinctive of theonomic thought.
Yet Rev. Roberts presents Bahnsen teaching the third use against Calvin teaching the second use—as if the two were opposed! He also leaves us with the suggestion that Bahnsen neglected to teach the one Calvin emphasized, and that the selection from Calvin alone represents the acceptable Reformed view of the law. None of this is true.
For example, Rev. Roberts says Bahnsen “does not distinguish between the grace of God before the fall and after the fall, particularly its effect on the unbelieving conscience”—that is, the second use of the law. But Bahnsen dedicated the entirety of chapter 4 of his book to the topic of “The Law’s Inability to Justify and Empower.” In this chapter he spends entire pages covering his view of the second use of the law. Here are some relevant quotations selected from pages 127–131 (3rd Ed.):
Justification was not by the law in the Older Testament. . . .
The violation of the law by our first parents, Adam and Eve, rendered it impossible that either they or their descendants should ever be justified on the ground of their own personal righteousness.
Only grace could secure justification for the sinner in the Older Testament; the law here could personally avail nothing.
The law convicts of sin and leads the redeemed in the paths of righteousness.
The law does not save a man, but it does show him why he needs to be saved and how he is to walk after he is saved.
Because God’s moral nature, His holiness, is revealed in the law, the law accuses and convicts its reader of sin. . . .
As the sinner compares his life to the demands of the law he finds himself sold under sin and lost. The magnitude of his sinfulness is glaring because “it stands written that accursed is everyone who continues not in all the things having been written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10) and “whoever keeps all the law, but stumbles in one point has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). The law, then, works wrath against the sinner (Rom. 4:15). Hence it should be plain that “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11; cf. 2:16). To use the law as a means of justification is an unlawful use of the law (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8). Moralism is not the biblical way of salvation.
Although the law itself is a way of life, it cannot restore life lost because of sin; hence, for the transgressor of the law, the law is a way of condemnation and death. So conspicuous is the law’s function of indicting men of sin that Paul can often use “sin” and “law” as synonyms; for example, “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
The law represents a curse and indicting conviction of sin to all men. Thereby the law is a schoolmaster which leads sinful man to Christ, the sinless One (see Gal. 3:24). . . .
Christ’s perfect obedience to the law of God secures our release from the necessity of personally keeping the law as a condition of justification.
Do these multiple quotations sound like they are coming from a man who “does not distinguish between the grace of God before the fall and after the fall, particularly its effect on the unbelieving conscience” in regard to the law? That is, does Bahnsen neglect the fact that the law is a condemnation to the sinner to drive him to Christ? Hardly.
(Just for some context, Bahnsen was leveling these condemnations of “moralism” and legalism when Michael Horton was about 8 years old.)
Why doesn’t Rev. Roberts relate any of this to his readers? For anyone who actually read the book “carefully,” as he claims, it would be pretty hard to miss these repeated statements, and in a chapter clearly designated for the very purpose being criticized.
But Rev. Roberts commits the opposite error, too. His presentation suggests that Calvin’s view of the law was limited to this condemnation, and that thus Calvin would not have committed the alleged error of Bahnsen—that the law is a pattern for our Christian life, showing us how to respond to salvation. The problem is, however, that all one needs to do is continue reading further through the very chapter of Calvin’s Institutes that Rev. Roberts quotes in order to see that Calvin taught the very use of the law that Bahnsen does, and which Rev. Roberts condemns.
Merely eight pages later in the same chapter of the Institutes, Calvin concurs with Bahnsen’s point above:
The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. . . .
Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. . . . And not one of us may escape this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from a daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will.
Again, because we need not only teaching but exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation on it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.1
Calvin even notes that Paul speaks also of the condemning use of the law, and states that this third use is a different use which is not contradictory:
These do not contradict Paul’s statements, which show not what use the law serves for the regenerate, but what it can of itself confer upon man. But here the prophet proclaims the great usefulness of the law: the Lord instructs by their reading of it those whom he inwardly instills with a readiness to obey.2
Calvin even rhetorically rebukes those who would think that the law serves only for condemnation: “For what would be less lovable than the law if, with importuning and threatening alone, it troubled souls through fear, and distressed them through fright?”3
So you can see that Bahnsen did not teach the third use exclusively, and Calvin did not only emphasize the second. Indeed, Calvin called the third use its “principal” and “proper” use. Both taught all three uses of the law, did not neglect to emphasize any of the uses in their due places, and did so clearly and at length. In short, for any honest reader, these full and fully orthodox teachings are quite easy to find and to acknowledge in both Calvin and Bahnsen.
Rev. Roberts, however, does not relate any of this to his readers. He instead juxtaposes an isolated instance of Bahnsen’s treatment of the third use with an isolated instance of Calvin’s treatment of the second, and thus gives the impression that Bahnsen was trampling the historic Reformed orthodox position.
Such behavior is not only irresponsible, it is all the more unacceptable in that Rev. Roberts exhibits his effort as just the opposite of what it is: “I did what every good writer does; I consulted the primary resource material. I carefully reread Bahnsen’s book. . . .”
If this is his idea of “carefully” rereading something, someone ought to suggest for him a profession that does not require too much careful reading.
The effort is even more reprehensible in that Rev. Roberts is grinding an axe that involves accusations of legalism and the rejection of orthodox evangelicalism. These are things which could end in defrocking or excommunication. Rev. Roberts is at pains to relate this skewed narrative, and he seems unfortunately quick to give only a truncated view of both Bahnsen and Calvin in doing so.
Let’s not forget that Bahnsen’s book was primarily about Christian ethics and its role in Christian life. He was very clear that his book was, therefore, about sanctification, not justification. He wrote in his introduction that the book was about obedience to the law by already saved Christians “as a pattern of sanctification.”4
Nevertheless, just in case some overzealous critic would wrongly get the idea that not emphasizing a particular doctrine that’s not central to your thesis is equivalent to rejecting that particular doctrine, Bahnsen actually included a whole chapter on that other doctrine (two actually). As you can tell, for some critics, this has done little good. Despite that clear chapter, Rev. Roberts accuses Bahnsen of “putting too much emphasis on obedience to the exclusion of saving faith and the work of the Holy Spirit.” Bahnsen excluded no such thing. Rev. Roberts ought to take a another close look and then apologize.
Whatever the motivations, etc., may actually be, a few things are clear: 1) Bahnsen held to the exact same uses of the law as Calvin did; 2) Calvin taught the same need of believers to obey the law as Bahnsen did; and 3) if, therefore, Bahnsen can be blamed for laying foundations for Federal Vision in his views of the law, then Calvin must be equally liable to the charge.
Of course, we can now see that the charge is vapid. And there is so much else in Rev. Robert’s second part that deserves equal judgment. I’ll just leave this piece as a representative example.