My concise definition of Theonomy raises some important questions. For this reason, a fuller treatment is in order to address at least a couple of these.
For example, is Theonomy primarily concerned only with civil government or politics? The short answer is no, and this is already implied in the concise definition, as well as clear in the Introduction. Theonomy is indeed much broader than civil government. It is about all of life—individual, business, work, family, church, medicine, science, etc. It is, however, the unique position of Theonomy to say that Mosaic judicial law contains abiding standards to which civil governments today remain obliged. In this view, the whole of the word of God reveals abiding standards for the whole of life and society.
But the most pressing question to be discussed is that of how to categorize the different laws God has given us. This will help us determine why they continue today or have been abrogated.
Biblical categories for biblical law
The most important questions that my definition leaves unanswered are, “Which Mosaic laws continue and which do not?” and “How do we know?” After all, the position that the perpetual and obligatory moral standards includes “some” civil laws means that we have to say which ones are included, which ones are not, and why. By what standard shall we determine? In this section I will argue that whatever functional categories we determine Mosaic law may be divided into, for the purposes of continuity in the New Testament, there are ultimately only two categories. I will also argue that the standard by which we determine this is Scripture itself. The Bible, not man, tells us this.
The importance of maintaining clear distinctions and a clear standard applies to all areas of law, not just civil government, but it receives particularly keen attention in the civil realm because several of the Mosaic civil laws have death penalties attached to them, and others would require considerable moderation of current penalties. Shall we execute Sabbath breakers today? What about adulterers? Whatever the propriety of determining a position based on how these questions are answered first—which does happen, unfortunately—they do have tremendous import for society. Getting the answer wrong would obviously be tragic. But then again, a wrong answer either way would be tragic.
Theologians have arrived at all kinds of answers to this question. The differing views span the entire spectrum from arguing that no Old Testament laws remain today to arguing that virtually all do. In the middle, some argue that only a few laws apply, and others say more or even most. Some say that what laws do apply only apply in a spiritual way for the church. Others argue that some laws apply outside the church in the realm of civil government, but only certain “principles” apply, and that things like the actual punishments prescribed in Old Testament law do not apply.
At the heart of these disagreements are a couple of main factors: 1) the relationship between Old and New Testaments, 2) different types (or categories) of law which appear in the Old Testament. Only extreme positions hold that either none or all of the laws still oblige; and since I have already shown in the Introduction how the New Testament calls for God’s law in general as an abiding standard for Christians and for standards of civil righteousness outside the church, we will deal here with the broad spectrum of those that argue some laws abide and others do not. This means we will deal mainly with the second question: we must examine the categories Scripture uses to explain which laws remain and which do not.
First, the most famous categorization of the Old Testament law, in the Reformed traditions anyway, has been called the “three-fold” distinction: the three categories being moral, judicial, and ceremonial.
We can see this three-fold division easily enough in the structure of the law. In Exodus 20, God gives the Ten Commandments—the moral law. In chapters 21–23, God has Moses speak a series of mostly judical laws to the people. These are written in a book, and the covenant is ratified on these terms by the people in chapter 24. Finally, in chapters 25–30, God reveals to Moses the pattern for the Tabernacle and the priestly worship. With these three sections, we can see the functional division of the law into moral, judicial, and ceremonial categories. But whether these categorical lines are absolute, and whether they determine continuity or discontinuity are far less clear.
This view has been widely adopted, but less commonly agreed upon in substance. All agree that the “moral” category—usually including at least part of the Ten Commandments—still applies, but arguments remain as to exactly what beyond the Ten Commandments can be categorized as moral, and to what extent it applies. Arguments also exist over whether the Ten Commandments as a whole is “moral” and thus abiding, or whether aspects of it (for example, the curses and promises attached to the second commandment, Exodus 20:5–6) are peculiar to Israel only. All also agree that the ceremonial laws (sacrifices, temple rites, priesthood, feast days, etc.) no longer apply, but even here arguments exist as to exactly how and why (with some theologians, for example, dispensationalists, arguing that many of the temple rites and sacrifices will be revived during a future millennium; likewise, those pursuing elements of high liturgy may actually appeal to the pattern laid down for the Old Testament priesthood). Finally, the civil category gives rise to important arguments as well. Some see important moral elements in the judicial “case” laws of the Old Testament, and these, most would agree, remain today. But there is little agreement (or really even discussion) as to which of these laws (or parts of laws) constitute “moral” elements and which do not. Further, it seems to be a majority (though very modern) position to deny any moral aspect to the Mosaic civil law and to dismiss these laws in their entirety as abrogated along with the ceremonial laws.
In the end, despite the witness of the great Reformed confessions—for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith and the London Baptist Confession—to this three-fold distinction, there has never been consensus on important terms and aspects of it. Even if all agree that these three categories are properly biblical, there is no agreed-upon standard for determining which laws belong in which categories, and thus which abide and which do not.
In this very strain, some Reformed and later Puritan theologians of both Reformed and Baptist backgrounds arrived at what could be called a four-fold distinction of the law. These saw the traditional abiding moral core and an abrogated ceremonial set, but then divided the third category of “civil” (or “judicial”) into two divisions of its own. The first judicial division included those judicial laws which were tied directly to the ceremonial law and the ancient state of Israel and thus were abrogated along with it. The second set, however, were those case laws which were tied to the moral law, and thus abide along with it. We will cover these particular theologians and their arguments more thoroughly later. It is enough now simply to understand that they exist and what their position was.
This position is important because it highlights the real nature of the problem: the truth is that all parties involved in this long-enduring argument hold ultimately to a two-fold division of the law. This is not merely to introduce yet another wrinkle in an already complicated discussion. Rather, it is an attempt to simplify the problem and explain why it has so far not been resolved. The two divisions are these: those laws which abide, and those which do not. With rare exceptions, no one has given a scriptural argument to support their positions of any other categories, or especially how particular Old Testament laws fit into them.
Those that struggled and ended up defining four categories merely arrived at a more complicated version of this two-fold distinction: in the four-fold distinction, we basically have the judicial law tied back to two other categories, one which abides (moral) and one which does not (ceremonial). So, we really, ultimately have only a two-fold distinction here as well—those laws which abide and those which do not. Likewise, the more traditional and more popular three-fold distinction includes variants in which either some or none of the judicial laws are abrogated, and so it really falls under the same assessment.
In this light, we can still accept the classic three-fold division of the confessions as a functional distinction. “Civil” is certainly separate and distinct from temple, priesthood, sacrifice, or “ceremonial” law functionally, and is certainly a separate functional aspect from the declaration of core moral principles. But it can hardly be an absolute distinction by which we determine continuity or termination in the New Testament. After all, the commandment against murder is certainly moral, but it also certainly has civil ramifications. We ought therefore to inquire of the converse, and we will find that virtually all of the civil side of that equation is just as much moral as it is civil—including the level of civil punishment prescribed. We will discuss this aspect more under the chapter “The Abiding Judicial Standard.”
The language of the Westminster Confession of Faith makes these various distinctions clear. When it says that the civil or judicial laws “expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now,” it does not leave this as a blanket abrogation. Instead, it concludes, “further than the general equity thereof may require.” ((Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.4.)) This, of course, means two things: we must consider what is meant by “general equity” (we will do this later), and we must acknowledge that whatever part of the judicial laws does in fact involve “general equity” does in fact abide today and oblige civil government. This means the Confession’s underlying assumption is that some part of the Mosaic civil code applies to civil governments today.
In short, behind the classic three-fold functional distinction of the law is in reality a more fundamental two-fold distinction. All discussion about categories of the law, unless it focuses only on the functions each category represents, really does boil down to a more fundamental discussion of whether any given Old Testament law stands or does not stand. There are at least some distinctions within Old Testament law itself that we can see on the very surface of reading the text. There are others we will have to discern with more detailed exegesis.
One set of commandments we must see as not binding are instances of particular commands to an individual. An example of this would be the command for Samuel to go anoint a new king (David) at a particular place and time (Jesse’s house in Bethlehem) (1 Sam. 16). Another example would be Saul being commanded to destroy the entire Amalekite civilization—man, woman, child, and cattle at a particular time (1 Sam. 15).
These commandments were special revelations given to specific individuals at specific times for specific purposes. We are not to generalize social principles as law from them. For example, we are not to look at Samuel’s mission here and conclude that from henceforth, all civil officials must be descended from Jesse and anointed in a special ceremony at his house in Bethlehem. Nor should we look at the instance with Saul and conclude any state policy from it. We should not deduce from it that we must wage all wars with the mission being to annihilate the enemy’s civilization totally, including women, children, and property. Despite the fact that Saul himself was judged harshly for rebellion and witchcraft merely for failing in only a small part of this mission (saving the cattle and King Agag alive), we must not attach to it any abiding policy. (We can, however, learn the general lesson that we must obey God utterly in what He does command to us.)
Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul was given specific directives via the Holy Spirit for him in his mission trips. For example, he was forbidden to visit Asia or Bythinia to evangelize (Acts 16:6, 7). Should we deduce from these commandments that the Gospel is generally, always forbidden to be preached in Asia or northern Turkey? Obviously not.
We should be careful, therefore, when drawing meaning from commandments that had only specific personal, temporal, local, and/or purposive application.
In addition to such specific personal commands, there are also positive commands for distinct incidents. This would include, for example, God’s one-time command for Israel to exterminate the Canaanites tribes. Such positive commandments should be viewed very similarly to the specific commandments just discussed except that they are given to a broader group of people. Nevertheless, they still pertain to a special mission, purpose, and/or time only.
The Canaanite crusade is a perfect example of this type of law. It was for ancient Israel only and in the Promised Land only. It also pertained to God’s special presence in the altar fire in the land, as we shall see. It does not apply to rules of warfare or international relations in general. In fact, Israel was given a different set of laws governing warfare in general where the specific Canaanite nations in the Land were not involved (see Deut. 20). This distinction is critical because there are, even today, respected theologians who appeal to the Canaanite genocides as providing a “crusade” model for modern warfare.1 In light of the qualifications made in the text, and further general laws given in addition, we must not apply these commandments today.
Next section: The Shadows
- See Harold O. J. Brown, “Preventive War,” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991). [↩]