Yesterday afternoon, Douglas Wilson and I debated on Chris Arnzen’s show Iron Sharpens Iron Radio the question, “How does the Old Testament civil penal code apply to homosexuality today?” The audio is now available below.
The debate originated from an article Douglas posted last September on the death penalty. I had felt he played a little fast and loose with the Old Testament death penalty for male sodomy (Lev. 20:13), and likewise had used the descriptions of the actions of the kings (1 Kings 15:11–12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7) too loosely as well. At that time, I nudged him on facebook to clarify if he felt the Lev. 20:13 death penalty should apply as written or not. I knew Douglas held something like an old-fashioned Westminster Confession “general equity” view of the Old Testament judicial laws, but I did not know any details from him, so I pushed him to see it fleshed out a bit.
As the discussion went, it was inevitable that someone would bring up The Bounds of Love and the cherem principle I have taught, and while I was not initially trying to make the discussion a contest of my views versus his, I also knew it was somewhat inevitable that would arise. This actually makes the particular discussion between Douglas and me especially unique—because he actually accepts my general conclusions regarding the cherem principle and the end of the death penalties as a result of it. Not only has he said this clearly in the past, he did so clearly in the debate multiple times, and gladly so. This really helps narrow the focus of the narrow disagreement between us.
Even though this disagreement is narrow, however, it is meaningful, and I think it was very important implications for the form of government and for the reason I pressed him to begin with. If I am understanding him correctly, Douglas seems to indicate that he understands the cherem principle to be applying mainly or even exclusively to the form of the death penalty itself. Thus, when the cherem principle comes to an end in Christ, it is really only the demand for a radical, non-negotiable death penalty that ends, but not necessarily a kind of broad, general jurisdiction of the civil government over the behavior that called for it. For Douglas, I think this is at least partly why the appeal to the examples of the kings is important: they would seem to illustrate that there exists, with God’s express approval, a general jurisdiction of the civil magistrate over homosexuality.
I think I addressed the kings from my view well enough in the debate. I suspect there are some who may want more discussion, and if so perhaps I can give that in a future article. For now, I want to concentrate on a couple other things:
First, the already-mentioned importance of the difference between Douglas’s view and mine for form and scope of government. The view Douglas is espousing seems to limit greatly the meaning and scope of cherem in a way I don’t think Scripture intends, and a way which frankly gives unscriptural power and scope to the civil government. I addressed this briefly in the brief closing we had. Cherem did not address only the penalty, or certain aspects of it, or in a limited way. Cherem itself is fully about the jurisdiction altogether. Take away cherem from a particular law, and you take away the whole thing from the civil government. This is why I took a kind of “you’re either with me or against me” attitude in the closing. You cannot agree with me on cherem but then try to sneak jurisdiction for the civil government in the back door for other civil penalties. The end result should be, if applied consistently, that the civil government simply no longer has jurisdiction here, and other free institutions in society need to step up and address the problem.
Douglas’ view, as I understand it, is indeed closer to that ancient view held by some of the Westminster divines. . . .
(As an aside, we must never forget that the Westminster divines who wrote the confession were all over the map in regard to which Old Testament judicial laws applied and which did not, if any, or all. There were something like 120 members at that assembly. Virtually every view ever expressed on the issue in the Reformed world, and more, historically was represented there. To accommodate the voting majority in a single confessional statement, they lighted on the famous “general equity” clause. It is the epitome of Presbyterian committee-ism. It says everything and nothing. Nothing is resolved, and everyone goes home with a statement they can either live with, bend to suit their own view, or else ignore because no one will really every be able to give it enough specificity to enforce much by it. The history of the Reformed world in regard to exegeting and applying the Old Testament judicial code is a testimony to this conclusion.)
This view of a continuing jurisdiction without defined penalties is the very type of view I was trying to combat with the lengthy chapter 7—What is not Theonomy—in Bounds of Love. Vast tyrannies have abounded in Christendom because the state’s hands were not tied down by the chains of Scripture. Douglas says he agrees with me in fighting statism. He even used the term “libertarian” in the same sentence in which he said he agreed with me. I would hope he would see the danger of giving any civil government so broad undefined power and scope then. More importantly, I do not think it is the Scriptural model of civil government.
The system I see is an intensely biblical theonomy in which the state only has jurisdiction over crimes where the penal code of Scripture specifies civil sanctions. Where the New Testament removes these, such as in cherem / anathema penalties, the civil government no longer has a role. I don’t want to go beyond this. I certainly don’t want to go back to the traditions of men—whether ecclesiastical or in western history, or even American history—to restore laws or forms of government I think are unscriptural, and quite frankly also unnecessary.
And while I suppose I could rehash every point of the debate, I don’t want to or mean to. There is only one closing point I wanted to make which I did not get to (for time). The great fear many old-school Reformed or even generally Christian conservative folk seem to express, which I think drives them to demand the older form of broad civil jurisdiction, is rooted in the widespread loss of morality and advance of immorality in our land. I totally understand that. But it was not a lack of civil government jurisdiction or penalties that lost that, and it will certainly not be those civil tools which will get it back. Douglas agrees with this in general, I believe. He, and many other who think similarly to him on these issues, all generally agree that it will be generations before such laws could even be implemented. But that gets me to the point: how, then, will we get there. In the answer to that question lies great illumination.
If we, through preaching of the Gospel and free social action eventually restore the nation to the point where a great enough majority would agree to such laws, why then would we need them? You would have just transformed a nation unto godliness through only the Great Commission and the power of the Holy Spirit—without shedding the blood of a single homosexual, and with only the use of simple justice according the second table. At that point, you would have added to the acknowledgment that the type of government for which you’re arguing was ineffective when it existed; you would have added to that acknolwedgement the proof that it was also unneeded to get back the society you wanted. You may then realize that the version of Christendom you were upholding all along was virtually pointless for the purposes you most desire.
We may then realize that Theonomy in the New Testament is about justice, and must be maintained between people in the land, no doubt; but that the religious base of society can only be produced by the church doing what the church is supposed to do.
This is in large part what the debate was about. We got to a large part of that. I think we have both agreed to return to Arnzen’s show for couple hours of Q&A on similar topics. I look forward to getting more out into the open.
For now, I would encourage you to read The Bounds of Love either in book form or online, and read it with these types of concepts in mind. It will be a little more illuminating, and will last us until I can get the more detailed book out.
Here’s the audio from the debate: