Tim Keller expresses proper frustration with secularistic writers who accuse Christians of “inconsistency” for “picking and choosing” some biblical rules and not others. Keller rightly wants to rebut this criticism, but in doing so, he proves the critics right—mainstream Christians are arbitrary in their applications of this or that Old Testament Law. The problem inherent in Keller’s answer is the problem that prevents the transformation Keller would like to see in society. Here’s the deal:
The critics say things like, “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what you want to believe from the Bible?”
Keller is absolutely right to rebut this claim, and absolutely right to say that the issue here is the centrality of Christ and the change His incarnation and work brings in redemptive history. The Old Testament priestly and sacrificial system had always pointed beyond themselves to the work of Christ, and as Keller notes, even many Old Testament passages acknowledged this “(cf. 1 Sam. 15:21-22; Ps. 50:12-15; 51:17; Hos. 6:6).”
The book of Hebrews makes it absolutely clear that the laws concerning the Old Testament priesthood and purification are absolutely fulfilled in Christ and have no application for us today.
But when Keller turns to “Law Still Binding,” he returns to selectivity and arbitrariness. Instead of purely Scriptural principles for continuity or discontinuity, he begins to add to, subtract from, and hyperqualify Scripture.
For example, he writes the following:
The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.
This seems great on the surface, and even a couple Christian Reconstructionists applauded the sentiment. But note a couple things. First, the claim that Romans 13:8ff reveals the apostolic view of “the Old Testament moral law,” is not what Romans 13:8ff says. It does not say “moral law” (which is the traditional distinction over against the Old Testament civil and ceremonial laws), it simply says, “the law,” twice (13:8, 10), and then cites several of the Ten Commandments. Again, there is no distinction made here at all between moral, civil, ceremonial, or anything else—it simply says “the law” period. The distinction is added.
You could draw the inference from Romans 13:8–10 that the listing of a few Commandments from the second table implies that “the law” refers only to the “moral law,” but that would be to commit some fallacies. First, it’s an argument from silence. There is no need to elaborate further on that, although we should add that also excluded from the list is the whole first table of the law. Consistency with the argument from silence method here would require also saying that the first table, therefore, is no longer binding in the New Testament—a patent absurdity. Well, if we cannot apply this method, then, we cannot apply it to case laws or civil laws, either.
The second fallacy is that the assumption of “moral law” here begs the questions that the distinction traditionally made between moral, civil, and ceremonial 1) is indeed biblical to begin with, 2) carries over from the Old to New Testaments, and 3) is clearly enough defined as to make specific applications to New Testament loci such as “the law” Romans 13:8–10.
Second, Keller provides a questionable hermeneutic for continuity versus discontinuity: “If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.” This is questionable for what it does not answer: What if the New Testament does not reaffirm a commandment?
This is why I prefer Bahnsen’s hermeneutical approach to the issue. In short, that which is not altered in the New Testament is still binding. I would modify and qualify this approach a bit, personally, but it is far more helpful than Keller’s more vague approach.
Keller does make it clear, however, how he answers that unanswered question above, at least in part. It is here that he falls right back into the criticism of arbitrarily picking and choosing. He writes:
The New Testament explains another change between the testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament sins like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people constituted a nation-state, and so all sins had civil penalties.
This is highly dubious, and indeed, false. First, the claim “all sins had civil penalties” is not true. There was a clear distinction in Old Testament Law between sins in general and that subset of sins which are also civil crimes—the same type of distinction we observe today. Covetousness (Tenth Commandment) was a sin which had no civil penalty. There were many laws such as gleaning laws and jubilee laws which would have been sinful to break, but for which there were no civil penalties imposed by the civil government. Why Keller makes such a serious blunder is beyond me, but his claim is in outer space.
Second, Keller is also wrong in stating that the New Testament “explains” this change. It explains no such thing. It does not even mention such a “change.” The best Keller can do is point to one example in which Paul did not punish a sexual sin with execution (1 Cor. 5:1). But this example does not prove civil law changed in the New Testament. There are many more facets to the issue than Keller reveals. He is right to say, “The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership.” This is a red herring at this point. The question is not “Is there a difference between the function of the church and the function of the civil state”—which we all agree is true! The question is, “Do the standards of Old Testament civil law continue as binding for the civil state in the New Testament as they were for the civil state back then?” We need apples and apples here. Whether not first century Rome, Corinth, or Jerusalem for that matter, were being faithful to those standards is a whole other matter—just as it is with the U.S. today. And it is telling that Keller is essentially switching the nature of the discussion when he arrives at this point—he is switching from the question of the continuity of civil standards to the question of the function of the church alone.
Finally, Keller also does not provide a Scriptural argument for why Old Testament civil law no longer applies. This has two major facets. First, it is arbitrary and without biblical warrant—i.e., it is a humanistic argument. He says, “Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.”
First of all, the gospel was not “confined to a single nation” in the Old Testament either. Anyone could convert, many did. Israel was meant to be an evangelistic society, a light on a hill, upholding the splendor of God’s Law as a model for all the nations (Deut. 4:5–8). Much of the judgment she later incurred was precisely for failing in this regard—for presuming for herself alone the blessings of God and not taking His Law to the nations.
If Keller’s “single nation” theory is true, then poor Ruth the Moabitess! Poor Ninevah! Their conversions from paganism must have been wrongful and invalid.
Moreover, the fact that the gospel has been released to go into all cultures and peoples ought to alert us to the fact that God’s Law should go along to them well! After all, this is the explicit New Testament command Christ gives: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). If Keller wants transformationalism, he ought to see the importance of this aspect rather than denying it.
Further, Keller’s distinction is simply nowhere spelled out, or even explicitly addressed at all, in the New Testament. He has simply created it and imposed it upon Scripture of his own will. His basis is the alleged fact that the gospel has been spread to many nations instead of just one, and therefore the civil sanctions of that former state must dissolve. This is a non sequitur, and is thus, again, arbitrary. It could easily be stated just the other way: the gospel has spread to more nations, and therefore the civil sanctions should go with it. We in fact have more biblical warrant for doing this than Keller’s view.
The second facet is that this arbitrary doctrine exalts the universality of Christ’s priesthood in the earth while simultaneously diminishing His kingship in the earth.
Keller argues that OT civil laws no longer apply because “in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments.” But again this simply begs the question. Why does this mean that Christians, living under all of those many different governments, are forbidden from calling those governments to conform to God’s civil laws? Why does this mean that Christ retains jurisdiction over churchly matters, but suddenly loses it over civil matters in the New Testament? Why? Because Keller’s Christ is a priest and not so much a King. Keller’s Christ increases in priesthood in the New Testament, but decreases, almost disappears, for some reason, in kingship in the New Testament. Keller needs to account for this diminishing of Christ’s Word in the civil realm.
But all taken together, note how Keller’s view of the civil realm in the New Testament is actually dangerous for society. By asserting the continuity of the “moral law,” but not as defined by the Old Testament case law, he opens to door to man-made laws and forbids revealed standards—in the name of revealed standards. On the one hand, the Old Testament civil law no longer applies; on the other, however, because of the so-called general “principles” of the moral law, “everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force.”
But this leaves the modern “many different governments” under which Christians live to define for us—on their own terms—just what it means to love our neighbor, care for the poor, and commit to “family”! Next thing you know, you’ve got welfare states, huge taxes, inflation, homosexual privileges, regulations, HHS “equal rights,” and you lose the right to define “family” as male-female, and you have allegedly conservative Reformed theologians defending homosexual civil unions.
In short, Keller’s civil doctrine justifies the humanistic, secular, progressive liberal welfare state.
This is exactly the criticism he received after he took a stand against “theonomy” years ago. As I wrote before:
Best I can tell, Keller’s version of transformation is at best little more than warmed-over social gospel language moderated for quasi-conservative ears. The reason Kellerism does not transform culture at any point where it counts—i.e. law, business, and economics—is because it refuses to address these areas of life from a biblical worldview.
In fact, in regards to transformation theory, Keller attacked the one group of theologians who did dare go there: Keller wrote one of the chapters attacking theonomy in Westminster Seminary’s (Trueman’s institution) coordinated hatchet job, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique.
Gary North ably responded to Keller in pages 270–280 of Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy. I’ll spare the details here, but North exposes Keller for “doubletalk” in which he pays lip service to biblical law but then denies it explicitly in practice.
Year after year, theonomists get this sort of criticism. “No, we don’t want Old Testament laws. Yes, these laws are valuable. No, there are no biblical blueprints. Yes, we must honor biblical principles. No, we must not appeal to the Old Testament law code for our civil laws. Yes, we must respect them. No, we should not be biblicists. Yes, we must pay attention to God’s moral principles.” On and on and on: doubletalk. It is dialecticism for conservative Christians. It is judicial agnosticism. (WC, 273.)
Such denial at the point of modern application leads to two things: First, it means Keller’s own “biblical” programs end up drawing from pagan instead of truly biblical practices. He literally ends up calling the enslavement and total state of Egypt under Joseph a “blessing.” On this “principle” Keller justifies the tyranny of the modern welfare state as a godly practice and as the model for modern transformationalists.
Second, this means that the truly biblical models—biblical law—are off-limits for the pulpit. If the pulpit addresses social issues at all, it must only do so in a way that specifically avoids applying Old Testament laws.
I see nothing different in what Keller has recently written. It calls for general principles of helping the poor, etc., as “in force” in modern times, but says that the substance of the biblical approach for doing such things is not in force. This opens the door to tyranny.
And while it may seem like a good way to answer liberals on “inconsistency” on some issues, it perpetuates an inconsistency of its own which actually paves the way for liberals to continue succeeding.
Keller is frustrated with the liberals when he ought to be just as frustrated with himself.