28 February 1986
Westminster Theological Seminary in California
After our faculty forum on theonomy I thought a follow-up paper would be useful, particularly to treat the opening sections of the discussion-guide provided by John Frame, which were by-passed at the forum. I also thought it would be appropriate to communicate with Vern Poythress, whose three tapes on theonomy were among the source materials for the forum, especially since I had made some criticisms of his approach, even though appreciating his contribution to the discussion along biblical-theological lines and the way he eventually comes down in clear opposition to the radical conclusions of theonomic politics. These two objectives have been combined in this one response-paper to save some time and effort by avoiding inevitable repetitions. Hopefully this paper may serve as a stimulus to our continued study of the issues together.
At the forum I stressed the importance of starting with something that is indisputably held by theonomists and is, moreover, a distinctive and climactic tenet for them, namely, their contention that it is a function of the state to suppress and eliminate those who practice false religions. In my judgment, to impose such a role on the State would be in effect to countermand the great commission. As I see it, this reconstructionist program contradicts the essential biblical ethos and ethic of the church in this present world. Theonomists disagree - they see this program as the fulfillment of their millennial aspirations. One can take a stand with one side or the other in this dispute but what one cannot do is pass off the conflict as just a matter of varying emphases, as just a relative difference of position on some continuum. Clearly the difference is substantive, a difference not of degree but total contrast. It is not simply a matter of minor disagreement as to how to apply some general principle in a given situation. It is not a matter of some general principle of justice at all, but rather of the particular, precise functions that divine revelation assigns to specific institutions - theocracy, State, church. The defining of the nature, functions and historical mission of these institutions constitutes a major element in the content of biblical law, each covenantal corpus of law being indeed institutionally specific. And dividing theonomists sharply from their Reformed critics is a radical difference of judgment as to the functions appointed by the Scriptures to the several institutions.
Turning to Frame's discussion-guide he starts with the assertion that the Mosaic law, including its penal sanctions, had the functions (1) of republishing "the creation ordinances and the Noahic and Abrahamic covenant stipulations" and (2) of applying these "principles" to the new situation introduced by the exodus, with its cultural and redemptive-historical differences from what went before. Then, on the basis of this interpretation of the Mosaic law, he concludes that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Mosaic law and what preceded and follows it, that accordingly total continuity or total discontinuity is ruled out, and that the differences between Bahnsen and Kline are perforce only relative differences as to the degree of continuity or discontinuity recognized by each.
It is Frame's starting point that must be challenged, that is, his biblical-theological conclusion that the several promulgations of divine stipulations are to be identified as each a republication of its predecessors). I am, of course, concerned to contest the soundness of the biblical-theological position in itself, but I also want to call attention to how this starting assumption decisively affects, delimits and controls all that follows.
Frame's republishing approach should not be adopted in the first place because it entails a seriously defective view of the several divine covenants. It misconstrues the relationship of the successive economies in the administration of God's rule over the world by obscuring if not obliterating the real differences (especially as to the nature and functions of the institutions defined in the covenants) that obtain between the covenant of creation and the covenant of common grace, between the latter and the redemptive covenants, and between the Mosaic Covenant and previous and following redemptive covenants. Of particular relevance, it is oversimplification to the point of falsification to identify the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the stipulations of the previous divine covenants recorded in Scripture. Though I am only stating this dogmatically here, I have sought to make the exegetical/biblical-theological case in support of my position carefully and at length in my publications.
The second point I want to make concerning Frame's starting assumption (the republishing notion) is that it sets the bounds and determines the direction and conclusions of his whole analysis: Within this republication framework all the content of all the separate divine law disclosures would seem to get reduced to the general equity component in biblical law, the general norms of morality that are constant and permanent. For what Frame initially calls ordinances and stipulations are immediately afterwards identified as "these principles." However, these "principles" are said to undergo particular situational modifications in the process of repeated republication. Apparently then Frame does not really intend to equate all the particular stipulations with "principles", pure and simple. Nevertheless, the fact that he does identify them in an overall way as "principles" means at least that whatever variations of particular application appear in the course of the alleged republishings these modified formulations are nothing more than expressions, one and all, of the common set of constant principles which, according to the foundational assumption, get republished over and again in each successive promulgation of divine norms.
This republication framework thus becomes a hermeneutical grid that filters out all the biblical evidence of God's appointing real differences of nature and function to the various institutions in his several institutionally specific sets of covenant stipulations. These real institutional differences get lost on the way through the filter, emerging as merely relatively variant applications of some common "principle". Thus, the unique nature of the Israelite theocracy as a holy institution, typological of the consummated kingdom of God, with its associated special theocratic functions gets filtered out and is denied. Frame cannot admit a real difference - he cannot acknowledge the uniqueness of Israel nor, as corollary thereof, the non-holy and non-typological nature of the nations of the world in their ordinary administration of justice - without first abandoning in midstream his opening, controlling assumption of republication. Accordingly, he holds that some degree of holiness is to be predicated of the State and that the regular enforcement of justice by the common civil magistrate is typological (in the symbolic biblical sense). Indeed, he says in the same context (i.e., his "Thoughts on Theonomy", p. 6) that "all men, not only Israel, are in covenant with God", even after breaking covenant. That is how the stark biblical contrast between Ammi (used for people in covenant with God) and LO-Ammi (used for people not in covenant with God) translates when it has passed through the republication-filter: No becomes a shade of Yes!
Incidentally - yet not so incidentally - it is apparent that the alignment of this republication view of biblical laws is with the theonomist position. Is it not precisely such a view, one that regards all divine prescriptions as particular situational expressions of the same general, constant moral principles and does not allow for real substantive differences with respect to the nature and functions of peculiarly distinct institutions, that accommodates nicely the theonomists' unwarranted interpretation of "the general equity" of the "judicial laws" of Moses dealt with in the Westminster Confession of Faith 19:4, the interpretation propounder as they seek to find confessional support for their position on the civil magistrate? By the same token, within the bounds of his republication scheme, Frame cannot even describe Kline's view on its own terms, with its affirmations of real institutional differences.
Everything depends then on Frame's original biblical-theological assumption concerning the relationships of the covenants and the nature of their stipulated institutions. We can debate whether such a covenantal theology as his is correct, congenial as it is to the theonomist view but impervious to Kline's view of the controverted matters, or whether Kline's biblical-theological analysis of the covenants is true to the ‘Scriptures.’ But meanwhile it must be recognized that this is where the issue lies - in the opposing biblical-theological conclusions concerning such concepts as theocracy, holy, and typology. This is not a red herring, as Frame has suggested. If there is anything in the discussion that would lead it down a false track it is the identification of the issue with the question of whether either side affirms total continuity or total discontinuity between the Mosaic law as a whole and what preceded and follows it (of course, nobody does either.) The issue is the biblical-theological one as to the nature and functions of the institutions defined by the divine covenants, especially the Israelite theocracy. And the differences between theonomists and Kline (and other Reformed critics) are not matters of degree but of mutually exclusive understandings of what are and what are not the functions of theocracy and common State. The differences are solidly substantial and radically oppositional. They involve two distinct versions of Christianity.
We focus now on the Poythress tapes. In keeping with my comments above, I of course reject the suggestion that the difference between theonomic politics and Kline's view is simply that one or the other is relatively closer or farther from the normative or situational poles of a perspectival axis. It is rather a matter if completely contradicting one another when theonomists assert and Kline denies that the theocratic function of enforcing the faith by the sword is a function of the common State. It is not that one side stresses the normative more and the other the situational more. It is rather that they differ absolutely (with the absoluteness of the difference between Yes and No) on what the norm is. More precisely, they differ on the situational content of the norm.
It is utterly misleading to suggest that my Intrusion concept is in the slightest degree further distanced than the theonomic view from "normativeness" (with its connotation of authoritative standard), either in principle or emphasis. I see the Mosaic law as institutionally specific, as defining the governmental province of a theocracy, and I see the civil magistrate, as defined in other biblical revelation, as non-theocratic. Hence, I do not simplistically regard the State as possessing all the functions that are 'assigned by the Mosaic law to theocratic Israel. My interpretation of the biblical norms thus differs from that of the theonomists, but that is what is involved – a different interpretation of the content of the norm, not a lesser recognition on my part of some "normativeness" abstractly distinguished from a situational aspect.
Parenthetically, if we are to speak of a tendency towards subjectivist situationalist ethics, then curiously it is found not in Intrusion ethics but in theonomic politics. According to the former, the norms of the several institutionally specific bodies of law remain fixed in their application to these institutions. But theonomists, like dispensationalists, without biblical warrant impose distinctions within the course of a given historical epoch of an institution, distinctions that result in changing norms of conduct. Thus, it is suggested among theonomists that a demographic shift in a State from an unbeliever to a believer dominant population signalizes a change of norms with respect to the supposed State function of suppressing false religions.
Quite apart from the theonomy issue, I have misgivings about an analysis of the ethical picture that coordinates the situational with the normative. The impression given is that the norm is some non-particular, situationally undefined, abstract generality and that when it comes to developing concrete meaning in the application of this abstract norm we are on our own without normative direction as to how to factor in the situation and so determine our ethical duty. If that is not what is going on in this multiperspectival analysis, then what sense does it make for Poythress to suggest that Kline stands closer than Bahnsen to the Situation Ethics people, even if only formally?
I submit that the situational must be subordinated to the normative, not coordinated with it. That is, the situation is part of the original content or meaning of the biblical norm itself. The norms are situationally concrete. In applying them we must determine whether a particular existential situation belongs to the situational category envisaged in the norm, but in so doing we do not add to the meaning of the norm or modify the norm in any way. If, however, the situational is coordinated with the normative ' the inevitable result would seem to be that uninspired situational meaning gets infused into the inspired but hitherto abstract biblical norm in the fallible act of application. This looks like a giant step towards the erosion of the canonical character of Scripture as our only infallible rule of faith and practice. One’s impression that such a step is being taken is strengthened when one observes that the situational perspective and the normative perspective are polarized. That takes place when Poythress in his analysis concludes that Kline's distinctive (Intrusion) view of the situational element involves a movement away from the normative or that Bahnsen's rhetoric about the unchanging nature of the normative represents a move away from the situational pole. By using these two perspectives as a means of defining the opposition between Bahnsen and Kline, Poythress polarizes the norm and the situation. In the context of this polarization the norm loses normativeness to the extent that it is applied, that is, to the extent that it takes on situational content. The concept of absolutely authoritative biblical law thus becomes a vacant noumenal abstraction. In our consideration of theonomy the issue of multi-perspectivalism has confronted us, posing for us a more fundamental and difficult theological problem than theonomy, As argued above, adaption of the multiperspectival method introduces tensions within a theology that would simultaneously confess the orthodox doctrine of Scripture. To me it is also a cause of concern that those who are given to this method are prone, as I perceive it, in spite of their protestations to the contrary, to view antithetical positions as merely differing but compatible emphases. This is what is done by both Poythress and Frame in their assessments of the antithetical positions in the theonomy debate. I have to wonder too if it is not due to his multi-perspectival cast of thought that Frame, working in the biblical-theological area, blurs the differences between theocracy and common State. Poythress comes to more satisfactory biblical-theological conclusions, but there is then a tension within his overall presentation between his biblical-theological stance and his multiperspectival analysis of the principals in the controversy.
Significantly Frame introduces the conflict over Norman Shepherd's theology at Westminster in Philadelphia in his discussion of the theocracy problem as he argues that Kline and Bahnsen are not so far apart ("Let's Keep the Picture Fuzzy", pp. 3 ff.). Here was a case where the contested teaching involved a contradiction of the heart of the Gospel, yet it was perceived through multiperspectival lenses as nothing more than a difference in emphasis, or at worst as a deviation within allowable tolerances.
Perhaps some of these readings of the situation can be shown to be erroneous and satisfactory solutions offered for apparent problems. But it does appear that if we are to be responsible guardians of Reformed orthodoxy we must add to our agenda of study and discussion a scrutiny of multiperspectivalism. Is it an acceptable method of doing theology?