Archive for January, 2007

Re: Rehabilitating Theonomy
Peter J. Leithart

Bill Chellis raises some large and important issues in his first post on “Rehabilitating Theonomy.” I look forward to future installments.

I am not filing a brief on behalf of what Bill rightly describes as a simplistic form of theonomy. Theonomists have always been more nuanced and complex than their slogans suggest. Rushdoony and North, after all, are well-known for their cinder-block sized books, books that truly merit the venerable label “tome.” But the theonomist slogans are there and, like all slogans, they are as misleading as they are illuminating.

Yet, I have little hope that Bill’s suggestion is going to be taken up by those who describe themselves as theonomists, or those who (like myself) think of ourselves as chastened post-theonomists. Why won’t it work? Natural law theories, of course, come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and styles. But Bill’s citation of Rushdoony is apt: Theonomy in its simplistic and in its more sophisticated forms has always been a polemic against natural law theory, in its Reformed guise as much as in its Thomist guise. An effort to find common ground for theonomists and anti-theonomists in natural law is like trying to find common ground for Republicans and Democrats in the Republican Platform.

Beyond making that point, I only offer questions, which I trust Bill will take up in future posts. My general question is, How are the ethical and political principles of natural law arrived at? More specifically, What, if any, is the role of special revelation in formulating the principles of natural law? Very specifically, What is the natural law argument that supports the specific requirements of the Ten Commandments? What is the natural law argument that supports “You shall have no other gods before Me,” that is, before Yahweh, God of the Exodus? What is the natural law argument for saying, “You shall not bow down to graven images”? What is the natural law argument for saying, “You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain”?

And, to conclude for the moment: Is it really possible to see the Ten Commandments as a summary of the natural law without smuggling special revelation in through the back door?


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Rehabilitating Theonomy (I)
W.H. Chellis

It is hard not to feel an attraction to theonomic ethics. Theonomy is simple (the Bible is made the sufficient standard for law and politics) and objective (Israel’s theocratic civil law is applied to all nations at all times). Further, for Reformed Christians who feel an attraction to libertarianism, theonomy establishes a clear limitation on state power while avoiding the excesses of moral relativism associated with other forms of libertarianism.

For Christians attracted to theonomy’s congenial qualities it is hard to overcome the notion that ethics is a simple choice between “theonomy and autonomy”. How can any Reformed believer disagree? Yet, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares, “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require (WCF 19:4).” Attempts have been made to reconcile the WCF with a theonomic defense of the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail”, yet the natural reading of the confessional language seems to emphasize discontinuity. Even R.J. Rushdoony was forced to declare, “at this point, the Confession is guilty of nonsense (Insitutes of Biblical Law, pg. 551).”

Should we conclude that the Reformed Divines were legal positivists and moral relativists? Did the Divines choose autonomy over theonomy? Or, is it possible, that the Reformed tradition offers us a long neglected but confessional alternative? Could the moral law of God serve as a basis for public ethics without degenerating into theonomic radicalism?

The answer, deeply buried beneath the weight of 20th Century anti-scholasticism, is found in the Reformed natural law tradition. Notice what I have not said… I have not said that the answer is found in the enlightenment natural law tradition. This is an important distinction. The Reformed natural law tradition, as expounded by John Calvin, Jerome Zanchius, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Althusius, James Ussher, William Perkins, Samuel Rutherford, and Francis Turretin, is rooted in the objective revelation of God’s moral law in nature and in Scripture.

Recognizing the distorted faculties of fallen man, Reformed theologians viewed the Ten Commandments as a summary of the first principles of the natural law. As such they universally bound all men at all times. On the other hand, the civil laws given to Israel might be rooted in the moral law or they might be rooted in Israel’s peculiar calling as a shadow of God’s greater Son and Servant, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the civil law of Israel is rightly divided between laws of general equity (rooted in the natural law) and laws of particular equity (laws whose eschatological purpose was like that of the ceremonial law). Laws of particular equity have no relevance to nations beyond the Israelite theocracy. On the other hand, laws of general equity are rooted in the moral law of God (the natural law). Such laws are not the natural law itself but an application of the natural law to a peculiar place and time (with its own cultural, economic, political, and historical context). The civil laws of general equity cannot bind other nations with their unique contextual applications. Yet, the civil law can serve as a casebook of natural law precedent while illuminating how God applied His moral precepts to Israel. Applications must be drawn to New Covenant nations only by way of instructive analogy.

Those interested in the Reformed Scholastic approach to natural law should read Jerome Zanchius on natural law and pick up Stephen Grabill’s new book Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics. Rooting our ethics in the Reformed tradition, theonomists and their critics may find common ground after all.

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W.H. Chellis

Regular readers of De Regno are familiar with the name Eric Voegelin. Lee Cheek, Caleb Stegall, and Darryl Hart have peppered their posts with references to the great Political Science professor. A 20th Century conservative (at least anti-liberal) icon, Voegelin is remembered best for his attacks on the gnostic nature of modernism. In the 1960’s university campus conservatives associated with Young American’s for Freedom wore buttons bearing the Voegelin-ish slogan “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton!”

This remains sound biblical advice for orthodox Christians. It is easy for Christians to fall prey to the fancifcul delussions of milleniarian expectations. We must ever be reminded that our hope is in “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Peter 1:4)”.

That said, the ladies of my congregation thought it would be funny to provide me with the following list of prohibitions as a Christmas present. Enjoy:























(I think that they might have been making fun of me… but I love them anyway!)

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The Heidelblog takes on Theonomy
W.H. Chellis

Those interested in theonomy should take a look at R.Scott Clark’s Heidelblog. Clark, an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California, has quickly proved himself to be the master of cyber-theology. His posts are daily… if not hourly… informative and entertaining. He has a sharp wit and lucid mind that make him a force to be reckoned with even if you disagree.

If you are interested in a sharp but thoughtful critique of theonomic ethics check out this discussion. The discussion is worth reading and the blog is worth bookmarking.

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Kiss the Son
W. H. Chellis

From Israel to Christendom
Last month we noted the Israelite theocracy’s unique typological status in the history of redemption. Contemporary discussions about the abiding moral example of Israel’s experience as a “Christian” nation often begin with Israel’s uniqueness but too often end there as well. We will be less hasty. This month will go beyond the typological status of Israel to consider her abiding value as an example to the nations of Christendom.
Israel’s gracious example
In order to understand the legitimate application of Israel’s example to new covenant nations, we must first distinguish between aspects of Israel that were typological and particular, as compared to aspects that were moral and universal. Obviously, all that Israel possessed that pointed forward to Jesus Christ was typological and particular. On the other hand, a great deal about Israel experience was common to all nations. At the heart of Israel’s example to the nations was her national confession of God’s holy name and submission to His moral law as a standard for public righteousness.
From the time of Abraham until the time of Christ, the nations of the earth groped in spiritual darkness. God’s revelation to Israel made her a light in dark places. Those nations with eyes to see her glory were called upon to confess the name of the true God and to be conformed to the standards of His holy law. Those nations who rejected the revelation of God in Israel were further hardened and ultimately destroyed. Thus Israel was an evangelistic witness.

The conspiracy of nations
Israel’s evangelistic witness among the nations is powerfully expressed in Psalm 2. Psalm 2 opens with the rhetorical question, “why do the nations are and the peoples plot in vain?” [i] For the faithful Israelite, such rebellion was as shocking in the Old Covenant as it is to God’s people in the New. To rebel against a master that is all- powerful is foolish. To rebel against a master that is all-powerful and good is absurd. Still, the nations continue to their hopeless rage.
In the face of the God-defying conspiracy of nations, Christians often find themselves disheartened and fearful. Throughout the 20th Century many shuttered to face the unfathomable evil of the international communist conspiracy. Today, we tremble before the menacing specter of Islamic terrorism. Did faithful Israel not share in our fear and cry out in anxious lament? We are weak but God is strong. The Psalmist assures us that God does not tremble before the conspiracies of men, but rather laughs scornfully (Psalm 2:4), declaring absolute confidence in the anointed King enthroned upon Zion’s holy hill.
God’s confidence in His King is not based upon an empty hope but on covenanted promise (Psalm 2: 7-9). God’s promises to David were mere foreshadows of the promises made to David’s greater son, Jesus Christ. The faithful Israelite took comfort in Psalm 2 in exact proportion to his confidence in its ultimate eschatological fulfillment of the Messianic hope that transcended the earthly limitations of David’s house. Christ was the hope of the old Israel just as He is the hope of the new Israel that is His church. Thus, the Psalmist recognizes the promise of God to His victorious Messiah, “ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance and the ends of the earth your possession (Psalm 2:8).”
An important theme throughout the Old Testament is the anticipation of a future extension of God’s gracious promises beyond the borders of national Israel. As mankind descended from a common father (first from Adam and later from Noah), it is not surprising that God promised that Abraham’s paternity would extend to a multitude of nations. Abraham’s hope was embraced by Israel as it looked forward to an age when the righteousness of the Davidic reign would encompass all nations (Psalm 72: 8; 89:27; Isaiah 2:2-4; Daniel 7:14).
Throughout the Old Testament we find glimpses of God’s grace extended to nations (as nations) beyond the Israelite theocracy. After the secession of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:16-14), the Northern Kingdom, although politically divorced from the theocratic union of throne and alter in Jerusalem, was not relieved of its duty to confess the authority of God and the righteousness of His law (1 Kings 11:35-39). Indeed, well beyond the borders of the Promised Land, under the preaching of the prophet Jonah, the King of Nineveh led his nation toward corporate confession of the true God proclaiming:
By the decree of the King and the nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish (Jonah 3:6-9).
Even Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and scourge of Jerusalem was brought low until he confessed the Kingship of the true God (Daniel 4:28-37). In the end, the mighty King who once blasphemously exclaimed, “Is not this Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty? (Daniel 4:30)” humbly confessed, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are right and His ways are just; and those who walk in pride He is able to humble. (Daniel 4:37).”

Kiss the Son
The reign of the Messiah is not a trivial matter. Serious consequences are warned to those who reject Christ’s gracious rule. God declares to His Messiah, “You shall break them [the nations] with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (vs. 9).” The reign of Christ is one of justice moderated by common grace. To the nations, as to men, He shows mercy. His mercy, however, is not without limits. Rather, the nation that is obstinate in its rebellion will know the end of His grace and taste the bitter reality of destruction. Just as God once removed the Canaanites from the land, so God has and will continue to destroy nations upon the rock of Christ. As Whittaker Chambers wrote to his children:

Communism is what happens when, in the name of Mind, men free themselves from God. But its view of God, its knowledge of God, its experience of God, is what alone gives character to a society or a nation, and meaning to its destiny. Its culture, the voice of this character, is merely that view, knowledge, experience, of God, fixed by its most intense spirits in terms intelligible to the mass of men. There has never been a society or a nation without God. But history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that became indifferent to God, and died.” Witness, pg. 16-17 (Regnery Gateway, 1980).

In light of such weighty considerations, the Psalmist offers Israel’s sound advice to all nations at all times and in all places, “serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way…(vs. 11, 12).” The Reformed Presbyterian Church joins the Psalmist in calling upon all civil authority to embrace the faithful example of national Israel, to confess the Kingship of Jesus Christ and to govern righteously as ministers of His justice (Romans 13:1-7).

[i][i] Although the original context of Psalm 2 refers to the Davidic line of Kings, it has found ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

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Small is Still Beautiful
W.H. Chellis

There are times when the Reformed Presbyterian Testimony is down right beautiful. In chapter 4.11 it wisely declares, “The Scriptures teach that everything belongs to God; that the authority and power to obtain and use goods are given by God; and that men are to seek God’s glory in the use of their goods. The Scriptures direct how goods are to be obtained and used. No existing economic system incorporates all these teachings.”

In light of this, the confession goes on to declare the sins of both Marxism and Capitalism. In 4:12, it declares, “We reject Marxist communism because of its doctrines of atheism, necessary class struggle, economic determinism, dialectical materialism, and the inherent illegitimacy of private property”. On the other hand, in 4:13, it just as adamantly declares, “We reject that form of capitalism which holds that men possess absolute property rights and that the state has no right to protect the weak and restrain evil in economic affairs.”

In short, the RP Testimony demands a third way in the realm of economics. To think about what such a third way might look like, I suggest ISI’s blog discussion of the newly published Small is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered. The book, written by Joseph Pearce, applies the ideas of E.F. Shumacher to defend the small, the local, and the humane. I ordered my copy today and suggest you do the same.

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Ok… I have been a slacker
W.H. Chellis

Happy New Year!!!

I have been a slacker when it comes to posting for the last couple of months. I apologize.

I have been eating more fiber so… in the new year… I think I will be more regular.

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