Tuesday, July 19, 2011

By What Standard?

Citing an essay by John Piper, a brother posted on FaceBook that so called “Dominion Theology” [what I refer to as “theonomy”] is dangerous. While I have heard much of the “dangers of theonomy” I have seen very little of it. Often, theonomy is equated with “theocracy.” Theocracy is the idea that secular and sacred power are to be held in the same hand or hands. (Much like what we see in Muslim countries.)

But whereas theocracy is not biblical, theonomy is. There has always been a separation of powers--the sacred and the secular--in the Bible. Both Testaments present two spheres of authority. When Jesus said to give to Caesar what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to Him; He was not speaking a new truth. Rather, He was applying an old truth. While there are two spheres of authority--sacred and secular or church and state--both of these spheres should be ruled according to God’s Law. And that’s what theonomy means: God’s Law.

The following is a short respectful dialogue concerning theonomy. My friend’s words are bold and italicized for clarity. May God add His blessing to your reading.
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The closer we get to Dominion Theology, the closer we get to living by the sword. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight."

I don't find Piper's treatment of theonomy, in this short article, to be accurate. The theonomists with whom I am familiar are in no way in favor of putting "the sword into the hands of the priests."

The New Testament recognizes the distinction between the church and the state, as does the Old Testament. Typically, kings were not priests (remember King Saul's sin in offering a sacrifice) and priests were not kings. Thus, the distinct spheres of church and state are not new with the New Testament.

However, theonomy does biblically state that civil government is to act as God's minister or servant (c.f. Rom 13). The government or magistrate is to punish evil and reward good. The question is: How does the government, as God's servant, know what is "good" and what is "evil"? The theonomist insists that God's Law [not man's autonomous "law"] is the standard by which civil government should rule.

A good book on this subject is "By This Standard" by Greg Bahnsen.

Well, Jesus said, My kingdom is not of this world; if My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight. In fact, when Peter tried to use his sword, Jesus had to tell him to put it away. The way I see it, civil government is not the issue here. We can be living in a peaceful nation that is still not a Christian nation...besides, some governments are good and some governments are bad.

There's no conflating the two kingdoms. Theonomy recognizes the distinction between the church [the power of the keys] and the state [the power of the sword], as do both Testaments of scripture.

While we recognize two spheres, church and civil, we also affirm that Christ is LORD over both spheres. The civil magistrate is under the authority of the LORD Christ [though the magistrate may not acknowledge this fact]. That is, the power of the government is NOT absolute.

The power of civil government is derivative. Civil government gets its authority from God, as God's servant [Ro 13], and is accountable to God for how it uses the granted powers. (Recall Christ's words to Pilate: "You could have no authority at all unless it had been given to you from above.")

Because civil government gets its authority from God and is answerable to Him, the civil government OUGHT to govern righteously. That is, the magistrate OUGHT to punish "evil" and reward "good." What determines "good" and "evil"? Majority vote? Hardly! The whims of a dictator? Not at all.

God Himself determines "good" and "evil." Therefore, civil authorities OUGHT to rule according to the Law of God. All laws or statutes are moral [or immoral]. The further a civil government moves away from God's Law, becoming an absolute "law" unto itself, the more immoral that government, and that nation, become.

Yes, "some governments are good and some governments are bad." But, "good" or "bad" based upon what standard? What objective standard for "good" or "bad" do we have, if not God's Law?

Well, I just posted a story about a "bad government"...and the death of many believers...etc.

Yes, I ran across this story the other day. Tragic. Thanks for posting it. We must pray daily for God to preserve and protect, to deliver from evil, our persecuted brethren. I pray that God will save their loved ones and their adversaries; and that His Gospel will banish all the godless philosophies of men which war against Him.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you Steve, it is nice to see a more gentle presentation of truth in the midst of strident voices, each aggressively claiming that only their truth is acceptable.

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  2. 'However, theonomy does biblically state that civil government is to act as God's minister or servant (c.f. Rom 13). The government or magistrate is to punish evil and reward good.'

    The phrase "is to" suggests obligation. But Romans 13 is descriptive. It does not say that the magistrate ought to act as God's minister; it says that he does so act.

    'The question is: How does the government, as God's servant, know what is "good" and what is "evil"? The theonomist insists that God's Law [not man's autonomous "law"] is the standard by which civil government should rule.'

    One can immediately ask, which law of God? The covenant with Noah (the only universal law)? or the law of Moses? or the law of Christ? Or certain parts of one of these? I'm sure you don't want the government to forbid the sale of pork or shellfish or garments of cloth with mixed fibres. I'm equally sure you don't want the law to be only that those who murder should be executed and that black pudding (blood sausage) and contraception should be forbidden (Gen 9:4-7)

    On the other hand, it is quite impossible for a government to enforce the law of Christ, which is only written in the hearts of believers.

    So I conclude that what you actually want is for the government to enforce generally accepted moral standards that agree with the bible; but how far? Being American, you are imbued with the idea of the separation of church and state, which was fine until your activist judges started to reinterpret the idea to expel Christianity from public life. Europe under the popes often considered that the state should enforce a particular view of religion, and that is currently the effective view of governments like that of Saudi Arabia.

    My point is that your thinking appears somewhat confused. I think you are going beyond what the bible says on this subject, and that goes along with a fundamental disagreement between us about the course of eschatology, which we have debated before.

    It is, of course, highly desirable that a government should operate as far as is possible on Christian principles. There are obvious differences between the government and the individual, though. As individuals we should exercise forgiveness and mercy, because God has forgiven us and shown us mercy. But the government is supposed to use the power of the sword to restrain evil. This is the point Romans is making. It applies to any government, even ones that oppress believers.

    Dominion Theology (as I understand it) says that the church should be trying to christianise the world; at least some versions of it think that Jesus cannot return until after the church has taken over the world. It doesn't sound as if you agree with the latter, but even the former is not found in the New Testament. There is not a hint in Acts or any of the letters that the church is anything other than a group of sojourners who are in the world but do not belong to it.

    Admittedly, there was no way they could affect the government of the empire, but significantly, when the proconsul of Cyprus believed (Acts 13:12), who is the only example of a governing official's believing, as far as I know, there is no hint that Paul said anything to him about putting Christian principles into effect in the government of the island. If it were the case that God wanted the world to be run by its governments on Christian principles, surely here, if anywhere, it would be mentioned.

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  3. [It seems there is a size limit on comments]

    I think the reason it is not mentioned is that Christianity is a matter of the spirit, that cannot even be understood by someone who does not have the Spirit of God. Christianising the world is an impossible task; it is the hearts of people that must change first. The role that God gives the magistrate is to maintain order, because people need the security of knowing that evil will be restrained. There is currently a lot of anger in Britain about the riots there and the apparent impunity with which youths are able to loot and burn shops and the police have been fairly ineffective. Maintenance of order also helps the gospel, which is hindered when people are distracted by fear of disorder. But there is noting in the bible to say that any particular laws should be passed or enforced apart from what is (or used to be) commonly and universally accepted.

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  4. Oliver,
    You write: "One can immediately ask, which law of God? The covenant with Noah (the only universal law)? or the law of Moses? or the law of Christ? Or certain parts of one of these? I'm sure you don't want the government to forbid the sale of pork or shellfish or garments of cloth with mixed fibres."

    This comment of yours displays a confusion of categories. I am not speaking of ceremonial law or laws of separation [such as the dietary laws you mention and the prohibition of mixed fibers.]

    You need to understand, Oliver: Morality is based upon the immutable character of God Himself. Therefore, God's moral law--revealed in scripture and in the heart--is unchanging. In other words, there aren't different "moralities" for Moses, Noah, Jesus, and us. (I think your Dispensationalism is getting the better of you here.)

    No. Morality is unchanging and absolute. According to Rom 13, the civil government [the form is not the issue] is to punish evil and reward good. This is what the civil government OUGHT to do. (I can't imagine anyone disagreeing.) But who defines what is "evil" and what is "good"? Not man, but God.

    We are agreed that there are a different set of ethics, mandated by God, for the individual and for the state.

    You write: "Christianity is a matter of the spirit, that cannot even be understood by someone who does not have the Spirit of God."

    I agree. Please show where I've said otherwise. I'm not speaking of the Church or of salvation. I'm not speaking of being rid of the distinction between the Church and the civil government [a distinction maintained in both Testaments]. I'm speaking of the civil magistrate.

    I'm asking: By what standard should the civil magistrate seek to govern? I believe the answer is God's Law (as explained above). Is God the judge of all nations? By what standard will He judge them? Doesn't God judge by His own moral Law?

    P.S. Ths is a 4 part series. Some of your questions are probably answered in parts 2-4, if not in part 1.

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  5. "This comment of yours displays a confusion of categories. I am not speaking of ceremonial law or laws of separation..."

    But God's law is not separable like that. The Mosaic law applied only to Israel, of course, but James says, "For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it." (Jas 2:10) We can be sure that Jesus obeyed every bit of the ceremonial law that applied to him, even though he may not have obeyed the Pharisees' interpretation of that law.

    There are two reasons why the law of Moses does not apply to the church. First, the law is not applied to Gentiles (Acts 15); but second, we in the church are dead to the law (Romans 7:6) and therefore no longer subject to it. We have a different law, the law of Christ, which is not a law that can be applied to any nation.

    I agree with you that there is a universal standard in certain matters: murder, theft, adultery. But in stating those three, I have already gone into a controversial area. Adultery is wrong, but should the state attempt to legislate against it? Theft is wrong, but does that include the taking of our money by the government in taxes to redistribute to others (theft at second-hand)? I think many more in America would agree with me about that than would here in Europe. In the end, laws that are not accepted by the majority of the population will fail, no matter how much they agree with God's standards. If the hearts of the majority are hostile to God, the effort to have godly laws in the nation will fail, even if they are put into effect.

    "I'm asking: By what standard should the civil magistrate seek to govern? I believe the answer is God's Law (as explained above). Is God the judge of all nations? By what standard will He judge them? Doesn't God judge by His own moral Law?"

    I'm saying that the bible does not give a clear answer. An individual is judged on whether or not he is trusting Jesus for salvation. If he is not, the degree of his punishment seems to depend on his behaviour during life. (Acts 16:19ff) To what extent is a nation judged apart from the individuals in it? The bible does indeed say that nations will be judged by their behaviour in the future -- Zech 14:18-19 for example, or Matthew 25:32ff -- but I don't think that is what you are referring to. It does not say that nations will be punished or rewarded in this present age for the way they are run.

    What I am saying is that the bible does not prescribe clearly a law that governments should follow or impose. The reason is that it is not addressed to them. The OT is addressed mostly to Israel and to other nations only to the extent that they are involved with Israel (nothing to China, for example). The gospel of Jesus is addressed to individuals. If any of his followers are in a position to influence civil government they should act in accordance with his character, but he does not give a prescription to follow. Furthermore, they should not attempt to apply the individual principles of mercy and forgiveness; the magistrate has the power of the sword and has a duty to punish evil because ultimately he is commissioned by God to do so. (Rom 13:4) But that is only a description of what actually happens rather than a command to rulers. The only judgement that nations will receive before Jesus comes again is the judgement inherent in the consequences of their actions.

    If a nation contains a number of Christians, they may affect its course by prayer (Jer 29:7). A good example in recent history is when King George VI led Britain in praying at the time of Dunkerque, in 1940, as a result of which the majority of the British Expeditionary Force were rescued from France, whereas Churchill had feared that only 30,000 or so would be rescued.

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  6. Oliver,
    You write: "But God's law is not separable like that. The Mosaic law applied only to Israel..."

    You are wrong on both counts. The Bible distinguishs Moral Law from laws of ceremony and separation.

    There is only 1 Moral Law and only 1 Moral Law giver. The 1 Moral Law is binding on all people(s). The 1 Moral Law giver revealed, and continutes to reveal, His 1 Moral Law in the hearts of all men and in scripture (Rom 2).

    Oliver, there aren't 2 [or more] "moralities." There is only 1 Moral Law. YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME is morally binding on the believer and the unbeliever alike. The same is true of HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER. All men are bound by YOU SHALL NOT MURDER. Each and every man is to obey, YOU SHALL NOT LIE WITH A MAN AS WITH A WOMAN.

    I say again: All men, without exception, all nations without exception; are bound to the same Moral Law and will be judged by the same Moral Law Giver (c.f. Rom 2).

    You allege: "the law is not applied to Gentiles (Acts 15)."

    I beg to differ, my brother. Acts 15 is in no sense antinomian. What does v. 28 say? "It seemed good to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things." What things were necessary? "That you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled [the First Table] and from sexual immorality [the Second Table, viz. the 7th Command]."

    Jews, Gentiles, Christians and non Christians are all bound by the same Moral Law. Your notion that Rom 7 is antinomian is a misinterpretation of the analogy of our death in Christ and our subsequent marriage to Christ. In fact, what does Paul say in Rom 6? "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!" (1,2).

    And what is "sin," Oliver? Is it not the transgression of God's Moral law (1Jn 3:4)? True, the Church is to be ruled by the Law of Christ. But we are not here speaking of the Church, are we? Aren't we speaking of the Civil magistrate's standard for governance?

    Even so, you are wrong concerning the Law of Christ. The Law of Christ is none other than that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. This is but the correct interpretation of God's Moral Law revealed in scripture and in every man's heart.

    The Law of Christ is one and the same as the Law of God [the Moral Law]. This is the obvious meaning of 1Cor 9:21, where Paul distinguishes between laws of separation and Moral Law.

    The fact is, Oliver, you deny God's Law is for the Church and all men, and the like, because your Dispensational lens skews or colors your entire perception of God and scripture. (I've told you this on more than one occasion and this discussion of theonomy illustrates my point.)

    I close with Paul's teaching concerning the purpose of theonomy as deterrence for evil.

    "The law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine" (1Tim 1:9-10).

    Paul's words are contra your assertion that, "If the hearts of the majority are hostile to God, the effort to have godly laws in the nation will fail, even if they are put into effect."

    Thankfully, the Bible does not share your low view of God's law or its effectiveness.

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