A Reply to “A Rejoinder to Theonomy, Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision”

Bahnsen did not hold to the Federal Vision, but he opened the door for Federal Vision with his objective views of the sacraments and the covenant.

The problems with theonomy, though, are: (1). that it tends to focus on the law more than the gospel and, (2).it emphasizes the external more the internal. That is how the Federal Vision sneaks into the heart. So, self-proclaimed theonomists, here is my advice: emphasize the moral law and the moral elements of the judicial law. Leave the Jewish and typical elements of the judicial laws alone. But, preach the gospel more than anything else. The law cannot transform individuals or society, but the gospel can and does.

 

Having read Larry Ball’s rejoinder to my previous articles which was published by The Aquila Report on July 31, 2016, I would like to kindly offer these remarks.

First, I have not made disparaging remarks about the views of godly PCA ministers who hold to theonomy in any of my articles or in my book, Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision. In fact, this is the third time I am writing that the PCA has been wrong in the way it has dealt with those theonomists who hold to reformed soteriology. I have not singled out any evangelical theonomist for criticism, but have confined my remarks to a critique of Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

Second, I am not alone in seeing the connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision. Both R. Scott Clark and Guy P. Waters also have stated the same thing. For instance, Dr. Clark wrote:

Theonomy and the Federal Vision are not identical but they are twins. The FV wants to regenerate the culture through sacerdotalism, e.g., through baptismal union with Christ whereby all baptized persons are, ex opere operato (Rich Lusk, a proponent of the FV, has spoken this way—on this see Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry), and temporarily, historically, conditionally united to Christ. Both visions are aimed at the restoration of Christendom. One is primarily ecclesiastical and the other primarily civil. These common attitudes, interests, and approaches, however, help explain why so many theonomists have been attracted to the FV and vice versa.[1]

Then, Dr. Waters has written:

We have seen that the hermeneutic employed by many FV proponents resonates with theonomic conceptions of the covenantal continuity. For all of theonomy’s care to emphasize its espousal of the necessity of personal regeneration, of biblical preaching, and of personal piety, the published writings of theonomist writers have generally emphasized the outward, the external and the corporate. It is this emphasis that has occasioned FV proponents’ recasting of biblical religion along predominately outward, external, and corporate lines.[2]

Not every theonomist will become a Federal Visionist. I do not think Bahnsen would have ever gone over to the Federal Vision. But, he cracked the door for the Federal Vision with the objective views of the sacraments and the covenant that he taught in his book. The problem is that his followers took his position and developed it further.

Third, it is certainly true that the PCA has never condemned theonomy, while both the 1979 and 1983 GA’s of the PCA made it clear that theonomic views on the judicial laws are not heresy and are acceptable within the denomination. On the other hand, the 2007 General Assembly adopted the Ad-Interim Committee Report on Theonomy, New Perspective, and Auburn Avenue Theology and, thereby, condemned the Federal Vision. Those certainly are facts. What are the realities? As to theonomy, there has never been a theonomist in any position of prominence within the PCA, according to my knowledge, since Bahnsen was fired from RTS. As to the Federal Vision and/or the New Perspectives on Paul (both hold to the same soteriology), there are people in high places within the PCA who hold to those views. They are protected and even promoted. It is not what people say that counts. It is what they do.

Fourth, I agree that “God can raise dead hearts to life through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.”[3] I do not agree that this regeneration will take place as a result of the reinstatement of all the Old Testament judicial laws in exhaustive detail in modern society. It will take place as a result of the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Fifth, I have personally stuck out my neck to defend theonomists several times over the years, both during my days as a theonomist and since then. From 1976 to 1978, I was a ministerial advisor to the Board of RTS. I vocally supported Bahnsen at meetings where the Board was considering his termination. I have supported other evangelical theonomists since then as well.

Sixth, the bridge that connects theonomy and the Federal Vision is sacramental efficacy or sacerdotalism. Stay off that bridge. Theonomists who stay off that bridge still hold the right view of soteriology, even if their views of the judicial laws are considered to be erroneous in the opinion of some other evangelicals. The sacraments are efficacious only for the elect. They are not efficacious for everyone who partakes of them. There is  no other high view of the efficacy of baptism taught by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Evangelical theonomists please do not allow fuzzy thinking to confuse your minds concerning sacramental efficacy. That bridge will lead you to the FV and to heresy.

Seventh, I agree with Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 that the “judicial laws,. . . expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” I do not agree that the judicial laws are still binding on Christians today in exhaustive detail. I am not alone in thinking that the theonomic view is an error and is contrary to the Westminster Standards. For instance, Francis Turretin said concerning the question of whether the judicial law was abrogated under the New Testament:

There are three opinions about its abrogation: the first in defect (of the Aanabaptists and the Antinomians, who think it absolutely and simply abrogated as to all things). On this account, whatever reasons are drawn against them from the Old Testament for the right of the magistrate and of war; for the division of inheritances and the like, they are accustomed to resolve with this one answer—that these are judicial and pertain to the Israelite people and the Old Testament, but are now abrogated under the New. The second, in excess, of those who think that law is still in force and should be retained and that Christian states are to be governed like the Jewish (which was the opinion of Carlstadt and Castiello, with whom the Lutheran Brochmann agrees). Both wander from the truth. The former because thus many moral things would be abrogated which are contained in the forensic law. The latter because thus many typical things would have to be observed which are most foreign to the reason of our times. The third, the orthodox, who holding to a middle ground, relieve the matter by a distinction, both according to what has been abrogated and according to what is still in force.[4]

I agree with Turretin. Theonomy wanders from the truth in one direction, even as antinomianism does in the other. The true position is that there is a general equity of the judicial laws that obliges Christians to obedience which must be understood by careful distinction. The purely Jewish and typical elements must be dispensed. The things that are moral must be retained and are still in force. As so often is the case in theology, the true position is the mean between two extremes.

After careful consideration of what Turretin wrote, I am convinced that there are very few actual theonomists in the world. The great majority of the self-proclaimed theonomists do not want the judicial laws of the Old Testament to be revived in exhaustive detail. Their primary focus is on having just laws based on the moral principles of those judicial laws. Most of us agree that whoever sheds man’s blood by man his blood shall be shed, but how many of us would agree that masters who kill their slaves should be exempt from capital punishment (Exodus 21:20, 21)? Or who agrees that a child who curses his mother or father should be put to death (Exodus 21:17)? Who agrees that a person who does any work on the Sabbath deserves capital punishment (Exodus 35:2)? I could give several more illustrations from the penal code of the judicial laws. Each of the first nine commandments had some transgression which was punishable by death in the Old Testament.  As ministers of the new covenant, I hope that we value the opportunity to lead people to Christ and weep tears at the thought of their death.

Most of my self-proclaimed theonomic friends have the good sense to make distinctions on these questions I have raised and, thereby, they prove that they really are not full-blown theonomists at all. They simply believe that the moral elements of the judicial are still obligatory today according to the general equity thereof. I think even Bahnsen tended to that side. That is one reason that his book focuses on the abiding validity of the Old Testament laws, including the judicial, but is mostly silent on answering the types of questions raised above. A book that focused on the abiding validity of the Old Testament penal code in exhaustive detail with supporting illustrations would probably not win many adherents. When pressed on this issue, Bahnsen always resorted to the statements made in Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 referenced above. That is begging the question. It is a simple fact that the judicial laws cannot still have abiding validity in exhaustive detail and also oblige none “further than the general equity thereof may require.” Those are mutually exclusive positions, after all.

The problems with theonomy, though, are: (1). that it tends to focus on the law more than the gospel and, (2).it emphasizes the external more the internal. That is how the Federal Vision sneaks into the heart. So, self-proclaimed theonomists, here is my advice: emphasize the moral law and the moral elements of the judicial law. Leave the Jewish and typical elements of the judicial laws alone. But, preach the gospel more than anything else. The law cannot transform individuals or society, but the gospel can and does. As John said, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Theonomy occupies only 16 pages out of the 410 pages of my book. My goal in Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision is to show that the FV is heresy. I have no beef with evangelical theonomists in the PCA (most of them are not full-blown theonomists anyway), so this will be my last article on this aspect of the Federal Vision problem.

Dewey Roberts is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla. He is the author of Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision.

[1] R. Scott Clark, “Theonomy and the Federal Vision,” September 1, 2007.

[2] Guy Prentiss Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: A Comparative Analysis (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 296.

[3] Larry Ball, “A Rejoinder to ‘Theonomy, Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision”.

[4] James T. Dennison, ed., George Musgrave Giger, trans., Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2 (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1994), 166.