Theonomy (ironically) depends on Common Sense Realism

Daniel quotes Jus Divinum on the Mosaic Judicials (the following is my inference, not necessarily his).

We answer, the Laws of the Jewish Church, whether Ceremonial or Judicial, so far forth are in force, even at this day, as they were grounded upon common equity, the principles of reason and nature, and were serving to the maintenance of the Moral Law. … The Jewish Politie is only abrogated in regard of what was in it of particular right, not of common right, so far forth as there was in their Laws either a typicalness proper to their Church, or a peculiarness of respect to their state in that Land of Promise given unto them.  Whatsoever was in their Laws of Moral concernment, or general equity is still obliging …[2]

Conclusion:  Whatever else 19.4 might mean, it clearly states that the use of the judicials in today’s society presupposes some understanding and application of natural law and common sense equity.  This doesn’t mean theonomy is necessarily right or wrong.  However, it does shed some light on how American theonomists tell the narrative.   If one adds to the mix a hyper-presuppositionalism and a fear of all things Thomistic, then there is no way he or she can read the judicials in the way that the writers of the Confession intended.

Equity is a natural law concept, full stop.  The anti-scholastic theonomist of today is borrowing from Thomistic categories in order to reject Thomistic categories (the irony of this somewhat Van Tillian sentence is thick).

Review of Horton, Covenant Ecclesiology Part Two

Horton recapitulates the argument of his book in chapter 6. Chapter 1 argued the where of Christ’s presence (Ascension), chapters 2-5 argued the how of Christ’s presence (Covenantal Speech-Act), and chapter 6 argues the what of identity on earth. In what sense is the church one and many?

Horton makes several key distinctions between “unity” and “unicity.” Unity is a healthy respecting of differences best seen in a covenantal community. This can only be by the Spirit. Noting Leslie Newbigin’s poignant remark, when we make the church an “extension of the Incarnation,” we confuse sarx (Christ’s flesh) with soma (his body as the church). In such a move any union is at the level of fused essences flowing downward in a hierarchy (as is necessary in all Platonic and Dionysian visions; 187). Rather, our union with Christ is through the Spirit in anticipation of the age to come.

This has important practical applications. When faced with high-church claims to “unity over Protestant divisions,” one may rightly ask if unity is even possible on a Roman or Orthodox position? Does not their own version of unity reduce all to sameness, in a sense losing unity altogether for unicity? If they hold to a Dionysian ontology in which differences are overcome through an ascent on the divine ladder (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 34), do they not lose the many to the one? Indeed, to borrow a line from the postmoderns, does not differance become violence?

Throughout this discussion Horton engages in some very important analyses of John Zizioulas and Miroslav Volf, thus adding a particular relevance to his work

Horton correctly condemns the political maneuvering of Urban II (259ff), but fundamentally misses the point and result of the first crusade. While many knights did see themselves as waging war against the infidel, the first crusade is better seen as a sustained defensive measure against Islam (remember, the Muslims invaded first). Further, he then invokes–ironically, in almost a religious manner–liberal democracies litany of “bad guy countries:” South Africa, “colonialism,” and Serbia.

Normally, I would let it slide but since I probably know more about Serbia than 90% of Americans, I feel compelled to expand the point. Serbs before 1999 simply did not see themselves as King David. Milosevic remained an atheist until shortly before his murder in The Hague. He only claimed the mantle of Tsar Lazar on Kosovo Poltje in the final days of the war–and that for political, not religious reasons. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Moss points out, Serbia was the most secular post-Communist country in the 1990s (with also the highest abortion rate). As C.I.A. analyst John Schindler (Unholy Terror) remarks, “The sad irony is that Serbia was already close to Hilary Clinton’s vision of a secular state in the new world order.” To make the irony worse, Serbia only became interested in its religious heritage as a response to Hillary’s War. I only belabor the point because it seems to contrast with Horton’s earlier (and admirable) resisting the collapse of cult and cultus. Is not his endorsing–however seriously he meant the statement–the litany of liberal democracy a similar collapsing? (To be fair, he later critiqued the nigh-ubiquitous equation of the Kingdom with liberal democracy, p. 287 n.100) I share his suspicion to Christian Reconstructionism, for example, and I am equally skeptical of Van Tillians’ chanting “No neutrality,” but this may be the one area they actually have a point.

Concerning the Temple (or “Temple-speak” as I shall call it), Horton is correct to note that the person and work of Christ replaced the Temple economy with its sacrifices (268ff). Further, he is correct that we should not as Christians seek a rebuilt Temple. While Horton’s final conclusions may indeed be correct, the inference does not follow that because Revelation “spiritualizes” (whatever that word means) a Temple that all prophetic references to “Temple-speak” are necessarily about Jesus. What then is the point of a temple, one may ask? The answer to that question hinges on several eschatological presuppositions, but those aside, one may posit that a newly-built temple, while having no relevance for Christian worship (indeed, it would be blasphemy) is necessary to Anti-Christ’s false covenant with the Jews.

Oddly enough, Horton quotes Jurgen Moltmann with approval (Moltmann elsewhere has given one of the most penetrating critiques of ideological amillennialism). At this point, almost without warning (270-271), Horton shifts from his “spiritual temple” to why Christian activism in politics is wrong.

While his section on “Holy War” has much promise, I am skeptical of Horton’s invoking Meredith Kline’s “intrusion ethics” (272). Whatever merits intrusion ethics may have, and while it does mitigate some of the harsher passages in the OT for today’s application, I doubt it would have been of much comfort to the Canaanites! (Admittedly, Horton realizes “intrusion” is a terrible ethical term, as it implies relativistic ethics. His use of “irruption,” while perhaps not allaying all of the difficulties in his position, is much better and doesn’t have the situation-ethics overtones). While “irruption ethics” sounds good in broad, general outlines, it is by no means clear that it automatically follows “mean texts” (which itself is a subjective judgment). Horton, in responding to Kant, says that “imprecatory psalms” are delayed because God delayed his judgment (277). Maybe so, but he is reading that into the passage.

Intrusion ethics becomes particularly troubling in this quote, “Other examples of intrusion ethics appear in the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac and Hosea’s marriage” (ibid). Admittedly, these are ethical nightmares (the former more so than the latter) for any systematic theologian, but Horton’s position at this point seems to reduce to a voluntaristic Divine-command ethic, which is odd given his commitment to natural law.

While perhaps not a criticism of Horton, in another place we see how tenuous the sharp divide between cult and cultus is. While we should be wary of “killin ‘em terrorists for Jesus” (GOP?), Horton himself shows, even if does not realize it, how difficult it is to dichotomize one’s life: “As throughout the history recounted above, the cosmic battle is waged through earthly agents; personal and institutional; religious and social; cultic and cultural; rhetorical and political. Yet the church knows the real enemy behind behind these penultimate agents” (283). He is correct that this battle is taking place in history. And he is correct that we cannot take an AK-47 against the “real agents,” but the unspoken conclusion hangs heavy in the room, a conclusion I suspect he would disavow: may we not, acting as good citizens in the Kingdom of God’s Left Hand (actually a good name for a political party!), take the AK-47 against the penultimate agents? On a 2 Kingdoms ethic it’s hard to see why not (all other things . Even more, as Horton states this battle is in history, we are historical beings (per his correct critique of Karl Barth), we cannot divorce our lives from this history. As Aragorn tells King Theoden, “Open war is upon you, whether you wish it or not.” This has always been the fatal flaw in neo-Two Kingdoms ethics: as long as the state says its not acting as the church, it’s hard to see how any one program the state is wrong. Natural law ethics helps but only to an extent.

More on contingency and necessity

Turretin’s larger context is the moral law of God, but his comment reminds me of some earlier comments on freedom, predestination, and liberty.

For although all things out of God are in this sense contingent (i.e., such as he could have abstained from creating); still, from the hypothesis, he wills and acts necessarily in and about those things he wishes to exist

Eleventh Topic, Q.II.XIII

This is an important point for it is often criticized that the Reformers simply adopt an Origenist Problematic.

The hypocrisy of religion in non-establishment commonwealths

It’s easy to point out the failures of state-churches (see Anglican England or Lutheran Germany), but does the non-establishment of religion necessarily lead to healthier religious communities within a commonwealth?  It does not necessarily follow that it does.  If you go to the average Baptist church, how many Masonic insignia will you see in the parking lot?   How truly “reformed” (and I use that in the broadest and not theological sense) are the people?  Is the church really that healthy?  Forget the numbers for the moment.  How many truly know the rudiments of Christian doctrine?  It’s easy to make fun of nominal churchgoers in state church England for ignorance in the faith, but is it really that different in voluntarist Baptist America?

The only good argument for a non-established religion is that without government funding, it must use all of its skill and stewardship to survive.   I don’t like Libertarianism, but this is one of the strongest arguments for the Market:  government money, at least in America, is kryptonite.  It kills everything it touches.

But that raises another problem:  the Word of Faith church down the street is not government-funded, is booming, and is apparently a good steward of resources. Yet we know that it is not a true church (and I don’t mean that in a mean way.  I am taking the Belgic Confession’s definition of a true church–pure preaching of gospel, right administration of sacraments, and church discipline).  So the stewardship line is not sufficient.

I acknowledge that the Reformed have always taught that the civil magistrate protects the true religion, and if the Reformed reasoning on the Ten Commandments is correct (meaning, positive injunctions along with negative prohibitions), then the civil magistrate must take a positive role to maintaining the true church.  Of course, this means that any Reformed view of natural law is necessarily theocratic.  It is inconsistent for people to hold to natural law, and understand it as binding on all men, and understanding that the magistrate must rule by natural law (as follows from the previous point), along with the Reformed understanding that natural law is the ten commandments, yet to deny that the magistrate can enforce all of the ten commandments.   Further, if the positive injunctions follow, as seems reasonable, then this gives the magistrate a positive duty.

But does this mean a state denomination?  Here is where the line gets tricky.  In earlier generations the answer was yes, but even then the idea of denominations was not fully developed.  I for one see no practical difference between the URC and the OPC, with perhaps some exceptions on instruments in worship.   Would it not be better to say the magistrate enforces the Reformed religion, as opposed to a Reformed denomination?

It seems to reason, therefore, at the least, that the magistrate must take a positive role in religion, if the natural law view of the ten commandments is correct.

Retractare After Seven Years

My friend Daniel Ritchie has offered his own version of retractare in the past.  I want to do mine.  These are in no particular order.

The Theonomy People

I’ve listed problems with theonomy before.  They are to be commended for influencing Reformed scholars to go back to careful study of the Old Testament (Poythress said he wouldn’t have written his work if it weren’t for Rushdoony).  They are to be commended for their critique of absolute statism, but there are problems.  The post-theonomy (for lack of a better word, this would be the third generation theonomists) are probably guilty of violating the 9th commandment.  Their unceasing attacks on men like Michael Horton and others at Westminster Seminary California are uncalled for.  I disagree with Horton and Co.’s  social ethic, but the man is a minister in Christ’s church and Horton has probably done as much as anybody in spreading the Reformed faith.  I admit; it’s sometimes funny to watch D.G. Hart get riled up, but the falsely so-called “R2K” guys have majored on the majors:  The doctrine of worship and the church.  Modern American Theonomy, by contrast, has largely failed in this area.

  1. As for my own position, I believe the Old Testament law can be used today when necessary.
  2. This does not preclude natural law, but presupposes it (more below)
  3. Theonomy is not the position of the Reformers; natural law is.  Yes, Bucer used the Mosaic judicials, but only because he saw them as part of his natural law heritage.  We should do likewise.
  4. This is where I am different from most natural law amillennarians:  I do not believe common grace is sufficient as an ethical category for government.  It merely describes how unbelievers are not as bad as they could be.  I remain unconvinced that it has ethical content.

Van Til

I’ve gone back and forth on Van Til for some time now.  I think when it comes to Roman Catholicism and explaining what Reformed theology is, Van Til is as fine as anybody.  His lectures on “chain-of-being” theology are quite good.  His apologetic method, though, is completely indefensible.  I think Reformed people are better served by a mix of Reformed scholasticism and Common Sense Realism.

  1. As for my own position, I think the TAG method is an open-door to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It explicitly attacks the foundations of knowledge and inadvertently relativises truth-claims.  No longer having a clear revelation from God, one has Tradition (as interpreted by a certain community).
  2. As for a positive apologetic, I don’t really care.  I think Anselm is interesting and his ontological argument has some subordinate value.


This is a difficult one.  I think the Reformers (and quite frankly, the entire church) were wise never to use the “millennial” terms in explaining what they believe.  More often than not, modern Reformed eschatological questions are more political than anything else.  Saying, “I am postmil” or “common grace amil” implies more than the timing of Christ’s return.

  1. As for my own position, I am certainly a Reformed historicist.  This is the Reformed position.
  2. I appreciate a lot of what Kim Riddlebarger has to say on Covenant and New Testament eschatology.  I’ve always liked Vos and Ridderbos.
  3. Historic premillennialism, while having a respectful pedigree, simply entails too many difficulties.  Further, I have found that the deeper I dig into historic premillennialism, the harder it is to be Reformed.
  4. I think it is more important to be clear on eschatological hermeneutics than on identifying a millennial position.


For around five years I’ve been a fairly staunch defender of limited monarchy.  That’s still the case.  My only difference now is that I do not see the Bible requiring it (or any specific mode of government).  Each style of government has its strengths and weaknesses.

  1. Monarchists (like myself) need to admit that 1 Samuel 8 does place some restrictive parameters on the glory of monarchy.
  2. Republicans (small “r”) need to admit that the Torah did provide (and I think expected) a monarchy.   If that’s not the case, then why is Deuteronomy 17 in the Bible?  Nelson Kloosterman has made a fairly convincing case that there existed a possibility that Israel could have had a king and not sinned in asking so.  Here is how I think it would have worked:  the end of the book of Judges essentially begs for a monarchy.  Deuteronomy 17 had already provided for a shepherd-king (the Christological overtones are deliberate).  Had Israel wanted a shepherd to guide them, I believe God would have praised their request.  Further, biblical eschatology moves in the direction of monarchy, not republicanism.
  3. I am an adherent of an Althusian-style natural law theory.  The problem many theonomists had was that their critics (and the theonomists themselves) had said, “Natural law OR God’s law.”  But this is where theonomists and their critics were wrong.  Natural law is God’s law, provided natural law is defined as creation ordinances.  The problem here is the inferences people drew from that phrase.   I won’t go into that now.  More to the point, Reformed natural law theorists could gladly appeal (and did!) to the Mosaic judicials.   Modern Calvinism’s embarrassment over Moses doesn’t help.   God’s law is morally just and should be consulted.  Theonomists, by contrast, never provided satisfactory accounts of the New Testament’s modification of the Mosaic law.
  4. I have no problem with the two kingdoms doctrine, provided the difference between the two kingdoms is in administration, not ethical norms.

Retractare: R. Scott Clark and Natural Law

I used to be a firm critic of Scott Clark’s natural law theory, but the more I read of natural law, the more I realize that they have as many variations as do theonomists. The more I read of his understanding of natural law, the closer I realize I am to his position. The following link from his blog shows just how close I am to his position, but there are still a few differences.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I think the real reasons that theonomist reacted unfairly to natural law is: 1) they didn’t understand the position, 2) then-current scholarship advocating natural law was terrible (think Norman Geisler’s dispensationalism and Roman Catholicism’s pop-Thomism), and 3) many of the critics didn’t have any coherent ethical position, which led Gary North to (unwisely) call it “natural law,” thus poisoning the well.  If you read North’s Westminster’s Confession, he labels all of his critics as natural law adherents.  Of the 16 chapters in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, maybe a mere handful advocated natural law (remember this is in the late 80s/early 90s where Reformed thought hadn’t yet rediscovered Reformed natural law sources).

There are other issues involved which I do not plan to deal with right now.  RSC is a Van Tillian; I am not (not in the apologetic sense anyway.  If Reformed scholasticism is true, and Turretin and Co., held to a principia form of epistemology which sort of coincides with the Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid, then wouldn’t it be more consistent to go with principia over TAG?  Just thinking out loud.)   Further, there are other disagreements on ethics.  I am still nervous about the Klinean intrusion ethic.  While I’ve come to appreciate more and more of Kline’s system, I just don’t think intrusionism is logically or biblically coherent.

Back to Clark’s post.

He writes,

The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy any more than it is intended as a “playbook” for sports. That does not mean that God’s law does not apply to contemporary social and civil issues but it is not faithful to Scripture to use it in a way that it does not intend to be used. That is one of the great differences between the confessional Reformed appropriation of Scripture and the non-confessional.

I can agree with this on surface level.   Whether the Bible is to be used as such or not, any application thereof has to take in account of current situations which suggest how the Bible is to be applied.  In any case, I would certainly agree with him that facile applications aren’t helpful.   Applying God’s law takes wisdom, even kingly wisdom, and the average Christian America evangelical does not have this.

The law obligates civil authorities to preserve and pursue civil justice as God’s ministers but Scripture does not spell out exactly how that is to be done. The Apostle Paul did not prescribe civil policy to those civil rulers with whom he spoke but he did preach the gospel of the resurrection. Nowhere does the NT advocate a particular form of civil polity nor does it advocate specific civil policies.

I mostly agree. I think a lot of American Reformed need to realize that the Bible, outside of a few suggestions in 1 Samuel, does not mandate a Constitutional Republic.   That’s why Calvin and Rutherford were fine with limited monarchies.

I did write, “that some of us really do take the Scriptures as a guide to civil government and moral renewal for American society and not chiefly as the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history. This episode is an example of the attempt to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions that are properly matters of liberty.”

I agree, but I want to add something else, and this might be my conspiratorial vein:  Simply quoting 2 Chron. 7:14 is not enough.  If you want to reform America, then you need to begin with what is wrong at the systematic, foundational level:  Trilateral Commission, IRS, Council on Foreign Relations, and the list goes on.  This suggests another problem with the Christian America folk:  there are problems in American government and simply electing Reagan II without addressing these problems is putting a band-aid on a tumor.

Let’s make matters worse:  America is too big.  I realize these points aren’t germane to Clark’s article, but they point out how woefully under-thought out the average right-wing Kuyperian vision is (and I hasten to remind readers that a leading Kuyperian, Ralph Reed, speaks at Bilderberg Conferences).

I have no confidence that, after the death of Christ, God has any specific, special relationship with any nation or civil entity. Your letter seems to assume that if a nation will obey God’s law, he will bless it materially etc.

This is perhaps where I offer mild dissent.   Isaiah 19 does say that nations will covenant with God.   Is there a 1:1 causal relation on material blessings?  Kind of.  Calvin in his sermons on Deuteronomy 27 held out the possibility that God will bless, but also reminded believers that we are mature in the New Covenant and sometimes God sends us difficulties as well.  It is a fact, I think, that the land rebels when covenant-breakers reign and sin against the land (we can probably even offer a natural law argument to the effect!).  If natural law is better known as the Creation Ordinance, with its own built-in teleology, the breaking of which is sin, then it stands to reason that sinful rulers will see a cursed land.

In conclusion I think I am largely in agreement with Professor Clark.  It must be admitted that the Reformers were natural law adherents and not merely in an incidental way, as Gary North maintains.  They worked it in their system (think of all the times that the Confession refers to the light of nature).