Resources

Acts 25 and the Theonomy Question

“For if I am an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can de- liver me to them. I appeal to Caesar.” — Acts 25:11

The Anti-theonomic Charge
In Will Barker’s Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, Dennis Johnson, of Westminster Theological Seminary, attempts to disprove theonomy, partly by reference to this verse. He comments on this verse:

Is Paul here making a direct appeal to the Mosaic judicial laws as defining crimes that cause one to be “deserving of death”? Certainly Paul does claim not to have violated the law of the Jews (v. 8), but it is pressing his words further than the context will allow to argue that Paul expects the pagan Festus to understand the complexities of the Torah ... well enough to find Paul’s appeal intelligible and persuasive. On this point it is most natural to suppose that Paul is appealing to Roman law. (pp. 180-81)

Johnson has seriously erred here. There are numerous and compelling indications that the Mosaic sanctions are in Paul’s mind as he utters the words of Acts 25:11.

The Theonomic Response
First, though Paul himself is in Caesarea, this portion of his series of trials was initially engaged before the Sanhedrim and Festus by Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 25:1-2). These accusers demanded that Paul be brought to Jerusalem for trial (v. 3). Thus, its historical circumstances were pre-eminently in terms of Jewish legal concerns.

Second, according to J. A. Alexander’s comments on Acts 25:7, “the nature of these charges may be gathered from the former accusation [Acts 24:5-6] and the abstract of Paul’s answer in the next verse.”1 The “former accusation” is found in Acts 24:5-6, where the charges before Felix read: “For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, and we seized him, and wanted to judge him according to our law.” Indisputably these are Jewish charges that, in the Sanhedrin view, demand redress “according to our law.”

The “abstract of Paul’s answer” is found in verse 8: “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended in anything at all.” The first two foundational points of defense relate to “the law of the Jews” and the charge regarding temple desecration. And then he adds for good measure that he has not even offended Caesar’s law.

Third, because of this, Festus asked Paul: “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and there be judged before me concerning these things?” (Acts 25:9). The case is close to being remanded back to the Sanhedrin, where matters of Jewish law would be dealt with.

Fourth, an earlier charge in this series of legal woes for Paul directly relates his worthiness of death to the Jewish law: “I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him worthy of death [axion thanatou] or chains” (Acts 23:29). The same terminology is used by Paul in his protestation against the charges against him: “For if I am an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death [axion thanatou], I do not object to dying” (Acts 25:11a).

It is important to notice that Paul considers the case already to have been tried and concluded in Jerusalem before the Sanhedrim: “… but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver me to them. I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11b). That is, “if such is the result of the investigation just concluded, then I do not refuse ….”2 “These things” charged to Paul are clearly spelled out in Acts 23:28-29: “And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him worthy of death or chains.” And later in Acts 24:13 and 20, he confirms that the trial by the council (Gk. sunhedrion) could not establish his guilt: “Nor can they prove the things of which they now accuse me …. Or else let those who are here themselves say if they found any wrongdoing in me while I stood before the council.” Because of the concluded proceedings Paul can say to Festus: “To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know.”

Fifth, Festus writes King Agrippa regarding Paul, pointing to the Jewish charges that failed to prove him guilty of a capital offense, as they themselves argued: “King Agrippa and all the men who are here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole assembly of the Jews petitioned me, both at Jerusalem and here, crying out that he was not fit to live any longer” (Acts 25:24). His entire trial before the Jewish and Roman authorities reminds us of Christ’s trials, wherein the Jews accused Jesus with religious charges in seeking His death: “We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).

Interestingly, in light of Johnson’s complaint against the theonomic reference to this passage,3 Festus admits that the Jews “had some questions against him about their own religion and about one, Jesus, who had died, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I was uncertain of such questions, I asked whether he was willing to go to Jerusalem and there be judged concerning these matters” (Acts 25:20). In fact, Paul is delighted to appear before Agrippa “especially because you are expert in all customs and questions which have to do with the Jews” (Acts 26:3). He is ready to re-defend himself against “all the things of which I am accused by the Jews” (Acts 26:2).

Acts 25:11 is relevant to the theonomic argument, and in no way a hindrance to it.

Notes

1. J. A. Alexander, The Acts of the Apostles Explained (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph, n.d.), 2:384.

2. Alexander, Acts, 2:388.

3. Of Acts 25:11: “[I]t is pressing [Paul’s] words further than the context will allow to argue that Paul expects the pagan Festus to understand the complexities of the Torah… well enough to find Paul’s appeal intelligible and persuasive. On this point it is most natural to suppose that Paul is appealing to Roman law.” Johnson, p. 181.

 


Topics: Biblical Law

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., holds degrees from Tennessee Temple University (B.A.), Reformed Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th. M.; Th. D).  He also attended Grace Theological Seminary for two years.  He is Research Professor in New Testament (Whitefield Theological Seminary), a theological writer, and conference speaker. He has written numerous books and articles on issues such as theology, ecclesiology, eschatology, theonomy, six-day creation, presuppositionalism, worldview, Christian education, and more.  He also offers a Christian writing correspondence course.  He is the Director of GoodBirth Ministries, a non-profit religious educational ministry committed to sponsoring, subsidizing, and advancing serious Christian scholarship and education.  He is a retired Presbyterian minister holding his ordination vows in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly.

More by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.