Theonomy and Confession: A Review and Report

By Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D.
November 01, 1997

Review of a Must-Have Book

Here is the book I have longed for—the book I myself long yearned to compile. Martin Foulner provides for us a remarkable compendium of statements from the Westminster divines (and others) showing without doubt that they were theonomic in their political and social ethic. Page after page, quote after quote, the evidence mounts: Like it or not, the theologians who wrote the Westminster Standards—including WCF 19:4—held strong convictions about the continuing applicability of Mosaic Law in the modern world. This book single-handedly stops the debate over the historical and confessional nature of theonomy. Thank you, Mr. Foulner.

"Theonomy and the Westminster Confession" grew out of a 1996 overture to the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. That overture called upon the church to declare theonomy a heresy. The charges against theonomy were paraded in Scottish newspapers with such outrageous headlines as: "In Scotland a deacon wants to stone ‘bad’ kids to death" (Sunday Mail, November 17, 1996, p. 15). Below the title was a picture of the late Greg Bahnsen (though it never mentioned he had never stoned one child!). The overture passed, despite the refusal to interact with theonomists within the denomination. After the resolution passed another newspaper, The Scotsman (May 12, 1997) published the following headline: "Warning on Religious Extremists: Fundamentalists have infiltrated Scotland, says report to Free Church." The fears about theonomy were typical: emotional frenzy parading as dispassionate contemplation (quite a task!).

Foulner notes in his Preface: "I have made no attempt to argue for the theonomic position on theological or Scriptural grounds. It is the sole purpose of this work to show that the teachings of this movement are not new, but were widely held among Reformed theologians; particularly the Puritans at the Westminster Assembly." Consequently, the reader interested in the history of this debate will find Foulner’s work an extremely helpful contribution. Unfortunately, for those who detest theonomy, theonomists wrote the Confession! And as Meredith Kline noted twenty years ago: The American revisions of the Confession did not remove what he called "the Chalcedon error" from the Standards.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the anti-theonomy crusade in American Presbyterian circles (particularly within my own PCA) is the schizophrenic nature of the attack. Almost invariably the opponents of theonomy are "loose subscriptionists" regarding the Confession. This allows them to be charismatic, function as if congregationalists, deny six-day creation, and so forth while they pretend they are faithful to Presbyterian principles. Yet when it comes to criticism of theonomy, they switch principles and become "strict subscriptionists." They then argue that the WCF 19:4 clearly disallows theonomy. The transformation is a sight to behold. It is as remarkable as it is complete. Unfortunately, it is only temporary: as soon as the theonomy debate is over, "loose subscription" becomes the name of the game. They experience deja vu and amnesia at the same time.

This famous section of the Confession reads: "To them [Israel] 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." Not realizing that this is the theonomic principle, anti-theonomists rejoice over this statement. But what theonomist would say we literally have to build a parapet around the roof our house? Or are obliged to stone to death convicted capital criminals? Yet we hold that the underlying principle—the equity within—still prevails. But back to Foulner’s remarkable work.

Foulner preserves all the original spellings, punctuation, and emphases as found in his sources. This makes for difficult reading, but it provides us with the unadulterated source material we need. Theonomic statements are published from such Westminster signatories as George Gillespie (who sounds like Greg Bahnsen on Matthew 5:17), Samuel Rutherford (whose name adorns John Whitehead’s anti-theonomic Christian civil advocacy group), Jeremiah Burroughs, Herbert Palmer, William Reyner, Richard Vines, Thomas Hodges, and Philip Nye. Over 25% of the quotations are taken from Gillespie and Rutherford. Foulner called me not long after I ordered the book. He told me he had many more quotations to add to the next edition. I can’t wait.

Many other theologians from the Puritan era are brought forward showing they hold theonomic sympathies. Men such as David Dickson, James Fergusson, James Durham, George Hutcheson, John Brown of Wamphray, Nathaniel Hardy, Thomas Gilbert, Alexander Shields, and many more. Even the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament are shown to be theonomic (1640s)! Of course, many outside of the Presbyterian debate have long recognized that Reformed theology has long had theonomic tendencies. For example, Michael Dennis Gabbert’s doctoral dissertation in church history from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary ably shows that Calvin, Cromwell, and the Massachusetts Civil Bay Colony were theonomic: "An Historical Evaluation of Christian Reconstructionism Based on the Inherent Inviability of Selected Theocratic Models" (1991). The title clearly indicates his lack of sympathy for the Christian Reconstructionist model: his is not a sympathetic defense of theonomy!

I especially enjoyed the various discussions by the divines on the "equity" of God’s Law. These are tremendously important for fleshing out their theonomic commitments in light of WCF 19:4 (see pages 21, 25n, 29, 40-41, 45, 54, 57, 59). Also helpful are the clarifications of the judicial, moral, and ceremonial distinctions within the law. The divisions are not what so many think. But you will have to contact Chalcedon and order Foulner’s book to see what I mean! In addition, the several statements arguing for a New Testament confirmation of the Law are real eye-openers.

Be aware, however, that modern theonomic sympathies themselves will recoil at some of the positions of the Westminster divines: they "out-theonomize" us! Perhaps we are too Americanized.

This book is a real "must have" for theonomists. It ought to be owned, read, and used by all those who love God’s Law, the Reformed Faith, and the ministry of the Word.

Theonomy and the Confession of Faith

(1) Presbyterian ecclesiastics effectively play into our hands when they ask that we read Meredith Kline’s review of Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Kline admits that the original Westminster Confession actually taught theonomy and that the American revised version continues many of those strands. Kline notes: "Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny" (p. 173). Kline states: "If, providentially, anything good is to come of the Chalcedon disturbance, perhaps, paradoxically, it will come from the very embarrassment given to churches committed to the Westminster standards by the relationship that can be traced, as noted above, between the Chalcedon position and certain ideas expressed in the Westminster Confession. Perhaps the shock of seeing where those ideas lead in Chalcedon’s vigorous development of them may make the church face up to the problem posed by the relevant formulations and reconsider the Confessions position on these points. . . ." Interestingly, Presbyterian Church in America teaching elder and New Testament scholar R. Laird Harris has critiqued theonomy in Covenant Seminary’s Presbyterian Covenant Seminary Review (Spring 1979), p. 1: In his second paragraph he noted of theonomy: "The view is not really new; it is just new in our time. It was the usual view through the Middle Ages, was not thrown over by the Reformers, and was espoused by the Scottish Covenanters who asked the Long Parliament to make Presbyterianism the religion of the three realms—England, Scotland and Ireland."

(2) One of the leading Westminster divines was George Gillespie. He not only voted for the Westminster Confession of Faith; he helped write it. In William H. Hetherington’s History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1856) we read of Gillespie that he "became one of the most prominent members of that August assembly, although the youngest man and minister of the whole" (p. 400). "He took an equally active and influential part in the framing of the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms, which embodied the doctrinal decisions of the Assembly" (p. 401). He speaks of Gillespie’s "special eminence" in the production of Assembly papers (p. 401). In Gillespie’s Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty he writes:

"(2) Christ’s words (Mt. 5:17), Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill, are comprehensive of the judicial law, it being a part of the law of Moses. Now he could not fulfill the judicial law, except either by his practice, or by teaching others still to observe it; not by his own practice, for he would not condemn the adulteress (Jn. 8:11), nor divide the inheritance (Lk. 12:13-14). Therefore it must be by his doctrine for our observing it. "(3) If Christ in his sermon (Mt. 5), would teach that the moral law belongs to us Christians, in so much as he vindicates it from the false glosses of the scribes and Pharisees; then he meant to hold forth the judicial law concerning moral trespasses as belonging unto us also; for he vindicates and interprets the judicial law, as well as the moral (Mt. 5:38), An eye for an eye, etc. "(4) If God would have the moral law transmitted from the Jewish people to the Christian people; then he would also have the judicial laws transmitted form the Jewish Magistrate to the Christian Magistrate: there being the same reason of immutability in the punishments, which is in the offenses" (in Christopher Coldwell, ed., Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature, pp. 182-183).

Do Gillespie’s statements sound as if modern theonomists would be disbarred from courts operating under a Confession he helped write?

(3) In addition, the most important Reformed published response to theonomy is Will Barker and Robert Godfrey, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Critique (Zondervan, 1990). Though it disagrees with theonomy, it does not condemn it as heretical; it even allows that a very theonomic-type of ethic is in the Confession. Note the following excerpts.

In Theonomy: An Informed Critique church historian Sinclair Ferguson writes, "Essentially, Bahnsen accepts the doctrinal orthodoxy of the original text [of the Confession]. Whether or not this is in conflict with the intention of the American Presbyterian emendation of the Confession, it is certainly in keeping with the traditional Scottish Reformed understanding of it" (pp. 323-324). "It cannot be doubted that mainstream Puritanism did believe that the death penalty was applicable to crimes other than murder. In several instances, therefore, its practical outworking and that of theonomy are one" (p. 334). His strongest position statement is: "We have already noted that many seventeenth-century Puritans favored a closer approximation to the Mosaic judicial statutes and appealed to Old Testament texts to confirm their views. But we have also stressed that this position is not necessarily identical with that of theonomy" (p. 339). "Not necessarily"?

Ferguson goes on to say: "No single position on every aspect of the doctrine of the law was held by the Divines at Westminster. They represented a variety of hues within a conservative spectrum, on many doctrines, and specifically on the doctrine of the law of God. Hence their protracted and difficult discussions. Here, as elsewhere, part of their genius lay in their ability to state doctrines clearly, yet not so narrowly as to exclude brethren among themselves who likewise were committed to generic Calvinism. Their response to Parliament’s demand for proof-texts, the known theological diversity among the commissioners, and indications in the minutes that they themselves were prepared to express things in an accommodating fashion all suggest that Chapter XIX is a fine example of their Reformed inclusivism. It would have satisfied those Divines, like Gillespie, who wished that more attention would be given to the Mosaic penology; it satisfied others who did not believe that the Mosaic penology as such was necessarily binding, in all of its details, though the Mosaic prospections generally speaking were" (pp. 345-46).

Ferguson: "It should be noted that in many instances the practical implications of theonomy may not necessarily be a denial of the teaching of the Westminster Confession. The words of Chapter XIX, iv can be understood to include the view that the Mosaic penalties may be applied by the Christian magistrate (if "general equity" so dictates). We have already noted that such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy" (pp. 346-47).

Again, Ferguson: "In light of this, and the considerations above, I conclude that the Confession does not expound, nor does it prescribe, a theonomic viewpoint. It may be that some members of the Assembly were prepared to stretch the meaning of ‘general equity’ as far as contemporary theonomists do. . . . The strongest position a theonomist could adopt on the basis of the Confession would be that it did not a priori reject the application of the Mosaic judicial punishment for crimes considered seriatim. But theoretical theonomy as such is not the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith" (p. 348).

Tremper Longman in Theonomy: An Informed Critique: "The above criticisms should not be taken as a complete rejection of theonomy’s insight into the law and its penalties. . . . We can be grateful to theonomy for forcing the church to take these issues seriously" (p. 54).

In the introductory note to the conclusion of Theonomy: An Informed Critique, Will Barker (a PCA church historian and former General Assembly moderator) and Robert Godfrey write: "Although this volume is a critique of theonomy, several of the chapters have concluded on a positive note of appreciation for what the theonomists have contributed to our understanding of God’s law" (p. 385).

D. Clair Davis, a PCA church historian and a non-theonomist, writing in the same work: "Theonomy can be of great service precisely within the context of the constitution of the American republic" (p. 392). On page 393 he writes: "Only creeds . . . can define the priorities and direction of a denomination. If that is correct, and if no church has adopted explicit creeds for or against theonomy, then by definition no one can regard himself threatened by those who do not concur with his evaluation of the movement." "It is easy to argue that the Westminster Confession’s commitment to the general equity of Old Testament law provides ample justification for theonomic clarification of that equity" (p. 394). He further notes:

What is the purpose of a theological examination of a ministerial candidate in a presbytery? There is not one, but two: to determine the candidate’s doctrinal orthodoxy and also to determine his theological competence, his ability to show that he can think theologically. Presbyteries may not always be clear about when they are serving which purpose. They may always inquire into questions that require insight into theonomic issues, as a way of testing competence. But they may not require a particular application of the general equity of Old Testament law as a criterion of doctrinal orthodoxy within the system of doctrine. This must be case, for both pro- and anti-theonomists. If that distinction proves too difficult to maintain, probably it is the path of wisdom to forego examination in these areas. (p. 395)

(4) Ronald Nash, a Reformed theologian at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, writes in Great Divides: "For one thing, the people called theonomists don’t appear to be dangerous. Efforts to show that they are dangerous do more, I suspect, to dishonor the people raising the charges" (p. 176).

Familiar Case Law Objections: Deuteronomy 13

The Deuteronomy 13 law does not mandate capital punishment of non-believers and members of false religions. It must be understood in terms of its Biblical and historical context. First, it should be noted at the outset that the framing of the law in Deuteronomy 13 has in view solicitation and seduction to idolatry (Dt. 13:2, 6, 13). It does not have in mind personal unbelief or even personal rejection of faith in Jehovah God. Those who mistakenly assume that this law would inevitably draw the state sword into church discipline for unbelief are mistaken. In fact, unbelief in Israel was not punishable by death. For one to refuse to be circumcised (an expression of unbelief, cf. Lev. 26:41; Dt. 30:6; Jer. 9:25-26; Ez. 44:7) meant that he was "cut off" from the religious community (Gen. 17:14). He was excluded from the worship in Israel (Ex. 12:48; Eze. 44:7, 9); he was not executed.

Second, in Deuteronomy 13, we have what in essence is the framing of a law against treason. This is evident on the basis of the following three-staged consideration: (1) By the very nature of the case, the god of a society is that society’s source of law (see R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy [Fairfax, VA: Thoburn, 1971]). It has been thus in the fallen world since the temptation of Eve to be as "God" by "knowing" (determining, legislating) good and evil (Gen. 3:5). Hence, the pagan tendency for political rulers to be deified, as illustrated in the Babylonian king (Is. 14:4, 13-14) and the Roman emperor (Mt. 22:15-22; 2 Thes. 2:4; Rev. 13:4ff). Hegel clothed this pagan conception in modern dress: "The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth." To seek another god, therefore, is to turn from the Law of the present God, Jehovah, which Law was the constitutional basis of the nation of Israel.

(2) The context preceding Deuteronomy 13 speaks of the gods of the nations around Israel. It speaks of nations serving their gods: "When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise’" (Dt. 12:29-30). This leads me to note that:

(3) The Deuteronomic law is developed in such a way as to indicate the ultimate outcome of such apostasy. It is wholesale, treasonous rebellion against the lawful authority and integrity of the nation: "If you hear someone in one of your cities, which the LORD your God gives you to dwell in, saying, ‘Certain corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods, gods whom you have not known" (Dt. 13:12-13). As Craigie puts it: "In its implications, the crime would be equivalent to treason or espionage in time of war" (Peter Craigie, Deuteronomy [Grend Rapids: Eerdmans], 222.). Thus, in a certain respect such a law was a right to "self-defense" for the nation, as was the right to wage defensive warfare.

Third, any perception of idolatry as a quietistic unbelief is wholly mistaken. The very nature of idolatry involved the ancient worshiper in a number of capital crimes. In fact, it is only in modern times that worship and faith could be separated from life and practice. Thus, the punishment for idolatry is a punishment for those particular crimes. As Mayes notes, Deuteronomy 12:29-32 is the "general introduction" to chapter 13 (A. D. H. Mayes, Deuteronomy, New Century Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979], p. 230). This "general introduction" clearly speaks of certain "abominable acts" of idol worshipers: "When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods" (Dt. 12:30-31).

Idolatry involved wide-scale criminal conduct and was a dangerous cancer (See Lev. 18:21-30; Rom. 1:21-32. 1 Cor. 10:20 shows the connection with Satan worship). The Canaanites were not thrust out of the land for unbelief, but for wholesale moral and criminal perversion (Lev. 18:3, 24ff; 20:23; Dt. 9:5; 18:9-12). That idolatry was a real danger is evident in the days of Israel’s apostasy, when abominable acts were committed (2 Kgs. 16:3; 21:6; 23:10). All nations served idols in those days (2 Kgs. 17:29). Israel fell right in with them and with their grossly immoral crimes (2 Kgs. 17:7ff, 17-19), thus corrupting and subverting the moral fiber of their culture, cult prostitution, and the like.

Thus, as we have seen, the apostasy laws of God's law are not laws against mere unbelief or against misguided worship. Those laws were designed to protect the legal integrity of the nation (criminalizing such actions as treason, conspiracy, seditious revolt, and espionage) and to bring judgment against wicked idolatry (criminalizing such actions as cultural subversion and public mayhem). The false prophet in Deuteronomy 13:5 is not just a foolish mouther of error, but is a focus point for agitating the masses to rebellion. The prophets of Israel “demanded that same obedience to their words as was due to the Law of God,” E. J. Young, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 34. The false prophets would tend to mirror the cultural function of the true prophets, and were, thus, dangerous as conspirators.

Deuteronomy 21. Often anti-theonomists will bring up Deuteronomy 21:18-21 as a horrible example of the danger of theonomy. Be sure to get clear as to what the questioner of theonomy is saying. Is he saying that this law is so obviously horrendous that it should self-evidently not be practiced today? Often, that is the tone of the question; the mere quoting of this law is deemed to evidence the absurdity of theonomy. If this is the approach taken, you should note: (1) This was, in fact, a part of God’s Law revealed by God to Moses. Would we be able to defend the integrity of Scripture against the secularist who points to this law as cruel. Whether or not it remains valid today, for those who hold to the inspiration of Scripture, it was valid in the Old Testament era. We need to be careful that we not quote God’s Law in a mocking manner. (2) This law calls for capital punishment of rebellious children and was re-affirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 15:3-6. Not only does he not mock this law, but he appears to reaffirm its validity.

In addition, the following may be added for those who are careful not to laugh at the “absurdity” of God’s Law; (1) The modern anti-theonomic interpreter does not really understand the law, if he applies it to ten-year-olds who do not take out the garbage. It very obviously does not speak of minor children. It speaks of a situation so dangerous that the parents have lost control over their son, who does not respond to their chastening. He is evidently a danger to them and to society. (2) In fact, he is such a danger that his own parents seek his capital punishment! This obviously is a grievous situation, in that parents normally seek to protect their children, not seek to bring criminal charges of a capital nature against them! (3) The “general equity” of this law is at least three-fold: (a) It provides principles regarding incorrigible criminality. Such a person is a repeat offender, who is so bad that his own parents seek his death, (b) It denies the right of parents to exercise capital punishment themselves (the state has to do it), (c) It illustrates procedural guidelines for capital cases. Criminals must be brought to civil authorities (“elders sitting in the gates”); the civil authorities must pass the judgment and oversee the execution.

John 8:1-11. This passage does not repeal the law against adultery. Notice several facts:

(1) This seems to have been a frame-up. The woman’s accusers claim to have caught her “in the act” of adultery. Where is the man? It takes two to act out adultery.

(2) Jesus never says not to stone her.

(3) Jesus never indicates the law is invalid.

(4) Actually Jesus actually demands the full application of the procedural aspects of the law. When he says “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone,” he was requiring the procedures found in God’s law: (a) Deut. 19:15 and (2) Lev. 17:17. These texts say the witnesses should not be guilty of the crime and that the witnesses should have a hand in the punishment. This is a safety feature to secure the integrity of the witnesses: would a false witness be as willing to testify against a man if he was going to engage in the actual punishment?

(5) But if Jesus did repeal the law against adultery (which he did not), it would be God speaking in his word who repealed it, not we ourselves. If John 8 is an example of the repealing of a criminal punishment law, then the method of proving the repeal of such a law is theonomic, that is, it is God’s word that is determinative, not the U. S. Constitution, the pluralistic culture will live in, the passing of time, etc.

Random Observations

The idea of general equity is clearly necessitated by time-bound, culture-oriented applications of case laws in the Old Testament. Theonomy does not require the erection of a fence on the roof today, because we no longer entertain guests on our houses. But the general equity of the law remains: we are obliged to provide a safe environment for our guests. Theonomy does not require stoning as the means of capital punishment today. Death by lethal injection or electrocution would be a general equitable application of the judicial response to capital crimes. Theonomy does not require that we await a literal ox in a ditch or a straying ass (Dt. 22:1) before we are obliged by God to help our neighbor in preventing the loss or damage of his property. On and on we could go, in both the Old and New Testaments. The idea of general equity is necessary to bring first century New Testament laws and principles into the twentieth century. For instance, we do not have to wait for a Jew to be beaten and robbed before we are obligated to be a “good Samaritan.”

There is some hard work to be done in discerning ceremonial from judicial laws (levirate and Jubilee, etc.). Theonomists do not claim they have all the answers, though they feel that have a system that can reduce the number of complications in ethical discourse.

Never forget that the “jot and tittle” language upon which the Law’s abiding validity in “exhaustive detail” is based, is Jesus’s statement, not theonomists’. We have to account for his statement in some way; theonomy believes it has found the means.

Topics: Church, The, Creeds, Theology

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.