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Does Theonomy Have a Fatal Flaw?

.Last year, publisher Wipf & Stock released Timothy R. Cunningham's new book, How Firm a Foundation?1 The book's purpose was two-fold: to expose reportedly fatal weaknesses in the late Greg Bahnsen's views on how God's law applies in the New Covenant era, and to promote a return to the Westminster Confession's position on the legitimate extent of God's law in the lives of believers and nations today.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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Last year, publisher Wipf & Stock released Timothy R. Cunningham's new book, How Firm a Foundation?1 The book's purpose was two-fold: to expose reportedly fatal weaknesses in the late Greg Bahnsen's views on how God's law applies in the New Covenant era, and to promote a return to the Westminster Confession's position on the legitimate extent of God's law in the lives of believers and nations today.2 Readers unprepared to confront this book's detailed argumentation will be hard pressed not to retreat before the challenges it seems to mount.

Cunningham's subtitle makes clear that his specific target is the pro-law perspective set forth by Bahnsen in Theonomy in Christian Ethics.3 His critique proceeds on the notion that a successful attack upon Bahnsen's exposition of a key Biblical text (Matthew 5:17-20, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law ...") will invalidate Bahnsen's practical conclusions concerning the law of God. Since Cunningham knows not to fight something with nothing, he advances an alternative view unencumbered by the kind of flaws he identifies in Bahnsen.

If the only views in the running were Bahnsen's and Cunningham's, the latter's analysis would prevail (especially since Dr. Bahnsen isn't in a position to rebut him posthumously). The unaware reader would likely reach the same conclusion that appears on the book's back cover: "the Reconstructionist ethical perspective is unbiblical, unconfessional, and ultimately unhelpful."

But Cunningham failed to take into account the elephant in the room, and it is to edify our readers that we now take this involved journey so that we can introduce that elephant to you.

The Elephant in the Room

Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851-1921) was one of the greatest Christian theologians God has raised up. As William Hendriksen (quoted favorably by Cunningham4) said of Warfield, his "views on matters theological generally command the utmost respect."5 He was capable of chairing any of the departments at Princeton, so broad was his learning and acumen. And in 1915, he published an exposition of Matthew 5:17-20 that remains, to this day, the most self-consistent interpretation of this key passage available.6

I have drawn attention to this superior alternative to Bahnsen's approach since 1981, incorporating it into a published book review of Bahnsen and Gentry's House Divided in 1989 and featuring it in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology in 1998. In this last publication, I wrote:

Warfield's view of theonomy's famed locus classicus, Matthew 5:17-20, deserves separate attention, and that on several grounds. On its own merit, his exposition should be permitted to compete with the prevailing exegesis of Bahnsen, so that our era will at least be able to evaluate both viewpoints side by side, rather than being spoon-fed one to the exclusion (and deliberate omission) of the other.
Warfield taught the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail (and more consistently than did Dr. Bahnsen) ... [His exposition] is quietly swept under the rug as we are informed about the "majority opinion" of today's theonomic postmillennialists (which may well simply reflect all those influenced by, and uncritically repeating, Dr. Bahnsen's magnum opus argumentation).7

You might well wonder why nobody seems to know about Warfield's exposition. In an otherwise thorough 600+ page synthesis of Warfield's theology published in 2010, the topic was omitted.8 In other words, you have to dig to find these treasures.9 If Cunningham was aware of Warfield's views, his book doesn't show it,10 asserting instead that "the sole scriptural support for the Theonomic hermeneutic remains Bahnsen's understanding of Matt. 5:17-18."11

This massive hole in Cunningham's initial research must be dealt with. Even if Cunningham's critique of Bahnsen rings true (and in some particulars we will see that it does), it is insufficient to discredit theonomy. Cunningham must show that Warfield's view is unscriptural, unconfessional,12 and unhelpful as well. Then and only then has he met the actual challenge before him. Since Warfield antedates Bahnsen, Cunningham cannot argue that theonomists are unfairly moving the goalposts on him. Yes, some promoters blew Bahnsen's horn for years, but sometimes the truth simply doesn't lift up its voice in the street (Isa. 42:2).

The Interpretation of Matthew 5:17

Bahnsen and Cunningham differ in regard to standards of proof. Bahnsen held that if a line of plausibility connects each of the proposed interpretations he makes, then context can solidify it. Cunningham sees this differently, especially in regard to Matt. 5:17, and has caught Bahnsen in at least one erroneous citation and several instances of special pleading. As Cunningham exposits the verse, it should be understood to say,

Do not think I came to destroy the law or the prophets [that is, the Old Covenant]. I've not come to destroy but to fulfill [by inaugurating the New Covenant to complete the tenure of the Old]

Bahnsen's rendering would come closer to this interpretation:

Do not begin to think that I came to annul the law and the prophets [the ethical stipulations of the law]; I've not come to annul them but the exact opposite: to confirm, validate, and ratify them.

The word "or" in Christ's words "the law or the prophets" is treated as mere stylistic variation by Bahnsen, who believes it means the same as "the law and the prophets," and here is where Cunningham discovered that Bahnsen's citation of H.A.W. Meyer in support of this claim was dead wrong.13 Cunningham is probably correct that the "or" introduces a distinction that should be treated as important, a distinction that Bahnsen fails to consider.

But the bigger issue Cunningham has with Bahnsen's treatment of verse 17 is in respect to the final three Greek words: kataleusai alla pleroosai (destroy but fulfill). Bahnsen takes alla to require an antonym behind it (a word precisely opposite in meaning from the word just before alla) and therefore looks through the range of possible meanings of pleroosai to find one opposite in meaning to annul/abolish/destroy (kataleusai). Because Bahnsen insists that the ethical requirements of God's law are intended by the phrase "law or the prophets," his word hunt is dictated by this pre-restricted meaning, and so he settles on "confirm/validate/ratify" as the right translation of pleroosai in this case. He cites several authorities in favor of this view.14

But Cunningham painstakingly dismantles Bahnsen's approach word by word. He shows that alla does not always require exact opposites,15 and that Bahnsen's citation to make that point is selective and thus misleading. Even more deadly to Bahnsen's thesis is how Cunningham discredits pleroosai as meaning "confirm" or "ratify,"16 showing that the major Greek lexicon Bahnsen relies on doesn't officially sanction that alternate meaning for pleroosai but includes it only in a gloss where scholarly disputes are recorded.17 Other authorities that Bahnsen cites in his favor are discounted for being mere preachers, not professional lexicographers, by which tactic Cunningham18 has shrewdly shifted the burden of proof (although he advances his alternative view without cognizance of Warfield's position, moving, as Bahnsen would say, too quickly to the argumentative kill).

The Interpretation of Matthew 5:18

Cunningham's critique of how Bahnsen handles the final phrase of Matt. 5:18 is well-founded, but his alternative to Bahnsen's final translation of the entire verse is itself open to serious challenge. Let's look at what Cunningham got right before examining where his handling goes astray.

The word "until" appears twice in this verse, and Bahnsen taught that both phrases that begin with this word are essentially identical in meaning. In other words, "until heaven and earth pass away" is identical in meaning to "until all comes to pass," as the phrases are treated as simple parallels, and the word "all" (panta) is taken to literally mean "all things" in an absolute sense. We can paraphrase Bahnsen as taking the verse in this way:

Verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall not pass from the law until everything in the world has taken place.

Cunningham paraphrases his own position on the teaching of this verse19 quite clearly:

Until the end of the church age not one stipulation of the law will lose its authority until the covenantal shift takes place.

Mind you, Cunningham arrives at this interpretation through an extended process that he believes justifies the final result, and I've omitted the intervening steps (but will discuss the reasoning process behind them below).

The final words, "until all is accomplished" or "until all is fulfilled,"20 are taken in very different ways by Bahnsen and Cunningham. Cunningham correctly sees that this last clause speaks about an event that occurs before the world ends, while Bahnsen sees it as being synonymous with the end of the world. Cunningham misidentifies the event in question, but his critique of Bahnsen's denial of such an event prior to world's end is a legitimate one. The substance of this rejection of equating the two "until" clauses as Bahnsen does was put forth in the nineteenth century in Meyer's critique of Fritzsche:

After the concrete and lively until heaven and earth pass away, this general and indefinite until all is accomplished would be only a vague and lumbering addition.21

Meyer directly opposes Bahnsen's view in clear language concerning until all things are accomplished, noting that "this sentence is not co-ordinate to the first [phrase], but subordinate."22 Meyer also draws another conclusion in opposition to Bahnsen about what the word "all" (panta) is intended to mean: "as correlative to [the one jot and the one tittle], panta can only mean all portions of the law."23

Writing in 1915, several decades after Meyer, Warfield adopted a take-no-prisoners exegetical approach to Matt. 5:18, which we turn to next. We will learn that although Meyer and Warfield go quite a distance along the same road as Cunningham commends to us, they don't reach Cunningham's destination: they end up light years away from it. The reason for this is profound beyond measure.

The Prophecy Embedded in Matthew 5:18

Warfield, like Cunningham, sees a manifold richness in the terms employed by our Lord in Matt. 5:17-18, and expounds them all without the narrowing of intent that marks Bahnsen's approach. His development of the key verse is worth citing at length, and I pray you will muster the patience to work through this powerful exposition by Warfield:

"I came not," says Jesus, "to destroy but to fulfill, - for ..." And, then, with this "for," He immediately grounds His assertion in the further one that the whole law in all its details, down to the smallest minutiae, remains permanently in force and shall be obeyed. "For, verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or one tittle shall pass away from the law until all [of them] be accomplished." [brackets in original-MGS]
On the one hand it is asserted with an emphasis which could not easily be made stronger, that the law in its smallest details remains in undiminished authority so long as the world lasts. Jesus has not come to abrogate the law-on the contrary the law will never be abrogated, not even in the slightest of its particulars-the dotting of an "i" or the crossing of a "t" -so long as the world endured.
But Jesus does not content Himself with this "canonization of the letter," as H. J. Holtzmann calls it, certainly without exaggeration. The law, remaining in all its details in undiminished authority, is, on the other hand, to be perfectly observed. Jesus declares that while the world lasts no jot or tittle of the law shall pass away-until they all, all the law's merest jots and tittles, shall be accomplished.
He means to say not merely that they should be accomplished, but that they shall be accomplished. The words are very emphatic. The "all," standing in correlation with the "one" of the "one jot" and "one tittle," declares that all the jots and all the tittles of the law shall be accomplished. Not one shall fail. The expression itself is equivalent to a declaration that a time shall come when in this detailed perfection, the law shall be observed.
This amounts to a promise that the day shall surely come for which we pray when, in accordance with Jesus' instruction we ask, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth."24

Warfield's subsequent discussion (on verses 19-20) rejoins Cunningham in asserting that this passage directly relates to the question of Christian character in those who are Christ's disciples (an emphasis Cunningham cannot discern in Bahnsen's treatment of the text, perhaps for good reason).

But Cunningham places the event that terminates the law somewhere between the crucifixion of Christ and the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 (depending on the line of argumentation he employs at any given point), while Warfield extends the law's duration so far that today's walk-by-sight Christians can only think, "This is a hard saying; who can hear it?" (John 6:60).25 A divine prediction that the law of God would one day be universally kept, starting with the greatest commandment to love God with all the heart, presupposes a stupendous victory of the gospel, a tremendous outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh. And as the nations encourage one another to learn of the Lord's ways and paths from His law, they beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, so that the sword disappears from the world and the nations don't even learn war ever again (Isa. 2:2-4).

It should be pointed out that Cunningham's emphasis is actually misplaced: Matt. 5:18 doesn't focus on the prerequisite for the law passing away so much as it focuses on the prerequisite for the heavens and earth to pass away! The world ends only after the law of God enjoys universal observance (the same law that now suffers near-universal violation), in harmony with Luke 16:17 and with St. Paul's teaching that Christ returns only after death, the last enemy, is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24-28), all other enemies of Christ having long since passed away that the meek might inherit the earth.

H.A.W. Meyer acknowledged this interpretation of Matt. 5:18 to be the literally precise one26 but tried to tone down the extraordinary conclusion out of dogmatic considerations,27 considerations he jettisoned when writing his commentaries on John28 and Romans.29 Warfield follows where the text goes in all particulars, never setting foot on the landmines Cunningham has laid out for Bahnsen.30

A Modest Proposal

By now the reader has grasped that a convoluted dispute over how to render the term "fulfill" at the end of Matthew 5:17 has raged over the centuries. Cunningham provides good lexical reasons for questioning Bahnsen's rendering (ratify or confirm). For his own part, Cunningham is comfortable treating the word as meaning (in effect) to "transcend,"31 which achieves abolition of the law without quite abolishing it in so many words. Nonetheless, Cunningham does admit that the term's "basic meaning in classical Greek was ‘filling' something or someone,"32 and further notes that this meaning (which he himself doesn't adopt) is the first listed meaning sanctioned by his preferred lexicon.33

But in both the immediate and broader Biblical contexts, there certainly exists a basis for the idea that Jesus came to fill the law, insofar as Israel's leaders had emptied the law (rendered it void -empty -by their traditions and circumlocutions).

"It is time for thee, O Lord, to work, for they have made void Thy law" (Psalm 119:126). This Scripture, while commonly viewed as an appeal to God to respond to transgressors, may point to something else entirely. Verses 126, 127, and 128 of Psalm 119 form a unit,34 one whose final meaning may rely on the literal sense of the final member of the triad:

Therefore all precepts of all I make straight. Every path of falsehood I hate.35

The Hebrew of the first clause above is a challenge to translate unless you choose to see it as embodying a prophecy concerning Christ (Isa. 42:16) and His forerunner (Isa. 40:3-4) who were indeed sent to make the crooked things straight. What an apparently excellent fit this makes for what Jesus actually does in Matt. 5:21ff, in which crooked ethical instruction is straightened out and the laws, so long deprived by scribal legalisms of their force (Hebrew pahrar and Greek akuroosate/akurao36) are finally filled with their total authority.

Is it possible then that the work that God is exhorted to do because the law had been made void (Psalm 119:126) is precisely to make all of His precepts straight? It is time for thee, O Lord, to work, for they have made void Thy law... Therefore all precepts of all I make straight..." The thought dovetails with the admittedly messianic import of Psalm 40:7-8: "Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart."

On this hypothesis, the voiding of God's law proceeds from those appointed to teach it (compare Hosea 4:8 with Matt. 15:6). The loosening of the least of God's commandments is likely a parallel thought (Matt. 5:19), and there is surely no more profound voiding of God's law than to omit its weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23).

The point to be taken away from this digression is that there are ways to satisfy the lexical requirements that Cunningham claims Bahnsen failed to meet, without adopting Cunningham's conclusion. And if our modest proposal doesn't ultimately hold water, there is always the fortified haven of Warfield's analysis to which we can safely retreat. Warfield provides a foundation for theonomy that is more than firm enough, quite apart from the validity of the hypothesis just advanced.

Hidden Baggage and Begged Questions

Cunningham weaves an interesting web, slowly introducing cautiously-worded provisos in his assertions and gradually blending in restatements of his conclusions until by the end of the book he is outright asserting his view to be coincident with Christ's position. Unless the reader is trained in critical thinking and can detect the suspicious shaping37 of the argument, he or she will be inclined to follow the book to its conclusion. The unwary reader will adopt all the subtle shifts of meaning imported by Cunningham by way of loaded terms ("Sinai Covenant," "Zion Torah," etc.) served up on often-unstated presuppositions.

The author explains that he is not merely mounting a critique of Bahnsen's view (wrongly identified as the sole support for theonomy) but also setting forth an alternative, and it is to the latter that we must now turn. We cannot do justice to every detail38 as this is not a book-length rebuttal by any stretch, so we must be selective and focus on only a few key points.

Which Author is Proving Too Much?

Cunningham holds that Bahnsen's rendering of "one jot and one tittle shall not pass from the law" proves too much,39 for Bahnsen can't have his cake and eat it too. Either the jots and tittles remain unchanged or they do indeed change. Cunningham leaves the laws unchanged until the "covenant shift," while Bahnsen argues for modification after that shift (meaning the law is unchanged yet changed-hence the cake metaphor).

Jesus dealt with this issue when He healed on the Sabbath: the command of Moses had to be set aside to satisfy the command of Moses, and Christ shows the hypocrisy of His critics in this respect. When the Old Testament self-modifies its own content, we need to "live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God," not just cherry-pick a few laws in blinkered isolation to make points in a debate while ignoring the vast context in which those laws are set (in which the Messiah terminates sacrifice and oblations at Daniel 9:27, jettisons the ark of the covenant as a non-issue at Jeremiah 3:16, where altars outside Israel are expressly sanctioned and blessed by God at Isaiah 19:18f., etc.).

This challenge against Bahnsen is nothing new. John W. Robbins mounted the same challenge in the 1980s, to which I wrote an extended rebuttal elaborating on these Old Testament passages and much more, showing that pitting Scripture against Scripture is quite different from appealing to the whole counsel of God.40

In actual fact, it appears that Cunningham's position is the one that proves too much. If one accepts his proposal that the validity of the Mosaic civil laws depends on a given nation's situation (in respect to time, space, and circumstance), then the Westminster Divines' ruling on those laws would only be valid for Great Britain in the seventeenth century. Their conclusion41 would have no specific authority for us today, for an ethical theory mounted on this view of general equity would entail each nation continually reinventing its civil law for itself as circumstances dictate.

Whether the precepts of Mosaic civil law are right and just for modern America is, therefore, not something the Westminster Confession of Faith could legitimately assert, so appealing to that document within Cunningham's paradigm is actually self-defeating. After all, it might have been right for the Divines to reject Mosaic law for themselves, but wrong for us to reject it. We're not even considering the insurmountable problem of achieving consensus on that question in a society where this view (vox populi, vox Dei-the voice of the people is the voice of God), in effect if not intent, prevails.

How "Just" Are God's Laws for Today?

Hebrews 2:2 informs us that under God's law, "every transgression received a just recompence of reward." Cunningham never deals with this defining text, feeling free to ask "the question of whether or not a particular Mosaic law was just in itself."42 Cunningham argues in effect that while God may not be a respecter of persons, He surely is a respecter of political boundary lines and calendar days. This approach treats Matthew 5:17-18 as setting forth an interim ethic,43 not an eternal one.

The legal structure of a nation then depends on time and place: while ethics are to be "informed" by the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments),44 they are ultimately situational in this model because "the general equity of those laws is not the same when applied in the post-Sinai context."45 Calvin and the Westminster Divines "reckoned the law to be abolished as a system, leaving only laws that are just by reason of general equity applicable today."46 Cunningham repeats the point: "They limited our obligation to instating only those Mosaic civil stipulations whose equity is such that those stipulations will remain just despite the change in covenantal circumstances."47

There are several apparently undesirable consequences of Cunningham's position. Consider the pivotal "litmus test" Scripture, Isaiah 8:20:

To the law and the testimony: if they do not speak according to these, it is because there is no light in them.

If Cunningham is right, we'd actually be much safer in our time to read the verse this way:

To the law and the testimony: if they do speak according to these, it is because there is no light in them until we prove otherwise.

We truly arrive at the concept of "the Word of God Emeritus" where modern man, using an internal moral compass of supposedly binding divine authority, is actually required to sit in judgment on the laws of God.

In other words, Isaiah 42:4 has it quite wrong in stating that "the isles shall wait for His law" because there really is nothing to wait for. Whatever law is needed by the isles is asserted to already reside in human hearts by dint of creation. God's Old Testament case laws serve at best as a non-binding advisory board to man. The real power resides in man's application of his innate endowments (contra Isa. 2:22, Jer. 17:5, and 17:9). 

We respectfully disagree.

A Question of Inconceivable Importance

Cunningham observes that "almost the entire American evangelical movement will find their views challenged, if not transformed, if the Reconstructionist ethical perspective is proven to be biblical."48 He sees the far-reaching consequences of differing approaches to the law of God. He recognizes this to be an important question that has yet to be adequately answered, and so he stood in the gap to attempt a better answer than hitherto developed by others.

While true that his attempt failed of its stated intention, Cunningham must be credited with drawing attention to very real weaknesses in Bahnsen's interpretation of an important text of Scripture. While I have never personally adopted Bahnsen's view of Matthew 5:18, I have often appealed to his construction of verse 17 as a legitimate option standing alongside the exegesis of Meyer and Warfield. Barring further light on the matter, I will certainly qualify future appeals to Bahnsen on that text. To be teachable in a polemical exchange is, however, a two-way street.

A weakness in Bahnsen's exegesis does not translate into a weakness in the theonomic perspective. Because the literal meaning of Matt. 5:17-18 (per Meyer and Warfield) stands, the bulk of Bahnsen's monumental work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, remains not only valid but urgently needed in a world where so many "esteem the great things of God's law as a strange thing" (Hos. 8:12). While his book is by no means perfect, and can no longer be so uncritically acclaimed as providing the exegetical support for R. J. Rushdoony's three-volume Institutes of Biblical Law, Bahnsen's ultimate legacy will not suffer significantly. Like so many Christians, he arrived at correct conclusions despite mistaken premises, for God uses our weaknesses and inconsistencies despite ourselves.

How Firm a Foundation?

The title of Cunningham's book poses an important question about theonomy, the view that the law of God is to be embraced by Christians and applied as a key part of the faith for all of life. That question, while intended rhetorically, calls for a principled response: the proper foundation for Bahnsen's views are not to be sought in Bahnsen but in a foundation laid a century before the justly-famed debater49 came on the scene.

How firm, then, is the actual foundation of God's law for ourselves, for our families, and for the nations of the world today? 

Firmer than the world itself (Luke 16:17).

1. Timothy R. Cunningham, How Firm a Foundation? An Exegetical and Historical Critique of the "Ethical Perspective of [Christian] Reconstructionism" Presented in Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

2. Cunningham holds that the Ten Commandments remain valid and should be used to test the civil laws of today with respect to specific cultural situations. Christians must use discernment in determining how the "general equity" of the Ten Commandments applies, because Cunningham believes the civil laws in Scripture may not necessarily be just for nations outside ancient Israel.

3. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, [1977] 2002).

4. Cunningham, 89-90.

5. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of 1 and II Thessalonians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1955] 1979), 173.

6. Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1929), 293-299, from "Jesus' Mission, According To His Own Testimony," Reprinted from The Princeton Theological Review v. xiii, 1915, 513-586.

7. Martin Selbrede, "Reconstructing Postmillennialism," Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 15 (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation, 1998), 186.

8. Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

9. As has been well said of Warfield, the only way to deal with so formidable a protagonist is to ignore him.

10. Cunningham asserts, "Good exegesis will examine all relevant possibilities in each case ..." (pp. 43-44), but he appears to have faltered in realizing this ideal.

11. Cunningham, 35-36.

12. Depicting Warfield as "unconfessional" would be ironic, given that during his tenure at Princeton he was the most highly-regarded conservative Presbyterian scholar in the world (and a major published authority on the Westminster Assembly and its work).

13. Cunningham, 49.

14. Bahnsen failed to cite Adolf Harnack in his favor, who like Bahnsen "lays all the stress on the single element of legislation" (Warfield, p. 296), perhaps because while Harnack agreed that "the exact opposite of kataleusai is to ‘establish,' to ‘ratify'" as does Bahnsen, he also showed that Jesus went much farther than this (ibid.). Harnack then anticipates, an entire century in advance (1912 versus 2012), Cunningham's lexical argument about word choice concerning "fulfill" versus "establish" and dismantles it.

15. Cunningham, 60f. Cunningham errs in his use of Matt. 10:34 (p. 61) as Jesus is specifying what He is going to fling or cast upon the earth (a sword rather than instant peace). "He ‘came,' was ‘sent' (v. 40) to ‘cast a sword.'" Cf. Warfield, 284-285.

16. Cunningham, 62-89.

17. Cunningham, 82.

18. Cunningham, 62f.

19. Cunningham, 128. Italicized for ease in comparing to Bahnsen's rendering.

20. Bahnsen notes that genetai (accomplished) in verse 18 is not the same word as pleroosai (fulfilled) in verse 17 and thus should not be translated as fulfilled. Cunningham rejects Bahnsen's view, appealing among other things to the King James translators' work as favoring his translation.

21. Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Commentary on the New Testament (Winona Lake, IN: Alpha Publications, 1979) vol. 1, 129. Ten volumes originally published by T. & T. Clark in 1883.

22. Ibid., 128.

23. Ibid., 129.

24. Warfield 297-298. Paragraph breaks introduced to facilitate easier reading-MGS. In one of many typographic errors in his book, Cunningham cites this passage as Matt. 6:44 rather than Matt. 6:10 (p. 31).

25. In the face of this literal exposition of the text, Cunningham is manifestly in error when he writes that "these laws will only remain in force to the end of the church age if the last clause of Matt. 5:18 refers to the same event as the second clause" (p. 115).

26. Cunningham perhaps seeks to evade the force of such uncompromised exegesis by asserting that in these very statements Jesus "may intend to deliberately obscure his message" (pp. 38-39). Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

27. Meyer, 123. At the time he believed the parable of the wheat and tares and supposed imminence of Christ's return militated against taking Matt. 5:18 literally. For discussion of these points, see Selbrede, op. cit.

28. Meyer, 3:376. The sense of John 12:32 is taken literally. Meyer then points to Romans 11:25-26 as providing specific details on how "the great goal will be reached, when all will be drawn to the Son, and form one flock under one shepherd (x. 16). In this sense pantas is to be left without any arbitrary limitation."

29. Meyer, 5:447-448 on Romans 11:25-26. The restrictions and modifications imposed on Paul's text are shown to be evasions "against which the simple and clear words do not cease to offer resistance." He adds that the Reformers "were induced to depart from the literal sense out of dogmatic considerations."

30. It is likely, of course, that Cunningham would agree with Bahnsen that a more pessimistic outlook on eschatology should completely dictate the meaning of Matthew 5:18, thereby blocking the passage from kicking over our prophetic rice bowls. See Selbrede, op. cit.

31. Cunningham, 96.

32. Cunningham, 95. Its meaning in Koine Greek would be more pertinent, but we'll let his argument stand.

33. Cunningham, 65. Bahnsen's meaning is not among the numbered meanings but only appears in a gloss, as Cunningham correctly notes.

34. Alexander Maclaren in The Expositor's Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1903]1983), 3:300, asserts that "verses 126-128 are closely linked" both contextually and due to the repeated word therefore.

35. Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.) 4:266. The literal rendering from Hebrew into English is by Rev. Archdeacon Aglen.

36. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1901]1977), 24: "To render void, deprive of force and authority, (opp. to kuraoo, to confirm, make valid).

37. The number of times I had to jot down "p.p." (for petitio principii, i.e., begging the question) in the book's margins in the course of reading its every word was quite a surprise. Bahnsen would have had a field day analyzing it (though Cunningham correctly showed that Bahnsen was guilty of the same thing at many key points).

38. E.g., we sharply disagree that Christ implicitly worked a reference to Antiochus Epiphanes into the Sermon on the Mount, a notion which Cunningham (p. 47, etc.) treats as proven by work's end in harmony with his view that Jesus officially transferred the function of "light" from the law to the disciples. His view that only the Ten Commandments are still binding flies in the face of Mark 10:19 (see my online position paper at on Taxation, Liberty and the Bible concerning the technical term aposteresis, "to defraud," that Jesus used).  The traditional but arbitrary division of the law into three parts (moral, judicial, ceremonial) has long been opened to direct challenge, with better alternatives available in, e.g., Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 151f. Circumcision, dietary law, and the Hebrew calendar are asserted to be "Sinai covenant" elements now rolled back in light of Hebrews 7:12. This broad claim is open to serious direct challenge (circumcision is part of the Abrahamic covenant, cf. John 7:22; dietary law, as Vos noted, goes back to Genesis 7 (see also Zech. 9:7 regarding the Philistine diet); and even Cunningham admits the Sabbath to be a creation ordinance). Cunningham's appeal to Hebrews 7:12 (pp. 58-59, etc.) ignores the entire context which shows how the Pentateuch treats the Levitical priesthood as subordinate and secondary (thus entailing a "change" in only one commandment involving the reassertion of the primary priesthood). His tendentious treatment of Genesis 49:10, Matt. 11:13, and John 1:17 are particularly egregious examples of bald prooftexting without in-depth exposition. These examples will need to suffice for now.

39. Cunningham, 112, etc.

40. Note R. J. Rushdoony's citation of Curtis Ewing: "Acccording to Exodus 12:3, 5, 6, 24 and Leviticus 23:15, the 10th, 14th and 16th of Abib could never be Sabbaths because they were work days of specific command ... We know those dates would fall on Saturday once every seven years and if Saturday were the Sabbath there would be a conflict of commands. There would be three dates in which Israel is commanded to work falling every seventh year on days in which Israel was commanded not to work. We know that never happened, because God is not the author of confusion." R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1973), 135.

41. "Rushdoony did not notice that the Divines adduced Gen. 49:10 and 1 Pet. 2:13, 14 to buttress [their] point" (Cunningham p. 147, n. 37). Rushdoony rather noted that the Divines failed to provide confirmation from Scripture for their view, not that they failed to adduce texts in an attempt to cobble together such a confirmation.

42. Cunningham, 165.

43. Cunningham, 130.

44. For Cunningham, all men are informed by the Decalogue since they allegedly have the law written on their hearts (which is a serious misreading of Romans 2:8, which teaches rather that "the work of the law is written on their hearts," a very different thing). Such a faulty position opens up appeals to natural law against revelational law. Cunningham consequently appeals to "God's natural revelation of righteousness" (p. 32) and reposes ultimate authority there.

45. Cunningham, 14.

46. Cunningham, 23.

47. Cunningham, 24.

48. Cunningham, 3.

49. Bahnsen's formidable thoroughness calls to mind John Crandon's judgment of his fellow Puritan, Richard Baxter: "Who can abstain from laughter, to see so great a Nimrod as Mr Baxter, hunting, with no lesse weapon then Hercules his Club, a nest of wrens to death?" [all spellings sic]. Cf. Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study of Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), 33, n. 111.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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