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Is Nehemiah a Pragmatist?

  • Matthew Colvin,
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To the editor of the "Keeping the Faith" section of Chalcedon's web page:

Prof. Timothy Terrell's may or may not be correct (" Pro-Life Principles I: RU-486" ) in concluding that RU-486 should not be banned by the state, but his arguments for that conclusion leave much to be desired.

Before critiquing those arguments, let me observe that the government already bans the sale, importation, and possession (not merely the use!) of various recreational narcotics. It regulates the possession (not merely the use!) of weapons and toxins. And in myriad ways, the government acts contrary to the alleged Biblical principle advocated by Dr. Terrell: namely, that because "no commodity, by itself, is inherently evil," the government therefore ought to allow the possession, import, and sale of every object or substance whatsoever. Dr. Terrell says, "I oppose any regulatory barrier to trade, no matter how much I despise the use of the commodity imported." Let us see whether this is indeed a Biblical idea.

By framing the issue in this way, focusing on material objects rather than on persons, Dr. Terrell has missed the point. The regulation of drugs, toxins, and weapons does not pronounce things evil, it prohibits *men* from *doing things* with them — e.g. buying, selling, transporting, ingesting or possessing. And there is good Biblical precedent for this: for instance, Nehemiah says that he prohibited merchants from hanging around the walls of Jerusalem on the Sabbath (Neh. 13). Now, there is no command in the Law of God against loitering with merchandise on the Sabbath. Yet Nehemiah drives these merchants off with threats before any buying or selling — any breaking of God's Law — can take place. What is more, he actually shuts the doors of the city and has the Levites guard the gates, thereby *preventing* any possibility of Sabbath-breaking by commerce with those outside the walls.

Is Nehemiah guilty of a humanistic solution, trying to prevent a crime by a means God has not authorized? Should he not rather have waited with stones ready to punish, and let prevention accrue as "a side effect" (Dr. Terrell's words). Is Nehemiah's proactive prevention a pragmatic departure from God's Law? Or the behavior of a wise man? Nehemiah is not a simpleton. He takes into account the circumstances of time and place. He knows that if a merchant is hanging around the walls of Jerusalem with wares on the Sabbath, it can only be because he intends to sell them. Likewise, our rulers are bright enough to see that if a neighborhood pharmacist has RU-486 on his shelves, it can only be because he intends to aid women in the murder of their unborn children. If a man in the apartment next door has a vat of Marburg virus, it can only be because he is contemplating murder. So our rulers prohibit the possession of these substances in these circumstances. Is this pragmatism? Then Nehemiah is a pragmatist. After all, sin is not inherent in wares, pills, or viruses.

It is telling that the example Dr. Terrell chooses to illustrate "preventing crime by a means God has not authorized" is Saul's burnt offering in 1 Sam. 13 — a favorite example of strict regulativists in the longstanding Reformed worship debate. Pace Dr. Terrell, Saul's sin is not failure to find a divine precept on which to ground his action. It is, in fact, his *transgression* of the Law, which prohibited anyone but the descendants of Aaron from offering sacrifice (Num. 16:40) — a law which Uzziah also transgressed (2 Chr. 26:16-21).

R.J. Rushdoony has taught us much. His warnings about the danger of an *emphasis* on preventing sin by civil legislation are on the money. Dr. Terrell, however, speaks not in terms of emphasis, or about how the wise man should tend to rule, but about justifying, in exhaustive detail, each piece of legislation that might be imagined: "I have failed to see in Scripture any justification for state involvement in the regulation of pharmaceuticals." It is one thing to argue against the multiplication of civil statutes as a generally ineffective cure for a disease that requires surgery at a lower level (family, church, individual) ; it is quite another to advocate a "regulative principle" of the State. That is not theonomy.

Yours for rule of Christ in the civil sphere,

Matthew Colvin
member, Niagara Reformed Presbyterian (a congregation of the FORC)

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