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The Bounds of Theonomy: A Critical Review of Dr. Joel McDurmon’s “The Bounds of Love”

The following should not be taken as an exhaustive list of potential objections to Dr. McDurmon’s thesis. They provide him the opportunity to interact with opposing data and to illustrate how well his model can negotiate the challenges being presented.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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Dr. Joel McDurmon’s book The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty1 joins a varied list of books intended to introduce readers to the law of God from a theonomic perspective. Other books in this category would include the late Dr. Francis Nigel Lee’s God’s Ten Commandments2 and William O. Einwechter’s Walking in the Law of the Lord,3 while Christopher J. H. Wright defended a softer form of theonomy in 1983 from outside the discursive universe of Christian reconstruction.4

Heftier contributions in this field (which exceed the scope of an introduction by dint of size) include Stephen C. Halbrook’s God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws5 and works spanning a larger context, such as Stephen C. Perks’s The Politics of God and the Politics of Man6 and Dr. Joseph Boot’s The Mission of God.7 Jean-Marc Berthoud’s primary work on the law of God arrives (in English) later in 2018 (review pending).

But theonomy doesn’t enjoy a protective hedge that permits it to propagate its exposition of Holy Writ unmolested. Discourse over theonomy is clouded over by controversy, where its critics outnumber its advocates, and where some exchanges have evidenced more acrimony than charity. Theonomy does have sympathetic critics, but open hostility remains a regrettable feature of far too much of the polemic landscape.

Books in opposition to the theonomic premise sometimes warrant a response (in the spirit of Prov. 18:17), and I’ve examined three such books in these pages: Timothy R. Cunningham’s How Firm a Foundation,8 Paul C. McGlasson’s No! A Theological Response to Christian Reconstructionism,9 and Mel White’s Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right.10 Greg Loren Durand’s Judicial Warfare may or may not be next for critical review.

Standing astride the debate, and rightly casting a long shadow over all subsequent discourse, are five key works. Two of them, Dr. R. J. Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) and Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics (1977), jointly provide the initial statement of the theonomic thesis. Westminster Seminary’s faculty mounted a response in 1990 (Theonomy: A Reformed Critique11) that was predominantly critical of the published views of Dr. Rushdoony, Dr. Bahnsen, and Dr. Gary North. The remaining two books of The Five are the responses Dr. North published to counter Zondervan’s publication of the Westminster critique: Theonomy: An Informed Response12 and Dr. Bahnsen’s No Other Standard.13 The confrontation embodied by the orchestrated collision of these five works has set the standard for all subsequent polemics.14

​The False Consensus That Overshadows Debate

This background provides the formally acknowledged framework in which intramural debates between theonomists have traditionally taken place: one looks over one’s shoulder to see how these men conducted theological battle, and for good reason. But an improperly understood undercurrent was running below the surface since the dawn of the modern theonomy movement, one that shaped the external contours of discussion because it suppressed details that stood to change the dynamics had they been known.

Consequently, we arrived at the point where the “No True Scotsman” fallacy has morphed into the “No Competent Theonomist” canard. This particular strategy was originally directed against Rushdoony in a one-sided war within the Reconstructionist community that anticipated social media trolling by several decades. If it weren’t for the self-proclaimed winners, the war would have had no winners at all.

Because the war (which was not in any way a cross-town rivalry) was one-sided, only one side interpreted the outcome. This paralleled the goal of Nietzsche,15 to “seize control of explanation itself,” leaving observers to ponder how to apply Proverbs 18:17—or whether to even bother (“what further need have we of witnesses in light of the critical mauling we’ve just read?”). Consequently, we’ve morphed from “I’m of Apollos … Cephas … Paul …” to “I’m of Bahnsen … North … Rushdoony …” Instead of a natural progression toward true, mature stability, we’ve regressed into theological sclerosis.

As for social media criticisms of Dr. McDurmon, we need to ask: are these critics keeping it real, or keeping it real hostile? Are his theses to be properly debated, or should their author be excoriated? The prevailing big stink in that arena is Dr. McDurmon’s departure from Dr. Bahnsen.16 A departure from Dr. Rushdoony, however, has become so uncontroversial that we barely hear a peep about it. The truth, of course, is that there is no theonomic confession to subscribe to. The Puritans didn’t agree either, as Ernst Kevan17 has ably documented.

Enter Dr. McDurmon’s “The Bounds of Love”

As a result, Dr. McDurmon’s introduction to theonomy, by striking out in some reputedly novel directions, has triggered fairly strong critical responses. The author could have left the controversial parts of his thesis for some other larger work (where they could have been accorded greater analytic depth versus the constrained treatment this introductory format imposed). Had he done so, The Bounds of Love could easily have been the best introductory text on theonomy on the market without qualification. But Dr. McDurmon surely was free to shape his book as he saw fit,18 and to handle the consequences set in motion by that choice.

“… and wars ensued,” as Dr. McDurmon says in a different context.19 This is unfortunate, since so much of the book is well-handled (particularly how he welds love and gospel to the law so organically). Aside from spats20 with Covenanters, the big intramural dispute about the book involves Dr. McDurmon’s Cherem Principle discussed in his third chapter, “Where to Draw the Lines.”21 The author says that “this section of the book may in fact be its most important contribution.”22 For this reason, it naturally became the focus of considerable intramural heat among respondents taking aim at his so-called cherem argument. Among these is a brief assessment by Robert Hoyle that was endorsed by Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft III.23

The Cherem Principle Explained

Dr. McDurmon takes pains to explain the Cherem Principle (pp. 50–61) as embodying a special24 (rather than normal) operation of God’s law, where “God’s presence was in the physical temple/tabernacle, in the altar fire, the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions, and the inheritance of God’s covenant promises was through blood descent and external possession of the Holy Land.”25 As these last conditions were “drastically altered by the New Testament economy,”26 Dr. McDurmon calls for the civil penalties to be re-examined.

Cherem means “devoted” in the sense of devoted wholly unto the Lord. In the instances most relevant to our discussion, it means specially devoted to destruction. To be devoted unto the Lord in this sense means to be separated from holiness of the Holy Land and immediately into God’s holy presence for judgment.27

Dr. McDurmon sees the change regarding cherem offenses in 2 Cor. 3:3–10, Heb. 10:26–29, and elsewhere. He asserts that the latter passage teaches that “the principle of cherem … is transferred from earth to heaven.”28

The upshot is that civil penalties based on cherem under the Old Covenant are no longer to be enforced under the New. It is by promoting this principle that his book “adds some creative approaches to controversial questions.”29 If the cherem civil penalties are directly and solely tied to the sacrifices and offerings of the Old Covenant, the acknowledged expiration of those sacrifices may well have consequences in respect to any associated penalties.

Dr. McDurmon has labored to assemble a case for his thesis from all quarters of Scripture, as was his obligation given the task he has undertaken. His discussion testifies to his familiarity with the prevailing expositions adopted by earlier theonomists, and is wide-ranging (which it would need to be).

While we disagree30 with his conclusions and many of the points in support thereof in respect to the Cherem Principle, there is no doubt of the author’s sincerity, nor of the certainty that he has labored to undergird his arguments from Scripture. We must therefore look to the quality of the argumentation. We must spread at least as wide a net in our analysis as he has spread in promoting his new31 model. Only in this way can we properly test the bounds of theonomy.

Misplaced Objections to the Thesis

We must take care not to misunderstand what Dr. McDurmon is proposing. He is making a jurisdictional argument, moving the seat of judgment to the throne room of God. He is not saying that there is no judgment: he is saying the judgment is dealt with in a different location. The perpetrator falls into the hands of the living God—which, we must recognize, is “a terrible thing” (Heb. 10:31). So we must not treat this as being some kind of “reduced sentence” or a vacating of judgment altogether.

In principle (note this qualification), theonomists can be comfortable with a “change of jurisdiction” in some instances, and can recognize the gist of it in various places (Genesis 9, Zechariah 6:12–13, etc.). So it is not a matter of Dr. McDurmon’s critics refusing to accept that jurisdiction can change, but rather that they challenge this specific claim regarding a jurisdictional change.

One objection can be put in this way: Wouldn’t the offenders (assuming they’re unregenerate) have received the exact same eternal punishment whether or not cherem execution (as a temporal punishment) took place? Is this not, then, more lenient in theory, in light of the claim in Hebrews 2:2 that every transgression received a just recompense of reward under the law?

We need to remember Paul’s assertion to the regenerate: that he did not consider the present sufferings worthy to be compared to the exceeding weight of glory to come (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17). You cannot compare eternal things to temporal things, nor can you apply moral calculus to it based on raw arithmetic. As Isaiah 28:15–18 explains, death is no safe haven from ultimate justice.

Accordingly, objections to Dr. McDurmon’s thesis based solely on this consideration are problematic, and would be easy targets for counter-rebuttal on his part. Objections raised on other grounds would be of more value in determining the question properly.

Filtering Out Psychological Motives

There are two psychological angles to consider and dismiss. The first involves motives driving objections to the Cherem Principle, the second involves motives driving acceptance of it.

When confronted by this doctrine, some defenders of status quo theonomy react as if someone were challenging their religion. The doctrine of sunken costs is in play, so that more is at stake (under this mindset) than an innocent, dispassionate reexamination of Scripture. The idea per se is construed as fighting words, and the concomitant fight isn’t far behind.

A secondary factor is the well-known psychology of criminal prosecutors. Prosecutors always insist that they’ve got the bad guy, and far too many of them refuse to be corrected in their views by exculpatory evidence (e.g., DNA evidence showing the wrong man was accused). After all, nobody wants to be responsible for sending an innocent man to his death or to years of imprisonment.

If we’re advocating the death penalty for X, and Dr. McDurmon’s thesis implies our advocacy is in error in respect to X, we may find ourselves in the prosecutor’s shoes, at least psychologically. To avoid this trap, we must rigidly stick to exegetical concerns. Zeal should be for the truth. If the truth is the very thing in dispute, our zeal could easily be misplaced.

Resolving this improperly has serious consequences (a fact which accounts for some justifiable heat, albeit not all of it). If we loosen a still-binding commandment, we’re least in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:19). If we impose a capital penalty no longer sanctioned by Scripture, we may find ourselves implicated in the lawless taking of human life (which fits the Biblical definition of murder). We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the issues that have been raised. As Dr. McDurmon states elsewhere, “a wrong answer either way would be tragic.”32

The Cherem Principle, then, is inherently polarizing, whether it’s right or wrong. If Old Testament events are “examples unto us” (I Cor. 10:11), both sides had better have a solid explanation for 1 Kings 20:42: “Thus saith the Lord, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction [cherem], therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people.” The stakes are indeed high when one must sail between Scylla and Charybdis.

Some Challenges to Dr. McDurmon’s Cherem Principle

The following should not be taken as an exhaustive list of potential objections to Dr. McDurmon’s thesis. They provide him the opportunity to interact with opposing data and to illustrate how well his model can negotiate the challenges being presented.

The reader is provided the benefit of seeing the widespread implications of his model, and what it must overcome to gain acceptance. The reader can also determine how well Dr. McDurmon deals with each challenge: were his replies convincing? Depending on the quality of the interaction, this exchange could go to round two. This would be important for two reasons: (1) the issues at stake are important enough to warrant revisiting them, and (2) it would be valuable to show that intramural debate can be civil, positive, and edifying (putting the respectful Warfield ethos into play, versus defaulting to the scorched earth conflagration model of debate that too often prevails on social media).

Exactly When Did Cherem Jurisdiction Change?

We must ask, When, precisely, did cherem jurisdiction change? Christ’s conception? Death? Ascension? When Christ executed His priestly office for us? What precisely happened between that point and 70 A.D.? Was cherem unenforceable in Canaan when God’s spirit departed the temple twice?

It is indeed significant that there exists at least one scripture which specifically references the termination of cherem enforcement. The risk with the verse is that respective sides might be tempted to rush in to co-opt it for their respective hermeneutic systems. To support Dr. McDurmon’s proposal, the verse must be transposed to the past and taken in an entirely preteristic sense. A few commentators do treat the passage preteristically, so such an approach is not unheard of. The salient question remains: is that truly the correct interpretation of the passage?

The text in question is Zech. 14:11, the middle clause of which reads, “there shall be no more utter destruction [cherem].” What is the precipitating event that terminates cherem here? Let’s consider several sources on this point.

Leupold: [T]he prophet adds, “and there shall be no more curse.” Cherem = devoting to utter destruction and describes the evil condition rather than the outcome as does A.V., “utter destruction.” If there is no “devoting to utter destruction” (A.R.V.m) or the people are no longer guilty of the misconduct that can serve utterly to destroy the covenant relationship with God, then a new measure of holiness has come about.33
Wright: The statement, therefore, that “there shall be no more curse,” implies that there should be no more any destruction caused by God’s righteous judgment, or, in other words, that there would be no more unrighteous persons to become objects of the Divine anger.34

The operative question is, when does this happen? This verse is wedged between verses that, on the face of it, refer to the time of the gospel’s triumph over the entire world: Zech. 14:9 (“And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one.”) and Zech. 14:20–21 (“In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, Holiness Unto The Lord; … and in that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.”)

In the view of Leupold and Wright there is no occasion for cherem to be relevant because there’s nobody around who bears guilt concerning it. The preconsummation form of God’s Kingdom—when there’s finally only one enemy left to destroy (death itself)—is characterized by the basic fact that no place is found for the chaff. Warfield’s eschatology dovetails nicely with such a position (a view I have defended exegetically at length elsewhere).35 There would be no need for cherem enforcement toward the end of the gospel era on this hypothesis. It disappears for the same reason gospel proclamation is finally made superfluous: because everyone knows the Lord, from the least to the greatest.

Of course, more pessimistic eschatologies insist that so complete a victory must occur only after the consummation. Scholars in these camps are closer to the view that cherem won’t be decommissioned this side of the Final Judgment (e.g., Keil, Drake, Lowe, Fausset, etc.). The point of agreement between the two camps is that, as of today, we’ve not reached the point where Zech. 14:11 has been fulfilled.

Not so the hard-core preterists who take all of Zechariah 14 as completely fulfilled. The termination of cherem provisions can be transposed to the first century if Zech. 14:11’s fulfillment occurred back then. That this puts a tremendous strain on the other details framing the verse is baggage common to all attempts by scholars to unpack the complexities of the fourteenth chapter of Zechariah, “the expositor’s nightmare,” twenty-one verses that challenge all eschatologies.

Of course, preterists have every right to promote their position, as do their opponents. The concern in respect to the cherem issue is simply this: if a theory requires X to be true or else it is falsified, we must beware lest the dogmatic tail wag the exegetical dog. As has been well said, “Theory-driven investigations certainly have advantages but, of course, one has to buy the theory first!”36

Where Do We Draw the Line Geographically?

Dr. McDurmon argues that cherem legislation was tied to the land of Canaan, that the word translated “earth” may contextually be rendered “land,” as in the Promised Land.37 This imposes a geographic bound on enforcement of cherem provisions in addition to chronological bounds argued for elsewhere by him.

If the land of Canaan and cherem laws are truly joined at the hip, someone guilty of a cherem-worthy violation need only step a foot outside Israel’s borders (just like a manslaughterer steps into a city of refuge) to avoid punishment. He has, in effect, done the land’s job for it by vomiting himself beyond the border of Canaan.

Under this hypothesis, the rest of the world outside Canaan constitutes an enormous “city of refuge” from cherem enforcement. Being subject to a cherem penalty amounts to being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but this is nothing that a change of scenery can’t fix. If you know your city is being indicted for the offense of Deut. 13:12–16, it makes sense to get out of Dodge.

A different geographic question arises, at least among postmillennialists: doesn’t Scripture represent Israel as ultimately extending over all the land area of the world? J. A. Alexander, in considering Isa. 27:6 (“Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit”), goes out of the way to say that the noun in question “does not mean the land of Israel, but the world, the whole expression being strongly metaphorical.”38 Abraham cast his eyes north, east, west, and south: he was promised the entire world, not just Canaan (which is why he’s called “the heir of the world,” Rom. 4:13). In Gen. 9:27, we read that “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem,” a passage generally regarded as an allusion to the accession of the Gentiles. Zion is transnational (Psalm 87), and so Israel shall be as well. Obadiah depicts Judah as occupying all of Canaan, Benjamin eastward in the Trans-Jordan, and the other ten tribes distributed north of Canaan. If the land’s borders are supposed to remain fixed, God surely sent some mixed signals here.

Of course, Dr. McDurmon makes explicit reference to the universalizing of “the land promise made to Abraham”39 and to Rom. 4:13,40 concluding that the NT “teaches that … [the] land laws reached their terminus in Christ. They no longer continue in the New Testament.”41 No explanation is (yet) given why the land isn’t now the entire earth (despite the evident plausibility of this alternate conclusion).

Which brings us to an interesting outlier verse. One of the offenses that trigger being vomited out of the land is relations with a menstruous woman (Lev. 18:19, cf. 18:24–25). Why, then, does Ezekiel refer to menstruous women as he does (Ezek. 18:6)? What value did this have if he was in Babylon at the time, living on the Chebar River? If the curse only applies within the borders of Canaan, the prophet seems to be unaware of it. If they’re in Babylon, they’ve already been vomited out of Canaan, so why the superfluous reference to a (supposedly) inapplicable ordinance?

Has the Purpose for Temporal Judgment Changed?

Wright translates Isa. 26:9 in this way: “For when the judgments of Jehovah are abroad in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”42 The reading in the King James is “With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” 

Expositors have noted that the following verse (Isa. 26:10) warns that when God’s judgments are withheld, the wicked won’t change their ways: “Let favour be shewed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord.” There is a didactic purpose to earthly judgments which is not limited to the land of Israel: the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness thereby.

Those who defend the view that God relocated jurisdiction from “judgments in the earth” to “judgments in heaven” must explain how it is that Isa. 26:9–10 is now obsolete. Withholding judgments “in the earth,” which is to forbear punishment (abstaining to “execute upon them the judgment written,” Ps. 149:9), leads to bad results: the wicked will continue to deal unjustly. Is this the price God intends us to pay when He moves jurisdiction out from the earth? If the Scripture cannot be broken, how do we avoid the disaster articulated in Isa. 26:10 once such judgments of His are no longer executed “in the earth”?

Spewing Doctrine

Under the OT, the land spewed the grossly sinful inhabitants out. Under the NT, Christ spews lukewarm Christians out of His mouth. But Dr. McDurmon appears to conflate these two things:

[The land] would vomit out the inhabitants for their disobedience (Lev. 18:25, 28; 20:22). The function of judging in history and of “vomiting out” is now transferred to the enthroned Christ Himself (Rev. 3:16).43

Note how Christ’s threat in Revelation is put forward as a parallel of importance.

However, drawing parallels must be done with care. When two different theologians look at a proposed parallel, one may regard it as the result of unrestrained gymnastics (even violence) to achieve a forced fit, while another might see the parallel as embodying “the stringency of a syllogism” (in Warfield’s words).           

Is this connection between the land and the mouth of Christ (which involves spewing out lukewarm Christians, not unregenerate people) a valid connection, or a doubtful one? Is there a better substitute connection? Is the land a covenant agent, or is it a victim (Rom. 8:19–23), or can it be both? Why are the droughts imposed on Egypt and other nations outside of Israel’s borders not evidence of covenantal agency (Zech. 14:17–19)? What standard should we use when determining answers to these questions?

We encounter other barriers to treating Rev. 3:16 as a suitable correlate to Lev. 18:28 and Lev. 20:22. The King James translators made distinctions between plural and singular pronouns so that the reader would know whether a given text in the original language was addressing an individual or a group: “ye” for plural, “thou” and “thee” for singular. The “spue” warning is issued to an individual (the angel of the church of Laodicea) and not to the church at large. It is an instructive exercise to work through the letters to the seven churches and mark the singular pronouns (directed to the pastor) and the plural ones (directed to the flock). It becomes quickly obvious that many pastors teaching from these texts deflect the warnings onto the flock that were directed to the shepherds—words Christ directed to them. 

It is indisputably true that in the New Testament, only one individual is threatened with being vomited out of Christ’s mouth, and that for a specific cause. Consequently, considerable legwork would be required to draw a compelling connection to the land spewing out its inhabitants.

The Sons of Belial

In this issue of Faith for All of Life, I have included a chapter from Dr. Rushdoony’s commentary on Deuteronomy that exposits the concept of “the sons of Belial.” The implication here is, any culture that does not take the required steps against these terrorists who are dedicated to destroying your society is committing suicide. In other words, “the sons of Belial” is an idea that Dr. McDurmon has not taken as seriously as he should. Under the Cherem Principle, there is no direct prescribed action against them.44 Because of this, the idea of the sons of Belial appears to be soft-pedaled as a comparatively minor infraction.

Dr. Rushdoony cites evidence that this law was applied45 against Gibeah in Judges 20 and 21 (citing Hosea 9:9 and 10:9 to supplement his argument). Earlier scholarship, however, held that the law was never enforced in Israel.46 Nonetheless, Dr. Rushdoony saw the ordinance as embodying a life-and-death issue:

Otto Scott has observed that decadence is the inability of a culture or people to defend themselves. This law requires such a defense, not as vigilante action, but as a premise of godly law.47

One key aspect of the destruction of the sons of Belial is this: where is the priest who is supposedly sending up this alleged whole burnt offering? There is none mentioned in Scripture. He must be inserted into the picture for this to be a true offering. This, it must be conceded, amounts to a gratuitous imposition on Scripture. Priests are required for “whole burnt offerings” (Lev. 1, Lev. 6, Deut. 33:10). Their absence in Deut. 13:16 must be accounted for.

Consider, then, Patrick Fairbairn’s discussion of the burnt offering:

The name commonly given in Scripture to this species of sacrifice is olah (an ascension), so called from the whole being consumed and going up in a flame to the Lord. It received also the name kalil (the whole) with respect to the entire consumption ... [T]he burnt-offering was for those who were already standing within the bonds of the covenant, and without any such sense of guilt lying upon their conscience as exposed them to excision from the covenant…
[T]he guilt for which atonement here [was] required to be made [Lev. 1:4, 16:24], was not that properly of special and formal acts of transgression, but rather of those short-comings and imperfections which perpetually cleave to the servant of God, and mingle even with his best services …  So it appears in Deut. 33:10, where the office of the priesthood in the presentation of offerings [e.a.] is described simply with a reference to this species of sacrifice: “They shall put incense before Thee, and whole burnt-sacrifice upon Thy altar.” …the burnt-offering was always accompanied with a meat and drink-offering [Num. 15:3–11, 28:7–15].48

Part of the issue involves the translation of Deut. 13:16. If you read the KJV you won’t find any reference to a whole offering, but rather the instruction to “burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit …” T. E. Espin notes that the KVJ translation every whit treats the Hebrew word in question the same way it is treated in Isa. 2:18 (“the idols he shall utterly abolish”) but he offers his reasons for the alternative rendering whole offering.49 One translation points firmly away from Dr. McDurmon’s thesis, the other tends towards it: where then is the safe harbor of certainty? Cherry-picking among translations50 would be unseemly for either of us to engage in.

Is the translation a minor point? Dr. McDurmon says of the “whole burnt offering” wording, “This detail is crucial.”51 Consequently, challenges to that detail have a serious impact on the Cherem Principle, more so than other challenges that could be raised.52 When we add to this dispute Dr. Rushdoony’s earlier point that failure to enforce this law leads to a society’s suicide, we can’t help but notice how high the stakes are. We’re obviously not arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin here.

Where is the Correct Place to “Draw the Line”?

Dr. McDurmon offers an answer to the question, where should we draw the line? Is the proper answer to merely reiterate Dr. Bahnsen’s assertion where to draw the line? Or Dr. North’s claims? Where, precisely, should we look for the bounds of theonomy? Claims that theologian X has drawn the line in the right place need more backup than “I agree with X, and besides, X is very smart.” Dr. McDurmon doesn’t make any such spurious argument as that, of course, but it’s not clear that every critic of his has successfully steered clear of this fallacy.

So, while we could, with justice, simply claim Dr. McDurmon drew the line in the wrong place without our offering an alternative (or endorsing someone else’s line), that would not be terribly edifying. But to offer an alternative place to draw the line would create a situation similar to that created by Dr. McDurmon’s book: an idea warranting an entire volume in itself is compressed into a short chapter. Our drawing the line in a new way would entail doing the same thing, except in an even shorter span of text. Tactically, we’d be following in Dr. McDurmon’s footsteps to do so.

More importantly, we’d be trying to achieve the commendable goal that Dr. McDurmon set for himself: to let the Scripture draw the line for us. The problem is, it is doubtful that any theologian lives up to that standard. Why? Because all have preconceived notions of which laws have and have not been abrogated. Theologians, being human, will use these laws as the litmus test for determining if a model is good or not. “Model A says law B is no longer valid. Therefore, Model A is good/bad.” The very point in dispute (which laws are valid?) is used to determine if a given model is valid (i.e., that it comports with the boxes we’ve stuffed various laws into).

Could it be that the Old Covenant draws its own lines (or, more accurately, redraws them for us)? I made a case for this approach in my response to John W. Robbins’s 1992 review of Dr. Bahnsen’s By This Standard. This approach uses the much-lauded “scripture interpreting scripture” principle. Here are some salient parts of the (compressed) argument:

The actual content of the jots and tittles makes self-reference to their respective permanence or lack of it. If the Old Testament expressly self-terminates or self-modifies some of its own provisions, then clearly those jots and tittles, if they’re to be eternally valid, must be considered in the context of their own self-reference.
This is to say that there is a flaw in Robbins’s argument concerning theonomic schizophrenia. As Warfield puts it, “What, now, is the flaw in this argument? This, briefly: that it seeks to ground a conclusion in a single premise, severed from its companion premises.”
So Christ, speaking not of the New Testament but of the Old, can assert its exhaustive validity in detail without self-contradiction, since the jots and tittles were self-qualified within the entire Old Testament revelation. So we see the ark of the covenant pass from view in Jer. 3:16, the substitution of myriads of Gentiles as Levites in Isa. 66:21 & Jer. 33:22, a legitimate altar set up by Gentiles (Isa. 19:19), although Israel’s altar at Bethel was condemned (I Kgs. 13:2). The priesthood of Christ was foreordained (Ps. 110:4), terminating blood sacrifice (Isa. 66:3). Citizenship in Zion shall extend beyond genetic Israel (Ps. 87) and incense shall be offered in every Gentile district (Mal. 1:11). Even eunuchs shall be more honored in God’s house than His nominal sons and daughters (Isa. 56:4). In short, the Old Testament jots and tittles include qualifications of their own content.53

This alternative hypothesis also seeks to “draw the line,” but draws it in a different place than Dr. McDurmon has drawn it. Nonetheless, the basis on which it proceeds cannot be said to be un-Biblical or extra-Biblical. It appeals directly to the Old Testament to show how the Old Testament law migrates into the age of the Christ.

Therefore, we don’t propose to “fight something with nothing,” a tactic which Dr. Gary North correctly points out is a fool’s errand. We propose an alternative to the Cherem Principle put forward in The Bounds of Love. Whether this brief aside clarifies matters or muddies the waters further, only further discussion will reveal.

We should appreciate that scholars like Dr. McDurmon continue to work through the Scriptures to develop positions that are worth putting to the test of Biblical fidelity. Much has changed in Polemical Theology since Dr. Warfield’s death in 1921: polemics has since become exceedingly ugly. We can agree wholeheartedly, though, with Dr. McDurmon when he observes that “much work remains.”54 Surely, that further work should be conducted in a Christ-honoring way, even when we take issue with another Christian brother’s painstaking analysis. We can “test all things” without becoming testy. We can let all things be done unto edification, until Zion shall one day see eye to eye (Isa. 52:8).

1. McDurmon, Joel, The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty (Braselton, GA: American Vision Press, 2016).

2. Lee, Francis Nigel, God’s Ten Commandments Yesterday Today Forever (Ventura, CA: Nordskog Publishing, 2007).

3. Einwechter, William O., Walking in the Law of the Lord: An Introduction to the Biblical Ethics of Theonomy (Stevens, PA: Darash Press, 2010).

4. Wright, Christopher J. H., An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983). The bibliography (p. 214) references Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics of 1979 as well as the 1964 volume by Ernest F. Kevan, Keep His Commandments: The Place of Law in the Christian Life.

5. Halbrook, Stephen Che, God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws (Theonomy Resources Media, 2011 [2nd edition 2014]). My copy is the 2008 spiral-bound manuscript with the earlier subtitle of Divine Law versus Imperious Humanism.

6. Perks, Stephen C., The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (Taunton, England: Kuyper Foundation, 2016).

7. Boot, Joseph, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope for Society (London, England: Wilberforce Publications, 2nd edition 2016 [1st edition 2014]). See for details.




11. Barker, William S. & Godfrey, W. Robert, ed., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books [a Zondervan imprint], 1990).

12. North, Gary, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991).

13. Bahnsen, Greg L., No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991). Appearing the same year as Theonomy: An Informed Response, the perceived effect was that the volumes constituted a one-two punch put in motion by the publisher, Dr. North.

14. I exclude the exchange between Tommy Ice and Dr. H. Wayne House (co-authors of 1988’s Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse) and theonomists Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. and Dr. Bahnsen (co-authors of 1989’s House Divided: The Breakup of Dispensational Theology) because the topical range is too diffuse. Nonetheless, the impact of the Ice/House volume (structured to feed confirmation bias among dispensationalists) continues to be felt as far away as India where thousands of free copies circulate, and where the antidote House Divided is virtually unknown.

15. Robert Erwin, The Great Language Panic and Other Essays in Cultural History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 69.

16. Dr. McDurmon’s critics usually point to the chapter on penology in Bahnsen’s magnum opus. See Bahnsen, Greg L., Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002 [1977, 1984]), pp. 421–452, esp. 428ff. on “The Agency of Punishment.”

17. Kevan, Ernest F., The Grace of Law: A Study of Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976).

18. Dr. McDurmon rightly bemoans the fact that “discussion of controversial theological topics works against concise definitions” (p. 21). In our current TLDR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) milieu, “the fate of most full theology books [is] the shelf” (p. 22). Superficial Christians decline to endure sound doctrine.

19. McDurmon, p. 23.

20. McDurmon, p. 133 for example.

21. McDurmon, pp. 42–69.

22. McDurmon, p. 50.


24. McDurmon, p. 52.

25. McDurmon, pp. 50–51.

26. McDurmon, p. 51.

27. McDurmon, p. 50.

28. McDurmon, p. 57.

29. Dr. John Frame, endorsement on back cover of The Bounds of Love.

30. Dr. John Frame’s endorsement of the book (appearing on the back cover) also admits of reservations, albeit in a constructive context: “Though I do not endorse every statement and argument of the book, I pray that it will get a wide readership.”

31. The “newness” of the model is also open for debate, since Dr. McDurmon sees it anticipated in the teaching of Johannes Piscator and beyond. Cf. McDurmon, pp. 66f.

32. McDurmon, op. cit., p. 27.

33. Leupold, H. C., Exposition of Zechariah (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 269.

34. Wright, Charles Henry Hamilton, Zechariah and His Prophecies (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879), p. 497.

35. Selbrede, Martin G., “Reconstructing Postmillennialism” in Journal of Christian Reconstruction 15:1 (1998), pp. 148–225.

36. Ann M. Peters. Review of The Language Lottery: Toward a Biology of Grammar, by David Lightfoot. Anthropological Linguistics 26:3 (1984), pp. 356–357.

37. Preterist commentaries on Revelation leverage this alternate understanding of the Greek “ge” to constrain the proceedings to Israel’s boundaries: it’s not the entire world that’s under the book’s prima facie judgments, but predominantly Israel herself on this construction. Like Warfield, Rushdoony, and others, I interpret Revelation from the idealist perspective, but am a sympathetic critic of preterism and find much to respect in regard to it (despite being ultimately unconvinced).

38. Alexander, Joseph Addison, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1846] 1978), p. 439.

39. McDurmon, pp. 48–50.

40. McDurmon, p. 49.

41. McDurmon, p. 49–50.

42. Wright, op. cit., p. 503.

43. McDurmon, p. 48.

44. Bahnsen, op. cit., p. 460, in an admittedly brief discussion, characterizes the matter of Deut. 13:12–16 and its implications as “important” in the context of contemporary application.

45. Rushdoony, Rousas John, Deuteronomy (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon/Ross House Books, 2008), pp. 209–210.

46. Note Richter on Deut. 13:16: “Since Israel never carried out this sentence on godless places, God has done it Himself, especially through the Chaldeans.” Quoted in Lange, John Peter, Commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), section 2, p. 130.

47. Rushdoony, p. 210.

48. Fairbairn, Patrick, The Typology of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1963), Vol. 2, pp. 302–304. The same point is made by Andrew Jukes (1815–1901). See Jukes, Andrew, The Law of the Offerings (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, n.d.), pp. 60–61.

49. “The A.V. in thus taking it has the support of the Versions generally; but the words following ‘for the Lord thy God’ do not fit aptly to this sense … which … certainly suggests the other sense of the word, found also in Deut. 33:10, ‘whole offering’ … [as supported by] the Mishna, and other Jewish authorities, cf. Gesenius, Fürst, Keil, Knobel, &c.” F. C. Cook, ed., The Bible Commentary, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981 [1871–1881]), p. 849. “Versions” as used by Espin above is theological jargon for early translations of the Biblical text into other languages (mentioned here because not all our readers may know this). Note that Espin correctly reported C. F. Keil’s preferred translation, the translation that would be required by Dr. McDurmon’s thesis. Cf. Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), Vol. 1, p. 366.

50. Dr. McDurmon (p. 53) appears to cite either the ESV or Amplified Bible, both of which give the reading he uses.

51. McDurmon, op. cit., p. 53.

52. In the category of other challenges, there are many, but we will mention only two in passing. Dr. McDurmon says, “God’s consuming fire is no longer on earth in an altar. It was removed” (p. 54). But an opposing argument to “removal” could easily be made for a transition from one central pillar of smoke and fire to millions of pillars of smoke and fire hovering over every dwelling place of Zion (Isa. 4:5). He also states, “… the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions” (p. 50), and Canaan is surely known today as the Holy Land. But other texts of a postmillennial import teach that all of the earth’s land will be holy. How do these texts then affect the argument of agency being limited to Canaan? Further, one can argue that cherem is repatriation of God’s property to Himself for repurposing (even involuntary repurposing). Fire purifies what is defiled, and the Messiah is a refiner’s fire purifying everything (Mal. 3:2–3). From this vantage point, everything is cherem (devoted to purification). Unshakeable things alone will remain.

53. Selbrede, Martin, unpublished but privately-circulated paper of 1992. The temple’s destruction of Dan. 9:27 would have been apposite as well. The paper points out that the “the very passage disputed by Robbins (Matt. 5:17–18) embraces the exhaustive validity of the law AND the prophets, together.” This last aspect is often omitted from modern discourse. There is confusion over other issues too. E.g., circumcision is only mentioned in the Mosaic Law in the passive voice because it is Abrahamic in origin and antedates the law (as Moses discovered to his horror in Ex. 4:22–26). Warfield even asserts that the church has Israel’s circumcision, as his exposition of Col. 2:11 illustrates, in the form of baptism. It is an indication of adoption as the seed of Abraham and is a pre-law issue.

54. McDurmon, p. ix.


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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