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The Free Kirk of Scotland Against Theonomy

This year the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland accepted an eight-page Report which declared that the "teaching known as Theonomy or Christian Reconstructionism" was "contrary to the Confession of Faith" and "inconsistent with Biblical Doctrine."

  • Martin A. Foulner,
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This year the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland accepted an eight-page Report which declared that the "teaching known as Theonomy or Christian Reconstructionism" was "contrary to the Confession of Faith" and "inconsistent with Biblical Doctrine." The Report was produced and delivered by the Rev. Alex MacDonald in his capacity as Convener of the Public Questions, Religion and Morals Committee. This Report recommends to the presbyteries that no Theonomists may hold any office in the Free Church of Scotland.

From the church of such intellectual giants as Thomas Chalmers, William Cunningham and James Bannerman we could be forgiven for expecting this Report to be characterized by fairness, thoroughness, and a deep respect for Holy Scripture and our Reformed heritage. Yet in all these respects, it fails completely. Indeed, all things considered, this is perhaps the worst response to Christian Reconstructionist thought yet to appear. An example of this appears in the introduction: "While Theonomists deny that they are adding to justification by faith in Christ alone as the way of salvation, the very vehemence with which they argue their distinctives and their often extremely hostile attitude to critics1 indicates that they consider their views a necessary part of the Christian message to be communicated to our society today. It is essential that we are clear about what our message to the world is. Is it the grace of Jesus Christ? Or is it grace plus something else?"

Apart from the deliberate misrepresentation of Theonomy, just what are we to make of such a sentiment? There are many precious Bible truths for which we must contend with our very lives, if need be, yet, which in and of themselves may not be necessary for salvation. It is quite possible that there will be many in Heaven who did not abandon evolutionary presuppositions, could not with clarity define the Trinity or who are mistaken on aspects of sanctification. Are we to abandon these truths because God saves some without enlightening them as to their importance? Such an attitude betrays a spirit quite foreign to Biblical Christianity.

The contempt with which Alex MacDonald holds God's Law is manifest in his introductory words: "It would be easy to stress one or two of the more outlandish notions of Theonomy, in such a way that the whole thing seemed to be the product of the fevered imagination of cranks, and not worth wasting time considering . . . according to most Theonomists, the state should apply the death penalty to a whole range of sins including homosexuality, rape, fornication, apostasy, idolatry and the striking or cursing of parents . . . . But before we shake our heads and consider Theonomy beneath our dignity to even debate, there are several causes for concern."

How grievous that a minister of Christ should hold the express teaching of God's Law up to the ridicule of the world! It is one thing to think that the penal sanctions no longer apply or are modified in some way. It is quite another thing to think that the mere mention of these holy laws of Jehovah are so absurd as to conjure up the image of "cranks,"who are "beneath our dignity to even debate." This is blasphemy. Was our God a "fevered crank" to dare to suggest that the Israelites "Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?" (Dt. 4:6-8).

Was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews "not worth wasting time considering" because he declared that in the Old Testament "every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward" (Heb. 2:2)? Perhaps Jesus, who quoted (without feeling the need to explain further) "Honour thy father and mother, and he that curses father or mother let him die the death" (Mt. 15:4) was himself "beneath our dignity to even debate." God is not mocked, not even by Free Church of Scotland ministers. It is a fearful thing to laugh at God's holy law. Alex MacDonald dismisses these laws as if they are crimes against humanity. In so doing he has fully imbibed the spirit of this age. When Christians today ridicule these penal sanctions, they are in reality showing a preference for human ethical standards, rather than the eternal law of Jehovah. How different is this attitude to that of the Psalmist David: "I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed" (Ps. 119:46). We should not fear to proclaim the perfect wisdom of God when all around we see the disastrous effect of the ethics of humanism.2

How the Controversy Began
In 1992 The Free Church denominational magazine the Monthly Record carried a very favorable review of William Barker and Robert Godfrey's Theonomy A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990). The review was by the Rev. Donald MacDonald, moderator at this year's Assembly and brother of Rev. Alex MacDonald, who drafted and delivered the Report! A few Theonomists, myself included, sent letters in response, which were published in the December, 1992 issue. The reviewer sought to defend his views, and others responded. He seemed to dig himself deeper into a hole and eventually the then editor drew a line under the whole matter.

No more was said on this issue until the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen in 1994 addressed a public meeting in Dundee Associate Presbyterian Church. During a question and answer session, the local Free Church minister (Rev. David Robertson) made a very hostile response to Greg who in his usual gracious manner dealt with his hysteric outburst. During this altercation David Robertson uttered perhaps the silliest argument in the whole history of the Theonomy debate.

They were discussing George Gillespie, who was an influential member of the Westminster Assembly; Dr. Bahnsen quoted from Gillespie3 to the effect that the judicial penalties were still in force today. Robertson interrupted him with his classic faux pas—"Where does George Gillespie say that the magistrate should punish people for wearing mixed clothing today " [sic], to which Greg replied that the magistrate "was not to punish those who wore mixed clothing even in the Old Testament, so why would he want to do so today? That's not even relevant."4 It was rather obvious to everyone present who had won the debate. Unfortunately, I think this had an adverse effect on David Robertson and appears only to have intensified his hatred of Theonomy. In the Sunday Mail (one of our tackiest tabloids) he said, "The reason that Theonomists do not want prisons is because everyone would be dead." David Robertson is also a convinced socialist5 and his opposition to the free market is just as intense as his dislike of the judicial laws of God.

Another spate of letters in the Monthly Record in 1996 followed an accusation by Robertson that Theonomy was a heresy, and this sparked off the current controversy. Letters from Alan, Stewart and Ewan Wilson (these three brothers, all elders in Shettleston Free Church, Glasgow and a Deacon there, Colin Gunn, are the only "outed" Theonomists in the entire Free Church) defended the Theonomic position at length and pointed out a fairer interpretation of the Westminster Confession 19:4.

David Robertson stirred up his presbyterywhich included Alex MacDonaldagainst Theonomy and convinced them to allow him to bring an overture calling for Theonomy to be declared a heresy. He did this at the 1996 General Assembly. His overture was rejected but another—remitting the whole matter to the "Public Questions, Religion and Morals Committee" to report to the next year's (1997) Assemblywas accepted. The convener of this committee waswait for it . . . Alex MacDonald! The Report was produced by him alone and was "rubber stamped" by the rest of the Committee, most of whom I strongly suspect had little if any knowledge of the issues involved.6

Since Mr. MacDonald already believed that Theonomy was a "heresy" before he was commissioned to prepare his Report, there was only going to be one result. That the church knew of his opinions while delegating to him this responsibility beggars belief.

The gross prejudice with which Alex MacDonald approached the task is evident in every part of the Report. None more so than when he concludes that Theonomy:

... has a tendency to undermine the centrality of the gospel of grace, because of their unbalanced emphasis on the law. They fail to take seriously the sea-change that has taken place with the coming of Jesus Christ. There is the tremendous danger that Theonomy leads into a new legalism, where the touchstone of everything is Old Testament law not the gospel of Christ's love.

This is not the "careful and full study of the teaching of Theonomy" which the Assembly commissioned; it is an exercise in how to slander one's fellow believers. Such dishonesty (there is no better word for it) on Alex MacDonald's part can only discredit his testimony and dishonor the name of Christ.

There are countless examples in this Report of superficiality in the handling of Scripture, ignorance of Reformed history and misrepresentation of Theonomists' arguments. I will give one example of each.

1) Scripture. Having made various mistaken and unacceptable claims regarding Theonomy and the Confession, we read on page 37 of the Report—"What are examples of general equity in OT?a man must not be punished for a crime he has not committed; two or more witnesses are required to convict; punishment should be proportionate to the crime." The allusion is to Ex. 23:7, Dt. 17:7, and DT 19:21. But why should we stop here? What about the capital punishments for rape (Dt. 22:25), kidnap (Ex. 21:16), witchcraft (Ex. 22:18), or bestiality (Ex. 22:19)? By whose authority do we permit the equity of the process of civil justice but do not admit appeal to the standards of civil justice? Can the Report arrogate to itself the right to admit the former but not the latter?

2) History. Consider now the appeal (page 37) to the Free Church Declaratory Act (XII), 1846 which eschews intolerant and persecuting principles and protects "liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment." This appeal by the Report is a red herring which has nothing to do with the debate. Any Theonomist would subscribe to this provision of the Act. To appeal to it against Theonomy is unworthy of Alex MacDonald. Who is persecuting whom? Have non-theonomists been accused before Assembly as heretical? Are non-theonomists being hounded with claims of anti-confessional and anti-scriptural views? Are they facing exclusion from the church? Is this Report not in itself contradictory of Act XII, 1846? Is private judgment and liberty of conscience permissible to anyone as long as they are not Theonomists? The hypocrisy of the Report at this point is quite breathtaking.

3) Misrepresentation. "It is quite clear that Bahnsen's understanding of Scripture and the Confession is at complete variance with the position of the Free Church of Scotland as expressed in Act XII, 1846. He believes the Confession to teach that the magistrate is to enforce the death penalty on those who are guilty of breaking 'the first table of the law'those who are judged to be atheists, blasphemers, heretics and schismatics (ibid., pp. 538, 539). This is completely contrary to the Free Church's position which opposes persecution and favors toleration."

The first problem with this is that it is not Bahnsen who says this, but George Gillespie!7 The quotation from "pp. 538, 539" of Theonomy in Christian Ethics is actually a citation taken from Gillespie's One Hundred and Eleven Propositions, #41. Did Alex MacDonald actually read "pp. 538, 539"? If so, did he deliberately seek to misrepresent Bahnsen and mislead the Free Church Assembly or is it just a case of unbelievable incompetence?

Second, not even Gillespie was calling for the death penalty against heretics and atheists (Theonomy rejects any such persecution for a person's belief). All Gillespie is asserting is that such matters come under the cognizance of the civil magistrate, as taught by the Confession Chapter 23:3.8

Third, Gillespie is dealing with public crime; it has nothing to do with "private judgment or liberty of conscience." It has nothing to do with Act XII, 1846. The allusion is not even relevant!

What should we make of this shocking display of "scholarship"? Was it deliberate misrepresentation or just ignorance? How can we trust a Report that gives a quote from Bahnsen that is not Bahnsen? A death penalty that is not a death penalty? A persecution of private judgment that is not a persecution of private judgment? And worst of all, a Declaratory Act to protect liberty of conscience invoked in the name of persecution and intolerance.

Tragically for the cause of Christ in Scotland, the deception of Alex MacDonald's Report was missed by the Free Church General Assembly. Not one point of the Report was disputed. During the "debate" on the floor of the Assembly, Theonomy was likened to "Socinianism," and was branded "another Gospel." That ministers of Christ's evangel could make such a condemnatory judgment on a movement about which they were largely ignorant9 is disgraceful, yet, is but a symptom of the many problems which have recently beset the Free Church and destroyed its once considerable reputation in Scotland.

What then for the future of Theonomists within the Free Church? First of all, let us remember that this Report, while accepted by the General Assembly, is only a recommendation to presbytery. If the various presbyteries are less prejudiced than Alex MacDonald, they will see that the issue requires a far more in-depth study. Furthermore, no office-bearer can be removed from the church unless specific charges are laid before his presbytery. If this is done, it will be apparent that this Report is so vague, inaccurate and dishonest that none of the charges could be sustained. The simple fact is that when it comes to a comparison with the teachings of the Westminster Confession chapter 19:4 and chapter 23, Theonomists are far closer to the Confession than their critics. To preclude any Theonomist from the Free Church, she would have to repudiate the Confession at this point. While this would be the honest thing to do, it is highly unlikely. If this Report represents a year-long study by the brightest critic of Theonomy, then it will require little effort to refute by even the meanest intelligence.10


1. Without endorsing each Theonomic response, it is only fair to ask, "When are critics going to stop lying about the teaching of Theonomy?"

2. Within the past year in Great Britain we have had two women, 89 and 90 years old, raped and murdered in their own homes by uncontrollable youths. At present, two boys have been detained (both ten years old) for allegedly raping a nine- year-old girl at school.

3. ". . . he who was punishable by death under the judicial law, is punishable by death still. . . .""Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty,"London, 1645 (reprinted in Naphtali Press, Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature, Volume 4, Dallas Texas, 1991), p. 183.

4. David Robertson responded that he could not preach Theonomy (i.e., the penal sanctions) to his congregation. Greg then leaned upon the podium and gently said, "Well, I must tell you that you are not preaching the whole counsel of God!" At this Mr. Robertson could hardly contain himself, and like Nebuchadnezzar "the form of his visage was changed." Rather than showing humility as a result of his display of gross ignorance, I get the distinct impression that this public humiliation only served to magnify Robertson's bitterness towards Theonomy and may have led directly to the action that followed.

5. A close colleague of Robertson's (and member of his congregation), at this year's Assembly "thanked God for the Department of Social Security for it's 'Family Credit' scheme," and urged Ministers on low income to apply for these welfare benefits. Presumably it is fine to have the Gospel ministry funded by the godless taxpayer. This is Statism with a vengeance.

6. When I was outside the Assembly, distributing a response to the Report I talked to a kind gentleman, who graciously spoke with me on the subject; unfortunately, he knew nothing more on the historical aspect than that "the judicial laws had expired." I told him that Theonomists agreed but that the Puritans still believed in the capital punishments of the Old Testament. He said "Mr. MacDonald had looked into the subject thoroughly." This man, as it turned out, was "on the Committee who had approved this Report"! It was an example of how misinformed people are on this subject; and yet they are nevertheless willing to condemn and censure.

7. Gillespie just happened to help write the Confession, and oversaw its acceptance by the Church of Scotland in 1647, but his views are obviously of less historical importance than the pontification of Alex MacDonald 350 years later.

8. This, of course, is not in the 1788 American revision of the Confession but the original 1647 version, that which Alex MacDonald subscribed to.

9. During the debate at least three delegates praised the Report for its clarity and comprehensiveness and then admitted they knew no Theonomists and had not studied the subject!

10. A paraphrase of the words which Dr. Bahnsen said to me regarding Gary North would apply equally well to Colin Gunn, Alan Ewan and Stewart Wilson: "They read more than their critics, they work harder than their critics and they are smarter than their critics!"

  • Martin A. Foulner
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