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Friday, May 23, 2008

Lee Irons & Theonomy

In an attempt to reduce the theonomic thesis to absurdity, Lee Irons took a swipe at various quotes from the late Greg Bahnsen. I’ve dealt with just a few of Irons’s arguments (italics) below.
"The ‘No other standard’ argument [is] ‘Where else can we find God's standards for socio-political justice, except in Scripture, particularly, the Mosaic civil legislation? If we reject the divinely-revealed civil law, we are left with no other standard, condemned to wander in a fog of personal bias and subjective relativism.’

One way to respond to this argument is to question the assumption that Scripture is a sufficient source of guidance for societal and political questions. No doubt the Bible contains many general principles that are to be observed, but why should it be regarded as a detailed blueprint for society? After all, we don't go to the Bible to find specific directions for other equally important human endeavors, such as art and architecture, literature, the culinary arts, medicine, technology, etc.
Dr. Bahnsen’s claim is that the rejection of “standards” in the realm of civil government leads to subjective relativism. Irons, however, addresses a different thesis all together, having to do with a “detailed blueprint” – one that gives “specific” directions. Irons tries to support his argument by noting that Bible does not give us specific directions for architecture, literature, culinary arts and other endeavors he says are “equally important.” In passing we might note that if is true that the Bible has given us no standard for such endeavors, then Irons’s claim that such endeavors are “equally important” is of course a dubious one since the Bible has much to say about the role of civil government.

The Westminster Confession affirms that the general equity of the OT civil law is applicable for today. Accordingly, it is confessional to argue that the God-ordained punishment for rape is death. The general equity of that punishment for such wrongdoers, of course, would not include the mode of punishment (e.g. stoning verses firing squad), for that would entail a “detailed blueprint” containing “specific directions” that go beyond the general equity of the law in view. Accordingly, that the Bible does not disclose a detailed recipe for baking a cake or finding a cure of cancer should not discourage us from obtaining a defensible justification for putting lawfully convicted rapists to death. A more thoroughgoing argument would have to be put forth to lead us to the conclusion that God has abrogated the death penalty for rapists.

At best, Irons’s argument reduces to: if the Bible doesn’t tell me how to build a bridge, write a literary masterpiece, create a scrumptious meal, develop a cure for cancer or design and manufacture an integrated circuit, then we should not assume it is sufficient to guide us in the realm civil government. Presumably, Irons believes that the Bible is a source of guidance for at least some things, such as how one obtains peace with God. Yet does the Bible’s silence on the specifics of modern medicine cast doubt on the general equity of the law as it pertains to the temporal punishment for transgressions such a rape? “Has God said?”
“The Westminster Confession acknowledges that there are areas of life "which
are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to
the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed" (WCF I.6).

Implicit in Irons’s assertion is the following argument: If there are areas of life that are to be governed by light of nature, according to the general rules of the Word, then we cannot know which sins are to punished by civil magistrate and what those punishments should be.

The civil case laws of the OT, being God’s law, could have never been at odds with the light of nature, which is also God’s law. Accordingly, we may always look to the civil case laws without fear of contradicting the light of nature. After all, are we to suspect that under the older economy Israel could have violated God-given conscience by submitting to God’s given word? In other words, was there a tension for the OT believer between submitting to natural law and special revelation? Or, does the light of nature tell us today that a rapist should live but under the older economy it confirmed death?

If there are areas of life that are not covered by the case laws yet are covered by the light of nature, then of course we’d have no choice but to rely on the law of nature. In such cases we’d have no way of offering a justification of what we could know, but neither would such a reliance in such circumstances invalidate the contemporary validity of the case law. Essentially, all Irons has asserted is that if there are some instances that the civil case laws are impotent, then they are irrelevant in all circumstances.
Scripture is not sufficient for the art of cologne and perfume manufacture, although one particular recipe is given in the Mosaic law (Exod. 30:23-25). Does that mean we should only make the Levitical perfume? Are all other non-Biblical scents autonomous and sinful?

Irons’s argument reduces to:

1. Scripture is not sufficient for the art of cologne and perfume manufacturing

2. Scripture delineates a recipe for anointing oil

3. All other scents are not sinful

4. Therefore, the civil case laws are not applicable for today

Typically, where Reformed thinkers disagree is over the justification of the premises pumped into validly formed arguments. I the case of Mr. Irons's argument, I'm afraid we don't even agree on what a validly formed argument even looks like.
Properly defined, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture states that the Bible is "the only rule of faith and obedience," (WLC # 3), directing us "how we may glorify and enjoy" God (WSC # 2). The Scriptures "principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man" (WSC # 3). In other words, as Paul states, the primary purpose of Scripture is to "make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15).

Irons’s argument reduces to: If the Bible principally teaches how man may be saved, then it may not teach us how to govern ourselves in the realm of civil magistrate. Is an internal critique of such an assertion even necessary?

What I find most amusing over the controversy that surrounded Mr. Irons is that it was the non-theonomists who were so outraged at the trajectory of their own position. Irons was merely representing the non-theonomic thesis with shocking clarity.

If nothing else, Reformed Christians should appreciate that the light of nature does not reveal to us which sins are punishable by civil magistrate, let alone what those punishments should be. Accordingly, apart from the theonomic thesis there can be no objective standard for the penalty of steeling a loaf of bread for a starving child. Subjective relativism can always justify death in such cases. Whereas theonomy (i.e. God's law) offers an epistemologically sound justification for a lesser penalty. With respect to harsher crimes, such as rape, does the non-theonomist think that death is never an appropriate sanction, or is it just to be considered a sanction that can no longer be defended by Scripture? At the very least, if we are to govern ourselves strictly by the light of nature apart from special revelation, wouldn't the non-theonomic Christian be constrained to argue that all sins deserve death, since all men know by nature that the just wages for all sins is eternal destruction? Since the light of nature argument fails the non-theonomist, shouldn't he then be willing to concede that the penalties of the civil case laws of the OT are at least permissible today, even if they were no longer required? Or is it that we may only legislate laws that do not resemble God's those given to ancient Israel? What is it to be non-theonomic after all?

How does the non-theonomist, without being arbitrary and inconsistent, refute Mr. Irons's conviction that same sex marriage, although still sinful in the modern world by his estimation, is biblically justified as a God given civil right? Again, what is it to be non-theonomic after all?


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Anonymous said...

Does anti-theonomy mean that 1. the case laws are not to be used as a standard for today's societies or that 2. they simply cannot be used as a justification for societal laws. It doesn't sit right with me to say that we are forbidden by God to make laws that are like those in the old testament. That would leave them with the complaint that we cannot justify laws like those but that we can surely have them. They really can't argue against the laws theonomists would like to see legislated and they can only argue against the requirement of those laws. Is that your point and what do they say to that?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...


Both 1 and 2. The case laws are no longer a standard (they say), nor may they be used to justify one. Accordingly, they may not be used to inform, nor to defend one's mere opinion. Well, that's not quite right. Certain non-theonomists will allow the OT case laws to inform their thinking not on what should be legislated but rather on what may not be legislated! In other words, I believe there are non-theonomists out there who would go so far as to argue that certain OT laws may not be legislated today. Such as those pertaining to the first table and in the case of men like Irons, those having to do with same sex marriages. How does such a one avoid arbitrariness?


Joshua L said...

The ironic thing is that such men claim to be Calvinists, yet Calvin affirmed that the civil magistrate should enforce the first table of the decalogue. And it has been documented by Bahnsen, Rushdoony, Nigel Lee, etc. that this was also the basic position of many of the reformers and confessions of the 16th century and beyond. This anti-theonomic stance is actually fairly novel in reformed theology and history.

Benjamin P. Glaser said...

Agreed Josh. As I become more and more in tune with the theonomic argument the lengths non-theonomists go to cast doubt on theonomy is astounding.

MarkChambers said...

Again, what is it to be non-theonomic after all?

Well let's see. On the one side we have Theonomy. On the other side we have autonomy. In the middle we have--uhm--well in the middle we find--huh!

Bret L. McAtee said...

In the middle we find the West burning into an ash heap while Escondido keeps insisting that the Church can't speak to cultural arson.