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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Theonomy & The Woman Caught in Adultery

Anti-theonomists are often quick to point to the woman caught in adultery (recorded for us in John 8) as “proof” that the civil case law for adultery (if not by extension all civil case law) is no longer applicable. Before inferring whether Jesus’ handling of the situation abrogated the civil penalty for adultery, it might be appropriate to take a look at: (a) the implications of the law in this regard, (b) the Bible’s teaching regarding our responsibility to submit to the divinely appointed laws of anti-God government and (c) Jesus’ modus operandi when dealing with what he believed to be the more critical issue that was before him, even at the expense of ignoring what was being asked of him while knowing full well that some would infer erroneous conclusions that cannot be deduced.

A word or two about the law:

Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 require that both guilty parties are to receive the same civil sanction for adultery. That is the requirement of the law. Yet for some reason the mob was uninterested in following the law of God even to that small degree, but rather they replaced God’s law with a manipulation of it (one that suited their own personal gain), not having brought to Jesus the man who sinned. Coupled with this concealment of the whole truth, John 8 explicitly states that the mob’s intention was to test Jesus in order to accuse him. Accordingly, not only was the report false by Christian standards (because of the concealment of truth), it was also malicious toward Jesus and not accompanied by a godly desire for justice because it aimed to get Jesus to follow the masses in a perversion of justice. Accordingly, had Jesus the Savior acquiesced to the masses and partaken of their misuse of the law, he himself would have been in violation of God’s law! Exodus 23:1-4 teaches: “you shall not bear a false report”, nor “join your hand with a wicked man to be a malicious witness”, nor “follow the masses in doing evil” nor “pervert justice.” (Note: I do not say that it is necessary that both parties be brought forward for either one to receive their just penalty. What if one escaped, or even died? Such an interpretation that would require both parties to be brought forward is not needed to vindicate the perpetual validity of the law and Jesus' suspension of it in this case on other grounds as mentioned above and below. In this particular case, that only the woman was brought forward can only at best corroborate the ill-intention of the mob, which was explicitly noted in the text and is no mere inference.)

In passing we might also observe that since the woman was caught in the act, it is very probable that her habits were well known, making her an easy prey for entrapment. Such would only lend credence to the malicious quality of the scheme while also implicating the mob for not being concerned with the woman’s licentious behavior until such time that it could be used for evil rather than good. Yes, penalties can and are to be used for good but the design of good too often loses its effect when the law is not carried out by those lawfully called who possess a lowly servant’s heart. (These servants are not individual mavericks of society but civil servants appointed to such service who in the end serve God and men.)

Submission to God’s providential infliction of unruly government:

Romans 13 teaches that we are not to take the law into our own hands but rather submit to God’s providentially ordained government, even when that government is pluralistic. This principle was to be followed during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Jews knew it all too well: “So Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death’” John 18:31 Yet the Jews conveniently were not interested in obeying that precept of submitting to God ordained Roman rule when it did not suit them: “Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay or shall we not pay?’ But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, ‘Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.’ They brought one. And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ And they said to Him, ‘Caesar's.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.’ And they were amazed at Him.” Mark 12: 15-17 With respect to the John 8, it must be deemed that it was unlawful under those circumstances for the law of Moses to be implemented; yet that would not seem to be the main impetus behind Jesus' behavior.

Jesus’ modus operandi for dealing with the point that he wanted to deal with, even at the expense of ignoring what was being asked of him and even sometimes at the expense of having that which was false assumed true by his hearers:

John 3:1-3: When Nicodemus stated his inference to Jesus that he was a teacher sent from God, Jesus neither affirmed nor denied the assumption. Rather, he turned the tables by telling Nicodemus he must be born again. Depending upon one’s pre-commitment it might be inferred that Jesus was or was not who Nicodemus thought, a teacher sent from God. Yet we cannot deduce anything in that regard from the text.

Mark 10:17-18: When a rich young ruler called Jesus good, he neither affirmed nor denied that he possessed that quality of person but instead said nobody is good but God. Depending upon one’s pre-commitment it might be inferred that Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; yet the text neither affirms nor denies either conclusion.

Acts 1:6, 7: When the apostles asked Jesus whether he was at that time going to restore the kingdom to Israel, he neither affirmed nor denied such an intention but instead said that it was not for them to know the times or epochs that the Father has fixed by his own authority. Dispensationalists, given their pre-commitment to a restored national Israel, infer from the answer a confirmation of their theology, that the kingdom will be restored. Notwithstanding, no logical conclusion can be deduced from the text with respect to the restoration Israel’s kingdom.

John 21:20-22: When Peter asked Jesus whether John would be alive at the time of Jesus’ return Jesus told him that if he wanted John to remain until such time it was no business of Peter’s. Jesus then put to Peter his task, which was to follow Jesus. Jesus’ answer did not logically imply that John would remain or not, let alone whether Jesus would even return one day! The answer even caused a rumor among the brethren that John would not die (John 21:23). John in this very epistle (same verse: 23) remarked on the unjustified inference that caused the rumor: “Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

There are many more examples but the point should be obvious. We cannot logically deduce that which is not deducible! And when it comes to Jesus, the master of making the point he wants to make regardless of what precedes it, we must be doubly careful when assuming what is not said. In the final analyses, if we could deduce that John 8 demands the repudiation of theonomy, then I would think that a syllogism to that end, comprised of premises that don't beg crucial questions, could be constructed rather readily from the text.

At the end of the day, the use of the text to refute theonomy is on par with concluding that (a) Jesus was not a teacher sent from God; (b) Jesus was not good and, therefore, not God; (c) Jesus intended to establish Israel as a political power but failed with the passing of John.

That Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery does not logically imply that she did not deserve death at the hands of godly men, let alone that any laws, rightly interpreted, have been abrogated.

In Summary (and this is the best part...):

The sole intent of the mob was the entrapment of Jesus and whether a life was callously taken in the process, without regard for godly motive, was of no consequence to these wicked men. Accordingly, had Jesus acquiesced to their plea by condoning the woman’s death on their terms, he would have partaken in their scheming and wickedness according to Exodus 23:1-4. Moreover, had Jesus allowed for the penalty under Moses to be enacted in this particular case, he would have implied that men need not submit to God’s ordained government, a clear violation of the general equity of God’s lawful principle of rendering unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s (which equity is also affirmed later in Romans 13).

Jesus was in a predicament. He did not want to condone the woman’s execution given the motivation of the witnesses and accusers, lest he himself could be guilty of paving the way for their sin and become an accomplice with them according to Exodus 23:1-4. Nor did Jesus want to suggest that the woman did not deserve immediate punishment for her sin as prescribed by Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22.

Her action was indeed worthy of death, (lest the law which he authored had been abolished; yet he had already stated most unambiguously that he had not come to abolish the law. Matthew 5:17) Let there be no mistake about it, Jesus was for the death penalty when his law required the death penalty. He also required that such penalties be carried out not by perfect men but rather by those who had removed the plank from their own eye. Execution was to be carried out in a spirit of godly humility. Anything less than that was to do God’s bidding with a murderous heart, which would reduce to self-serving vengeance as opposed to righteous justice. We are God’s servants, and we not our own. Indeed, Jesus was concerned not only with the letter of the law but also the spirit in which it was to be followed. This must be appreciated by all Christians, especially theonomists.

Let there be no mistake - the people of God should at all times desire that the civil Law of Moses be upheld. What Jesus opposed was not his law (how ridiculous is that?!) but rather the Pharisees’ desire to substitute for it their traditions: “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, Honor your father and mother and Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’” Now did Jesus contradict himself? Did Jesus want laws carried out that were not in accordance with the Roman law that was placed into authority by divine providence? Clearly Jesus did not contradict himself by requiring that the Pharisees uphold civil laws that would have conflicted with God-ordained Roman law. Consequently, Jesus’ question of “why” cannot logically imply that they ought to have carried out the penalties prescribed by Moses at that time. Rather, the question is looking for the reason behind their motivation not to carry out the Law of Moses, which in the case of the Pharisees was that they preferred the traditions of men - hence Jesus’ leading question and rebuke. In other words, although the law was not to be carried out at that time (lest God contradicted himself), there should have been a desire to do so that was in submission to the greater principle of obeying Roman law per God’s precept. Accordingly, no answer would have been solicited by Jesus and no rebuke required had they desired in godly submission to carry out lawful executions yet were constrained only by another principle of Scripture - that of obeying God ordained government. Such was not the case, not by a long shot. The same hardness of heart and misguided motivations apply to the mob in John 8.
The dilemma solved:

Given the circumstances of no witness-accuser who possessed a heart for righteous judgment - the only one who could have put the woman to death and satisfied the full intention of the law both in letter and spirit would have been God himself. Accordingly, Jesus, unwilling to exercise his divine prerogative, invited anyone without sin to throw the first stone. By handling the difficult providence as he did, Jesus upheld Moses’ intention pertaining to a godly accuser's spirit, yet without compromising the deserved, temporal penalty for the woman. We might say that the case was thrown out of court due to the greater sin of the witness-accusers (and the priority of Roman rule, which I believe was secondary). Yet by couching the invitation as Jesus did, the Lord acknowledged both the rightful penalty and the unworthiness of anyone within that mob that day to carry out God’s law as in the manner God would have it - as God’s servant.

God is concerned with the spirit of the law but not at the cost of abrogation. Now if anyone wants to make more of the passage as it pertains to theonomy and suggest that Moses has been abrogated because nobody is without sin, then in turn they prove too much by relegating all temporal justice to the Final Day, a most absurd and unworkable principle. The only question I have at this juncture is whether the anti-theonomists will go out one by one in shame for butchering the logical implications of the text. Or will the angry mob of Jesus' day prove themselves more worthy than these?

As Calvin keenly observes:
"Christ appears to take out of the world all judicial decisions, so that no man shall dare to say that he has a right to punish crimes. For shall a single judge be found, who is not conscious of having something that is wrong? Shall a single witness be produced who is not chargeable with some fault? He appears, therefore, to forbid all witnesses to give public testimony, and all judges to occupy the judgment-seat. I reply: this is not an absolute and unlimited prohibition, by which Christ forbids sinners to do their duty in correcting the sins of others; but by this word he only reproves hypocrites, who mildly flatter themselves and their vices, but are excessively severe, and even act the part of felons, in censuring others. No man, therefore, shall be prevented by his own sins from correcting the sins of others, and even from punishing them, when it may be found necessary, provided that both in himself and in others he hate what ought to be condemned; and in addition to all this, every man ought to begin by interrogating his own conscience, and by acting both as witness and judge against himself, before he come to others. In this manner shall we, without hating men, make war with sins…

Neither do I condemn thee:
We are not told that Christ absolutely acquitted the woman, but that he allowed her to go at liberty. Nor is this wonderful, for he did not wish to undertake any thing that did not belong to his office. He bad been sent by the Father to gather the lost sheep, (Matthew10:6;) and, therefore, mindful of his calling, he exhorts the woman to repentance, and comforts her by a promise of grace. They who infer from this that adultery ought not to be punished with death, must, for the same reason, admit that inheritances ought not to be divided, because Christ refused to arbitrate in that matter between two brothers, (Luke12:13.) Indeed, there will be no crime whatever that shall not be exempted from the penalties of the law, if adultery be not punished; for then the door will be thrown open for any kind of treachery, and for poisoning, and murder, and robbery. Besides, the adulteress, when she bears an unlawful child, not only robs the name of the family, but violently takes away the right of inheritance from the lawful offspring, and conveys it to strangers. But what is worst of all, the wife not only dishonors the husband to whom she had been united, but prostitutes herself to shameful wickedness, and likewise violates the sacred covenant of God, without which no holiness can continue to exist in the world."


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Anonymous said...

I particularly liked the section where you deal with how Jesus advanced his agenda in the face of those with other agendas. Quite insightful!

Thanks for the work.


Anonymous said...

"I would locate myself in major philosophical agreement with these folks: James Anderson, John Frame, Steve Hays, Alvin Plantinga, Michael Sudduth, Greg Welty, Cornelius Van Til."

Do you recognize that quote from Paul M? How can he say he agrees with the fundamentals of these men when they don't agree with each other on core issues????????

Jeff Cagle said...

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the kind words over on my blog. I am one of those seeking for a "third way" between theonomy and 2K. From where I sit, individual Christians have no option but to submit to the Lordship of Christ; what is less clear is that they could demand this of others, especially non-Christians.

Thanks for your thoughts and zeal.

Grace and peace,
Jeff Cagle

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...


Let me say here what I said on your site. I do appreciate your intellectual integrity. You recognized the fallacies that were being offered up as "arguments" and you were not satisfied.

As for what you’re seeking to find, you probably are already resigned to the fact that unbelievers must have some laws imposed upon them by civil magistrates. What might not be so clear to you (yet?) is that whatever laws are imposed upon unbelievers, they cannot comport with an unbelieving worldview because laws are universal, abstract, invariant and presuppose oughtness, something for which a non-revelational epistemology cannot account. Accordingly, at the very least if they’re going to have to submit to laws, they might as well be biblical laws.



Jeff Cagle said...

I don't disagree that a Christian magistrate needs to be faithful to the Scripture.

However, I wonder whether all behavior need be the subject of legislation.

Sometimes, people have "the right to be wrong."

So for example, I would categorize smoking as something harmful to my health and the health of my kids.

But I would not support blanket bans on smoking, because such laws reach too far into individual situations.

So while choosing "right" and "wrong" is always a highly nuanced operation, guided (for the Christian) by Biblical norms, the law is not nuanced; it cuts across situations and declares "thou shalt (not)" rather flatly.

An interesting case in point is heresy. If we make heresy a legal offense, then some who are not heretics will be swept up; others who are heretics will keep their mouths shut and disguise their views.

So our point of agreement is that Scripture is the sole source of ethical norms. Where we might differ is on whether laws should always require maximally ethical behavior, or whether instead people should have some degree of freedom to be wrong.

Jeff Cagle

Joshua Butcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
danielj said...

others who are heretics will keep their mouths shut and disguise their views.
Isn't that the point?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

What point do you suppose that makes?

danielj said...

The very real threat of the application of punishment prevents the sinner from acting in public.

danielj said...


I lost your email.

Do you still have mine?

Could you send me a blank mail so I could send you back a few questions.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Sorry Daniel. It doesn't seem to be in my address book. If you post yours I won't publish it.

panta dokimazete said...

Also, a point of consideration - if this is the primary prooftext - isn't this vignette contested as authentically part of the original autograph?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Yes, it is contested but even if we allow for it, which I do, it presents no problem to the theonomic position. I appreciate your point.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ron,

How would a theonomist address the salem witch trials? It seems to me that a discussion with non-theonomists will eventually turn to that topic. Thanks.

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

I'm no expert on the trials but in principle witchcraft should be against the law, as should Tarot cards.

Reformed Apologist said...


I guess if you draw your circle large enough you can include anyone within your system. :)

Plantinga, IMHO, has no revelational epistemology in the least and that his epistemology was ever called "Reformed" was an unfortunate label. I have personally spoken with Plantinga and I can assure you that he would not "locate" himself as being in philosophical agreement with Van Til. From my discussion, he didn't understand CVT. He told me that CVT didn't think unbelievers could know anything.

chrisctlr said...

I have a question, brother. If the Jews couldn't carry out the death penalty then why did Pilate tell them to sentence Jesus according to their law? Was he just making an exception to the rule?

Reformed Apologist said...

It's hard for me to say. Maybe he was allowing them to go so far as to punish Jesus short of death. That might have been legal - some degree of punishment. Or maybe he was taunting them, which I doubt, because they had no Roman right to put Him to death. Or maybe he was saying, if your law of God requires it, then you better submit to God and crucify. I'd say 1 or 3 but I'm not sure other than Pilate was a coward not to vindicate the Lord.