1689 Federalism & Theonomy
On 27, Jan 2015 | In Resources | By admin
Theonomy may not be heard regularly from pulpits, but it is a view that is alive and well among Christians who take the Bible seriously and are struggling to understand how to apply it to the world they live in.
As appealing as theonomy may be for its apparently simple answer to a difficult subject, it is actually entirely (100%) incompatible with 1689 Federalism. Theonomy, properly defined as the belief that all nations today are obligated to obey Israel’s judicial laws because they have not been abrogated, relies upon an extreme version of the “one substance, multiple administrations” view of covenant theology. It stresses that the Old Covenant is really just the Older Covenant and the New Covenant is just the Newer Covenant – both being administrations of the covenant of grace. Since 1689 Federalism rejects this model, there is no way to hold to both theonomy and 1689 Federalism.
Theonomy, as Greg Bahnsen uses the term.5 is a view of the Bible that argues for the continuing validity of God’s revealed law in every area of life. Bahnsen argues that unless a specific Old Testament law has been abrogated by the New Testament, either by specific revelation or because of an application of a New Testament principle, its authority is still morally and/ or judicially binding. “The methodological point, then, is that we presume our obligation to obey any Old Testament commandment unless the New Testament indicates otherwise. We must assume continuity with the Old Testament rather than discontinuity. This is not to say that there are no changes from Old to New Testament. Indeed, there are — important ones. However, the word of God must be the standard which defines precisely what those changes are for us; we cannot take it upon ourselves to assume such changes or read them into the New Testament.”6
The fact is that all of the covenants of the Old Covenant (that is, all of the Old Testament covenants) are unified as parts of the one overall covenant of grace established by God. Paul spoke of Gentiles who were not part of the Old Covenant economy which included the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants as “strangers to the covenants of the promise” (Eph. 2:12)…There were many, progressively revealed aspects to the single promise of God in the Old Testament: many administrations of the overall covenant of grace… Given the unity of God’s covenant throughout history and the Bible, then, is it true that Christians living under the New Covenant are not obliged to keep the Old Covenant law (the commandments of the Old Testament, especially those given by Moses)?…[W]e saw that all of the covenants of God are unified into one overall Covenant of Grace, fully realized with the coming of Christ in the New Covenant. So if there is one covenant enjoyed by the people of God throughout the ages, then there is one moral code or set of stipulations which govern those who would be covenant-keepers. Therefore, we must answer that of course New Testament believers are bound to the Old Testament law of God. His standards, just like His covenant, are unchanging. (BTS, 41-42)…
There is no textual indication, however, that the New Covenant brings a new standard of moral conduct, and there is no textual indication that the Old Covenant standard has been categorically laid aside. The Covenantal administrations are dramatically different – in glory, power, realization, and finality – but not as codes defining right and wrong behavior or attitudes. (BTS, 168)
Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent…
It is not, therefore, the peculiar command for the institution of the legal priesthood that is intended, but the whole system of Mosaical institutions. For the apostle having already proved that the priesthood was to be abolished, he proceeds on that ground and from thence to prove that the whole law was also to be in like manner abolished and removed. And indeed it was of such a nature and constitution, that pull one pin out of the fabric, and the whole must fall unto the ground; for the sanction of it being, that “he was cursed who continued not in all things written in the law to do them,” the change of any one thing must needs overthrow the whole law…
And the whole of this system of laws is called a “command,” because it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel, as a promise of righteousness by Jesus Christ, Galatians 3:11, 12. Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…
By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaical law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be disannulled, unto the unspeakable advantage of the church…
It is therefore plainly declared, that the law is “abrogated,” “abolished… disannulled.”
Hearty agreement must be given when New Covenant theologians argue for the abolition of the Old Covenant. This is clearly the teaching of the Old and New Testaments (see Jeremiah 31:31-32; Second Corinthians 3; Galatians 3, 4; Ephesians 2:14-15; Hebrews 8-10). The whole law of Moses, as it functioned under the Old Covenant, has been abolished, including the Ten Commandments. Not one jot or tittle of the law of Moses functions as Old Covenant law anymore and to act as if it does constitutes redemptive-historical retreat and neo-Judaizing. However, to acknowledge that the law of Moses no longer functions as Old Covenant law is not to accept that it no longer functions; it simply no longer functions as Old Covenant law. This can be seen by the fact that the New Testament teaches both the abrogation of the law of the Old Covenant and its abiding moral validity under the New Covenant.
In Defense of the Decalogue, 61.
See also JOHN OWEN AND NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY: Owen on the Old and New Covenants and the Functions of the Decalogue in Redemptive History in Historical and Contemporary Perspective
To be clear, LBCF chapter 19 affirms that the moral law, the decalogue, continues to guide Christians as a rule of righteousness. The difference, however, is that moral law does not continue to guide by virtue of its Mosaic establishment. It continues to guide as universal moral standard that transcends all covenants.
The point is that the law was given to Israel on Mt. Sinai as a covenant of works. Note Owen “it consisted in “arbitrary commands” and precepts, regulated by that maxim, “The man that doeth these things shall live by them,” Romans 10:5. And therefore the law, as a command, is opposed unto the gospel…” The Old Covenant operated upon the works principle “Do this and live” (Leviticus 18:5). As Owen notes, Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 to demonstrate that this principle of works is directly opposed to the principle of faith. Thus “with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered…”
The law says “do this”, a covenant of works says “do this and live.” The curses found in the Mosaic covenant (and the blessings) are derived from the law as a covenant of works. Violation of the law brought curses upon individuals and the nation. That is why people were put to death in Israel for violating the moral law. Because it was a covenant of works with life in the balance (Lev 18:5, cited in Gal 3:12 & Rom 10:5). Augustine put it this way
In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man…[T]he law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament [covenant]…
“But the law is not of faith: but The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:12) Which testimony, quoted by the apostle from the law, is understood in respect of temporal life, in respect of the fear of losing which, men were in the habit of doing the works of the law, not of faith; because the transgressors of the law were commanded by the same law to be put to death by the people.
“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deuteronomy 27:26 (cited in Gal 3:10)
The death penalty instituted under the Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was an addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a covenant of works that we have been freed from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
(Deuteronomy 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)
It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. (Note, however, that although the Old Covenant was a covenant of works, it was not the covenant of works: it did not deal with eternal blessing and curse)
For more on this, see Abraham Booth’s An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ.
A separate question is whether or not nations today may or should enforce the general equity of Israel’s judicial laws in their own civil laws. Here are two resources to help unpack 19.4 of the 2nd London Baptist Confession from a 1689 Federalism perspective:
- 1 Cor 5:13 is the general equity of Deut 22:21
- Sovereignty of God and Human Authority: Romans 13 ~ Voddie Baucham