A Biblical Refutation of Theonomic Ethics | Sam Waldron

by | Oct 6, 2022 | Apologetics, Systematic Theology, Theonomy?

*This series is a republication of lectures written by Dr. Waldron near the end of the 1980s. This is Part 6 of a series titled “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment.”

For Part 1, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/theonomy-a-reformed-baptist-assessment-sam-waldron/

For Part 2, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-sources-of-theonomic-development-sam-waldron/

For Part 3, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-challenges-of-critiquing-theonomy-sam-waldron/

For Part 4, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/understanding-the-supposed-theocratic-kingdom-sam-waldron/

For Part 5, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-historical-background-of-theonomic-ethics-sam-waldron/


I. The Scriptural Claims of Theonomic Ethics

A. The Centrality of Matt. 5:17-20 in Bahnsen’s Defense of Theonomy

Paul B. Fowler has documented what should be obvious to any reader of Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics.  Bahnsen’s exegesis of Matt. 5:17-20 is the centerpiece of the entire book.[1]  Bahnsen himself writes:

The locus classicus pertaining to Jesus and the law is Matthew 5:17-20; in this familiar section Jesus speaks openly of his relation to the law of the Older Testament, the status of that law, and what the response of His disciples should be to that law.  The theonomy of true kingdom righteousness is the heart of His teaching here.[2]

Bahnsen, thus, devotes 48 pages of concentrated exegesis to the opening of this key text.  Fowler notes that the entirety of Theonomy in Christian Ethics is organized around this key text and its exegesis.

Note the organization of Dr. Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy.  Chapter 1 is the Introduction.  Chapter 2 is his exegesis of Matthew 5:17-20, entitled:  “The Abiding Validity of the Law in Exhaustive Detail.”  In this chapter he concludes that in Matthew 5 verse 17 the validity of the Old Testament Law is confirmed, verse 18 confirms the validity of all the jots and tittles of the Old Testament Law, and verse 19 confirms the validity of meticulous observance by Kingdom citizens of the least details of the Old Testament Law.  He captions his chapters 1 and 2 in the Table of Contents, “The Thesis.”  Chapters 3 and 4 have the caption:  “Misconceptions of the Thesis Eradicated.”  Then Dr. Bahnsen proceeds to develop the rest of his book around his interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20.[3]

Fowler is certainly correct when he concludes:  “Thus, if it could be shown that Dr. Bahnsen’s interpretation is incorrect, or even tenuous at crucial points, his thesis would be come suspect.”[4]


B. The Interpretation of Matt. 5:17-20 in Bahnsen’s Defense of Theonomy

Many inadequacies in Bahnsen’s exegsis of Matt. 5:17-20 have been discussed by various writers.[5]  In the interests of brevity and simplicity the critique given here will organize itself around the single major flaw in that exegesis, his interpretation of the word, fulfill (ðëçñoù), in Matt. 5:17.  Very simply put, Bahnsen asserts that the meaning of this word in the passage is to confirm or establish.[6]  He, then, proceeds to argue that, since v. 18 is speaking of every jot and tittle of the law, Jesus in this passage asserts that he came to confirm, establish, or restore to full authority the law of God in exhaustive detail.  This is the thesis that Bahnsen bravely undertakes to explain, vindicate, and defend in the rest of his work.  Bahnsen concludes,  “Jesus, the awaited Messiah, rectifies the fallen standard of the law; he confirms its exhaustive details and restores a proper conception of kingdom righteousness.”[7]


C. The Misconception of Matt. 5:17-20 in Bahnsen’s Defense of Theonomy

Under this heading seven inadequacies in Bahnsen’s interpretation of the key word, fulfill, in Matt. 5:17 will be identified.  These four inadequacies will also provide a framework in which to suggest the proper understanding of the key word and the passage.


1. The Inadequacy of the Lexical Evidence

The first inadequacy in Bahnsen’s treatment of “fulfill” is the inadequacy of the lexical evidence for the meaning of confirm.  Fowler points out,  “It may be noted that Arndt and Gingrich, the major New Testament Greek lexicon which devotes over two full pages to ðëçñoù, “to fulfill,” does not even list “to confirm” (or “to establish,” to ratify”) as a possible nuance.”  Fowler’s footnote reads as follows:

F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, University of Chicago Press, 1957, pp. 676-678. This lexicon actually gives several possible nuances of ðëçñoù in Mt. 5:17, one of which is: to bring to full expression=show it forth in its true meaning.” This is not the same as Dr. Bahnsen’s “to establish as valid.”  Recent editions also include within parentheses Dalman’s view “to confirm,” but this view is deliberately not included as generally accepted as possible.[8]

Further corroborating the lexical inadequacy of Bahnsen’s interpretation is the consistent, terminological distinction between words meaning confirm and words meaning fulfill in the Bible.  Fowler has investigated this and discovered that …

The main Hebrew and Greek terms for “to confirm” are ___ and `éóôçìé (and cognates).  The main Hebrew and Greek terms for “to fulfill” are À__ and ðëçñoù.  The Hebrew term for “to confirm” (___) is never rendered in the LXX by the Greek term for “to fulfill” (ðëçñoù).  Nor is the Hebrew term for “to fulfill” (À__) ever rendered in the LXX by any of the cognate forms of the Greek term for “to confirm” (`éóôçìé).  There is a legitimate distinction between “to confirm” and “to fulfill” in both Hebrew and Greek.  Dr. Bahnsen’s attempt, therefore, to fuse the two meanings of “to confirm” and “to fulfill” is certainly to be questioned.[9]


2. The Inadequacy of the Interpretive Alternatives

A second inadequacy of Bahnsen’s exegesis is that the interpretive alternatives to his own position which he provides are partial.  To be specific, while he lists five other possibilities for the meaning of “fulfill” (puts to an end, replaces, supplements, intends to actively obey, enforce), he does not even mention the most prominent contextual usage of the word,[10] the fulfillment of divine promises.  Says Fowler:

… it is strange that Dr. Bahnsen does not even mention the most prominent use of ðëçñoù (“to fulfill”) in Matthew:  of divine predictions and promises being fulfilled.  As we will see below, it is this technical usage of Christ being the Messianic fulfillment of the Old Testament promises that holds one of the keys for interpreting ðëçñoù (“to fulfill”) correctly.[11]

This thought brings us to a third and crucial inadequacy of Bahnsen’s interpretation of this key word.


3. The Inadequacy of the Consideration of Context

It is rather shocking after reading Bahnsen’s lengthy treatment of the meaning of ðëçñoù (“to fulfill”) to open up a Greek concordance and examine the other usages of the word in the Gospel of Matthew.  Bahnsen’s exegesis of “fulfill” manages to completely ignore the paramount consideration of the way this word is used in other places in the same book of the Bible.  This neglect is all the more inexcusable because the word is used 15 other times in Matthew with great consistency.[12]  It will be well to let these uses speak for themselves.

1:22‑-“Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled …”

2:15‑-“…that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled…”

2:17‑-“Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled …”

2:23‑-“that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled …”

3:15‑-“Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

4:14‑-“… to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet …”

8:17‑-“in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled …”

12:17‑-“in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, might be fulfilled …”

13:35‑-“so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled …”

13:48‑-“and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach”

21:4‑-“Now this took place that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled”

23:32‑-“Fill up then the measure of your fathers.”

26:54‑-“How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen this way?”

26:56‑-“But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled?”

27:9‑-“Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled …”

Twelve of these fifteen occurrences clearly use “fulfill” with reference to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  In these the Scriptures are viewed as a prophetic word destined to find its fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah.  In the three other passages, the overtones of eschatological fulfillment may also be discerned in different ways.  Matt. 3:15 speaks of the baptism of Jesus as fulfilling all righteousness.  However this is exactly to be understood, it certainly speaks of Messianic fulfillment and salvation.  Matt. 13:48 uses the word in a kingdom parable.  The filling of the net with fishes also has the connotation of eschatological fulfillment.  Matt. 23:32 also alludes to eschatological fulfillment by way of the coming of Israel’s sin to full measure.  This fulfilling of Israel’s sin is the backdrop of the predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem and the final end contained in the following two chapters, Matthew 24 and 25.

If, then, the paramount consideration of the contextual usage of “fulfill” is allowed to have any impact on the exegesis on Matt. 5:17, it forces us to recognize there the idea of eschatological fulfillment and redemptive-historical movement.  It is this idea that is absent from Bahnsen’s understanding.  It certainly fails to make any meaningful impact on his exegesis.  Simply to confirm or establish the law is merely to reaffirm its original integrity (in exhaustive detail, as Bahnsen likes to say).  There is no sense of eschatological fulfillment or redemptive-historical movement in this.

Bahnsen’s only reply to this massive array of contextual evidence is to appeal to the immediate context Matt. 5:17.  He makes the point that in Matthew 5:19ff. Jesus is speaking of the commandments of the law being fulfilled and proceeds to expound some of the more important of these commandments and order men to obey them.[13]  This point is well-taken.  The immediate context of Matt. 5:17 certainly must be taken into account.  It certainly indicates that included in the fulfillment of the law and the prophets is the exposition of their true meaning and application to Christ’s disciples.  This element cannot be eliminated from the fulfillment of which v. 17 is speaking.  Thus, when House and Ice speak of sweeping modifications of Old Testament law with reference to divorce, oaths, and the lex talionis and hold out the possibility that the law will be abrogated by the coming of Christ, they fail adequately to grapple with Bahnsen’s position or the context of Matt. 5:17.[14]

Yet it is equally wrong for Bahnsen to ignore the use of “fulfill” in Matthew and the redemptive-historical movement it introduces into Matt. 5:17.  The entire Matthaean context of this text teaches that the law and the prophets are moving toward messianic fulfillment.  Clearly, this does not mean the abrogation of its moral precepts and principles.  Matthew 5 makes this plain.  Yet it does mean, as Bahnsen himself admits, that the ceremonial precepts of that law are brought to their fulfillment and, thus, superseded by the work of Christ.  This dimension of fulfillment is clearly in the background of Matt. 5:17.

There are, furthermore, contextual indications in Matthew 5 itself which point to the idea of eschatological fulfillment.  The repeated use of the verb, “I came,” by the Lord Jesus in v. 17 puts His mission at the center of that verse.  Fowler comments:

Jesus’ use of çëèov (“I came”) emphasizes His mission, and strongly suggests that Jesus viewed His task as actualizing in His life the will of God made known in the law and the prophets.  He has come in order that God’s Word may be completely fulfilled, in order that the full measure appointed by God Himself may be reached in Him.[15]

The phrase, “until all is accomplished,” found in v. 18 also brings out this emphasis also.  The verb used here is also used in Matt. 1:22 the first occurrence of ðëçñoù in Matthew.  That text says,  “Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled …”  The words, took place, translate the same Greek verb ãévoìáé as the words, is accomplished, translate in Matt. 5:18.  This association provides added weight to Fowler’s suggestion (in agreement with many other commentators) that there is parallelism of thought between verses 17 and 18.  He illustrates that parallelism this way:

17-  I have not come to destroy (the law or the prophets) but to fulfill.

18-  One jot or one tittle (from the law) shall never pass away until all things come to pass

Thus understood the two verbs ãévoìáé and ðëçñoù are parallel in meaning in a way similar to Matt. 1:22.  The implication is that the phrase, “until all is accomplished,” speaks of the fulfillment and completion of the redemptive-historical process recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Another contextual indication of the idea of fulfillment is in the exposition of the law given by the Lord Jesus in this chapter.  It is clearly misguided with House and Ice to see our Lord’s intention to be that of introducing “sweeping modifications of three important institutions of the Mosaic Law (i. e. divorce‑-5:32; oaths‑-5:34; talion‑-5:39) …”[16]  There is no modification of these Old Testament institutions in this chapter, if its is rightly interpreted.  In the case of oaths he must not be understood as outlawing all oaths because so to understand Him is to make Him condemn (among other things) the oaths taken by the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23).  In the case of divorce and the lex talionis Jesus does not object to the Old Testament laws, but to their misapplication to personal ethics.

It is, therefore, wrong to speak of Jesus introducing sweeping modifications into the Old Testament law in Matthew 5.  This does not mean, however, that Jesus here is merely confirming and reaffirming the Law.  Rather, he must be seen as accentuating the personal requirements of the law and applying the law to the new redemptive-historical circumstances of His people.  Fowler properly remarks:

Is Jesus then merely repeating the Old Testament Law?  Is He simply confirming that the Old Testament theocracy needed to be reestablished?  No, and this is the critical point.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus consistently frames the principles of His kingdom in terms of the new form of the Kingdom He has come to establish.  For example, the law about murder in the Mosaic legislation was sufficient for the civil realm.  But it was certainly not sufficient for the personal realm.  ….  The law about divorce was added by God to guard against an excessive divorce rate in Israel.  In Jesus day, however, the Pharisees had turned its civil purpose around so that in their personal lives they could find a reason to get a divorce.

In conclusion, the Sermon on the Mount is introducing us to the principles of the Kingdom Christ came to establish.  Christ is accenting the personal, not the civil realm.  He is reapplying the moral law to the Kingdom He came to establish and is not concerned to confirm the continuing validity of the theocracy.  Christ’s application of the jots and tittles of the law is both radical and practical. ….  As Herman Ridderbos has observed, these formulations of Christ have “no other aim than the fulfillment of the law revealed by God to Israel.”[17]


4. The Inconsistency of the Further Explanation

Clearly, Bahnsen has raised all sorts of questions for himself by maintaining that Matthew 5:17 teaches the confirmation of the law of Moses in exhaustive detail.  Specifically, he has raised very problematic questions about the subject of the ceremonial law.  Bahnsen remarks at the outset of his chapter on the subject in Theonomy:

About this point the question may have arisen, what about the laws in the Older Testament dealing with sacrifices, the temple, etc.?  According to the foregoing thesis, every jot and tittle of the Lord’s law is binding upon God’s people in all ages.  Does this mean that New Testament Christians are required to observe the Older Testamental ritual?[18]

Bahnsen’s answer to this question often surprises the novice.  Though he has stated with absolute-ness and unqualified emphasis, the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail throughout his book, yet at this point he responds ambiguously,  “The answer to this question is yes and no.”[19]  Bahnsen explains his ambiguity in the succeeding sentences:

Yes, Christians under the New Covenant are still responsible to offer blood atonement for their sins and tend to the obligations of the temple, etc.; however, we must be mindful of the fact that the way or manner in which Christians do these things under the new Covenant is not identical with the Older Testamental observation of the ritual and ceremony.[20]

This answer of Bahnsen to the abiding validity of the ceremonial law certainly permits the question, Has Bahnsen really avoided contradicting himself by it?  I do not believe he has.  In reality Bahnsen is caught on the horns of a dilemma which he cannot resolve.  If he stresses the abiding validity of every jot and tittle of the law of Moses, then there really is no way to reconcile this with the language that he himself uses of the coming of the New Covenant.  Listen to him:

The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superseded (Heb. 7:11., 28).  The people of God were subjected to a law or principle of ceremonial redemption with reference to the priesthood, says the author of Hebrews, but when Jesus instituted a change in the priesthood (for He was of the tribe of Judah, not Levi) the ceremonial principle was altered as well.  This was inevitable because the ceremonial priests  remained powerless to effect the perfect inward cleansing  required.  The former commandment with reference to ceremonial matters was set aside, then, in order that God’s people might have a better hope, for the ceremony was imperfect and kept men at a distance from God (Heb. 7:18f.).  The commandment which was annulled was “a commandment with respect to the flesh” …  This law made nothing perfect …[21]

One can scarcely believe that the repeated references to the imperfection, superseding, changing, alteration, setting aside, and annulling of the ceremonial law come from the same man who has argued that Jesus confirmed every jot and tittle of the law.  Has not Bahnsen written,  “The law is a transcript‑-a writing out of the details‑-of God’s moral perfection (Matt. 5:48; Psa. 19:7).  As such, then, the law can no more be changed, abrogated, or improved upon than can God’s perfection …”?[22]  Mr. Bahnsen will have a difficult time reconciling these two statements to the plain Christian.

But there is another horn to this dilemma.  If Mr. Bahnsen is serious about allowing for the spirit and not the letter of the ceremonial law to count as its abiding validity, then he has raised serious questions about the subject of the judicial law.  On what grounds does he place the judicial law on the side of the moral as literally valid, instead of on the side of the ceremonial law as figuratively or spiritually valid?  Why may we not argue for a similar fulfillment of the judicial laws and penology of the Theocracy in the New Testament church and in the judgments of the eschaton?  Fowler has well-asked:

Finally, if we are agreed that certain particulars of the ceremonial laws were altered due to the coming of Christ and His fulfillment of them, and if we are agreed that these altered particulars are included in the jots and tittles of the law, then why would not the same alteration be true with regard to the particulars of the judicial law of Israel?  For the laws of the church-state of Israel were altered as a result of the coming of Christ and His setting up a new form of Israel as a church-body.  Would not then the civil laws for Israel as a Theocracy have to be restated and altered to apply to the new form of Israel as the body of Christ?[23]

Clearly, if (in spite of Bahnsen’s interpretation) Matt. 5:17 allows for redemptive-historical fulfillment with regard to ceremonial law, then it may also somehow allow for redemptive-historical movement with reference to judicial law.  These realities in themselves suggest that Bahnsen’s understanding of the passage is inadequate.  They also indicate that Matt. 5:17 is wholly inadequate to bear the weight which he makes it bear in his system.  If Matt. 5:17 allows for the annulling and setting aside of ceremonial law (to use Bahnsen’s terminology), then it may be consistent with the expiration of the judicial law.  Thus, it cannot support the distinctive thesis of Theonomic Ethics.


II. The Biblical Rebuttal of Theonomic Ethics

A. The Framework of This Rebuttal

Here I am referring to the overview of the redemptive history of the Theocratic Kingdom provided before.  We have seen two things which create the greatest presumption that the judicial law has expired.  First, we have seen that the judicial law‑-the specific and detailed civil order specially revealed by God‑-was an essential part of the unique relation of God to the kingdom of Israel.  Second, we have seen that the Theocratic kingdom perished under the curse of God and that it his preceptive will and divine ordination that the Gentile kingdoms should now hold civil power over the people of God.  There is, therefore, no reason to think that laws which were part of a unique and peculiar order which no longer exists in the world today should bind nations today.  This is, of course, the reasoning of the Westminster Confession itself,  “To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution”.


B. The Elaboration of This Rebuttal

Dennis E. Johnson writing in Theonomy:  A Reformed Critique  entitles his chapter,  “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Mosaic Penal Sanctions.”  He emphasizes that some of the most important teaching on the relevance of the judicial law for Christians is provided in this letter.

Only a few specific references to the Mosaic penal sanctions are found in the New Testament.  Below I will argue that among the most significant of these are the passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews that compare and contrast the Mosaic penalties to the judgment awaiting those who repudiate the new covenant inaugurated by Christ.  A brief survey of the other New Testament references to the penalties of the Law of Moses will, I believe, demonstrate how important the passages in Hebrews are.[24]

The primacy of the teaching of Hebrews will become clear in the following elaboration of the biblical rebuttal of Theonomic Ethics.


1. The Obsolescence of the Judicial Law

Hebrews is important because it teaches that the judicial law of Israel is obsolete and is, therefore, no longer obligatory upon Christians.  This may be gleaned from Heb. 9:19 which speaks of the book of the covenant which contained the judicial law of Israel.  Permit me to open up this passage by asking and answering two questions about the book of the covenant mentioned in this text.

What was the content of the book of the covenant?  The book of the covenant was the epitome or summary of the judicial law of Israel.  Notice the language,  “when every commandment of the law had been spoken by Moses.”  This is a reference to Exodus 24:1-3.  In this passage Moses recounts to the people the laws which God gave him on Mount Sinai after the announcement of the Ten Commandments had been concluded.  In Exodus 20:21 and 22 we are told that Moses approached the thick cloud and that God proceeded to speak to Him.  The content of this divine revelation is found in Exodus 20:22-23:33.  Even a cursory reading of these chapters will show that their focus or primary content is upon the judicial law of Israel‑-not upon the Ten commandments which were written separately and exclusively on the tables of stone.[25]  While the book of the covenant may have included the Ten Commandments, and while it did contain (arguably) some ceremonial laws (Exod. 20:18-26), it is clearly viewed as the comprehensive summary or epitome of the judicial law.  Exodus 24:3 uses comprehensive language,  “all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances”.  Heb. 9:19 picks up on this comprehensive language “when every commandment of the law had been spoken by Moses”.[26]  Our second question brings us to the practical importance of this text.

What is the present status of the book of the covenant?  It has passed away.  What cannot be avoided in this passage is the expiration of the book of the covenant and with it the judicial law.  The significant thing about this mention of the judicial law of Israel is that it comes in a context which equates it with the first or Old Covenant (Heb. 9:18).  The same context has for its theme the thought that the Old Covenant is obsolete and ready to disappear because it was imposed only until a time of reformation (Heb. 8:7, 13; 9:10; 10:1).  It is impossible to avoid the clear teaching of Heb. 9:19 that the book of the covenant, the summary of the judicial law of Israel, has expired.  This teaching is, of course, completely antithetical to Theonomic Ethics.


2. The Relevance of the Judicial Law

There is at least an important element of truth in Dennis Johnson’s remark that,  “Ultimately the New Testament must be our guide in determining how the various categories of commandments in the Law of Moses function as God’s authoritative Word to the post resurrection church.”[27]  Though Theonomists may scruple at the word, ultimately, surely no one can deny that the way in which the New Testament itself utilizes the judicial law of Israel is of intense interest on this subject.

Since the book of the covenant as part of the first covenant is obsolete and has now passed away, it might be concluded that it is completely irrelevant for the Christian.  This very Epistle to the Hebrews manifests the superficiality of this conclusion.  In two significant passages it makes clear reference to the Mosaic penal sanctions (Heb. 2:1-3; 10:28-31).  In both passages the penal sanctions of the judicial law are seen as pointing typically to the destruction of those who apostatize from salvation in Christ.

These passages, however, are consistent with the previously seen obsolescence of the judicial law.  While as a civil code binding the present conduct of the people of God, it is obsolete, the judicial law also fulfills the shadow function of the Law (Heb. 10:1-3).  Its penal sanctions are not intended as the norm of the now present Gentile kingdoms.  Rather, they point to the judgments which shall accompany the restoration of the Theocratic Kingdom at Christ’s return.

As Dennis Johnson points out in the book referred to earlier, this use of the judicial sanctions is related to the other application of the judicial law in the New Testament.  The judicial law is also cited in relation to the judgments which the spiritual kingdom of Christ in the church now executes to maintain the purity of the church.  Corrective church discipline properly executed foreshadows the ultimate judgment of the apostate in the day of judgment (1 Cor. 5:1-13.  Dennis Johnson remarks:

But it is noteworthy that Paul seals this discussion with a formula quoted from the Mosaic penal sanctions:  “Expel the wicked man from among you” (v. 13; see Deut. 17:7, 12; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7).  His wording follows that of the Septuagint so closely that his intent to appeal to this Old Testament formula is unmistakable.  In the Deuteronomy contexts this formula, whenever it appears, refers to the execution of those committing deeds “worthy of death” …. Paul applies the same terminology to the new covenant community’s judging/purging act of excommunication….[28]

Dennis Johnson’s conclusion about the New Testament data is certainly justified.

The question whether the penal sanctions should also instruct the state as it is charged to administer justice to persons within and without God’s covenant is not explicitly addressed in the New Testament …. The New Testament’s minimal direction to governmental officials does not support the view that the Mosaic penalties should be enforced by noncovenantal governmental structure on a noncovenantal people.

The Theonomic use of the Mosaic judicial law, it must be concluded, must be rejected.  It ignores the clear teaching of the New Testament as to the obsolescence of the judicial law.  It obscures the proper relevance of the judicial law to the church, the visible and spiritual kingdom of Christ, in its attempt to apply it to non-Theocratic civil governments.

On the other hand, the traditional Reformed view is clearly a suitable framework within which to understand the New Testament references to the judicial law.  Its assertion of the expiration of the judicial law with the passing of the Theocracy is vindicated by Heb. 9:19.  Its continuing relevance for Christians by way of its general equity is illustrated by its use in the New Testament in reference to matters of church purity and eschatological judgment.


    [1]Paul B. Fowler, God’s Law Free From Legalism, pp. 60f. This unpublished manuscript has been most helpful to me in this treatment of Matt. 5:17-20.

    [2]Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 39.

    [3]Fowler, loc. cit., pp. 60 and 61.  Fowler goes on to give examples of how in chapters 9, 16, and 22 and in the concluding sentences of the book Bahnsen refers back to Matthew 5:17-20.

    [4]Fowler, loc. cit., p. 62

    [5]See beside Fowler House and Ice pp. 103ff. in Dominion Theology:  Blessing or Curse; R. Laird Harris in his review article on Theonomy in Christian Ethics in the Covenant Seminary Review 5, (Spring 1979):  pp.1-15.; Bruce K Waltke in “Theonomy in Relation to Dispensational and Covenant Theologies” an article in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, pp. 80ff.

    [6]Bahnsen, loc. cit., pp. 67-70.

    [7]Bahnsen, loc. cit., p. 86.

    [8]Fowler, loc. cit., p. 64

    [9]Fowler, loc. cit., p. 69.

    [10]Bahnsen, loc. cit., pp. 52, 53.

    [11]Fowler, loc. cit., pp. 66, 67.

    [12]“Fulfill” occurs a 16th time in Matt. 27:35 if the textual variant found in the Textus Receptus is followed.  The usage there is consistent with the others found in Matthew,  “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.”

    [13]On pp. 60 and 61 of Theonomy … Bahnsen alludes to the idea of fulfillment of prophecy saying,  “… the context of Matthew 5:17 indicates that ðëçñoù refers to Jesus’ work as a teacher.  There are no allusions to predictions of the Older Testament …”

    [14]House and Ice, loc. cit., pp. 104-112.  The reference to the sweeping modifications of the law in the Sermon on the Mount is the language of Randy Gleason who House and Ice are quoting approvingly.  House and Ice also suggest on p. 112 that Jesus is intent on showing his disciples their need of His righteousness in the Matt. 5:21-28.  The doctrine of forensic righteousness, while biblical, is foreign to the import of Matthew 5 which is speaking of the hearts and practical lives of believers.

    [15]Fowler, loc. cit., pp. 73, 74.

    [16]House and Ice, loc. cit., p. 105.

    [17]Fowler, loc. cit., pp. 91 and 92.

    [18] Bahnsen, loc. cit., p. 207.



    [21]Bahnsen, loc. cit., p. 208.

    [22]Greg Bahnsen, The Presbyterian Journal, “The Authority of God’s Law,” vol. 37, no. 32, p. 11.

    [23]Fowler, loc. cit., p. 89.

    [24]Dennis E. Johnson writing in Theonomy:  A Reformed Critique, ed. by W. S. Barker and R. W. Godfrey, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990), “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Mosaic Penal Sanctions,” pp. 177, 178.

    [25]This is admitted by Theonomists.  Cf. James Jordan’s The Law of the Covenant:  An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Institute for Christian Economics, Tyler, 1984).

    [26]This means that the we must distinguish the perspective of Hebrews where the law is equated with the book of the covenant and the perspective of Romans where the law is primarily the Ten Commandments.  Equate the law with the book of the covenant and it is proper to speak of its passing away as Hebrews does.  Equate the law with the Ten commandments and the emphasis must be on its abiding validity as it is in Romans.  The law in general and as an economy has passed away.  The law specifically as the Ten commandments cannot pass away.   In this way Heb. 9:19 may be safeguarded from Antinomian misuse.  See below on a Reformed hermeneutic of the Mosaic Law.

    [27]Dennis E. Johnson, loc. cit., p. 191,

    [28]ibid., p. 181.

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