Joel McDurmon vs. Christendom
Perhaps the most surprising feature of McDurmon’s book is his virtually wholesale denunciation of historic Christian ethics. It is abundantly clear that McDurmon’s definition of theonomy is an innovation and entirely unique to his own position. The position that McDurmon has articulated in this book is in marked contrast to the modern formulators of theonomy such as R.J. Rushdoony or Greg Bahnsen. McDurmon’s position also conflicts with historic Christian ethics in general, because Christians have generally agreed with the position of Rushdoony and Bahnsen in regards to the role of the civil government in enforcing God’s Law in society. McDurmon is aware of this, and it is astounding to see him denounce so much of what is our Christian heritage. Quite honestly, McDurmon’s understanding of Church history seems more in line with the anabaptistic “trail of blood”1 thinking than a genuinely Reformed perspective, which he purports to provide his readers. In fact, just as McDurmon has read libertarianism into the biblical law and his vision for a Christian society; so too has McDurmon read an Anabaptist perspective into his understanding of Church history, at least as it pertains to ethics.
McDurmon begins his final chapter, called “What is Not Theonomy,” by warning his readers that “there is more than one distinct group of believers who use the label ‘Theonomy.’”2 McDurmon assures his reader that those who might be inclined to define theonomy differently haven’t “thoroughly engaged important Old Testament passages to exhaust some of their most pressing questions” the way that he has. This is particularly interesting when we consider that McDurmon’s views expressed in this book are at variance with what has been classically understood as theonomy a la Bahnsen and Rushdoony. Now McDurmon is trying to tell his readers who is really a theonomist when he is the one who is redefining theonomy to suit his particular libertarian ethos. The problem for McDurmon goes far beyond the modern formulation of theonomy by men such as Rushdoony and Bahnsen in the mid-twentieth century. McDurmon’s views are essentially absent from the history of Christendom. In fact McDurmon’s brief overview of Church history leaves him with almost nothing good to say about any Christian theologian or political figure. McDurmon maintains that since the fourth century Christians have adopted a pagan Roman view of the role of the state, and this has continued to be a problem until the present.
McDurmon begins by extolling the virtue of the Church that endured extensive pagan persecution for the first few centuries. McDurmon’s praise for Christians who remained faithful in spite of severe oppression is certainly well-founded. The constancy of Christians who endure such terrible abuse is a proof that the Christian faith is true and that God is giving His people strength to endure even the worst of circumstances. Nevertheless McDurmon falls into the error of viewing this period of persecution as a sort of golden age before Christianity was corrupted under the pernicious influence of Constantine. This viewpoint is common in many “Restoration Movement” denominations, which seek to recover a primitive Christianity supposedly lost from the time of Constantine onward. McDurmon’s basic contention is that Christians beginning with Constantine have largely co-opted a Roman pagan understanding of government.
McDurmon accuses Constantine of simply adopting the “imperial cult and the regulations of Roman law and baptiz[ing] them in favor of an official Christianity,”3 citing Edward Gibbon to the effect that Constantine simply copied the edicts of the pagan Diocletian while switching the intended targets of persecution. Gibbon is notorious for his anti-Christian perspective, so he hardly constitutes a neutral source. Even granting the validity of Gibbon’s analysis, I couldn’t find Gibbon’s remarks in which he suggests that Constantine simply lifted some of his edicts and decrees regarding religion from Diocletian or other pagan emperors. McDurmon does not cite an exact quote, so it is difficult to tell exactly what he is referencing, but I note that Gibbon himself believed that Constantine was impressed by Christian morality and sought to inculcate Christian virtues in the people of the Roman Empire even before his own conversion to the faith.4 McDurmon is only getting started, as he believes that the Church only became more subverted after Constantine. McDurmon accuses Christians of capitulating on one issue after another; for example, Lactantius is accused of supporting the death penalty after Constantine’s ascendancy while opposing it during the period of Christian persecution.5 This is an oversimplification of Lactantius’s position, which was consistently Christian. Lactantius opposed the degrading spectacle that public executions had become in pagan Roman culture. He denounced the bloodlust that motivated the crowd to be gathered for the purpose of entertainment. He also opposed the execution of Christians who were innocent of any real crimes. None of this precludes the proper administration of the death penalty, and I see no evidence of Lactantius changing his beliefs due to the conversion of the Emperor.
Julius Firmicus Maternus also draws the ire of McDurmon for advocating for the destruction of pagan temples by the Emperor Constantius II. I think the problem could traced back much further to men such as the prophet Elijah, who thwarted the priests and ordered their execution (1 Kings 18), as well as King Josiah who desecrated and destroyed altars to Baal (2 Kings 23). As I mentioned earlier, McDurmon’s belief that the civil government cannot enforce the First Table without biblical foundation, and there is no reason to believe that the role of the magistrate has substantially changed since Christ commissioned his Apostles to disciple and convert the nations (Matt. 28:19-20). Another figure that draws the ire of McDurmon is the Emperor Justinian, who codified a body of civil law (the corpus iuris civilis) from the edicts and laws of previous Christian emperors. McDurmon repeats his accusation that the laws of Justinian “were nothing more than what Romans had always done to those who committed sacrilege against Rome.”6
Again, I believe this to be a vast oversimplification. The esteemed Church historian Philip Schaff provides a far more balanced perspective about the development of Roman law after Constantine. Schaff notes that the laws compiled by Justinian were still unfortunately “adulterated by many heathen elements” and that in some cases the laws of Constantine and the Christian emperors who succeeded him were “even more severe and bloody than ever before,” which Schaff attributes to “the despotic character of the Byzantine government, and in part […] the disorders of the time.” Schaff also admits that Justinian “cannot be acquitted of the reproach of capricious and fickle law-making.” Likewise Schaff acknowledges that the core of Roman law during this period could be traced back to pagan Rome, though the nature of the laws had been essentially modified “through the infusion of various Germanic elements, through the influence of the law of Moses, and, in its best points, through the spirit of Christianity.” This assessment by Schaff of the legacy of Justinian and the early Christian emperors in general is far more accurate than the general denunciation of McDurmon.
Next McDurmon comes to the medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas. McDurmon states that Aquinas believed that “the Mosaic law was no longer binding” and that judicial punishments ought “to be left to the decisions of men.” I believe that this assessment is misleading. Like many words and expressions, the meaning of judicial law has changed over time. It is clear that when Aquinas speaks of judicial law, he is speaking only of laws that were specific to Israel’s unique circumstances in history, not to the just punishment assigned to crimes, which McDurmon himself admits Aquinas supported. Aquinas defines several different types of law and explains the basis for each type. Eternal law emanates from God’s eternal character and is established by God’s righteous governance over the universe. Natural law is understood by Aquinas to be an extension of eternal law, since nature reflects the attributes of its Creator. Aquinas defines human law as the participation that all people have to some extent in the execution of natural law and is understood through reason. The noetic effects of the Fall have hampered man’s reason from fully understanding creation; therefore because of the “uncertainty of human judgment”7 it is necessary that God revealed the divine law. The divine law is perfectly rooted in God’s eternal law, which is perfect and unchangeable just as God is, but human or temporal laws may or may not be just, and hence all human laws must be judged in light of God’s divine law. Aquinas approvingly cites Augustine’s dictum; lex iniusta, non est lex (an unjust law is no law at all).8 Clearly Aquinas9 isn’t simply recycling paganism. He believes that human reason alone is insufficient to fully understand justice, and relies upon divine revelation as the arbiter of all law.
Next we come to McDurmon’s assessment of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Luther’s and Melanchthon’s views are considered to be similar to Aquinas, and both men are derided for their overly effusive praise of the code of Justinian and their support for persecution of Anabaptists. Both men are also said to have opposed the imposition of the judicial laws of Moses as a binding standard of justice. Here again I believe that McDurmon’s analysis is grossly oversimplified. These two, as well as other prominent early Lutherans, were just as theonomic as their Christian forebears who believed that it was the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce God’s Law as it is revealed in the Bible.10
John Calvin is likewise criticized by McDurmon, who states that critics of theonomy are correct in pointing out Calvin’s view of the Mosaic judicial laws. Calvin is said to reject the binding authority of the Mosaic Law in favor of what is called “the common law of nations.” I believe that Calvin can be criticized fairly for relying far too much upon consensus for proofs of his understanding of the role of government. That being said, Calvin was no antinomian, and as McDurmon himself observes, Calvin believed that civil magistrates were tasked with enforcing the First and Second Tables of God’s Law. Where early Lutherans and Calvinists denied that the judicial laws of Moses were binding today, they were referring exclusively to those precepts which were specific to the circumstances of the ancient Israelites. I do not believe that any of these men could be accused of supporting tyranny.
Joel McDurmon offers a brief statement on the distinction between the civil law tradition and the common law tradition. McDurmon has virtually nothing good to say about the civil law tradition, which began under the pagan Romans and was Christianized under Constantine and Justinian. McDurmon believes that the common law tradition, which emerged in Great Britain and became established in America with British colonization, was far superior. When McDurmon rightly criticizes Calvin for his advocacy of a “common law of nations” as a standard of justice, he is careful to distinguish this view from the English common law. In a footnote McDurmon writes: “This is not to be confused with English Common Law which is a different, non-Roman, and superior animal upon which the American system came to be built.”11 There is much that is dishonest and misleading in this brief footnote. This leaves the reader with the impression that the English common law tradition is in agreement with McDurmon’s position on First Table offenses and sexual crimes. It is not.
The English common law tradition has its origins among the pagan Saxons and Germanic tribes of northwestern Europe. It was Christianized under the influence of Alfred the Great. While it differs in important ways from the civil law tradition, for the latter developed under Roman influence, the Christian character of each system is the same.12 These two different systems of law reflect different cultures of European Christian people, and there is reason to believe that other systems of justice can also be Christianized as the nations continue to come under discipleship in the future. The common law tradition predates McDurmon’s libertarianism by centuries, and under the common law systems of both England and America, First Table offenses and sexual crimes were punished. Thus McDurmon cannot simply appeal to the superiority of common law over civil law as though the common law tradition in any way agreed with his libertarian position.
Finally, we come to McDurmon’s assessment of theologians who come along after Calvin. McDurmon believes that some progress was finally to be seen after John Calvin, and he writes that “some second-generation Reformers began taking the restrictions of Mosaic Law more seriously.”13 McDurmon cites Immanuel Tremellius, Johannes Piscator, and George Gillespie as those who laudably believed that civil magistrates were bound by the Mosaic Law in enforcing the Second Table, although McDurmon also acknowledges that all three of these men maintained the “Roman-based” belief that the magistrate was tasked with enforcing the First Table as well. McDurmon also states that the Covenanters, who formed the majority of the divines at the Westminster Assembly, held different opinions on the role of the judicial laws of Moses. McDurmon states that the majority position of these Covenanters was the “establishment view descended from Justinian,” with the famous Samuel Rutherford included in this group, but that some such as George Gillespie temper their position to believe that the Mosaic Law is binding upon civil magistrates.14 McDurmon ends his assessment of the Covenanters by stating that “only a handful . . . actually took Mosaic Law any more seriously than a biblical cover for why they should continue the old Roman heritage” while agreeing with John Milton’s assessment of the Covenanters as tyrants.15 Finally, McDurmon also faults Reformed Baptists for following what he calls “the Roman establishment principle.”16
McDurmon concludes his discussion of Church history by asserting that “the Word of God preached and lived consistently” accompanied by a “demand for justice and liberty” was all that was needed to defeat the pagan Caesars. It was the Spirit of God that brought Caesar to his knees. McDurmon cites the agnostic author Will Durant regarding the endurance of Christians under persecution in the centuries after Christ:
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar had met Christ in the arena, and Christ had won.17
There is no question that Durant is correct. Christianity prevailed without fighting a war of conquest. Christianity did conquer pagan Rome not with the sword, but by conversion through the preaching of the Gospel and the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit. Christianity, contra religions such as Islam, does not endorse forced conversions. The issue is that McDurmon seems to have embraced a false dichotomy. The kind of laissez-faire approach to religious freedom in civil society that McDurmon envisions is not the sole alternative to forced conversion. Jesus commanded his apostles to disciple and baptize the nations (Matt. 28:19-20), so the question is not how the nations will be converted, since we are told that this will come about by discipleship and baptism. The question is how converted nations will govern their people. Since all theonomists, McDurmon included, acknowledge that God’s Law revealed in His word is the standard to which all governments are subjected, it stands to reason that crimes revealed by God are still crimes to be prohibited today. I believe that all of the arguments that McDurmon has advanced in favor of the abrogation of the penalties for First Table offenses and sexual crimes fall short for the reasons already mentioned. A Christian society will not compel unbelievers to convert by means of physical force, but neither should a Christian society tolerate blasphemy, promote apostasy or tolerate those who do, or permit the unrestricted entry of heathens into their borders to harass their citizenry.
Interestingly, in his debate over the topic of theonomy with J.D. Hall, McDurmon insisted that theonomy (before his understanding of theonomy was substantially revised along the lines of The Bounds of Love) was the historic Christian position. During his examination of Hall, McDurmon lists several theologians who he declares support his position.18 Ironically, McDurmon has now renounced many of the very same theologians that he defended in his debate with Hall not long before this book was published. Evidently McDurmon didn’t read the theologians that he once defended as faithful expositors of God’s Word well enough to detect their “pagan Roman establishment” views that he now denounces.
There is much we can glean from McDurmon’s brief analysis of Church history. It is noteworthy that like most Anabaptists, McDurmon sees the Church that endured the pagan persecutions of the first few centuries as a golden age that has been virtually unsurpassed since. In his overview of the early Christian emperors, medieval scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas, the early Protestant Reformers, and later second-generation Reformers, McDurmon cannot find even one proponent of his libertarian worldview! There is not one Christian theologian that McDurmon can find who believes that the state has no business enforcing prohibitions against First Table offenses or sexual crimes. This is very significant, since even the early Enlightenment classical liberals didn’t believe that the government should “be out of the marriage business” altogether as McDurmon does. This leads a reasonable reader to the conclusion that McDurmon evidently believes that the Church has, for most of her history, adhered to pagan ideas about foundational questions of morality and ethics.
This does not mean that we must have a falsely idyllic understanding of Church history. There are several positions that Christians have advocated in the past that I don’t necessarily support. These include using violent force against heretics when not absolutely necessary. In general I believe that heretics should be entreated as brethren who have cut themselves off from the communion of Christ through their heterodox beliefs (cf. 2 Thess. 3:14-15). Throughout the history of Christendom there have been evil rulers, corrupt clergymen, and heretical theologians, but McDurmon’s contention that Christians have not understood or correctly applied God’s Law since the time of Constantine strains credulity. Even during the period of the early Church that McDurmon seems to laud so much, he cites none of the Church fathers to support his ideas, because there is none. This is because, contrary to McDurmon’s remarkable assertions, “classic libertarianism” and traditional Christian ethics are completely at odds. Christians have historically rejected the libertarian ethos because libertarianism is not in congruity with the Bible.
This concludes my review of Joel McDurmon’s book. This book has many good things to offer readers, chief among them McDurmon’s defense of God’s Law as the permanent standard of justice. Nevertheless there is much to be found in McDurmon’s book that any traditional theonomist would find objectionable. McDurmon strongly argues that God’s righteous judgments revealed to Israel have not suddenly become less just today, but this does not cohere with McDurmon’s assertion that First Table offenses and sexual crimes are no longer to be punished whatsoever by civil magistrates when this is clearly what God revealed to the Israelites. The criminal nature of these offenses cannot be limited to God’s unique covenantal relationship to Israel, since God stated that He destroyed the nations of the Canaanites for violating these very precepts (Lev. 20:23).
There are additional objections to be raised along lines that are more specifically Kinist. McDurmon virtually ignores the role of culture and tradition in a theonomic society, and seems to imply that institutions and practices that are uniquely Western (such as representative government and jury trials) are simply derived from theonomy. While practices such as the English Common Law tradition are certainly congruous with theonomy, they are not necessarily a clear consequence, as though they came about through a simple application of the principles behind the judicial laws of Moses. Other cultural and judicial traditions peculiar to different peoples can be sanctified by conversion to Christ, just as the common law tradition was sanctified during the reign of Alfred the Great. Furthermore, McDurmon’s assertion that laws concerning inheritance and tribal boundaries are strictly tied to God’s unique presence among the Israelites is similarly unconvincing. Since God has divided the nations and given them separate inheritances to take dominion over the earth (Deut. 32:8-9; Acts 17:26-27), we can infer that the principles that tie inheritance and permanent land ownership to national identity are universally true and applicable.
The reason that McDurmon’s views on theonomy have been so substantially revised is that he is committed to the ideology of libertarianism. This commitment has created a cognitive dissonance in McDurmon’s thought on politics, society, and justice as he tries to simultaneously defend God’s Law revealed in Scripture as the ultimate standard while reconciling this with libertarian notions of freedom and liberty. This is why McDurmon’s book is in such discontinuity with historic Christian and theonomic thought. Positions such as “getting the government out of the marriage business,” all taxation being theft, and absolute religious freedom – even to the point of permitting blasphemy or the public worship of false gods – are derived not from the Bible, but from the Enlightenment rationalism which birthed libertarianism. This also explains the complete absence of any discussion concerning issues like usury, since from a libertarian perspective interest is fine as long as it is contractually agreed upon by two or more parties.
Many turn to libertarianism as a sort of escape hatch from our modern statist world. While the desire to be free of the leviathan centralized state is certainly laudable, libertarianism in any of its iterations is not a viable solution. Libertarianism is an ideology whose time has come and gone long ago. As Thomas Fleming makes clear in his excellent overview of libertarian ideology, libertarianism or classical liberalism “was dead in England before World War I and in America before 1932, and its doctrines were only to be revived, briefly and in adulterated form, in the years of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who have both been followed by socialists and state capitalists.” Promoting libertarianism is simply an attempt to arrest the development of Enlightenment rationalism and classical liberalism to where it was more than a century ago. What this amounts to is nothing more than an attempt to make society less ill rather than truly well again. The ultimate principle of any liberal ideology, whether of the libertarian or the more aggressive Marxist variety, is equality. Classical liberals held to varying commitments about equality, but most believed that traditional institutions were holding many people back, and that once these were swept away people would enjoy the benefits of true “freedom.” Since classical liberalism has failed to produce the utopian egalitarian society some of its early formulators envisioned, it has been replaced by a more advanced liberalism which seeks to actively pursue equality through government intervention.
The reason that government has become so large and intrusive is because it has taken the place of God in the lives of today’s citizens. The fundamental problems that we face are spiritual in nature, rather than political or economic. Western civilization was great because Christian orthodoxy was poured out over traditional European customs and traditions. This in turn brought about a generally healthy and robust situation in politics and economics. To fix society and save Western civilization will require re-conversion to Christianity and the recovery of traditional European culture. Only then will the size and scope of the leviathan state be reduced. Libertarianism has been tried and failed, and the result is the fallen society in which we now live. My hope is that Joel McDurmon and other like-minded neo-“theonomists” discover this before it is too late.
- The “trail of blood” view is the Anabaptist understanding of Christian history. Since Anabaptist views are essentially non-existent throughout Church history, and the visible church has been steadfast in rejecting anabaptistic ideas, Anabaptists posit that there is a “trail of blood” that can be traced back through persecuted Anabaptists back to Christ and the Apostles. For an overview and refutation of the “trail of blood” view, see “The Trail of Blood: A Review.” ↩
- McDurmon, Bounds of Love, p. 116 ↩
- Ibid., p. 120 ↩
- See The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Chapter 20: “The Motives, Progress, and Effects of the Conversion of Constantine.—Legal Establishment and Constitution of the Christian, or Catholic, Church.” ↩
- McDurmon, Bounds of Love, p. 121 ↩
- Ibid., p. 122 ↩
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II:I, Question 91, Article 4, I answer that… ↩
- Ibid., Question 96, Article 4, I answer that… citing Augustine De Libero Arbitrio i. 5. ↩
- A good appraisal of the legacy of Thomas Aquinas in regards to legal theory is to be found in Marc A. Clauson’s “Theonomy in the Middle Ages: The Case of Thomas Aquinas.” ↩
- For more information see “Early Lutheranism and Old Testament Civil Law: Not the Two Kingdoms Theology you Thought it Was.” ↩
- McDurmon, Bounds of Love, p. 125, n. 7 ↩
- For more information on the English common law tradition, see “King Alfred the Great and Our Common Law” by Francis Nigel Lee. ↩
- Ibid., p. 129 ↩
- Ibid., p. 131 ↩
- Ibid., p. 132 ↩
- Ibid., p. 133 ↩
- Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325, The Story of Civilization: Part 3 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 652. Cited in McDurmon, Bounds of Love, pp. 119, 134 ↩
- See McDurmon’s debate over theonomy with Reformed Baptist pastor J.D. Hall that occurred in February of 2015. ↩