Recently Joel McDurmon has published a book through American Vision that purports to fulfill, in his words, “a great need for something clear, simple, direct, updated, and both at an introductory level and yet somewhat comprehensive regarding the most important and debated issues” of theonomy. McDurmon calls his book Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty. Theonomy can be a difficult concept for many Christians to grasp, and I applaud Mr. McDurmon for his efforts at producing a concise explanation and defense of the theonomic position. There are many things in this book with which I find myself in agreement, but nevertheless I believe that McDurmon’s efforts fall short in a number of ways. What I find most interesting about McDurmon’s recent publication is that it represents such a dramatic departure from the position that he took during his quite recent debate over theonomy with Reformed Baptist pastor J.D. Hall that occurred in February of 2015.
In this debate, McDurmon agreed with the position that the civil magistrate is responsible for enforcing offenses against the First Table – the first four of the Ten Commandments, which state man’s responsibility toward God – as well as punishing sexual crimes in accordance with the precepts set forth in the Mosaic Law. In this book McDurmon argues for a different view in which the civil magistrate is neutral on both. To his credit, McDurmon acknowledges that his position has developed and evolved, and there is certainly nothing wrong with making principled revisions to one’s position with further inquiry. Only someone who is intellectually dishonest and stubborn will refuse to consider even the possibility that his position on any given issue may need to be revised upon additional study. I only question the wisdom of publishing a book of this nature so soon after publicly defending a contrary position in debate. Did Joel change his mind after the debate had happened? Or was there already some doubt in his mind about the role of the civil magistrate when the debate took place? I say this because anyone who listens to the case that McDurmon makes during the aforementioned theonomy debate and reads this book will notice the stark contrast in the positions that Joel takes. Perhaps McDurmon could have used some additional time to ruminate over the issue before publishing a book that repudiates his own position that he took just over a year ago.
Nevertheless it would be easy for me as a Kinist and traditionalist, especially in light of the history that McDurmon has of censoring Kinist opinions, to simply trash McDurmon’s efforts without giving him any credit where it is due. McDurmon set about to provide his readers with a succinct explanation and defense of theonomy, and to this end he is successful at providing good (albeit largely unoriginal) counterarguments that are often raised against theonomy. In Chapter 1, “A Simple Definition,” McDurmon provides a working definition of theonomy with which virtually all self-described theonomists can agree. McDurmon defines theonomy as “the biblical teaching that Mosaic law contains perpetual moral standards for living including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.” McDurmon further states that his definition “makes it clear up front that Theonomy is 1) about moral standards for living, not justification or salvation, 2) includes, but is not limited to, civil government, and 3) involves only some, but not all, of Mosaic law.”1
McDurmon explains the different uses or applications of the Law. First, McDurmon explains what is called the pedagogical use of the law, which convinces us of our sin in light of God’s holiness and demonstrates our need for a Savior. McDurmon also affirms the Law’s application in restraining evil by threat of punishment, pointing out that civil magistrates are said to be God’s ministers in punishing evil. McDurmon correctly points out that this only pertains to external behaviors rather than sinful thoughts, and that punishment by civil magistrates applies to unbelievers as well as believers. McDurmon provides a fairly straightforward analysis of Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 1 to defend the duty of civil magistrates in enforcing God’s justice. Finally, we are told that the final use of the law is to guide Christians in proper conduct after conversion. By far the most controversial of these applications of the Law is the use in restraining evil, and this is a point of contention between McDurmon’s position and Kinism.
In Chapter 4, “The Abiding Judicial Standard,” McDurmon provides his readers with a decent overview of common objections raised against theonomy. He explains the lex talionis (Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21) as the law of just recompense. The essence of the lex talionis is just recompense in which the punishment must fit the crime. McDurmon defends the superiority of biblical law against alternatives, particularly the modern prison system. McDurmon correctly notes that when Jesus mentions the lex talionis in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38), he doesn’t repudiate this principle as a standard of justice except as an excuse to take personal vengeance. McDurmon also answers the objection that the civil penalties of the Mosaic Law are just because all sins deserve death (Rom. 6:23).
McDurmon correctly points out that while all sins violate God’s justice and thus merit spiritual death and punishment, not all sins are equally severe. Some sins are crimes that deserve to be punished by the civil government with varying degrees of severity for the good of society; other sins are not punished by the civil government. While all sins damn us before God, there is no reason to believe that all sins are equally heinous or severe. Finally, McDurmon replies to the objection that the judicial laws of Moses and the standard of justice that they represent apply only to ancient Israel. McDurmon observes that this would entail a change in God’s standard of justice. McDurmon correctly distinguishes between the general principles of God’s justice, which have not changed and were not intended to be a standard of justice exclusive to Israel (Deut. 4:5-8), and the specific revelations to particular people in their own unique circumstances, such as God’s commandment to wipe out the Canaanites.
Before critiquing McDurmon’s position, I would like to briefly summarize my own position on the application and continuity of the Law. I believe in the classic threefold division of the law which classifies its precepts in three different categories. The moral laws are straightforward rules that apply in all times and places among all peoples and cultures. Examples include laws prohibiting murder and theft. Civil laws are those laws specifically given to Israel in their own historical context. While the particular rules themselves may not directly apply, the underlying principles that undergird the rules still do apply. An example of this would be the rule given to the Israelites that they were to build a barrier around the roof of a house (Deut. 22:8). The reason for this is that houses at that time were built with flat roofs in which people would congregate. The underlying principle taught here is that buildings should be reasonably safe for ordinary human occupancy. The fact that we don’t typically build houses the same way that the ancient Israelites did means that the specific law no longer applies, but the animating principle of this law and others like it continues to this day. The final category includes civil laws which point to the coming Messiah. Examples of these laws include the Temple sacrifices, the Levitical priesthood, and laws regulating ceremonial cleanness. These laws have been abrogated since Christ’s efficacious sacrifice on the Cross. To continue to try to observe these precepts would be to deny Christ, but they still have value by serving as a picture of salvation of which Christ is the fulfillment.
This is relatively straightforward and uncontroversial amongst most professed Christians today. What is controversial is the assertion that civil magistrates ought to enforce the criminal code revealed by God to the Israelites. Even amongst committed theonomists there is bound to be some disagreement over which specific precepts fall into which category, as well as the exact extent of their continuity for us today. We are told that the civil magistrate is to be a terror to those who do evil (Rom. 13:4), and this requires a fixed, objective standard of crimes that are to be punished as well as an understanding of what actions constitute crimes that should be punished by the civil magistrate, as opposed to sins which will ultimately be punished by God on Judgment Day. Without this standard society will ultimately oscillate between tyranny in which governments become oppressive, and anarchy in which no competent authority exists. While the crimes set forth in the Law continue to be crimes today, insofar as no government can justly ignore these actions, there is some flexibility in the punishment that is meted out to the offenses depending upon the circumstances.
While I disagree with Paul Copan over the continuity of the Law in general, I happen to agree with him when he argues that the framework of the Law itself allows for lesser penalties to be pronounced by a judge in all cases but premeditated murder.2 The argument is that murder offends the character of the imago Dei itself in man, since he is created in God’s own image and likeness. Therefore, such an offense against God’s own image in man requires the death penalty. This is the direct teaching of Genesis 9:6. I also believe that lesser penalties for crimes can be inferred from Numbers 35:31, in which we are told that the Israelites were not allowed to take satisfaction for the life of a murderer. This implies that certain satisfactions could be made for crimes other than premeditated murder. Even exceptions to these general principles could be made when God assigned a special dispensation for murder as in the case of Cain after the murder of Abel (Gen. 4:10-12) and David after the murder of Uriah (2 Sam. 12:13-15).
Laws governing the tribal structure of the nation of Israel, such as the specific tribal land allotments, along with the ordered Jubilee calendar, were certainly specific to the circumstances experienced by the ancient Israelites, but they teach underlying principles that are still applicable for all nations today. The Bible teaches that God divided mankind into multiple nations (Deut. 32:8-9; Acts 17:26-27). Since the Law was to be an example to other nations, tribes, and clans, and since many such peoples are clearly discussed throughout the Bible, we must naturally infer from this that they are to emulate Israel’s example of ethnonationalism. Since Israel is a nation that is reckoned by hereditary descent from their national patriarchs (1 Chr. 9:1), and the biblical word for nation (ethnos) implies shared heredity, we should deduce that nations would naturally emulate Israel’s example of kin rule. There is no reason to think that a law such as kin rule has been abrogated since it is clear that nations continue to exist and will continue to exist forever (Is. 19:19-25; Rev. 21:24-26, 22:2). Given that nations will continue to exist I can think of no reason for believing that the standards for men serving in government (Ex. 18:21; Deut. 1:13-16, 17:14-20), including kin rule, have been changed or abrogated without some specific revelation. The same could be said about the basic principles that undergird inheritance. Extended families, clans, and tribes have a common interest in transferring property from one generation to the next, and allowing our land and assets to be bought by foreigners is not a capitalistic blessing, but rather a curse for our collective disobedience (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).
The Law allows the government to collect taxes. The Bible certainly is not an exhaustive manual on proper taxation, but there is no doubt that ancient Israel did have taxes. While some of these taxes are undoubtedly obsolete due to their connection to Temple worship, there is also much that can be gleaned from the Bible on the subject of taxation.3 Taxation should only be raised to fund the legitimate actions of the civil government which are necessarily limited within the scope of administering justice. The prophet Samuel assumes that a king who taxed his people above a rate of 10% was a tyrant (1 Sam. 8), and this is certainly something that we ought to consider given the massive taxation to which we are subjected by a state that seeks to go beyond its God-ordained role by socially engineering society and redistributing wealth. King Solomon collected a tariff based upon the commerce of foreign merchants (1 Kings 10:14-15), and Jesus likewise assumes that kings levy tribute upon strangers rather than upon their children (Matt. 17:24-26).4
Finally, my position on the continuity and applicability of the Law comports with historic Christian thinking on morality and ethics. I see Heiko Oberman’s taxonomy of tradition to be helpful in understanding the different viewpoints on tradition. Oberman labels the one-source theory of revelation as “Tradition 1” and asserts that this is the view of the early church and remains the dominant view until the later middle ages. This view asserts that there are no unique Christian dogmas established exclusively through tradition apart from attestation of Scripture. Scripture is deemed “materially sufficient” to settle all questions of Christian faith and practice. However, this view holds that tradition is authoritative in helping us to understand Scripture. This view values the role that the liturgy, creeds, and confessions play in defining the faith, and can be contrasted with a two-source view (called “Tradition 2” by Oberman) which developed later and holds that tradition can function as a separate source of divine revelation alongside Scripture. Oberman believes that the early Protestant reformers were defending “Tradition 1” against the two-source “Tradition 2” model.
The one-source “Tradition 1” model makes the most sense, agrees with the teaching of Scriptures such as 2 Thess. 2:15, and accords with what Christians have historically believed. Since we are told that the Lord has given His Church apostles, preachers, teachers, evangelists, and pastors for the edifying of the body (Eph. 4:11-13), it makes sense that we ought to perceive the “chain of custody” of basic Christian doctrines throughout Church history. Interpretations of Scripture that arise from and lead to novel doctrines should be considered suspect, to say the least. Sadly, most Protestants have abandoned any notion of tradition in favor of what Oberman terms “Tradition 0,” the view that tradition has no authority whatsoever.5 This is important, because, as we shall see from his discussion of Church history, it would seem that McDurmon has embraced a view of ethics completely at variance with historic Christian teaching. McDurmon has virtually nothing positive to say about what the Church has taught about government and society since the time of Constantine and embraces a seemingly Anabaptistic view of ecclesiastical history.
With this in mind, I want to address McDurmon’s main arguments that he advances in his book. While McDurmon does a good job in explaining the basic principles of theonomy, there is a definite tension between what he states about theonomy in general and its application in other parts of the book. There is no question that McDurmon has been heavily influenced by libertarian philosophy. He states as much when he writes, “A properly theonomic society in terms of civil government would be closer to classic libertarianism than any other common political position.”6 McDurmon’s commitment to libertarianism has exerted undue influence in his interpretation of many relevant passages. Many of the positions that McDurmon takes in the book, such as his belief that the civil government should not punish First Table or sexual offenses, his belief that the basic principles of seed and land laws were strictly unique to Israel, and his opposition to all forms of taxation, stem from a libertarian paradigm. It could be argued that merely accusing McDurmon of a libertarian bias doesn’t prove anything, and he could (and does) accuse Kinists of interpreting the Bible and the Law in particular through a “racist” paradigm.
In response, it must be admitted that anyone, myself included, may have biases that sometimes influence how we interpret biblical texts. That being said, a particular point of view must be evaluated in light of one’s ability to make sense of all the relevant data. In this case, the debate is focused on the continuity of the principles of God’s Law and how these principles should be enacted today. McDurmon’s view is noteworthy for the degree of discontinuity that he perceives between the Law as revealed in the Old Testament and the New Testament, whereas Kinism affirms the underlying continuity of the vast majority of the Law. After reading McDurmon’s book, it would seem that the only point of continuity to which he is committed is the lex talionis as applied to violent crimes. I will address McDurmon’s specific claims about the law, government, and society. Specifically, McDurmon believes that:
- Laws regulating tribal or familial inheritance have been abrogated since the coming of the Messiah.
- The civil magistrate should no longer enforce offenses against the First Table, which order our relationship to God.
- The civil magistrate should no longer punish sexual sins.
- All forms of taxation are intrinsically unjust.
- The Church has for most of her history misapplied Christian ethics and simply endorsed a modification of pagan Roman civil law.
In subsequent articles, each of these points will be addressed in order.
Read Part 2
- Joel McDurmon, The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty. American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2016. Page 24. ↩
- For more information on this topic, see James Rochford, “What About Capital Punishment?” ↩
- I do not plan on an extensive overview of taxation here, since this a review of Joel McDurmon’s book, but a good overview of taxation in ancient Israel is titled “Taxation in Biblical Israel” by Robert A. Oden, Jr. ↩
- The sons/strangers distinction in this passage is likely referring to one’s biological children, not citizens of a nation. However I believe that this principle can also be applied in a broader civil sense as well. The Roman Empire, at least initially, was able to allow its citizens to live entirely off the taxes and tributes collected from those nations that had been conquered. More commentary can be found here. ↩
- For more information on this important topic, see Keith Mathison, “Solo Scriptura, The Difference a Vowel Makes” from Modern Reformation. ↩
- McDurmon, Bounds of Love, pg. 86. ↩