26 June 2015

Biblical Law and Society

I use this example not to 'attack' anyone, but to make a point. There's something to be learned here.
This podcast on Biblical law and society demonstrates the way assumptions can govern discussions. I think of many people I know listening to this and would think it to be a good programme. 'These are good folks,' they would say, 'working out problems and striving toward a good goal'.

They're not Theonomists but at the same time they still assume the basic Dominionist and Constantinian frameworks that produced Theonomy. They would deny being Constantinian because they limit that term to a formalizing (de jure) of Christianity vis-à-vis the state. Nevertheless when they wish to impose Biblical law on society and have it as the governing principle then you have a de facto Constantinianism... and they might be fine with that.
What's the problem then? There are too many to be named here but for starters we can ask does the New Testament which is our primary canon and our guide to interpreting the rest of Scripture call for this? And if doesn't, does such an endeavour actually represent erroneous thinking? Could it even be harmful to the Church in creating confusion regarding the Body of Christ and its identity and purpose in This Age?
Contrary to the assumptions in this podcast it must be insisted the New Testament does not call for this project but repudiates it and the impulse to engage in this kind of speculative and political theology represents a serious defection from the New Testament doctrine of the Kingdom.
What was perhaps most striking to me is that the concept of covenant was wholly ignored and yet that is a critical category to be considered in such a discussion. Old Testament Law was covenantal and a typological part of God's redemptive programme. It was not for the nations. The nations were not condemned by the prophets for lack of Sabbath keeping or failing to follow the dietary laws. Nor were they condemned for failing to follow the judicial code or implementing its penalties. The judicial laws which many Christians think to utilize as a pattern for nations today were a covenantal-typological picture of Christ's judgment, or being cut-off from the covenant community. To be outside Israel was to dwell in the outer darkness.
That was the status of the nations and is so today. Just as in the time of the Old Testament all people/all Gentiles have to leave, 'come out' from the nations to join God's Holy Covenantal Israel. Today by baptism we are set apart as disciples, marked by Christ and no longer citizens of this age or under its master. There was no way to sanctify Babylon or bring it into covenant and that is just as true today.
The Gentile nations are judged by another moral law, a generalized morality that is not codified. It is in fact the same moral law that transcends the Mosaic covenant and thus is in effect today. The Mosaic code assumes it, interacts with it, adds redemptive typology, but operates within covenantal frameworks. Now fulfilled and its context removed, the Law of Moses is not applicable to Egypt, Babylon, Edom, England or America.
What about the general equity, the general principles? Are they not timeless? Are they not guidelines for the formation of civil society?
These types of questions expose an assumption that while almost universally accepted must be questioned.
Should Christians be in government and trying to run society? Should Christians thereby wield the legitimate violence of society (the sword), and coerce unbelievers to behave in a moral way? Is this compatible with the 'Good News' of the gospel of grace and forgiveness?
The Westminster California (West) faction claims to adhere to the Westminster Confession and indeed they do reflect the modified confession that came into being in the late 18th century... the American revision forged after the 1776 Revolution and the creation of the secular American state. The original 1646 Westminster Confession calls for the magistrate to call ecclesiastical synods and to enforce God's law. This would no longer work in the American context and so the Presbyterians of the day modified the confession. Not all have been happy with that amendment and its rejection of America as a 'covenanted' nation. American Presbyterians did not follow the same error as their Scottish cousins.
But even the modified confession perpetuates this notion of general equity with regard to the Mosaic Law. Though many Westminster-West professors and fellow-travelers are proponents of the Two Kingdom ideal, once it is blended with Dominionist doctrine and assumptions the debate becomes one of nuance and a question of formal vs. informal institutions. They believe in a Christian influence on society and Christians wielding political and cultural influence. Contrary to the Theonomists they don't believe this should be formalized. They don't believe in national confession .Yet, from the standpoint of Waldensian or Anabaptist Two Kingdom Theology there's little difference between what Reformed or even Lutheran Two Kingdom people promote and what a full blown Theonomist argues for. There are differences but both factions are still on the other side of the line (as it were) when it comes to defining the Kingdom and the Christian's place in the world.  
While the Confession's revision of the 1780's and the Westminster West positions are to be appreciated as a step in the right direction they are still fatally flawed and in particular with regard to law. The Confession retains the erroneous three-fold division of the Mosaic Law into Moral, Civil and Ceremonial aspects. The Scriptures clearly treat the law as a unit which has been fulfilled and abrogated and nowhere is the three-fold division taught. It is a child of Aristotelian Scholasticism not Biblical Exegesis.
The Westminster Confession abrogates the so-called Ceremonial division, allows the Civil to continue with regard to general equity and since it identifies/equates the Moral Law with the Decalogue it argues that it is a universal and perpetual expression of the moral law.
Westminster West would decry any identification with Theonomy because Theonomy in particular modified the three-fold division into a two-fold arrangement, and meshed the Moral-Civil codes. The Theonomists would say the Ceremonial laws have passed away but all other laws are moral and thus perpetual. To put it differently, for a Theonomist, an argument for the perpetuity of the moral law also argues the perpetuation of the civil codes. Since many Reformed people reject this two-fold reinterpretation they think they are miles apart from the Theonomic position.
This is not the real issue. It is a nuanced argument over a minor point within the tradition. In principle many who formally reject Theonomy's two-fold scheme all but embrace the same outcome and the Dominionist foundations upon which it was built. On a practical level they are much closer than they realize.
The Theonomists were simply trying to find a more absolute doctrinal ground upon which to stand that would necessitate the exhaustive application of Mosaic Law for modern society. Mere 'equity' was perceived as being too fluid and broad and too dependent on man-made interpretations and constructed paradigms to build a civil society that could clearly and consistently claim itself to be 'Biblical'.
All of these forces working together and the application of them play out in a conversation like what we hear on this podcast. Ultimately we must conclude Scripture has been misread on a massive scale and the whole of the discussion is effectively 'out of bounds'.
It's purely speculative theology and has little if nothing to do with Scriptural exegesis or a sound application of Apostolic (New Testament) hermeneutics.
Nowhere in Scripture are we told to ask these questions, nowhere are we told to utilize the state to enforce Christian morality. The state is about vengeance and violence, it is bestial (idolatrous) in its impulses but providentially necessary for the remainder of this age. While required, the state is not something we look to for aid in justice or vengeance, nor can we utilize it in our covenant mission. The state operates on different principles and for different self-serving purposes. It will always be corrupt and in a condition of instability, waxing toward blasphemous visions of itself or deteriorating and collapsing to be replaced by yet another manifestation.
As the Church we are called to bear witness and tell the truth about the world which includes the state, but we don't try to co-opt it or take up its cause. The impulse to do so once again represents a misunderstanding of the spiritual, heavenly and eschatological nature of the Kingdom. The state will burn with the other works of men at the end of this age. Labouring to build the state is minding earthly things, entangling the church in the affairs of this life and laying up treasures on earth. It is to baptize violence, vengeance and power.
These are issues this project has addressed on numerous occasions so why revisit it here?
There's a dangerous nuance here that needs to be noted.
This podcast discussion puts on display the danger of Confessionalism which closes the door of debate on these issues and operates on assumption. This whole episode begged the question. The whole discussion was in fact invalid unhelpful and even harmful.
How is it harmful?
As mentioned at the beginning of the piece many Christians will listen to such a programme and being unaware of the assumptions and issues and not knowing what questions to ask will blindly listen and follow, and consequently be shaped and formed by these categories.
One must question the nature of these types of podcasts. There are many of them and largely they seem to function as echo chambers. Certainly they wish to teach their audiences and yet often the programmes are not presented in this way. It's somewhat duplicitous. They present themselves as investigatory when in fact they have a deliberate agenda in mind and often tease it out through what must be labeled as feigned exploration.
Denominations and institutions require propaganda and though they decry the proliferation of misinformation in our internet age, the gatekeepers and institutional masters are not exempt from promoting their own agendas. This is accomplished at the expense of full-orbed discussion, clarification of categories, honest presentation of alternatives and to some degree integrity itself.