Straw men, Jesus, and the judicial law

In the previous two posts, we looked at (1) the claim that the civil law was a form of bondage to believers and (2) the claim that the civil law was part of the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. In the former post, we looked briefly at Romans 6:14 and 7:6. In the latter post, we considered Ephesians 2:11-22. In coming posts, we will continue to look at specific passages from the epistles that are sometimes used to argue against the continuing obligation for the general equity of the civil case laws to be implemented in societies today. Today, however, we will look at the general claim that since “Christ himself did not universally apply the judicial law of Moses,” then theonomy is erroneous.

To begin, let’s consider whether this argument could even logically disprove theonomy. The argument goes like this:

A. (Since) Theonomy teaches that all the judicial laws are still applicable today

B. (And since) Jesus did not apply all the judicial laws

C. (Therefore) Theonomy is wrong

However, this is a classic example of a straw-man argument. In order to explain, we have to do a bit of definition work. While theonomists (as well as non-theonomists) have different views among themselves, even critics generally look to Greg Bahnsen to get a general idea of the theonomic position. On one occasion Bahnsen summarized his (theonomic) position as follows:

Our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made…. 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.” (Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Word Today)

Therefore, according to Bahnsen, changes  made from the Old Testament to the New Testament do not disprove theonomy—they are actually part of his understanding of theonomy.

I would concur with Bahnsen’s statement and offer my own working summary of theonomy:

The judicial laws of the Old Testament which are binding on all nations today are those laws which are applications of the moral law. People today should look to the general equity of these laws to frame just laws. There are numerous laws and commands given in the Old and New Testament which applied to a specific people at a specific time (e.g. the command to kill the Canaanites). However, those laws which are expressions and applications of the moral law are binding on all people for all times. People today are responsible to obey God’s Word. This means looking carefully at all of God’s Law and seeking to properly interpret, apply, and obey each law. This applies to both Old and New Testaments. Due to the doctrine of the immutability of God, we should not a priori assume that all the laws of the Old Testament are automatically abrogated in the New Covenant era. Rather, we should study the Bible as a whole, allowing sound reasoning from the text of Scripture to be the only thing which defines what changes are made to the application of God’s Law.

Since at the very least Greg Bahnsen’s view and my view of theonomy allow for changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the argument that since Christ nullified certain laws in the New Testament theonomy is erroneous is not logical. Consider the argument expressed in the following manner (with an actual accurate representation of theonomy):

A. (Since) Theonomy argues that changes to the law can be made in the New Testament

B. (And since) Jesus made changes to the law in the New Testament

C. (Therefore) Theonomy is wrong

It should be evident that such argumentation makes no sense. In order to make the “Jesus didn’t apply the judicial law” argument work, non-theonomists have to misrepresent theonomy.

This should be enough to demonstrate that even if Jesus clearly abrogated a lot of the civil law, it does not mean theonomy is erroneous. In fact, it would actually show that the assumption should be continuity between Old and New Testaments, not discontinuity, since Jesus had to specifically declare which laws were no longer binding rather than simply abrogating them all in one summary statement. Nevertheless, let’s consider some of those passages which people might use to argue that Jesus did not apply the civil law. We will briefly look at the following passages:

  1. Jesus “sets aside” divorce allowed by Moses (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-12)
  2. Jesus abrogates dietary laws (Mark 7:18-19)
  3. Jesus “redefines” the “eye for an eye” law (Matthew 5:38-42)
  4. Jesus “shows mercy” to an adulteress (John 8:3-11)

For the sake of brevity, I can only briefly look at these passages and give you a couple things to think about. I would be happy to delve into them deeper in future posts.

1. Jesus “sets aside” divorce allowed by Moses (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-12)

The Mosaic law in view is likely Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It is presented in the typical case law fashion, with an “if, then” scenario being presented. The actual point of the law is that the husband cannot treat a woman as something to be taken and abandoned on his whims. If he divorces her, and she marries another, he may not remarry her. The certificate of divorce may actually have been a protection to the woman. What Jesus is saying is that even though Moses instituted good and just laws to mitigate the effects of divorce, God never intended for people to divorce on a whim. (It seems this actually may have been what was happening in Deuteronomy 24:1; that is, men would divorce a woman simply because she found “no favor” in his eyes.) Jesus, as he does elsewhere, is magnifying the law. He is saying that if you divorce your wife simply because she finds “no favor” in your eyes, you have the heart of an adulterer—that is, you are not taking marriage as seriously as God requires you too. Jesus is not abrogating the judicial law. He is rather calling on people to avoid divorce in the first place so that this law would never need to be applied.

2. Jesus abrogates dietary laws (Mark 7:18-19)

This is a clear example of what is confirmed in various places in the New Testament: the ceremonial distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have come to an end. This has nothing to do whatsoever with the judicial laws. (For more on how ceremonial and ethnic distinctions divided Jews from Gentiles, read yesterday’s post.)

3. Jesus “redefines” the “eye for an eye” law (Matthew 5:38-42)

The utilization of this passage to argue against theonomy is a classic example of misinterpreting Scripture. The lex talionis (Leviticus 24:17-22) is the basic principal on which justice is based. Namely, the punishment should fit the crime. For example, if someone enters my home, beats my wife, steals my car, and runs over my mailbox, it would be unjust to give the criminal a $50 fine and assign him one week of community service. Jesus is not abrogating lex talionis, but rather correcting an evil twisting of Scripture that encouraged individuals to exact personal revenge (something condemned even in the Old Testament). The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible comments:

Jesus cited the law of retaliation (lex talionis), which did not justify personal revenge (Prov. 20:22) but limited judicial punishments (Ex. 21:24-25; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). (Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible, p. 1364)

The ESV Study Bible, certainly not a theonomic publication, recognizes this as well:

This ‘law of retaliation’ (Latin lex talionis) was God’s means of maintaining justice and purging evil from among his people (see Deut. 19:20–21). It was intended to prevent inappropriate punishment (the punishment should fit the crime) and was imposed by civil authorities rather than individuals. Jesus is not prohibiting the use of force by governments, police, or soldiers when combating evil. Rather, Jesus’ focus here is on individual conduct, as indicated by the contrast with Matt. 5:38, which shows that he is prohibiting the universal human tendency to seek personal revenge. (ESV Study Bible)

It is manifest that Jesus’ statement is not in any manner abrogating the civil magistrate’s responsibility to punish criminals according to the crime. This passage cannot be used to say that Jesus abrogated Mosaic law.

4. Jesus “shows mercy” to an adulteress (John 8:3-11)

A few comments on this passage should suffice to show that it in no way abrogates the civil law. In this account, Jesus actually follows the judicial law in that he calls for witnesses to the alleged crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). Jesus knew that the scribes and Pharisees were themselves guilty of evil in this ordeal (perhaps they had orchestrated the illicit affair and would therefore share in its guilt) and his words penetrated to their hearts, causing them to see their sin. As such, they all were all “convicted by their own conscience” and rescinded their charge (John 8:9, KJV). Since there were no witnesses, there is no case. How Jesus following the judicial law can be used to argue he abrogated the judicial law is beyond me. The Genevan Reformers make an excellent point on this passage: “Christ would not take upon him the civil Magistrates office: he contented himself to bring sinners to faith and repentance” (1599 Geneva Bible). The fact that Jesus did not fulfill the role of the magistrate by executing criminals does not abrogate the magistrate’s responsibility to do so anymore than the fact that Jesus did not go around spanking other people’s children abrogates the parent’s responsibility to apply the rod to disobedient children.

In summary, even if Jesus did specifically change certain Old Testament laws, that would not falsify the general premise of theonomy as I (and Bahnsen) present it. Furthermore, we have seen that four of the commonly used passages to argue that Jesus abrogated the judicial law have to be taken completely out of context in order to disprove theonomy. I look forward to continued discussion in coming posts.

1 Comment

  1. A good selection of test issues for the case for or against theonomy, as you define it. I suggest you add swearing oaths and the death penalty.

    Taking a superficial approach won’t do, however. I suggest you dig deep. Maybe you will find a lot of the popular explanations don’t hold up. For example, what actual evidence can you find for the notion that the legalistic Jews thought that eye for eye was about ‘personal’ revenge rather than legal action? I have never seen a trace of evidence for that.

    Look at the texts as a lawyer. Jesus was a legal expert debating with mostly legal experts. Assume or look for the political and subversive in what you see … how did Jesus get the Jewish authorities so upset and how did he get crucified as a tax protester and revolutionary and subversive if he taught the legitimacy of Roman imperial taxes?

    The deeper you dig the more likely you are to feel that the master and his apostles were teaching socially, legally and politically radical policies and practices, and were starting a kingdom of anti-archy, anti – imperialism, anti – war, anti – killing, anti – death penalty, anti – divorce, anti – remarriage, anti – litigation, and pro – life, pro – monogamy, pro – gentleness, (debt ) forgiveness, and pro – decentralization.

    If you get this far, you will find some satisfaction that the earliest Christian witness of pacifism finally makes sense.

    Basically there is a three way contest for power, identity and loyalty going on in the new testament. Rome, Jerusalem below and Jerusalem above. The Romans (later) accused the Christians of being atheists. Their idea of God seemed too invisible to be real. The Jerusalem below, by way of analogy, could have accused the Chistians of being anarchists. Their idea of the kingdom seemed too invisible and too gentle and too abstract to be real. There was no two kingdoms theory at the earliest times. But the new testament is very clear: Jerusalem below was in slavery with her children. Her political ideals were incompatible with the true kingdom of God. Your challenge is to find and define the rival Christian concept. I hope you find it


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