(This is a follow-up to a previous post of mine: How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?)
I suspect that for the majority of people who come across this blog, whether Christian or non-Christian, this is an obvious question. Most would consider it beyond dispute that stoning adulterers—and more generally, treating private sins as capital crimes—is barbaric and inhumane. In fact, they would argue, that point should be so self-evident to any rational person that even raising the question is deeply offensive. After all, we’re not the Taliban. But the instinctive hostility that most people feel toward this practice faces one major problem: it’s biblical. Leviticus 20:10 reads, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” So how can we call this practice barbaric and inhumane, without also saying the same thing of the God who commanded it?
Christians have had different ways of dealing with this difficulty. At one end of the spectrum are dispensationalists,¹ who argue that Old Testament law applied only to ancient Israel. They say that trying to appropriate Israel’s laws for ourselves is a lot like “reading other people’s mail.” Therefore, what may have been appropriate for Israel might nevertheless be unconscionable for us today. But this view is problematic for a number of reasons. First, we Christians believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So we should expect the OT to reflect his unchanging moral character just as much as the NT. Second, Jesus himself says that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matt. 5:17-19). And third, it proves too much. There are many other Old Testament laws given to ancient Israel that do clearly apply to us today, like the commands to love God (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-40) and to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:8-10). The NT goes even further in saying that all Scripture (here meaning the OT) is meant for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-6). So the question we need to ask is not whether Old Testament civil laws apply to us (they do), but how.
At the other end of the spectrum are theonomists (theos = God, and nomos = law),² who advocate a direct application of nearly all OT laws (penalties included) to modern civil society. Now theonomists generally acknowledge some degree of cultural conditionality in these laws, but for the most part their operating principle is, “Every OT law directly applies to us today, unless the NT explicitly repeals or modifies it.”³ And although most theonomists believe that this process should happen gradually only as a culture becomes increasingly Christianized, their end goal is to see all the nations of the world governed by the law of Moses.
Now in my opinion, there is a lot that theonomists get right. First, they rightly affirm the continuity of the OT and the NT. Second, they rightly affirm the lordship of Christ over all the nations of the earth. And third (and this is tied to the second), they rightly reject a split between the sacred and secular realms. So in general, I am much more sympathetic to theonomy than dispensationalism.
With that said, I want to explain why I am not a theonomist.4 Since a comprehensive critique would get pretty lengthy for a single blog post, I’ll limit myself to two basic points. Negatively, I will attempt to make a brief case for why, in general, we should not directly apply OT penal laws to civil society today. Positively, I will offer some suggestions for how we should determine particular laws and penalties today.
Now I should point out here that the OT never explicitly states that Israel’s civil laws should be directly applied to Gentile nations.5 Then again, it never explicitly states that they shouldn’t be either. Therefore, any argument one way or the other will depend on one’s prior hermeneutical framework and inferences from the biblical texts (much like the issue of infant vs. believer baptism). Further, considering the particular perspective6 from which one approaches the evidence will go a long way in determining who really bears the burden of proof. Theonomists tend to emphasize a normative perspective, focusing on the universal character of God’s laws. But in my opinion, they neglect the situational perspective, which takes into consideration Israel’s unique cultural and historical position, as well as their unique covenantal status before God.
Taking into account Israel’s unique covenantal status is especially important when considering the nature of OT penalties. The Mosaic law is frequently couched in the language of covenantal privilege and responsibility. Consider, for example, Leviticus 11:45: “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” With great privilege comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes greater punishment for transgression. That is why God says to Israel in Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The sanctity of Israel was paramount in her mission—more so than for any other nation, then or now. No other nation is covenantally bound to God like Israel was.7
This, I believe, is precisely why penalties were so severe for those crimes that demonstrated covenant infidelity, such as adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10), idolatry (Deut. 13), and rebellion against parents (Deut. 21:18-21; according to Wright, the family was the primary unit in which the covenant relationship was preserved and experienced).8 On the other hand, the death penalty for murder had a different basis; it was rooted not in the Mosaic covenant, but rather in the more universal Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5-6). And the reason here for the death penalty had nothing to do with Noah’s unique covenantal standing (a privilege enjoyed only later by Abraham and his offspring), but rather with the fact that humans are made in God’s image. For these reasons, I believe that a case can be made for the continuing validity of capital punishment for murder and related crimes, but not for covenant infidelity.
I also believe that theonomists fail to account for the typological character of OT penal laws (this is one of the main points of Poythress’s book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses). These laws served as symbols and shadows pointing to a reality that was fulfilled in the finished work of Christ. Like the tabernacle, sacrifices, and ceremonial purity laws, we can say that the OT penal laws were intended to point us to the greater destruction of sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fullest expression of God’s justice is therefore found not in the OT laws themselves, but rather in the person and work of Christ. The OT laws certainly reveal God’s justice, but only in a subsidiary sense, as they point us to Christ. This Christological orientation of OT penalties means that we should not necessarily expect a direct, one-to-one correspondence with our situation today.
So if we can’t base our penalties today directly on the Mosaic law, then how should we determine the appropriate penalties? And how far should our legislation go? Should it also encompass so-called “private” and “moral” offenses? Here I can only give some preliminary considerations. For one, I am rather skeptical of the libertarian principle: “Persons should be free to harm themselves and consenting associates … as long as they do not harm others or infringe on their rights.”9 Theonomist Greg Bahnsen rightly points out that this principle is ambiguous, arbitrary, inconsistently applied, and (above all) not biblically derived.10 I would also add to Bahnsen’s objections the fact that adultery, for example, most certainly does cause harm to, and infringe on the marital rights of, the betrayed spouse. As a consequence, I would at a minimum reject the notion of “no fault” divorce laws.
Beyond that, different kinds of offenses need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As I mentioned above, we should expect the severity of penalties to be different outside a covenantal context such as Israel’s.11 So instead we need to take into account the kind and degree of harm caused by the offense. And we need to ask questions like, what will be the effects of imposing such-and-such penalties on such-and-such offenses? Conversely, what would be the consequences of not imposing such penalties? And what kind of values should our laws seek to foster within a society?
I’ll conclude by highlighting some of the insights that we should draw from theonomists. For one, they rightly point out the fact that our current judicial and penal system is seriously broken. The U.S. currently has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at about 743 adults per 100,000. This is combined with a very high rate of recidivism (re-arrest/imprisonment after release). By contrast, there is no OT precedent for incarceration as a form of penalty. Instead, penalties took the form of corporal punishment (Deut. 25:1-3), exile (19:1-10), and restitution (Ex. 22:1). It is worth considering whether such penalties would be a viable alternative to our current system. We should also ask what it might look like to have an entire community directly involved in the execution of a criminal, as was the case with Israel. At the end of the day, we may find that some of our emotional reactions about these issues derive more from cultural prejudices than from biblical authority.
Postscript: if you’re a Christian, I’d discourage you from appealing to John 8 (the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery) in discussions on theonomy. In all likelihood, this is a spurious text; it’s not found in the earliest manuscripts of John, and it differs in style and vocabulary from the rest of John’s gospel.
1 Dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, by relegating the former to an obsolete “dispensation” of God’s dealings with humanity. Leading representatives have included John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer.
2 Theonomy is also variously referred to as Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. Leading representatives have included R.J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary DeMar, among others. While certain theonomists have also called for rather particular civil reforms—such as a return to the gold standard or a radical commitment to laissez-faire capitalism—these points are more peripheral. I would consider any position to be broadly theonomistic which advocates the (more or less) direct application of OT penalties to modern society.
3 The Westminster Confession of Faith distinguishes three categories of law: moral, civil, and ceremonial (XIX). It further states that while the moral law continues unchanged today, the civil and ceremonial laws have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. Theonomists instead argue that only the ceremonial laws have been abrogated, while both the moral and civil laws continue. This description is helpful though somewhat simplistic, since the OT itself does not categorize its laws in so neat a fashion.
4 I am indebted to a number of sources for my critique. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), Appendix B (available free here online); Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 403-408.; Gary Scott Smith, editor, God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1989).
5 Theonomists might point to proof-texts such as Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2. However, with respect do Deut. 4, Poythress points out how the perspective one adopts informs what one notices in this passage (Poythress, Appendix B, Part 2). When the Gentile nations look in envy at Israel and her laws, do they desire to adopt Israel’s laws wholesale for themselves (normative perspective), or rather to enjoy the same unique covenantal standing with Israel’s God (situational perspective)? And with respect to Isa. 2 and Mic. 4, we cannot automatically assume that these prophetic texts speak of the Mosaic law extending to the Gentiles in every respect and without modification.
6 Here I am indebted to John Frame’s theory of multi-perspectivalism. A brief primer to this theory can be found online here. For a more in-depth treatment, see Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).
7 Historians and Bible scholars have described Israel’s unique covenantal status as a “theocracy” or “church-state nexus” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.17; C. John Collins, “A Study Guide for the Old Testament Prophetical Books,” [Covenant Theological Seminary, 2008], 96). In a sense, theonomists believe that the entire world is on its way to becoming a theocracy. Eschatologically speaking, this is true. But that does not mean that nations today (even Christian-majority ones) can become specially, covenantally bound to God before the arrival of the New Jerusalem.
8 Wright, 407.
9 Ronald Sider, “An Evangelical Vision for Public Policy,” Transformation 2.3 (Jul-Sep 1985), 6.
10 God and Politics, 43.
11 Technically, no one exists outside a covenantal context. Our very humanity binds us to God in a covenantal relationship. That is why I have consistently attempted to speak of Israel’s “special” or “unique” covenantal status throughout this post.