Statement on Theonomy

by William J. Baldwin

(6/25/96 - rev. 4/9/97)


I believe the traditional Reformed distinction between the Moral, the Ceremonial, and the Civil Law is helpful. In that scheme, I presume identity between the testaments with regard to the Moral law, and continuity with regard to the Ceremonial and Civil law. You may recall that Greg Bahnsen's approach was to presume continuity between the Testaments unless otherwise instructed by the New.1 What I'm saying may sound similar but it isn't. Let me explain.

Bahnsen was comfortable saying the Ceremonial law had been clearly abrogated in the New Testament. Therefore it did not have "continuity" in the sense in which he meant that term (though he did argue for a sort of continuity that I'll deal with in a moment). Bahnsen then tended to lump the Civil and the Moral law together as a single unit. He would then argue that the law was rooted in God's very nature and therefore only God can make changes in it. There is no small error herein.

Let's tease out the missing premise:

Only one premise can bridge the gap between the Major Premise and the conclusion:

To speak of God as changing a law that is rooted in his character is to speak of God changing that character itself. I cannot accept that idea.

Therefore, I do much more than merely presume continuity between the law of the Old and New Testament. I demand identity or my God is mutable and therefore no God at all. In other words, I am not open to the possibility that God could suddenly say it's okay to murder under the New Covenant. God cannot say such a thing because God cannot change. The contents of the Moral Law in the Old and New Testaments must be identical.

So when we even leave ourselves open to the possibility that an Old Testament law may be changed by the New Testament, we are speaking of an entirely different sort of law. The moment we speak of a law that remains the same unless it is changed, we are speaking of a law that is not rooted in God's character. We are speaking of a law that is arbitrarily (though not capriciously) decided by him. We are speaking of a law like the law forbidding Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was nothing inherent in the fruit that required God to forbid its consumption. But as soon as he forbade it, it became immoral to consume it.

So of the Civil Law -- the law of the government of the state of Israel -- we must say one of two things: 1) Either it is rooted in God's character and is changeless (which our Confession, in accordance with Scripture, denies), or 2) It is not rooted in God's character and is therefore changeable. This is the position to which I hold.

Nevertheless I can say that I presume (even demand) continuity between Old and New Testaments with respect to the Civil and the Ceremonial law. Those laws, I believe, were given typologically. They were types of the Worship of heaven as directed by and toward Christ, the High Priest and Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. And they were types of the Kingdom of heaven as ruled by Christ the King. Therefore, every ceremonial and every civil law must speak to me of something that is true in the heavenly realm to which our worship of Christ and his rule of the church pertains.

Let's consider one example that may help to explain what I'm saying:

7Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? 8Do I say these things as a man? Or does not the law say the same also? 9For it is written in the law of Moses, "YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE AN OX WHILE IT TREADS OUT THE GRAIN." Is it oxen God is concerned about? 10Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. 11If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?... 13Do you not know that hose who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? 14Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.

1 Corinthians 9:7-14

His eye is on the sparrow but he doesn't care for oxen. We must distinguish the senses in which God does and doesn't care about oxen. God provides for the ox as much as for the sparrow, and to the extent that the Old Testament case law administered that provision, God was indeed concerned for oxen. But only incidentally. Paul boldly tells us that the purpose of that law is not to provide for the oxen, any more than the dietary laws were enacted to spare the lives of pigs and crustaceans. The statement that God does not care for oxen does not refer to God's providential care but to the typological purpose of his law.

And what is that purpose? Paul answers, "Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written" (9:10a). And this language calls to mind a later passage in which Paul expresses a similar sentiment concerning the history of Israel in the Exodus: "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Corinthians 10:11). In both cases Paul makes the startling claim that the Old Testament was written for the sake of New Testament believers. The initial referents have typological significance; they find their fulfillment at the ends of the ages in Christ, his ministers, and his church.

Paul assumes that the whole Old Testament has significance for and reference to believers in the New Testament church. So back in the original argument in 1 Corinthians 9, he demonstrates that ministers of the gospel ought to be paid by adducing the same principle from two different sources: 1) The civil law, and 2) the ceremonial law. We have discussed the first. Paul further confirms his point with the second: those who serve at the altar partake of its offerings. This also was not written merely for the sakes of earthly priests ministering in shadows destined to perish. This also was no doubt for our sakes as well.

Paul jealously guards the Old Testament in its typological, foreshadowing function that not a drop of its revelation should escape the mouths of those for whom it was originally intended -- the citizens of the realized eschatological kingdom of God. The ends of the ages have come. Those best equipped to understand what the ceremonial and civil law pointed to have been re-created in Christ. It would be a shame if such a people at such a time dismissed the smallest portion of the law as irrelevant. If such an audience will not heed the law, there was little point in writing it. Greg Bahnsen is certainly right to argue for the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail.

But he is wrong, then, to parcel out a portion of this law -- the civil -- to the heathen nations that it should become the inheritance of an earthly kingdom. He has sold our inheritance for a pot of stew. And we, as the legitimate legatees, must cry foul. We must retrieve our inheritance and put it to its intended purpose, understanding the administration of the kingdom of God.

Notice how Paul does this so casually and thoroughly in the above quoted passage. His first argument that ministers of the gospel ought to be supported comes from the civil law, but he doesn't draw attention to that fact. "Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit?" Paul asks (1 Corinthians 9:7). In saying this, Paul inevitably calls to mind Deuteronomy 20:5,6: "Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying:'...What man is there who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten of it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it."

A theonomist such as John Cotton -- if I may use the term anachronistically -- looks at this verse and sees in it a principle for contemporary civil polity. He establishes this principle in his Abstract of the Laws of New England: "Men...such as have newly built or planted, and not received the fruits of their labour...are not to be pressed or forced against their wills to go forth to wars" (Theonomy, p. 569). Bahnsen presents this Abstract with the caveat that not all of Cotton's applications are valid. By this he means, e.g. that the Old Testament didn't always punish perjury with death so we shouldn't either, and that wage and price controls may not be a legitimate application of the civil law. But in principle, Bahnsen and Cotton agree. A law such as the one in Deuteronomy 20:6 about who should not go to war ought to be heeded today by lawmakers in an earthly, civil government. That is the purpose of the law.

Nothing could be farther from Paul's mind. He takes the same law and deduces from it that the spiritual laborer has a right to derive benefit from his labors. He goes on to insist that this commandment comes from God and does not derive merely from an appeal to reason: "Do I say these things as a man?" (1 Cor 9:8a) he asks, "Or does not the law say the same also?" He then appeals to the law that the ox must not be muzzled while treading out the grain. He confirms by this method that the payment of ministers comes not as a human invention to meet a unique New Testament situation, but as a command of God via the Old Testament civil law.

Paul waxes bolder. God, in making a law about oxen, was not concerned about oxen. With the brazen confidence with which he declares that the rock in the wilderness was Christ, Paul co÷pts this verse to what seems an entirely new purpose. More brazen still, he claims that this purpose is more basic than the purpose of protecting oxen. And most brazen of all, he claims that this purpose is the only purpose the law ever had. The rest is typology. God is not concerned about oxen at all.

In saying this Paul addresses and quashes the easiest theonomic response; namely, that the general equity of a civil law merits many applications and the proof of one application as correct does no discredit to another. In other words, Deuteronomy 20:6 can mean both that spiritual laborers have a right to the fruit of their labors and that soldiers in the pay of the civil government should not be conscripted into service if they are in their first year as farmers. Paul replies that the civil law exists for the exclusive use of the Kingdom of Christ. It has no reference to an earthly civil government whose citizenship comprises a mixture of professed believers and professed unbelievers.

The glory of the Old Testament was veiled in shadow; let us not mistake the shadow for the glory. Paul discards the shadow (a law about oxen) as that which belongs to an administration that is passing away. Paul exults, then, in the glory that bursts forth when the shadow is gone. Finally, the civil law (and all typological law) has come into its own.

Bahnsen often refers to "the Older Testament," presumably as a rhetorical device to emphasize the continuity of the covenant of grace throughout its administrations. Well and good. But I would be as justified -- if not more so -- to refer to the New Testament as "the Better Testament" to emphasize the superiority of the current administration. Their eschatology was unrealized; ours is realized. Jesus has indeed mediated a better covenant. How glorious to be a member of the Church of the Firstborn, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, a worker in the vineyard of the church, a creature of the new creation! Is it any wonder that the laws of the kingdom of Old Testament Israel should find themselves as wonderfully transformed, as satisfyingly realized as the laws of the Old Testament church?2

Indeed as I mentioned earlier, Paul adduces the same principle from the civil and the ceremonial law: spiritual laborers are worthy of support. Not only the law about oxen but the law about priests at the altar demonstrates this principle. Paul does this not merely to pile proof upon proof but to show that the civil and the ceremonial have the same kind of realization, a realization in the New Testament church which is also the kingdom of God.

The civil and the ceremonial law are identical in this respect: their shadowy administrations have ended that their abiding validity might shine more clearly. God is not concerned about literal altars and shadowy priests but about the true altar in heaven and about Jesus the High Priest and the priestly ministers of his word.3 In precisely the same way, God is not concerned about literal kings and earthly kingdoms but about the heavenly kingdom of Christ which is forever and ever.

The kingdom has begun to come in. We await now the naturalization of all those destined to be citizens of that kingdom that he who has been crowned with glory and honor might consummate his kingdom and visibly rule. The people of God have been constituted both as worshipers of the Savior and subjects of the King. It is natural for the New Testament to speak of us as "a royal priesthood", as those who have come as worshipers to "Mount Zion...the general assembly and church of the Firstborn", as those who are growing "into a holy temple in the Lord [and a] dwelling place of God in the Spirit." It is equally natural for the New Testament to speak of us as "a chosen nation," those who have come "to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," and as "fellow citizens with the saints." Readers who recognize the above 6 quotations will know that they come not from 6 different passages but 3 (1 Peter 2:9, Hebrews 12:23, Ephesians 3:19-22.). In each case the people of God are described both as a church and as a state. We were once "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise" (Ephesians 2:12, emphasis mine). No longer.

This is why Paul may strengthen his argument that ministers are worthy of support by appealing to believers both as participants in a heavenly cultus and citizens of a heavenly body politic.

We cannot then eschatologize the Old Testament church and deeschatologize the Old Testament state. The cultus of the Old Testament was one of unrealized eschatology, now supervened by a cultus of realized eschatology. Therefore the ceremonial laws, fulfilled in Christ the Savior, remain valid as laws that have come into their own. They have changed in a sense as much as the resurrection body will be a change from the current one. But the resurrection body is the same body and the ceremonial laws are the same laws. In fact, the illustration is a happy one. The ceremonial laws have reference to that heavenly realm where the resurrected Christ forever intercedes for his saints.

It's the same with the kingdom. Christ came to establish a heavenly kingdom, to bring his citizens up to participate by faith in that resurrection realm, to await the consummation when we shall see the glories of that kingdom with resurrected eyes. The laws of that kingdom are the same as the laws of the Old Testament kingdom, caught up and transformed in the glory of the resurrected King. I don't believe, then, that we can apply the civil law to an unrealized noneschatological kingdom, a kingdom destined to perish.

Where the difficulty comes in in all this is in mixtures of ceremonial and moral or civil and moral law. How do I determine which part of the law is moral (and therefore identical with the law today) and which part is arbitrary? Take the case of the Sabbath. Clearly, it is a moral requirement that "a due proportion of time be set aside for the worship of God" (WCF 23.7). And just as clearly the day of the week is not a moral requirement. By that I don't mean that we can worship on any day we choose, but that the day (first or last of the week) is not so rooted in God's character that he may not change it at his discretion. He has changed the day. But what about the interval of one day in seven. Is that moral or positive (i.e. changeable at God's discretion)? I tend to think it's positive. I believe God could have created the world in 8 days and rested the 9 and made the interval 1 day out of 9. (And the days could each be thirty hours long.) I don't believe this would do violence to God's character. But I'm not yet sure how to prove that.

I accept the tripartite distinction of moral-civil-ceremonial as pedagogically valid. But I find it more helpful to refer to the ceremonial laws as a genus with two species -- civil and cultic. And then I set the entire genus off as fundamentally different from the moral law.

Bahnsen suggests that it is not enough to prove that the civil laws were typological; one must additionally prove that they were therefore not of abiding validity. But this is to misunderstand typology. The very nature of typology is that when that which is perfect comes, the partial is done away with. This is true of all ceremonial law, whether civil or cultic.

Nevertheless we can deduce valid principles of worship from the ceremonies. I agree that the story of the Sons of Aaron establishes and vividly portrays the regulative principle. It therefore applies to today, even though we don't use incense in the New Testament church. In the same way the civil law can and should provide legitimate principles of ecclesiastical jurisprudence. And in fact it does when Paul talks about oxen or when he says we shouldn't receive an accusation against an elder except on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Indeed, from the civil law, I would argue we mustn't receive accusations against any church member except on such testimony. Paul is making an implicit a fortiori argument from that obvious fact to the narrower situation of receiving accusations against elders.


  1. Note well, pursuant to the discussion above on the relative merits of Old and New Testament, that Bahnsen believed the New Testament could, in a sense, trump the Old. [Return to Text]
  2. I say this for the sake of argument. I belive Bahnsen is wrong to say that the Old Testament Kingdom and Church were distinct entities. They were clearly mixed. [Return to Text]
  3. Although I acknowledge the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:9, et. al.), there seems to be a special way in which Paul considered the office of priest to have its locus in the gospel ministry (Romans 15:16). [Return to Text]

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