Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some Modern History of the Debate

Below I have posted what is on the inside cover of "No Other Standard: Theonomy And Its Critics", a book written by Greg Bahnsen. It is an excellent history of the modern debate over theonomy, and especially its history within the Westminster Seminary. To me, this history explains it all. There is a strong resistance to theonomy evident that goes beyond any intellectual honesty that we all hopefully strive for and therefore extends into a sort of an attitude that is void of any intellectual honesty, but is content in its pursuit of an isolated 'dominion' of the authority of Christ. This obviously limits the authority of Christ to the Christian and to the Church to which the Christian is a member. I am currently of the opinion that opponents of theonomy are opponents only because they are expressing their own rebellion to God as He attempts to express Himself and to apply Himself as Lord over all...including all and any human culture. Our culture not exempt, the "anti-theonomist" will bend over backwards to explain away any claim of the authority of Jesus Christ over their non-believing neighbors, and thus, the authority of Jesus Christ in our own culture which is practically expressed by Christian and non-Christian alike.

"They Can Run, But They Can't Hide!"

In 1959, Rousas John Rushdoony's first book appeared, By What Standard?, a study of the philosophy of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til made it clear that the truth of the Bible must be man's presupposition, the standard of his reasoning, and the final court of appeal in history. He rejected the natural law philosophy in any form. Rushdoony believed Van Til, so he wrote Institutes of Biblical Law (1973), (excerpts), to demonstrate that the only standard that God provides is biblical law.

That same year, 1973, Van Til's student Greg L. Bahnsen completed his Th.M degree at Westminster seminary, submitting a thesis on "The Theonomic Responsibility of the Civil Magistrate." After a delay of four years, an expanded version of his thesis appeared, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. This book was an apologetic for biblical law. So was his subsequent introductory book, By This Standard (1985).

Theonomy in Christian Ethics received only sporadic opposition in print but continual and growing opposition within the faculty at Westminster Seminary. In fact, Bahnsen's book can be said to have split the faculty into three camps:

  1. The "natural law in spite of Van Til's philosophy" camp.
  2. The "not natural law, but we're not sure what to substitute" camp.
  3. The "Proverbs 12:23" camp. ("A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims folly.")
The first group retains the upper hand. The faculty (past and present) published an attempted refutation of Bahnsen in 1990: Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, which led within a few months to responses by the theonomists: Westminster's Confession, by Gary North; Theonomy: An Informed Response, edited by Gary North; and No Other Standard.

No Other Standard is Bahnsen's response not only to the Westminster faculty's book, but also to the two other brief critical books against him, and to the various published articles and typewritten, photocopied responses that have circulated over the years. One by one, Bahnsen takes his critics' arguments apart, showing that they have either misrepresented his position or misrepresented the Bible. Line by line, point by point, he shows that they have not understood his arguments and have also not understood the vulnerability of their own logical and theological positions.

What we have seen, year after year, is that his published critics subsequently refuse to debate him in public.
  • Example: Meredith Kline's sweetheart deal with the editor of the Westminster Theological Journal (W. Robert Godfrey) that Bahnsen would not be allowed to respond in the WTJ to Kline's hostile 1978 essay.
  • Example: The refusal in 1989 of H. Wayne House (co-author of Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?) to allow Bahnsen to cross-examine him during a scheduled public debate, after House had issued a public challenge for Bahnsen to debate. Bahnsen insisted, so House canceled the debate.
  • Example: Norman Geisler's refusal in 1991 to debate Bahnsen at Liberty University, and then Geisler's appearance at an anti-theonomy symposium two days after Bahnsen had left the campus. They all know what the result of such a debate will be; thus, they launch hit-and-run attacks when they think their readers and listeners will never read Bahnsen's response.
Joe Louis once said of an ill-fated scheduled opponent in the ring. "He can run, but he can't hide." Likewise, Bahnsen's critics. No Other Standard corners them all, and one by one, floors them.

Inside Flap

Catalog Description

This is Greg Bahnsen's response to criticisms of the theonomic position that have been published or circulated over the last ten years. Bahnsen deals not only with Westminster Theological Seminary's Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, but also with two other brief critical books against him, and with various published articles and typewritten, photocopied responses. One by one, Bahnsen takes his critics' arguments apart, showing that they have either misrepresented his position or misrepresented the Bible. Line by line, point by point, he shows that they have not understood his arguments and have also not understood the vulnerability of their own logical and theological positions.

Gary North

In the spring term of 1973, Greg Bahnsen handed in his Th.M. thesis to his committee at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia “The Theonomic Responsibility of the Civil Magistrate.” The committee accepted it and awarded him his degree that term. There was no controversy about it at the time. No protests were filed, no letters sent to faculty members by outraged presbyters, no protests of reviewers appeared. Westmin- ster even awarded him a small stipend to go on to graduate school. After a delay of four years, due to circumstances beyond Bahnsen’s control, the thesis, with certain additions, was published as a book by Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company: Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

Two years aflter this, Bahnsen was awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy by the University of Southern California. Five years earlier, in 1974, his ordination to the teaching eldership (ministry) in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had been blocked at the last minute – literally a few minutes before the actual ordination – by the protest of an OPC ruling elder. It took a year of procedural activity before his ordination was confined.

What had caused such intense hostility? It was the ethical position presented by Bahnsen publicly and defended exegetically in Theonomy in Chtitian Ethics, although the book had yet to appear in print when the elder’s attack was launched. A thesis that had raised no public protest on campus subsequently raised blood pressures all over the Reformed world, and even beyond that circumscribed world. One does not normally expect a master’s thesis to create a sensation, but in the context of the late 1970’s, this one did. Why?

The reader needs to understand that this controversy was not produced by the style of the presentation. It read like what it was: a master’s thesis. It was written as an academic exercise that had been airned at a committee of professional theologians. While the book is readable by non-theologians, its style is precise, non-confrontational, and even a bit dry, given the magnitude of its content. It was the substance of the thesis, not its style, that created the controversy.

What was Bahnsen’s thesis? That the civil and moral laws of the Old Testament are still binding on society in the New Testament era, unless annulled or otherwise transformed by a New Testament teaching, either directly or by implication. In short, there is judicial and moral continuity between the two testaments.

...skip to Conclusion

The issue that Bahnsen has raised is biblical law. Therefore, the issue by extension is the legitimacy of the ideal of Christendom the comprehensive kingdom of God in history! The issue is the legitimacy of the Lord’s prayer in history for history: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” It is time for the critics of Bahnsen’s theological position to explain in detail just what it is that they are offering in its place as a biblical ideal. It is time for them to fight something very specific with something equally specific and equally biblical. So far, they have selfconsciously avoided doing this. But they now have more to do than this. They need to respond to this book. They need to show why Bahnsen’s replies to all of them, one by one, are inaccurate. Then they need to tell us what is correct biblically. If they refuse, they are admitting by their silence that they have no biblical answers to his position, and have had none since 1977. (That's about 32 years now...c'mon!)

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