Wednesday, September 16, 2009

RPCUS Distinctives and the Westminster Standards, Part 3 -9/16/09

A Continuation...3 of 6

By Rev. John M. Otis

The Theonomic Distinctive

A second distinguishing feature of the RPCUS is that it is a theonomic denomination. We are quite aware of the controversy in the Reformed world over this point, and we are grieved that this is even an issue, for we believe that the Scripture and the Confessional Standards are quite clear. Without discussing great detail, the debate has focused upon the continuing validity of the judicial or case laws of the Old Testament for our modern culture. The position of the RPCUS has been that it simply adopts at face value chapters 19 and 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith pertaining to the law of God and to the civil magistrate. Several key points need to be made. First, the RPCUS adopts chapter 23 in its entirety as originally framed by the Westminster delegates. We reject the revisions to the Confession made by the Adopting Act of 1729. It took exception to section III of chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession pertaining to the duty of the civil magistrate. The Adopting Act viewed this section as extra-essential and not as a necessary point of doctrine. One problem with referring to sections of the Confession as extra-essential and not necessary is: What is the basis for determining what is not essential and necessary? A very dangerous precedent is set, and it paves the way for abandoning the doctrines of the Standards. This is what happened historically in the PCUS in its eventual slide into apostasy.

The RPCUS also sees a great error in what the Synod of New York and Philadelphia did in 1788 in amending chapter 23 of the Confession regarding the duties of the civil magistrate. It deleted portions of section III of chapter 23. The section that it deleted was: “it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” Several Scriptural proof texts are provided by the Westminster delegates to demonstrate the legitimacy of this section. The point is: The civil magistrate, though a separate institution from the church, is still accountable to God to be as Romans 13:4 says, “a minister of God to you for good…” The civil magistrate as God’s minister is commissioned to uphold the law of God as revealed in Scripture. One of the proof texts in the Confession cites King Josiah and his thorough abolishment of pagan worship centers in Israel. This section of the Confession clearly renounces the idea of religious pluralism in a Christian culture. Non-Christian religions are not given equal footing with Christianity. In fact, they are not to be tolerated in the sense that they are not to be allowed by the state to proselytize a community.

A second point emphasized by the RPCUS is that chapter 19 section IV of the Confession is not vague or unclear in its meaning and application. The section reads, “with regard to the nation of Israel, To them also, as a body politick, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” The controversy over the issue of theonomy revolves around the phrase, “not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” Many in the Reformed community who oppose theonomy say, “Since the nation of Israel has expired as a political body, the judicial laws of Moses do not apply to us at all.

The theonomic position is that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are no longer obligatory upon God’s people. They foreshadowed the atoning work of Christ. Now that the reality has come, there is not a need for the types and shadows of the old covenant. The judicial or case laws are still to be enforced, however, for these laws are specific illustrations of how to carry out God’s moral law as summarized in the ten commandments. Greg Bahnsen, the author of Theonomy In Christian Ethics, wrote, “The case law illustrates the applications or qualification of the principle laid down in the general commandment” (p. 313). Bahnsen further stated, “The case laws outside of the Decalogue (also called “judicial laws” in Reformed literature) are thus moral in character. Because their details are often communicated in terms of ancient Israel’s culture, these laws are not binding as such on us in today’s culture; rather, we are now required to keep the underlying principle (or “general equity”) of these laws” (Greg Bahnsen, “God’s Law and Gospel Prosperity: A Reply to the Editor of the Presbyterian Journal,” p. 15).

Accordingly, the phrase, “general equity,” in the Westminster Confession indicates that the underlying principle of the case law is what is obligatory upon us today. Bahnsen has said, “Likewise, as an application of the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill” the law of God required Israelites to place a fencing around the roofs of their houses. The underlying principle of this law still applies to us today, even though we may not apply it to entertaining on flat roofs since this is not part of our cultural experience; instead we might apply it today by placing a fence around our backyard swimming pools – again, in order to protect human life and thus obey the general precept of God’s law” (Ibid. p.14).

The meaning of “general equity” is not open to a variance of meaning or application. The meaning of words must always be understood in the historical context in which they are found. How did the English Puritans who wrote the Confession understand the meaning of these words? How did the American Puritans understand their meaning and application? We need to let the authors of the Confession speak for themselves, and then the mystery of the debate over theonomy should be over! The theonomic position should not be seen as an ethical innovation. It is a restatement of standard Puritan and Reformed thought.

One of the most important works done in recent time is Martin A. Foulner’s book, Theonomy and the Westminster Confession, published in 1997. Foulner has given us a masterful compilation of quotes by the English and American Puritans, which forever settles the issue from an historical and scholarly point of view. The Puritans of the 17th Century were theonomists! Who better to gives us an understanding of the meaning of chapter 19 of the Confession than those English Puritans who attended the Westminster Assembly and helped formulate the wording of the Confession? Two notable delegates of the Westminster Assembly were George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford. Regarding the applicability of the Mosaic judicial law, Gillespie said, “I heartily yield that a lawful magistrate, whether Christian or heathen, ought to be a keeper or guardian of both tables; and as God’s viceregent, hath authority to punish heinous sins against either table, by civil or corporal punishments, which proves nothing against a distinct church government for keeping pure the ordinances of Christ” (George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming; or, the Divine Ordinances of Church Government Vindicated, 1646 as quoted in Martin Foulner’s Theonomy and the Westminster Confession, p. 14).

Samuel Rutherford, another delegate of the Westminster Assembly, used language similar to that of the Confession when he wrote, “It is clear the question must be thus stated, for all the lawes of the old Testament (which we hold in their morall equite to be perpetual) that are touching blasphemies, heresies, solicitation to worship false Gods and the breach of which the Godly Magistrate was to punish, command or forbid onely such things as may be proved by two or three witnesses…” (Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience, p. 47 as quoted in Foulner, p. 16).

In 1649 the Commissioners of the Westminster Assembly wrote A Solemn Testimony Against Toleration. In it they said, “For it cannot be shown that any part of that power which magistrates had under the Old Testament is repealed under the new, neither can any convincing reason be brought, why it should be of narrower extent now nor then. Are not blasphemies, heresies and errors dishonourable to God, and destructive unto souls as well now as of old?” (Quoted in Foulner, p. 33).

In his book, Theonomy and the Westminster Confession, Foulner quotes from other English Puritans who attended the Westminster Assembly and who believed in carrying out the punishments of the Mosaic judicial laws. These other Puritans were Jeremiah Burroughs, Herbert Palmer, William Reyner, Richard Vines, Thomas Hodges, and Philip Nye.

In keeping with Puritan tradition, the RPCUS affirms that the Westminster Standards are theonomic documents; therefore, nothing short of affirming the general theonomic position is acceptable for all officers of the RPCUS. In saying this, we need to clarify a very important point. The RPCUS endorses theonomy as it is stated in chapters 19 and 23 of the original Confession. There are some theonomists today who believe the dietary laws of the Old Testament are still operative; however, this is a position not held by many other theonomists. The predominant opinion of these is that the dietary laws fall more under the ceremonial law than they do under the judicial laws. Moreover, there is sometimes difference of opinion among theonomists in how the principles of the case laws should be enforced. For example, are federal regulatory agencies such as the FAA and OSHA legitimate applications of the principles of the case laws of the Old Testament. Some theonomists have said “yes” and others “no.” Herein is a certain latitude of differing thought within the overall theonomic position.

The RPCUS, as a presbyterial examination body, wants to hear from a prospective officer that he endorses the basic theonomic position of the Westminster Confession as stated in chapter 19 section IV. The presbytery often asks further questions of the candidate to determine what he understands to be the meaning of “general equity.” If the candidate says, “I believe the Mosaic civil or judicial laws are still valid in the application of their basic principle,” then this would be considered as an acceptable answer.

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