Greg Bahnsen on the Civil Law

This begins a three-part intermediary study on the three sets of Biblical Law (Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial) and how they both relate to each other and how they are to be received in the New Covenant life.

From “The Westminster Assembly and the Equity of the Judicial Law”

By Dr. Greg Bahnsen

Civil Law

Quite clearly, the Puritan zeal for Reformed theology was not, given the turmoil of their day, inimical to socio-political concerns. God’s infallible word in Scripture, whose authority they confessed to be superior to all human opinion and traditions, was the moral standard for all conduct in every area of life. This included civil affairs. Given the degenerating condition of modern society, with a frightening escalation of criminal activity yet near-total failure of our present penal system, it is not unreasonable for those who love the Reformed faith and its full-orbed, Biblical worldview to ask what our Puritan forefathers confessed about God’s justice in the area of civil law. Could their voice from 350 years ago speak to us with greater Scriptural consistency and soundness than the confused opinions of our own weak and wayward generation?

What did the Westminster theologians say about those provisions in Scripture which address civil magistrates and the punishment of crime, particularly those civil norms found amid the “judicial laws” of Moses (e.g., Exodus 21-22)?

In chapter 19, section 4, the Confession teaches us: (1) God gave “sundry” judicial laws to Israel “as a body politick”; (2) these “expired” along with that state; (3) that which is now obligatory in those laws is what “the general equity thereof may require” — but (4) nothing further.

The popular attitude of our generation — both outside and inside the Christian church (which is a commentary in itself) — is that the civil laws of the Mosaic revelation are outlandish, out-dated, and surely not morally acceptable for modern states. Those who, like “theonomists,” do not repudiate the moral validity and use of the Mosaic judicial laws in contemporary political affairs have scorn heaped upon them as anachronistic fools or dangerous tyrants. Today even theologians who claim to be “Reformed” widely ridicule or emphatically reject the theonomic endorsement of the validity of Old Testament civil laws.

But we should honestly ask: who is closer to the Reformed theology of the Westminster Confession on this point today, theonomists or their detractors?

Even as hostile a critic as Meredith Kline had to concede that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms are theonomic in perspective (Westminster Theological Journal, v. 41, 1978, pp. 173-174). Taking a more detailed look at this question, Sinclair Ferguson later had to acknowledge that section 19.4 in the Confession is indeed consistent with the theonomic position, and that there is a “practical” coincidence between the views of the Westminster commissioners and the civil applications of the theonomic view today (Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. Barker & Godfrey, Zondervan, 1990, pp. 329, 334, 347).

His only hope was to show that the Westminster Confession does not strictly require a theonomic interpretation (pp. 345, 346, 348-349). Yet even in contending for this diminished thesis, the precision of Ferguson’s article slips, as he overstates and thus misconstrues the theonomic view of “general equity” (pp. 331, 343, 347), and exegetically confuses the notion of an “equity” found in the law with the logically distinct and philosophically different notion of “the equity of the law” (pp. 330-331).


5 thoughts on “Greg Bahnsen on the Civil Law

  1. Often it is stated “our nation isn’t a Christian Nation” when I discuss this with people. Democracy is a big problem in dealing with this issue and people’s minds and hearts are thoroughly lazy. Fools and “recovering” fools still like to have their snort of folly.

  2. The best answers I’ve seen to Bahnsen came from Sinclair Furgeson on the one side and James Jordan on the other. Furgeson shows that the Puritans had MORE death penalty offenses than theonomy would allow (pick pockets and horse theives, and such). Jordan gave a couple of lectures on this back in the 80s which are critical of theonomy more or less from within even the Old Testament. Neither of these two men are wooses on the State’s obligation to uphold God’s Law today, and to confess Christ. But, they would quibble with Bahnsen’s “Big T” Theonomy. Greg was a great debater and a good theologian. I was honored to have met him a few times. The clarity of his lectures is amazing.

  3. The problem with Sinclair Ferguson’s argument is that his definition of Theonomy is too narrow. Proving that a Westminster Divine differed with Greg Bahnsen does not prove Theonomy is unconfessional, as some Theonomists differ with Greg Bahsnen. For instance, Ray Sutton argues in “That You May Prosper” that in the NT more crimes are capital than they were in the OT. Thus he as a Theonomist agrees with some of the earlier divines. Thus Sinclair Ferguson’s critique is inadequate as it fails to discern these matters are intra-mural debates among Theonomists.

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