Friday, November 14, 2008

Lane Tipton on theonomy

I’m still looking for the best representatives of the 2k theory I can find. I’m going to comment on an article by Lane Tipton:

Before I delve into the details, a few preliminary observations are in order. Tipton is attacking one of Greg Bahnsen’s arguments for theonomy. It’s logical of Tipton to choose Bahnsen as his foil. Bahnsen was the leading theonomic theorist of his day.

But let’s keep in mind that Bahnsen died in 1995. Critics can continue to refine their objections to Bahnsen, but he can’t continue to refine his counterarguments. So there’s a certain asymmetry in these evaluations.

It’s not incumbent on me to defend Bahnsen’s particular formulation or supporting arguments. I can present and defend my own position.

I’m referencing Tipton’s article because he’s one of the more sophisticated critics of theonomy. The fact that he’s targeting Bahnsen, while a primary concern of his article, is of secondary interest to me. I’m going to consider his arguments on their own terms.

“The book of Hebrews functions as a parenesis to a group of Jewish Christians tempted to revert to the ceremonial externalism of the Old Covenant.”

I don’t know what he means by this. The Old Covenant wasn’t reducible to ceremonial externalism.

“First of all, the heart of the problem which the hearers face consists in a temptation to revert to Old Covenant externalism.”

Same problem as above. What does he mean by “externalism”?

OT piety wasn’t limited to outward rites and ceremonies. It was also concerned with the condition of the heart.

“Confirming this argument, we see at the end of 2:1 that we must not ‘drift away’11 into apostasy. In other words, the contrast in view turns on the fact that apostasy in the Old Covenant received immediate retribution in terms of temporal sanctions.”

“In other words, the Old Covenant, Mosaic death sanctions typify and anticipate the eschatological manifestation of God's righteous judgment against his enemies.”

There are some basic problems with this line of argument:

i) Tipton is arguing that the death penalty for apostasy typifies the final judgment. Now, even if we agree with him, that’s a very selective appeal to OT law.

a) It singles out capital offenses.

b) It singles out the crime of apostasy.

c) It singles out the death penalty as a punishment for apostasy.

ii) Needless to say, this leaves out of account a massive amount of OT law:

a) Many OT crimes are not capital offenses.

b) Most OT crimes do not amount to apostasy.

c) Apropos (a)-(b), the death penalty is not assigned to most OT capital offenses because they constitute apostasy.

d) Of OT crimes that are capital offenses, many could be commuted.

e) In case of murder, the death penalty is assigned, not because the murderer is an apostate, but because he violated the imago Dei (Gen 9:5-6).

f) Apropos (e), the death penalty for murder antedates the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, we can’t assume that a particular crime is a capital offense because it figures in the cultic holiness of Israel.

g) Even if the death penalty prefigures the final judgment, this doesn’t mean the death penalty was assigned to some crimes because it prefigures the final judgment—as if the only reason to execute the offender was to prefigure the final judgment.

Certain crimes carried the death penalty because that was a just punishment for the nature of the crime. The sentence fit the crime. Indeed, the author of Hebrews explicitly makes that very point: “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution” (2:2, ESV).

And that would be true of any Mosaic penalty—not just the death penalty.

Therefore, Tipton’s fundamental objection to theonomy strikes me as a massive overstatement. He’s extrapolating from one case to a raft of disanalogous crimes and penalties.

“This is the first hint that he does not allow the category of semi-realized eschatology to inform his understanding of the manner in which the author explains the fulfillment of typological sanctions in Christ.”

A “semi-realized eschatology” doesn’t eliminate the need for a civil or criminal law code.

“The civil sanctions are subservient to typology.”

Why should we accept that claim? Why not take the common sense view that the civil sanctions were practical. That Israel had a civil and criminal law code because Israel was a nation-state, and every nation state must have a civil and criminal law code?

“The entire Old Covenant Mosaic order is a typological kingdom, which has definite implications for the nature of its sanctions.”

Of course, this simply begs the question in favor of Meredith Kline’s idiosyncratic opinion. Tipton has done nothing to establish such a sweeping thesis.

In sum, his conclusion doesn’t begin to follow from his premise. The scope of actual argument is quite modest. His conclusion far outstrips the scope of his argument.


  1. Steve,

    Thanks for your continued analysis of natural law and theonomy. I am learning a lot and appreciate your biblical and logical analysis.

  2. "Certain crimes carried the death penalty because that was a just punishment for the nature of the crime."

    Please excuse my ignorance once again, but I have a great amount of difficulty seeing how the death penalty was "warranted" in most cases in which it was actually executed in the Old Testament (pardon the pun).

    A man who picked up firewood on the Sabbath was executed. Now back then, they didn't have the convenience of lethal injection. They'd bury someone in sand up to their necks and keep hitting them over their head until blood spattered everywhere and their brains were leaking out their ears. Maybe it took a few blows, maybe it took 4-5 minutes of unrelenting violence for the "sinner" to finally expire.

    Could you stand by and watch this done? I couldn't.

    I recently watched a film called "Seed" (against my better judgment). In it, the killer started hitting this bound woman in her head with a hammer or pick-axe, at first lightly while she moaned. Eventually, the blows started getting heavier. Every swing got heavier and heavier until the room was covered with blood and you could hear the mallet crushing into bone and brain matter as her limp skull just sort of hung loosely. I really just wanted to wretch.

    That's pretty much Old Testament retribution, isn't it? This was done to gays, Sabbath violators and a whole host of other people.

    Sorry, but I just have a difficult time seeing how this is "warranted".

    Do you consider me spineless because of it? Too much "emoting"?
    If so, I think this level of violence needs to be embraced and "owned", if you will. Don't candy-coat it, which is exactly what many do when referring back to life under the Mosaic law.


    “Please excuse my ignorance once again, but I have a great amount of difficulty seeing how the death penalty was ‘warranted’ in most cases in which it was actually executed in the Old Testament (pardon the pun).”

    You’re a one-trick pony. It’s always the same whiny complaint from you in post after post after post. “The God of the Bible (or Calvinism) is just so doggone mean!”

    Why don’t you try to vary the script a little?

    “They'd bury someone in sand up to their necks.”

    They would? Quote me in the Bible where they do that?

    You’ve been watching too many horror movies. Case in point:

    “I recently watched a film called ‘Seed’ (against my better judgment).”


    “That's pretty much Old Testament retribution, isn't it?”

    No. Try again…this time without the Hollywood B-movie FX.

    “Sorry, but I just have a difficult time seeing how this is ‘warranted’.”

    Given your reductionistic worldview, you’d have difficulty seeing how anything is morally warranted, or not.

    “Too much ‘emoting’?

    Given the inherent moral relativism (indeed, nihilism) of your worldview, yes, it’s just so much emoting on your part.

    So it comes down to an emotive contest: who can emote better: you or the Nazi.

    Life was tough in the ANE. Paganism was cruel. We can only avoid that to the extent that Christian ethics has a softening effect on the culture.