Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An answer for Green Baggins

I know that I have at least two theonomists who regularly read my blog, and so this is a question addressed to them. The sin of idolatry, in the Old Testament, was punishable by death. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Hindus, and many other religions practice idolatry. One can even make the case that Muslims and Jews are idolaters, since they do not worship Jesus Christ as God.

America was founded on a principle of liberty of religion. The issues get complicated in a hurry, of course, but my question is this: if Christian Reconstruction were to win out in America, does that mean that the members of these other religions should be executed? Or is the principle of death for idolatry changed in the NT, according to theonomists?


Let’s divide up the answer into exegetical theology and historical theology:

Exegetical Theology

1) The population of ancient Israel wasn’t confined to observant members of the covenant community. It included a certain number of resident aliens or foreign nationals. Within certain limits, their presence was tolerated. Within the Mosaic code itself, some laws applied to all persons living in Israel, circumcised or not (e.g. Exod 12:19,48-49; Lev 16:29; 17:15; 18:26; 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:16,30). But Gentiles were excluded from the worship of Israel unless they converted to the true faith.

2) Whether the sin of idolatry would be a crime under theonomy depends on how we should classify it according to the traditional threefold rubric (civil/moral/ceremonial law).

We could make a case for subsuming it under the civil law. Whether that’s binding today would still depend on whether the civil law coincides with the moral law at this particular juncture. Idolatry obviously has a moral dimension.

On the other hand, we could also make a case for subsuming idolatry under the ceremonial law. Religions offenses were criminalized in large part due to the cultic holiness of Israel. And that is arguably distinctive to the Old Covenant rather than the New Covenant.

3) Even in the case of capital offenses, we need to draw two additional distinctions:

i) The fact that a particular crime was a capital offense doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that all convicts were sentenced to death. For one thing, OT law distinguishes between penitent sinners (e.g. Lev 6:1-7) and impenitent sinners (e.g. Num 15:30-31). And case law is illustrative rather than exhaustive. It doesn’t cover every conceivable contingency.

ii) Apropos (i), some capital offenses could be commuted:

“[Milgrom] argues that any intentional sin could be reduced to a sin of ignorance by genuine repentance. Whenever a guilty person too this path, he lowered his sin to the level of an unintentional sin and gained the possibility of expiating his wrongdoing through presenting a reparation sacrifice,” J. Hartley, Leviticus (Word 1992), 85.

This may be a bit of an overstatement since it’s hard to believe that every crime, however heinous (e.g. rape), was subject to commutation. Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that Lev 6:1-7 presents a special case of a larger principle. At least in some cases, contrition or restitution could reduce the sentence.

Historical Theology

Samuel Rutherford, who is quite intolerant by modern standards, nevertheless draws an important distinction:

“The question is not whether religion can be enforced upon men by the magistrate by the dint and violence of the sword, or only persuaded by the power of the word. We hold with Lactantius that religion cannot be compelled, nor can mercy and justice and love of our neighbor commanded in the second table, be more compelled than faith in Christ. Hence give me leave to prove two things: [i] That religion and faith cannot be forced on men; [ii] That this is a vain consequence, religion cannot be forced but must be persuaded by the word and Spirit, Ergo the magistrate can use no coercive power in punishing heretics and false teachers.”

“The sword is by no means of God to force men positively to external worship or performances. But the sword is a means negatively to punish acts of false worship in those that are under the Christian magistrate and profess Christian religion, insofar as their acts come out of the eyes of men and are destructive to the souls of these in a Christian society; Tis even so (& not otherwise punishable by the magistrate)…nor does it follow that the sword is a kindly means to force outward performances, for the magistrate as the magistrate does not command these outward performances as service to God, but rather forbids the omissions of them as a destructive to man…so doth the magistrate not directly command going to Church as a worship to God, so as his commands have influence on the conscience as the pastors commands have, but he commands going to Church and hearing so as the omission of hearing hurts the society whereof God hath made him a civil and politic[al] head,” A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649), 50-52.

We may or may not agree with how Rutherford applies this principle, but it does introduce an important distinction.

I’ll finish by quoting some excerpts from an essay by William Young, a PRC pastor, who discusses the traditional Presbyterian position on statecraft in relation to our contemporary situation:


The fundamental thesis here presented is what William Cunningham termed “the lawfulness of some union or friendly connection between church and state” (Presbyterian Reformed Magazine, volume VI, number 1, p. 25). The thesis is a purely abstract one. To be realized in practice, there must be presupposed a Christian state, with Christian magistrates ruling over a substantially Christian body of subjects. Where such an ideal state does not exist, the question of the union of the state with the Christian church does not arise. This is obvious in the case of an anti Christian government that persecutes those who profess loyalty to Christ. It is also true that the principle in question does not mean that a nominally Christian state may establish a church, to be used as an instrument to further its secular purposes. Under such circumstances, faithful servants of the Head and King of the Church have preferred to operate as a Free Church, independent of the state. This does not imply a renunciation of the principle under discussion. In this matter Chalmers and Cunningham were wiser than Dr. Abraham Kuyper. Furthermore, in a truly Christian state, there need not be a preference granted to one denomination over others. In this matter I find the change made by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in the Confession’s chapter XXIII, article 3, to have been unnecessary. The modified form of the Confession adopted by several Presbyterian denominations in this country still maintains the fundamental principle of the right and duty of the civil magistrate in religious matters, and contemplates in fact a predominantly Evangelical Christian nation. The original Confession may, I believe, be fairly understood as applicable to that situation, although the Westminster Assembly in the nature of the case did not contemplate the plurality of denominations of Evangelical Christians. What is implied is that a Christian government will employ its legitimate authority in furthering the interests of Christianity, in restraining public blasphemy and Sabbath desecration, as well as gross evils by way of violation of the second table of the Decalogue. The confessional doctrine does imply that the civil magistrate is the guardian of both tables of the law. The sense of the doctrine will be clarified by the removal of misunderstandings that prevail among many who maintain opposing views.

The charge has been brought against the Westminster Confession that its teaching on church and state is Erastian… The alleged contradiction is resolved by the distinction of the authority of the magistrate CIRCUM SACRA (“about sacred things”) and his authority IN SACRIS (“in sacred things”). The former is asserted and the latter denied. The magistrate may enact and enforce laws about religious practice, always subject to the teaching of the Word of God, but he may not in any way take to himself the authority of officially expounding the word or exercising church discipline. His authority in the matter is on the level with that of the Christian individual or head of a family, not the authority that Christ has delegated to his church.

The apparent contradiction between the magistrate’s duty toward the church, and the denial that he has jurisdiction in religious matters is dissolved when attention is paid to the language of the Confession of Faith. “He hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace is preserved in the church,” etc., simply states what he may and ought to aim at as an end. Every Christian ought to aim at the preservation of the unity and peace of the church. Hence this should also be the end envisaged by the Christian magistrate in the exercise of his office. The Confession of Faith says nothing at this point as to the means to be employed to accomplish this end, except for the previous denial of the specific functions of preaching, administering the sacraments, and exercising church discipline. The matter of calling synods will require separate consideration. It should be clear that, thus understood, chapter XXIII, article 3, is consistent with itself, and exemplifies the caution with which the Westminster divines skillfully avoided disputable points, while they firmly and clearly set forth the whole counsel of God in all things necessary.

A most serious charge against the confessional teaching is that it is guilty of propounding intolerant and persecuting principles. Before reply is given to the allegation, an observation should be made as to the character of the language commonly used. Here is an unhappy instance of emotive language being used to excite prejudice, rather than a serious cognitive formulation serving to clarify the difficult issues that are involved. It is necessary first of all to dispose of the ambiguity found in the charge of intolerance and persecution. These words call up frightful images of the Spanish Inquisition, the fires of Smithfield and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. It might be simply asked in reply where in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism has there been a parallel to such atrocities, except in the treatment of the Covenanters by the Prelatists? The doctrine of the Reformers and the Puritans has never borne such gruesome fruit. The substantial element underlying the charge concerns the principle that the civil magistrate may and should adopt the entire divine law as the norm to which he must conform in making and enforcing laws. His actions should be directed toward the public observance of the precepts in both tables of the decalogue. The specific means to be used are not prescribed by the general principle, but they must fall within the limited province of the authority delegated by the sovereign God to human governments. Laws with respect to the Sabbath involve nothing of intolerance or persecution more than laws prohibiting murder, adultery or theft. The limits of the authority of the civil magistrate require a restriction with respect to the second table of the law as well as the first. The government cannot enforce the tenth commandment, for the duties required and the sins forbidden are purely spiritual, being located in the inner recesses of the heart, over which no human government, not even the visible church has jurisdiction. It goes without saying that the spiritual or inward requirements of the first table of the law fall outside the province of the civil magistrate. But outward displays of idolatry, public blasphemy and Sabbath desecration may be subjects of legislation, and will be in a Protestant nation.

The Westminster Assembly was itself called by the English Parliament to consult and advise. And the exercise of lawful authority by the magistrate was instrumental in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Westminster Confession simply acknowledges the conformity of such actions of civil government with the revealed will of God.

But it must be confessed that liberty of conscience is not that license to act contrary to the moral law. It is admitted that the civil magistrate may proceed against those who violate the prohibitions of murder, adultery and theft, and that there is no infringement of liberty of conscience in his doing so.

That the civil magistrate has a concern with religious matters is witnessed by nature itself. Not only is it a matter of fact that human governments have in all times and places exercised authority in religious matters, but it is inherent in the nature of the state that this should be the case. Since the persons over whom the civil magistrate has authority are also those who engage in religious activity, that authority is not relaxed when they perform acts of a religious nature. The thugs of India cannot justify robbery and murder on the ground that these acts are part of their religion. The civil magistrate must condemn their religion in condemning the crimes involved in it. Neither an atheistic government nor one professing religious neutrality is a counterexample. Atheistic governments plainly deal with religion in opposing it, while the government that professes a separation of church and state is either inconsistent, as our government was through the early decades of this century, or increasingly opposes the Christian Church while inculcating contrary religious views, as the present tendency is. Willy nilly the civil magistrate involves himself in matters covered by the first four commandments, and it is the part of wisdom to recognize the fact, while pointing out the limits of the magistrate’s authority—which he tends to ignore in a democracy as well as in a monarchy or aristocracy.

With respect to the New Testament it has been objected that the Scripture no longer teaches the close connection between church and state that is so pronounced a feature of the Mosaic economy. In reply, it may be pointed out that there is a good reason why this should be the case. In the first century the Christian church faced opposition to the point of persecution from hostile magistrates, both Jew and Gentile. Divine revelation has taken account of this and has given the church direction on this subject primarily in the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

I would conclude with the mention of a conversation of Professor John Murray with a Mennonite student at Westminster Seminary. The student had stated that he held the Anabaptist position of the absolute separation of church and state. The two had nothing in common and nothing to do with one another! Prof. Murray then asked what room would there be for the state in a community where everybody held that view. The student replied: “In South Africa we Mennonites have such a community, and there the church is the state.”


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