Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error”
[review article of Theonomy in Christian Ethics, by G.L. Bahnsen] WTJ (1978/79): 172-189. [Reprinted in Baptist Reformation Review 4:8 (1979): 20-31]

A Review of Greg L. Bahnsen: Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Nutley: The Craig Press, 1977, xvii, 619. Paper. $14.95.

The temper and teaching of the Chalcenon school [1] find typical expression in this product of the over-heated typewriter of Greg Bahnsen, currently a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. With its gifted and energetic leadership this movement held promise of great good. The tragedy of Chalcedon is that of high potential wasted – worse than wasted, for its most distinctive and emphatically maintained thesis is a delusive and grotesque perversion of the teaching of Scripture. Unhappily too, in agitating for their peculiar set of ideas, the Chaldedon crusaders have quickly earned a reputation for a cult-like fanaticism, censoriously disruptive of the Reformed community, ecclesiastical and academic.

In Theonomy in Christian Ethics (hearafter, Theonomy) Bahsen resumes the program of Rousas J. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law. [2] Their special thesis is that the Mosaic law, more or less in its entirety, constitutes a continuing norm for mankind and that it is the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce it, precepts and penalties alike. To put the matter in a comparative perspective, this theory of theonomic politics stands at the opposite end of the spectrum of error from Dispensationalism. The latter represents an extreme failure to do justice to the continuity between the old and new covenants. Chalcedon’s error, no les extreme or serious, is a failure to do justice to the discontinuity between the old and new covenants.

At the same time it must be said that Chalcedon is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith – at least in the Confession’s original formulations. These particular elements in the Confession, long since rejected as manifestly unbiblical by the mass of those who stand in that confessional tradition (as well as by virtually all other students of the Scriptures), have been subjected to official revision. The revision, however, has left us with standards whose proper legal interpretation is perplexed by ambiguities, and the claim of Chalcedon is that it is the true champion of confessional orthodoxy. Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the Chalcedon aberration under their judicial scrutiny.

The contention of the Chalcedon school concerning the binding nature of the Mosaic law is sometimes expressed in unqualified fashion (for rhetorical effect?), but inevitably there are other statements admitting exceptions. In the formulation of concrete legal cases, the Mosaic legislation would naturally include an occasional detail that was culturally contemporary at that time but not literally applicable now (e.g. the specific architectural feature in Deuteronomy 22:8). We need not quibble about such exceptions. The main exception Bahnsen acknowledges is the “ceremonial” law by which he means the laws of priestly ritual expressive of the restorative-redemptive principle. And even here he comments that the obligation entailed in the laws was honored in their fulfillment in the priestly accomplishments of Christ. These laws were confirmed and eternally validated in the very process of their being changed and becoming inoperative under the new covenant – so Bahnsen argues quite properly (p. 209), approving of similar sentiments in Calvin (pp. 49, 70), but curiously condemning Kline’s statements to the same effect as an extraordinary bit of “semantic deviation” (p. 575).

What is distinctive in the Chalcedon position is that it does not regard the case laws dealing with socio-political life of Israel as another major exception to its claim of continuing and universal obligation of Old Testament law. Moreover, although the ceremonial laws are excluded from the claim made in Chaldecon’s theory of theonomic politics that the civil magistrate is charged with the responsibility of enforcing all the Mosaic laws, the laws usually distinguished as laws of man’s duty to God are included, sanctions as well as stipulations. That means that the civil magistrate is supposed to execute capital punishment in all cases for which it is prescribed by Moses and thus not only for offenses such as incorrigibility in children and homosexuality but for offenses like blasphemy, apostasy, idolatry, witchcraft, Sabbath-breaking, advocacy of worship of other gods than Yahweh, etc. (pp. 427, 439, 445, 466 f.).

In support of this position, Bahsen makes precedential appeal to the Westminster Confession of Faith (pp. 537 f.) and, as already intimated, there is a degree of validity in that appeal. For though we may hold that on the subject of the civil magistrate the Confession, even in its original form, is non-Erastian, we must still admit that the original Chapter 23 did attribute to the state the function of enforcing the first four laws of the Decalogue. It must also be acknowledged then that in its original intent, WCF 19:4 must also have placed the “four first commandments containing our duty towards God” (19:2) under the jurisdiction of the state, whatever precisely is meant by saying that the judicial laws given to Israel “expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

The question that would have to be faced today is whether WCF 19:4 retains its original sense. Did the 1788 revision of the Confession in explicitly modifying 23:3 implicitly modify the meaning of the unchanged wording of 19:4? It is sound hermeneutical policy in interpreting the inspired Word of God to follow the analogy of Scripture. But since neither the original Confession nor its revision was inspired, we cannot simply assume that WCF 19:4 is to be interpreted according to the analogy of the revised 23:3. Is it not possible to argue that the revision was a patchwork job that has left the Confession in a condition of inner tension on the subject of the functions of the state? However that question be answered, Chalcedon can justly claim historical precedence for its position on this matter in the original formulations of the Confession. [3]

Whatever support may be found in the Westminster standards for the Chalcedon theory of theonomic politics, when it comes to assessing it in terms of the church’s only infallible standard, that theory must be repudiated as a misreading of the Bible on a massive scale. One radical fault that undermines the whole Chalcedon position is the failure to recognize that the socio-geo-political sector of the Israelite kingdom of God was a part of the total system of kingdom typology established through the covenantal constitution given to Israel in the law of Moses – just as much so as was the cultic sector. [4] Bahnsen appeals to the symbolically restorative-redemptive nature of the Old Testament cultus to justify his exempting the laws of the cultus from his claim that all Mosaic laws remain normative in the new covenant. When he insists then on carrying over into the New Testament age without significant exception all case laws regulative of the socio-political aspect of the Israelite kingdom, he is evidently saying that Israel as a geo-political kingdom is not expressive of the restorative-redemptive principle, that it is not a type of the antitypical kingdom of Christ, the Redeemer-King. Certainly, for him to say otherwise would be incompatible with his dogmatic assertion that the socio-political laws are still everywhere binding. For it would be patently arbitrary for him to acknowledge the typological-redemptive nature of the socio-political laws of the Old Testament and yet insist they are still normative, while simultaneously arguing from the typological-redemptive nature of the cultic laws of the Old Testament that they are now abrogated.

What we are talking about here is not something illusively subtle or profound, but big and plain and simple. Beyond debate, the Bible tells us that the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage and the establishment of the Israelite kingdom in the paradise-land of Canaan was a divine act of redemption and restoration. It was an Old Testament picture God gave us of the New Testament redemptive work of Christ, with the kingdom of God thus redemptively set up in the promised land of Sabbath-rest, an Old Testament symbol of Messiah’s redemptive kingdom in the eternal Sabbath (Hebrews 4). This kingdom of Israel – not just the temple in its midst, but the kingdom of Israel as such, the kingdom as a national geo-political entity – was a redemptive product of God, a work of divine restoration, given as a prototype version of the kingdom of God in the perfect form it was to attain under the new covenant in the messianic antitype of that Israelite kingdom. This simple message of God’s kingdom of salvation, written large across the pages of the Bible so that covenant children can read and readily understand it, Professor Bahnsen and his Chalcedon colleagues manage to miss.

Bahnsen begins his obfuscation of the lucid biblical picture of Israel as a type of God’s redemptive kingdom by belaboring the fact (which is not in dispute) that cultic and civil functions can be distinguished in Old Testament Israel (pp. 407 ff.). Next, falling into a common fallacy, Bahnsen identifies the priestly-cultic sphere as the Israelite “church” and the kingly-civil sphere as the Israelite “state”, and then he equates the Israelite “church” (thus restricted to the cultic dimension) with the church of the new covenant age and declares the Israelite “state” (thus restricted to the civil dimension) to be equivalent to the civil governments of New Testament times (or any other times). Bahnsen says that Israel as a kingdom was just another civil government and Israel’s king just another civil magistrate. According to the Bible the request made by Israel in the days of Samuel that they might be ruled by a king like the kings of the surrounding nations was a repudiation of the Mosaic Covenant with its requirement that Israel’s king be a distinctive theocratic kind of king, that he be the confessing covenant-vassal of Yahweh in Yahweh’s redemptive kingdom. According to Bahnsen’s theory that the Israelite king was just another civil magistrate like the kings of the nations, the request of the Israelites was quite proper and the dim view of that request taken by Samuel and the Lord must be regarded as mistaken, unfair, and unjust. We can certainly agree that God’s response was not informed by the insights of Chaldedon’s doctrine of theonomic politics! The Davidic Covenant also stands in outright contradiction to Chaldedon’s equation of Israelite kingship with kingship in other nations, for in that covenant the Lord defined the theocratic dynasty as a kingship invested with the cultic-redemptive function of building the house of God – the mission antitypically perfeormed by the messianic Son of David.

It should then be evident that one cannot agree with Bahnsen’s argument that because it was the function of the Israelite king to enforce the covenant laws of Moses in general, it is also the function of all civil magistrates to do so – not unless one first rejects or can somehow forget the Bible’s portrayal of Israelite king and kingdom as a redemptive, theocratic prototype of Christ and his redemptive kingdom. One cannot espouse the theory of theonomic politics and at the same time accept the simple, obvious, and all-important distinction the Bible makes between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Simple and clear as that biblical distinction is, it is totally foreign to Chalcedon’s thinking. It cannot be assimilated into their political theorizing, which makes institutional hash out of the discrete and distinctive institutions defined by God in Scripture.

Another major failing in the Chalcedon system is that it scrambles the biblical ideas of the holy and the common. The misinterpretation of the Israelite nations in the Chalcedon theory of the state carries with it, along with its contradiction of the redemptive-restorative nature of that nation, a denial of Israel’s distinctive holiness as a kingdom set apart by a special redemptive covenant unto the Lord. The holy character of the kingdom of Israel follows directly from its special creation as a product of God’s redeeming action. It was the declared divine design of the election of the nation Israel, redemptively manifested and covenantally sealed, to establish this kingdom as peculiarly God’s own kingdom, called by his name, separated from the profane world unto a unique status as God’s special personal possession, distinguished from all other nations as alone the holy theocracy of Yahweh (cf., e.g., Exod. 19:5, 6; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 8:9; 10). This distinctive identity as holy unto the lord was the identity of the entire redeemed nation Israel, not just of the cultus within the kingdom. Kings as well as priests were consecrated by holy annointing to sacrosanct status as holy “messiahs.” Holiness belonged to Israel as a total social-political-cultic entity and it belonged to Israel alone of all the kingdoms of the earth. In respect of this holiness too, the kingdom of Israel was prototypal of the messianic kingdom and it is significant that in the present (preconsummation) phase of the realization of the messianic antitypical kingdom the covenantal formula of holy identification given to Israel is given into the ecclesiastical expression of Christ’s kingdom, the nature of the church being sharply distinguished thereby from that of all the coexisting political institutions of this world (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; cf. 1 Cor. 7:34).

But while the Bible says Israel was separated from the other nations to be a unique, holy kingdom, Bahnsen says that God’s kingdom Israel was just another civil government. The Chalcedon theory of theonomic politics compels Bahnsen to deny that the holy status given Israel by divine election, special vocation, and redemptive action was the peculiar property of the kingdom Israel. To accept the Chalcedon theory, one would have to read the biblical record as though it were not the history of the particular kingdom of Israel but an historicized myth about Everynation.

We have treated the equation made in theonomic politics between the ordinary civil institutions of the world with the Israelite theocratic kingdom as tantamount to a denial of the holy status of the Israelite kingdom. We might have put it the other way around. Instead of saying that the Chalcedon theory desacralizes Israel we might say that Chalcedon’s mistake is that of sacralizing the other nations. What it amounts to either way is that Chalcedon divests the concept of the holy of any genuinely biblical meaning. And inevitably Chalcedon does the same to the concept of the non-holy, or common. It renders pointless and meaningless the biblical distinction between the holy and the common.

Chalcedon’s failure in regard to the concept of the common is immediately apparent when they address the subject of common grace directly. [5] Here we will take note of the role played by this same failure in Chalcedon’s avid advocacy of postmillennial eschatology. [6] Before coming around to this particular matter we will be dealing with the hermeneutics of Chalcedon’s case for postmillennialism and with certain inner tensions within Bahnsen’s treatment of the civil magistrate, which appear in aggravated form in his discussion of eschatology.

One variety of postmillennialism is identifiable simply by a special optimism it entertains for the final stage of the pre-consummation history of the church’s evangelistic mission to the world. Differing little from amillennialism, that kind of postmillennialism might content itself with an appeal to passages like Romans 9-11, interpreted in a certain way, without bringing the kingdom prophecies of the Old Testament into the discussion at all. The brand of postmillennialism adopted by the Chalcedon writers includes something more. They do appeal to the prophecies that portray the messianic kingdom after the model of the visible Israelite theocratic kingdom and they interpret this prophetic picture as having fulfillment — visible, earthly fulfillment — during the millennium (which they understand as being coextensive with the pre-consummation history of the New Testament church rather than a special period at the close of that church age, as many other postmillennialists view it). Thus, Bahnsen maintains that the theocratic reality which fulfills those prophecies already exists and will come to increasing visibility in preconsummation history. Within the millennium, a universal theocracy (or Christocracy) will prevail on earth with all nations and kings serving and blessing Jesus Christ, the Lamb on David’s throne (pp. 428f.).

In view of the thesis of theonomic politics asserting an equivalency of the Israelite theocratic kingship with the civil magistracy elsewhere, one might expect that Chalcedon would identify the visible universal theocratic kingdom which they look for during the millennium as a Christianized version of the civil state, an ecumenical realization of the ideal state (according to Chalcedon’s view of the law). Indeed, the visibility of the theocratic kingdom in the prophecies appealed to is a geo-political visibility and on a postmillennial construction the civil state is really the only visible geo-political institution on the scene during the millennial age. But, no. Bahnsen finds himself unable to identify his millennial Christocracy-theocracy with the state, for the state would then have to become “an organized expression of the redeemed community” and it would then “operate in the name of the Redeemer”, and Bahnsen has to acknowledge that such would be contrary to the nature of the state (p. 426)!

One is left wondering how that acknowledgment by Bahnsen hangs together with his other assertions about the state. If the state is not supposed to operate in the name of the Redeemer-God, how can it be responsible for the enforcement of the first four commandments of the Decalogue, which demand that men render exclusive and pure worship to God, honoring the name of Yahweh, who identifies himself in the preamble to those commandments as the Redeemer-God? And how then can the civil magistrate be said to be an equivalent of the Israelite theocratic king, who certainly did operate in the name of Yahweh, Redeemer of Israel? Indeed, it is this model of the Israelite kingship that is used when Old Testament prophecies depict the theocratic kingship of the future age, the Christocratic kingship which does operate in the name of the Redeemer-God, as Bahnsen recognizes and for that very reason finds he cannot identify it with the civil magistracy. In this recognition of the truth that the civil magistrate does not function in the name of the Redeemer, Bahnsen lets in by way of the back door the fact that there is after all a decisive difference between the Israelite theocratic kingship and the civil magistrate. To make room for that fact and the obvious implications that come crowding in along with it, Bahnsen will sooner or later have to throw out his pet theory of theonomic politics.

Returning to Bahnsen’s postmillennial interpretation of the prophecies of the visible messianic kingdom — once he has rejected the identification of that kingdom with some ecumenical ideal state, no satisfactory alternative is left to him for interpreting it as having a millennial fulfillment. He is forced into suggesting that the church in its present visible existence is the answer. If Bahnsen were simply taking account of the invisible heavenly enthronement of Christ as head of the church, with all authority in heaven and earth, and saying that the church in this invisible, heavenly (not visible, earthly) form is a Christocracy-theocracy, we could agree. In the new covenant, the messianic anti type of the Old Testament theocracy unfolds in two eschatological stages and the Lord’s invisible reign on the theocratic throne of David in heaven is a present reality of the first stage, now current. Not, however, until the second stage at the consummation of history will the kingdom of God as a visible geo- political institution, the anti-type’ of the Old Testament typical theocracy, be introduced into public earth history through Christ’s coming in final redemptive judgment. But Bahnsen’s position is that the Old Testament prophecies of visible prosperity for the kingdom are being fulfilled in “the visible prosperity of Christ’s established: kingdom on earth” (JCR 3, 2 (1976-77), 63), in the present visible church on earth undergoing development in relation to the nations of the world. He speaks in this connection of the Christocracy as” the moral rule of Christ and says the church-Christocracy is “intended to become world-wide in its scope” and that “the Great Commission (Matt. 28: 18-20) intends for the nations to become a Christocracy” (pp. 427f). His hermeneutical moves here are slippery.

The Old Testament Israelite theocracy was a particular embodiment of the rule of God in a specific geo-political kingdom-institution which made official cuItic-confession of Yahweh as King. It was not just the general moral sway of God in the hearts of some elect individuals any more than it was just the general providential sovereignty of God over everything. And this Israelite theocracy served as the paradigm of the theocratic kingdom in prophetic idiom. What the Old Testament prophecies of the messianic theocracy describe is a theocracy fashioned after the model of this Old Testament theocracy, a governmental institution with territorial domain. In Bahnsen’s proposal for the fulfillment of that prophetic vision the nature of the New Testament Christocracy is kept fuzzy. But there is no disguising the fact that what he suggests as the realization of the visible theocratic prosperity predicted in the Old Testament lacks features essential to the prosperity of a geo-political kingdom-institution. For if what he means by the Christocracy is simply Christ’s moral influence in the lives of believers, such is not a specific institution of any kind. And if what he has in mind is the visible institutional church, that still is not the kind of institution in view in the prophecies appealed to as evidence of the millennial prosperity of God’s kingdom; for the church in this age is not a geo-political kingdom-institution. And Bahnsen will hardly want to suggest that the supposed future extension of the church’s sway over the nations would involve some sort of structural amalgamation of the nations and the church, whereby the nations would supply the essential geo-political dimension. For that would mean the abrogation of the New Testament norms for both the church and the state institutions by the formation of this half-breed institution within the period of the church age covered by the canonical rule of the New Testament — a prospect clearly not congenial to Chalcedon’s view of the tenure of biblical law.

Opposite though the Chalcedon and Dispensational eschatologies are, they nevertheless exhibit similarities in hermeneutical approach to the prophetic literature. A failure to perceive the typological nature of the Old Testament theocratic kingdom characterizes both schools of interpretation. [7] The result in each case is a wooden literalism that betrays a lack of appreciation for the way in which the Old Testament prophetic idiom was conditioned and limited by the Old Testament typological models employed for portrayals of the future messianic kingdom. The bottom line in Gary North’s exegetical case for postmillennialism involves such a literalistic understanding of a few select features in prophecies of that sort. [8] This literalist principle is not as fully carried through in the Chalcedon hermeneutic as in Dispensationalism, which is to say that Chalcedon is not as consistent as Dispensationalism. If they were, then having insisted on a literal interpretation of some details in the prophetic picture of the visible prosperity of the messianic theocracy, they could not take non-literally the whole institutional framework to which those details belong and in which the prophetic imagery locates that visible prosperity of the messianic kingdom. But this is what Chalcedon inconsistently does when it identifies the church on earth in its present non-geo-political form as the fulfillment of the geo-political theocratic kingdom depicted by the prophets. [9] If Chalcedon were more consistent, then, while shunning the Dispensationalistic error of interpreting the Old Testament kingdom prophecies in terms of a geo-political kingdom on the level of the Old Testament Israel with all the limitations of Jewishness, local boundaries, etc. they would nevertheless interpret those prophecies of the messianic theocracy in terms of a geo-political institution – a geo-political institution of universal-cosmic dimensions appropriate to the messianic level of redemptive accomplishment. And then they would have to agree with the amillennialists that “these prophecies of visible geo-political prosperity describe the church not in its preconsummation stage but the church beyond the consummation in its eternal glorified form.

Along with the hermeneutical deficiencies of Chalcedon’s postmillennialism there is a fundamental theological problem that besets it. And here we come around again to Chalcedon’s confounding the biblical concepts of the holy and the common. As we have seen, Chalcedon’s brand of postmillennialism envisages as the climax of the millennium something more than a high degree of success in the church’s evangelistic mission to the world. An additional millennial prospect (one they particularly relish) is that of a material prosperity and a world-wide eminence and dominance of Christ’s established kingdom on earth, with a divinely enforced submission of the nations of the world to the government of the Christocracy. For example, appealing to Isaiah 60:3, 10, 12, Bahnsen declares that during the millennial period the kings of the Gentiles will either minister unto God’s kingdom or they will utterly perish (p, 428).

The insuperable theological objection to any and every such chiliastic construction is that it entails the assumption of a premature eclipse of the order of common grace. [10] That order was formalized in the post-diluvian world by the divine covenant of Genesis 9 and by the terms of that covenant it is in force as long as the earth endures, that is, until the cosmic re-creation at the consummation (cf. 2 Pet, 3: 7, 11-13). A basic and essential structure of that common grace order is the institution of the common state. This civil institution, unlike the nation Israel, which was separated unto a distinctive institutional identity as a holy, redemptive, theocratic kingdom, is not a holy but rather common institution, with its citizenry a mixture of both the holy and the non-holy. It does not, as did the Israelite kingdom, possess special guarantees of a material prosperity unfailingly equal to the measure of its obedience to the law of God nor does it enjoy the promise of an ultimate perfecting of its beatitude. Its prospect is that of eventual termination rather than consummation. And meanwhile it must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious wisdom.

The existence of Israel as a holy kingdom with special guarantees of prosperity constituted an intrusive exception within the pattern of common grace nations. But the Israelite theocracy was only a limited, local kingdom, serving as merely a typical model of the ultimate universal theocracy, and hence it did not effect the abolishment of the common grace order. That order with all its common nations was able to coexist with theocratic Israel. But millennial theories that attribute to the pre-consummation stage of the history of the messianic age the fulfillment of the prophecies of the visible, universal, holy, messianic theocratic kingdom do postulate the abrogation of the common grace order prior to the consummation. For if the principle of synchronizing a people’s enjoyment of temporal prosperity with the measure of godliness they exhibit were to be administered universally, no place would be left for the operation of a principle of commonness in the bestowing of temporal benefits on believers and unbelievers. The latter would thereby be prematurely deprived of the divinely covenanted blessings of common grace, dramatically so according to the scenario which pictures those nations that fail to minister to God’s kingdom as perishing during the millennial triumph of that kingdom. [11] Again, if the millennial nations that survive this triumph are so brought under the aegis of the Christocracy as to become holy for the service of the Lord (which is how they are spared from destruction), that too would mark the end of the institution of the common state and with it of the common grace order. In thus postulating the termination of the common grace order before the consummation, Chalcedon’s postmillennialism in effect attributes unfaithfulness to God, for God committed himself in his ancient covenant to maintain that order as long as the earth endures.

A hermeneutical approach controlled by the analogy of Scripture will understand that the visible features in the kingdom prophecies we have been referring to must find their fulfillment not within the pre-consummation age, which is informed by the principle of common grace, but in the eternal order following the final judgment. Here again it is to be observed that the amillennial position is the only interpretation of eschatology that is systematically compatible with Reformed theology. It is in opposition to amillennialism that the rhetoric of Chalcedon writers becomes especially vitriolic. They argue vehemently that we do not honor the biblical prospect of Messiah’s victory unless we find the kind of provisional pre-consummation expression of it that they contemplate in their postmillennial construction. [12] The import of the consummate and everlasting manifestation of Christ’s victory achieved through the final judgment is so minimized in Chalcedon’s postmillennial polemics that the eternal Sabbath-glory of the kingdom of the triumphant Christ of God is reduced to a concluding relatively insignificant postscript to the history of creation and redemption. [13]

It is not only the eternal glory of Christ’s kingdom that suffers drastic devaluation in the Chalcedon polemics. They also greatly demean the present triumph, of Christ realized in the evangelistic penetration of the whole earth by his church. Amillennialism’s affirmation of this universal triumph of the gospel and Spirit of Christ is viewed by Chalcedon as though it were a virtual admission of the failure of the great commission! Bahnsen declares that what distinguishes Chalcedon’s postmillennialism from amillennialism (and premillennialism) is the “belief that Scripture teaches the success of the great commission in this age of the church” (JCR 3, 2 (1976- 77), 68). Allegedly, only in Chalcedon’s expectation of a distributively universalistic conversion of the nations in some generation late in the millennium, with accompanying global enforcement of temporal peace and justice, is optimistic belief in the biblical prophecies to be found. Because it does not accept this particular outlook, amillennialism is denounced as a retreat from the world and even a blasphemous surrender of the world to the devil. [14] If there is a danger of blasphemy here, it is in making the work the Holy Spirit, has been doing in building the world-wide church of Christ these two thousand years tantamount to a surrender of the world to the, devil. According to Chalcedon’s postmillennialism, if through the centuries of the witness of the martyr-overcomers (cf. Rev. 12: 11) a people, is gathered for Christ out of the nations around the globe so that they stand at last a multitude of redeemed beyond numbering to sing the praise of God and the Lamb, that would in itself be nothing at all! It would in fact constitute a failure of the great commission and a victory of the devil unless it had happened that for awhile late in the church age the nations of the earth had universally experienced the kind of conversion that Chalcedon imagines they will have — a fleeting and evidently superficial conversion at that, since the revival is cut short by the rising of hordes of the nations in unbelief to hem in what turns out to be a remnant community of faith after all (Rev. 19: 19ff. and 20:7ff.). God and his angels may rejoice over one lost sinner that is found but Chalcedon still grumbles that this saving of individual sinners, however many and out of however many peoples, leaves Satan victorious in the conflict of the ages unless the church has an hour in history before the final judgment when it enjoys a conspicuous social and political impact on the world, however ephemeral and superficial. Exposed here in the content and mood of Chalcedon’s eschatological teaching is something at once deep and characteristic in Chalcedon and yet terribly alien to the gospel of Christ, alien to the spirit of the church’s present evangelistic mission in the world, alien to the eschatological patience of biblical faith and hope and love.

Chalcedon’s depreciatory attitude toward the church’s outreach with the Savior’s love to the perishing world follows naturally enough from their view of the nature and role of the civil magistrate. For God’s commission to the civil magistrate as understood in theonomic politics stands in unmanageable tension with God’s commission to the church to evangelize the nations.

According to Bahnsen, it is the function of the civil magistrate to enforce the first four laws of the Decalogue, punishing with death “violations against the purity of the God-man relation” (p. 439). If so, the state must carry out the implemental provisions prescribed in the law, executing those who engage in false religion, whether individually or as communities (cf. Deut. 13: 12-16). How does the inconsistently literalist hermeneutic of Chalcedon apply this? Would they say that the state should execute only (non-Christian) Jews, since the laws refer to Israelites? (If this sounds Hitlerian, the other options are unfortunately no improvements.) Or should the application of the law be less literalistic and take more account of the changes in the community of the new covenant? Should then the state execute all who apostatize from the Christian faith or even all devotees of non-Christian religions, apostate sons of Adam all? This is presumably the Chalcedon position, for we must assume that they would not want to say that the prophetic ideal, of the state to be attained late in the millennium will be contrary to the norms for the state set forth in the law, as though the canonical status of Scriptural law changed from earlier to later stages within the church age. If then they say that when the ideal state of affairs set forth in the law and the prophets arrives, nations that do not submit to Christ utterly perish (i.e., Deut. 13:12-16 is enforced), that ideal must be the legal norm which ought to be followed all through the church age. [15] This means that according to theonomic politics God has given the church the mandate to gather the harvest of the mission field but at the same time be has given the state a mandate to destroy the mission field. And Chalcedon’s primary concern seems to be that the civil magistrates have thus far been delinquent in these duties. Chalcedon, however, is optimistic that the civil magistrates will do better later in the millennium.

This dilemma of Chalcedon does not reduce to the general question of whether consent to the state’s responsibility to execute capital punishment as such is compatible with Christian evangelistic concern — a question Bahnsen is able to handle successfully (pp. 448f.).

Nor can this dilemma be regarded as another instance of the paradoxical mystery of the relation of God’s decretive will to his preceptive will. It is the dilemma of what would be a contradiction within God’s preceptive will, a head-on conflict between two of God’s major mandates, as though he had confusedly designed the mission he assigned to the state to contravene the mission he gave to the church. These blatantly unbiblical results to which the theory of theonomic politics inescapably leads afford as startling a warning of the utter falseness of the Chalcedon thesis as anyone in danger of being beguiled should need.

The Chalcedon leaders are zealous followers of Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics and for their contribution along these lines in the midst of so much misunderstanding of Van Til and opposition to him, I for one, heartily bless them. But it is unfortunate that Van Tilianism is invoked in support of the theory of theonomic politics. On the epigraph page of his book Bahnsen includes Van Til’s statement: “There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy”. And Chalcedon adherents in general accuse those who oppose their peculiar views about the law and state of adopting an autonomous, subjectivistic rather than theonomous (Van Tilian) approach. We meet here another instance of the sort of argumentation Frame criticized in his review of Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law. Appealing to Van Til’s epistemology, Bahnsen argues that our ideas of righteousness and justice and the function of the state must not be autonomously determined but learned from God’s revelation — and we are all for theonomy in that general sense. But Bahnsen seems to feel that that argument has been decisive for his specific theory about the civil magistrate.

As a matter of fact, if we truly follow the principle of theonomy and listen to what the Bible teaches about Old Testament Israel as the holy, redemptive kingdom of God and about the state as a common institution, we discover that the civil magistracy, wielder of the sword, is not a religiously confessional entity and is by no means charged with the enforcement of all Mosaic laws, and certainly not with enforcing compliance with the religion of Yahweh as prescribed in the first four covenant stipulations of the Decalogue. What, the theonomic principle of the analogy of Scripture requires is that we do not, with Chalcedon, abstractly absolutize the saying of Matthew 5:17, 18 so that we cannot receive the specific and clear teaching of the Bible distinguishing the holy theocracy from the common state. Genuinely theonomic exegesis will rather remember the Bible’s teaching concerning the limited sphere of the state when interpreting and applying our Lord’s word in Matthew 5:17, 18. The exegetical task of determining the specific sphere of the state’s legal domain may be more difficult for us than it would be if we could subscribe to Chalcedon’s simplistic equation of Israel’s theocratic law with state law, but the greater exegetical difficulty and whatever uncertainties as to the specifics of implementation may follow from that do not in the least detract from the theonomic (Van Tilian) character of our theological method. Actually, it is Chalcedon’s false assertion of the theory of theonomic politics that, in effect at least, sets itself in autonomous opposition to the voice of God in His Word.

Evidently too Van Til himself does not agree that Van Tilian theonomic epistemology entails Chalcedon’s theonomic politics and the view of common grace associated with it. Chalcedon is conscious of their differences with Van ‘Til on this score. In the article on common grace mentioned earlier, [16] North develops his viewpoint by way of direct challenge to Van Til’s views of common grace.

If, providentially, anything good is to come of the Chalcedon disturbance, perhaps, paradoxically, it will come from the very embarrassment given to churches committed to the Westminster standards by the relationship that can be traced, as noted above, between the Chalcedon position and certain ideas expressed in the Westminster Confession. Perhaps the shock of seeing where those ideas lead in Chalcedon’s vigorous development of them may make the church face up to the problem posed by the relevant formulations and reconsider the Confession’s position on these points (and on interlocking issues, like the Sabbath). From such a constructively critical effort there might ensue, if not actual amendment of the faulty formulations themselves, at least a sorely needed clarification of the use of the Confession as an instrument in the judicial process.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,
S. Hamilton, Massachusetts


[1] The Chalcedon Foundation identifies itself as an independent Christina educational organization. Our treatment of Bahnsen’s work will take account of related materials in other Chalcedon publications.

[2] John Frame’s review of the latter in this journal (28 (1976), 195-217) should be consulted, for many of his criticisms apply equally to Bahnsen’s position. The present review presents some supplementation of that critique particularly by way of further analysis of certain major biblico-theological issues. Though the present comments are presented in the form of a review article on Bahnsen’s Theonomy, the concern here is not so much with this work as a particular publication but rather as a representative of the Chalcedon school.

[3] A significant proof text used for the original WCF 23:3 was Deuteronomy 13:5-16 (actually listed as Deut. 13:5, 6, 12). Whether the Chalcedon position is in complete and exact agreement with the original intent of the Confession on the amount of Mosaic case law the state should enforce could still be questioned.

[4] Detectable in Chalcedon’s thinking here is the influence of inadequacies and obscurities that mar the analysis of the law in WCF 19:1-4. By distinguishing “judicial laws” given to Israel as “a body politic” or “State” from “ceremonial laws” given to “the people of Israel, as a church under age” – some continuing obligation being attributed to the judicial laws (19:4) while all the ceremonial laws are regarded as now abrogated (19:3) – the Confession seems to suggest at this point that the judicial-political aspect of Israel’s life did not participate in the ceremonial-typological dimension of the kingdom of God in its old covenant form.

[5] See, for example, the conspicuous failure to come up with anything really “common” in Gary North’s attempt to develop the doctrine of common grace in “Common Grace, Eschatology, and Biblical Law”, Journal of Christian Reconstruction (hereafter, JCR) 3, 2 (1976-77), 13-47. On this, see further below.

[6] The issue of JCR cited in the preceding note features a symposium devoted to a defense of postmillennialism.

[7] Bahnsen’s affinity to Dispensationalism at this point betrays itself in his strange preference for the term “older testament”, the term used by Barton Payne, who advocates a form of premillennialism with Dispensationalistic peculiarities. (See my review of Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy in The Westminster Theological Journal 36 (1974), 245- 247.) Like Dispensationalism, Bahnsen is reluctant to accept the teaching of the New Testament that the typological, pre-messianic form of the holy kingdom is now old in the sense of obsolete, inasmuch as the antitypical, messianic age of the kingdom is now unfolding. Dispensationalism says the theocratic kingdom of Israel is to be resumed in the future beyond the alleged new covenant parenthesis. Bahnsen says the kingdom structure of Old Testament Israel is pretty much the same thing as the state in all ages or as the Christocracy of the millennium ( especially in its later stage), as Bahnsen conceives of that, and, therefore, whatever minor changes he is prepared to admit have come with the new covenant do not make the old covenant organization obsolescent but merely an “older” variety of a covenant institution that continues essentially the same into the church age.

[8] See footnote 5 above.

[9] An example of this kind of inconsistency in Theonomy is the citation of Micah 4:2 in support of the thesis that civil governments as such will be incorporated into the Christocracy of New Testament times (pp. 428f). Bahnsen urges a literalistic interpretation of the nations by italicizing the word “nations” in his quotation of the passage, while ignoring the fact that the place to which those nations are pictured as coming is “Jerusalem” on “the mountain of the Lord” — in fact, he omits these references from his quotation. The symbolic model used in the prophecy is that of the Old Testament situation with the covenant community in the form of a nation in political relationship to other nations, and Bahnsen is right not to interpret Jerusalem literally. But by the same token he is inconsistent and completely unjustified in lifting the nations out of that symbolic framework and interpreting them literally.

[10] For the point being made here see my earlier comments in “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation”, The Westminster Theological Journal 39 (1976), 117-119.

[11] For illustration of the exegetical development of this idea by the chiliastic views under criticism, see their treatment of a passage like Zechariah 14:12-19.

[12] See R, J, Rushdoony, “Postmillennialism versus Impotent Religion”, JCR 3, 2 (1976-77), 122-127,

[13] A personal conversation with Ned B, Stonehouse may be recalled here. Reflecting on the postmillennial writings of J. Marcellus Kik, he expressed his incredulous dismay at the fact that theologians could persuade themselves of a hermeneutic that left the Bible concentrating so heavily on what would be only a transitional and imperfect step toward the triumph of God’s kingdom and saying so exceedingly little about what is after all the true goal of it all, the glorious hope of the people of God throughout all ages, the heavenly kingdom that is forever and ever.

[14] So Rushdoony, in the article cited in note 12 (p. 126).

[15] If Chalcedon’s position is not that the “converted nations” engage in an Old Testament type of holy war crusade to
destroy the non-submissive nations, nor that the church is to be invested with the sword to do so, how, according to Chalcedon’s postmillennial vision, do those nations perish? Does God destroy them by some more immediate form of judgment (cf. footnote 11 above) ? If so, that too would clearly be a premature introduction of the divine governmental principles of the final judgment and the world beyond into the total administration of the order of this world.

[16] See footnote 5 above.