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Review: Covenantal Theonomy

Bryan Estelle

Covenantal Theonomy: A Response to T. David Gordon and Klinean Covenantalism, by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. Nacogdoches, Tex.: Covenant Media Press, 2005, 241 pages, $19.99, paper.

Disagreement can be a great achievement. Gordon and Gentry definitely disagree. They disagree over reconstructionism, or Theonomy, which denotes a "theological, social, political and ethical movement calling for the transformation of civil society along biblical lines modelled [sic] upon the Mosaic (OT) civil polity."[1] T. David Gordon wrote in 2002, "I am friendlier to Theonomy than Calvin was: he thought it was 'perilous, seditious, false, and foolish.' I think it is perilous, false, and foolish; but I don't consider it seditious."[2] Kenneth Gentry, a spokesperson for the reconstruction movement, as is apparent from his current day job (research professor in theology at Christ College in Lynchburg, Virginia and an instructor at Bahnsen Theological Seminary), has offered a rebuttal to Gordon's lengthy critique of Theonomy, since Gentry thinks that it has had significant influence (42).[3]

The book is composed of five chapters: chapter 1 introduces the primary occasion and motivation for writing the book, an eleven-year belated response to T. David Gordon's article, although it quickly becomes evident that others (e.g., Meredith G. Kline, the editors of Modern Reformation and Westminster Theological Journal [WTJ]) are in the gallery as well (as the subtitle indicates); chapter 2 interacts with Gordon's argument, specifically what Gentry calls "the argument from necessity"; chapter 3 deals mostly with the crucial issue in the debate over the meaning of the important passage in Matthew 5:17-21; chapters 4 and 5 address differences in the broader issues of covenant theology; chapter 6 forms the conclusion with a summary of the contents of the various chapters and the final summary of Gordon's critique, which Gentry suggests is a "wholesale failure" (227).

Gentry's book is organized around a response to the three issues of Theonomy that Gordon discussed in his WTJ article. The first issue in Gordon's article, "argument from necessity," essentially means that "we need to know how to function in the civil arena, and therefore the Word of God must provide us with such instruction."[4] This issue is taken up by Gentry in chapter two, although since the "sufficiency" issue was raised in chapter one, implicitly the critique by Gentry first came up there. Gentry's primary criticism of Gordon here is that he misrepresents Theonomy (including Bahnsen himself, whom both writers admit is recognizable as the best representative of the movement). Gentry claims that the argument which Gordon wishes to criticize, i.e., "the argument from necessity," is not an argument "promoted by any published advocate of Theonomic Ethics" (223). This is a serious charge, if true, since peer-reviewed journal articles, such as Gordon's WTJ piece entail carefulness on the part of the author and editors. They must ensure that other ideas are represented fairly despite possible disagreement, and that authors refrain from ad hominem or personal attacks.

Unfortunately, Gentry's potentially devastating point here is not a needed corrective: quite the contrary. Gordon had discussed these issues in the academic article in WTJ and later in a forum on the topic of the sufficiency of Scripture in Modern Reformation magazine. Gordon's real point in his earlier WTJ piece, and later written up in more popular form in Modern Reformation, is that Theonomy is a good illustration of the misunderstanding of the "primary purpose" of Scripture. Gordon himself (and the editors at Modern Reformation) admitted that the discussion about Scripture's sufficiency could have been better framed in the language of "primary purpose" of the Scriptures rather than "The Insufficiency of Scripture" and that this would have avoided some false dichotomies, needless provocation, and helped readers embrace the fundamental point and needed corrective that Gordon was attempting to make.[5] Unfortunately, it seems that Gentry is among those who missed the point. Since the clarification to the original article is not quoted anywhere in the book so far as this reviewer could see, perhaps Gentry did not read it, or if he did, this reviewer is mystified at his not including it in his overall analysis of Gordon's critique.

In the opinion of this reviewer, raising the issue of the correct understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture, or as put in the later published material the "primary purpose" of Scripture, is not an insignificant or unrelated matter with respect to a biblical evaluation of Theonomic ethics. Rather, a proper understanding of the primary purpose of Scripture, along with correctly discriminating the applicability of the theocratic judicial laws to later epochs in the civil sphere, is integrally related to the issues raised by Theonomy, with respect to a possible over-extension of the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture.

Chapter 3 raises the key issue of the interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20, which all parties recognize as a crucial passage in understanding the role of biblical law during the New Testament age. At issue here is the understanding of Matthew 5:17 in its larger context and the communicative intention of abolish (καταλῦσαι, katalysai) and fulfill (πληρῶσαι, plerōsai). Gentry accuses Gordon of not paying attention to the scriptural context here (57), again, a somewhat serious accusation, if true, to levy at a thoroughly trained professor of Greek and religion and New Testament scholar practicing his own craft.

Gentry emphasizes that the Sermon on the Mount is intensely focused on ethical concerns and obligations and in this respect he faithfully represents how the vast majority of interpreters have understood the Sermon on the Mount.[6] However, Gentry's understanding of this important passage is deficient, as is his use of the secondary sources. In particular, his deficiency in quoting certain authors is interestingly something for which he faults Gordon!

For example, in his defense of Bahnsen's exegesis of this passage and Bahnsen's position that Jesus is confirming the law and the prophets (his take on translating πληρῶσαι, plerōsai), he says Hagner's commentary "goes on to observe that 'prophets' is added 'in the first instance [to] refer to the further stipulation of the requirements of righteousness, i.e., of the will of God.' "[7] However, simple research will reveal that Gentry has botched the quotation: the actual quote has been lifted inappropriately from its context since the quote is actually embedded in a concessive clause, "Although [emphasis mine] the 'prophets' here may in the first instance refer to the further stipulation of the requirements of righteousness, i.e., of the will of God ... an added dimension with the implication of fulfillment is introduced by these words."[8] This gives the sentence its correct emphasis.

Indeed, Hagner himself, whom Gentry quotes tendentiously, correctly understands that the issues raised by this crucial passage cannot be solved by mere word studies alone but must be understood with deference to the larger context, particularly verse 18 and verses 21-48.[9] Hagner continues:

Since in 5:21-48, Jesus defines righteousness by expounding the true meaning of the law as opposed to wrong or shallow understandings, it is best to understand πληρῶσαι [plerōsai] here as "fulfill" in the sense of "bring to its intended meaning"—that is, to present a definitive interpretation of the law, something now possible because of the presence of the Messiah and his kingdom.[10]

In other words, for Hagner (correctly, I might add), "the way in which the law retains its validity for Matthew is in and through the teaching of Jesus."[11] This discussion demonstrates a fundamental astigmatism with respect to a correct reading of Matthew 5:17-20 by Theonomists: by insisting on a translation of πληρῶσαι [plerōsai] as confirm/ratify, they simply miss Matthew's point. To the original auditors of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the most jarring message would not necessarily have been the new teachings, although Jesus' penetrating reading of the law, the demand for perfect obedience, and the application of the law would no doubt have found its mark, but the real surprise is the teacher himself. This fact was driven home to the present reviewer when he was reading a Jewish author on the Sermon on the Mount years ago, not a Christian interpreter:

Yes, I would have been astonished. Here is a Torah-teacher [referring to Jesus] who says in his own name what the Torah says in God's name. It is one thing to say on one's own how a basic teaching of the Torah shapes the everyday ... It is quite another to say that the Torah says one thing, but I say ... , then to announce in one's own name what God set forth at Sinai ... For what kind of torah is it that improves upon the teachings of the Torah without acknowledging the source—and it is God who is the source of those teachings? I am troubled not so much by the message, though I might take exception to this or that, as I am by the messenger.[12]

Hagner emphasizes that, "Jesus' words stress [commenting on 'not one iota or mark'] that the law is to be preserved not as punctiliously interpreted and observed by the Pharisees (although the language apart from the context could suggest such a perspective) but as definitively interpreted by Jesus the Messiah."[13] Gentry seems to miss this in the midst of his criticism of Gordon.

We now move to the third area that Gentry isolates in his criticism of Gordon: his understanding of covenant theology, which Gentry and Gordon consider of the utmost significance. Particularly at issue here is not only the broad systemic understandings of covenant theology generally, but necessarily the confessional implications more narrowly, especially Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 19. At issue here are the topics of covenant continuity vis-à-vis discontinuity between old and new covenants and the reality of legal elements in relation to gracious elements in Sinaitic covenant.

Underlying the issue of discontinuity in covenantal administration is what Vos calls the "principle of periodicity," something essential for a proper hermeneutic of Scripture. Vos writes that this "principle of successive Berith-makings (covenant-makings), as marking the introduction of new periods, plays a large role in this [the organic, progressive nature of Scripture], and should be carefully heeded."[14]

What this means for the application of God's law is exactly what Calvin wrote in his own demonstration of biblical exegesis. Contrary to Gentry's repeated claim for continuity between not only the moral law and its modern application but also the judicial laws of the Old Testament and their modern application to present day civil society, Calvin in his understanding of the law and its applications was more nuanced. The reader should consider, for example, two brief citations from Calvin, Institutes II.7.15 and II.7.16.

For Christians, no longer under the Old Testament dispensation, according to Calvin, "the moral law now no longer condemns us, because of Christ. Though it retains the power to condemn, its use is not to condemn, but to point to Christ. So the moral law is not abolished in use, but in effect, or in one of its effects."[15] On the other hand, according to Calvin, "the ceremonial laws were indeed abrogated in use, but not in effect."[16]

Consider now, Paul Helm's summary after a careful discussion of these passages of Calvin. Helm makes a similar point to the one cited by Vos above but with specific application to God's law and ethics:

What these nuances reveal is that Calvin's approach to ethics, or the part played by the revealed law of God in ethics, is heavily influenced by his understanding of the progress of revelation and of the successive eras of God's unfolding redemptive purposes. This makes a straight comparison between his views and those of the Medievals, who understood divine law in a rather more formal and abstract way, somewhat difficult.[17]

Scripture itself, as well as Reformed luminaries such as Calvin and Vos, have maintained the importance of recognizing the principle of periodicity for a correct understanding and application of biblical law.

Simply stated, the issues are more complicated than Gentry portrays. Because of a lack of sensitivity to the progress of redemption, an indigenous principle revealed by Scripture itself, Gentry has misunderstood the function and application of Old Testament law to the ethical sphere of the civil realm today.

Leaving aside other possible reasons for this astigmatism, just as a fuller understanding of Matthew 5:17-20 would have led Gentry to a more refined and accurate understanding of the law's function for today, so Gentry's facile discussion of the continuity/discontinuity aspects of biblical law is necessarily superficial and therefore deficient not only in its description but its prescription for ethics. He should have said much more in some areas and much less in others.[18] This Theonomic confusion on this point in turn leads to an inadequate understanding of the Westminster Confession, as one would expect (see WCF 19.3-4). Gentry wants to make much of the distinction between the ceremonial laws being "abrogated" vis-à-vis the judicial laws merely "expiring" together with the state of that people, i.e., Israel. In keeping with his Theonomic assumptions he desires to soften the latter word in comparison with the former used by the Divines. Although the fact that the qualifying statements in 19.4 are perfectly clear for the purpose of "freighting" the language of "expire" correctly, perhaps some further confessional exegesis will clarify since the word "expire" is used nowhere else in the Westminster Standards.[19] The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is helpful at this point. The legal connotations of "expired" seem to be the most apt choice here: "to cease, come to an end, die out, become extinct."[20] In other words, the judicial laws of Israel "ceased, came to an end, died out, became extinct," with that political body, i.e., Israel, "not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require" (WCF 19.4). It seems strange to this reviewer in light of Gentry's derelictions from the plain meaning of the WCF that he repeatedly—sometimes redundantly—criticizes Gordon's taking issue with the Westminster Standards; however, anyone who would carefully read Gordon's clarifying response to the first Modern Reformation article will note Gordon's very cordial attachment to the WCF and some fine, nuanced confessional exegesis as well, despite his criticisms of the Confession at points. Gentry's argumentation with respect to WCF 19.3-4 is strained at best, and more probably, in this reviewer's opinion, cuts deeply across the logic of at least chapter 19 of the Confession.

Conclusion

If disagreement can be a great achievement, then this book may offer some slight help in further clarifying what differences really exist between Gentry and Gordon. Nevertheless, the previous emphasis on slight is deliberate and the reader will have to judge whether investing the time, let alone the money, is worth the read. T. David Gordon has written: "Theonomy is a serious and significant departure from the Reformed tradition's formal and material principles; as such, it must be carefully evaluated and refuted, not dismissed outright."[21] In this reviewer's estimation, Gentry's book, an attempt at a rebuttal of the previous statement, has made little—if any—progress in a reversal of this opinion.

Endnotes

[1] R. S. Clark, "Reconstructionism," in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, eds. Jack Campbell, Gavin J. McGrath and C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 601-602.

[2] T. David Gordon, "Response," Modern Reformation (May/June 2002): 48. This clarification to Gordon's original article, "The Insufficiency of Scripture," Modern Reformation (Jan-Feb, 2002): 18-23, is strangely missing from Gentry's book.

[3] T. David Gordon, "Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy," Westminster Theological Journal 56 (Spring, 1994): 23-43.

[4] Ibid., 25-26.

[5] See Gordon's "Response," especially p. 48–49.

[6] See, Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Ethical Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 30.

[7] Gentry, quoting Hagner, 57.

[8] Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC 33A; Waco: Word, 1993), 105.

[9] Ibid., 105.

[10] Ibid., Matthew, 106.

[11] Ibid., Matthew, 107.

[12] Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 30-31.

[13] Hagner, Matthew, 106.

[14] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 25.

[15] Helm, John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford, 2004), 351.

[16] Ibid., 351.

[17] Ibid., 351-352.

[18] Compare for example, Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, trans. by George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), who says: "Although the best and wisest laws (as far as the state of that people was concerned) were sanctioned by God, it does not follow that on this account they ought to be perpetual. God, from positive and free right, could give them for a certain time and for certain reasons, to some one nation, which would not have force with respect to others. What is good for one is not immediately so for another" 167.

[19] I have in mind especially, "not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require." The reader should see A. Craig Troxel and Peter J. Wallace, "Men in Combat Over the Civil Law: 'General Equity' in WCF 19.4," in WTJ 64 (2002): 307-318. Also see Sinclair B. Ferguson, "An Assembly of Theonomists? The Teaching of the Westminster Divines on the Law of God," in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (eds. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 315-349.

[20] See entry 6c in The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1971), "Of an action, state, legal title" p. 434.

[21] Gordon, "Response," 48.

Bryan Estelle, an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 16.5, May 2007.

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