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  • Kevin D. Johnson 3:06 pm on February 28, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    Some Thoughts by Turretin to Consider Regarding Theonomy 

    TurretinAs a result of the recent theonomy debate that’s had at least one small corner or two the Reformed blogosphere buzzing of late, I’d like to put up a couple of quotes by Turretin and just point readers to a more extended treatment of the question of the Mosaic civil law and its applicability or not to our own times or that of the future.  Turretin strikes a balance that it seems we didn’t really see on either side of the debate in question.

    Another clear miss from the theonomic side is of course omission of the existence and purpose of natural law in reviewing these things from a biblical perspective.  Most of the argumentation in the debate itself, regrettably, did not focus on the Scriptures but tended toward other subjects such as the “general equity” clause found in Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith or a review of select quotes from contemporary theonomic authors like Bahnsen or Rushdoony.  I wrote an earlier post on the “general equity” clause some time ago.  I had no idea it would come up in the debate so I’ve linked it here as well.

    But, back to Turretin.  Turretin provides a more refined and careful view than we saw in the debate and says that the judicial law of Israel was never meant to be permanent in the way some have said.  In fact, Turretin even said that there were times that Roman law was preferred to the Mosaic law. Turretin was one of Calvin’s successors in Geneva and his Institutes were used by Princeton Seminary prior to the twentieth century.  In other words, we can reasonably see Turretin representing standard Reformed fare on these questions.

    Witness Turretin:

    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 not immediately so for another.

    What is better than others in every way (in both the abstract and the concrete and both negatively and affirmatively) is to be preferred to the others. But the forensic law is better than other laws, not affirmatively, but negatively because it was determined to certain circumstances which do not now exist. Then again it is better than human laws (simply as human), but not inasmuch as they are founded upon the natural law, whose source is God. Therefore, when the Roman laws are preferred to the Mosaic, they are not preferred simply as enacted by men, but as derived from natural and common right they can be more suitable to places, times, and persons. (Turretin,, p. 167)

    Furthermore, Turretin makes plain the following on the previous page:

    There are three opinions about [the abrogation of the judicial law]: the first in defect (of the Anabaptists and Antinomians, who think it is absolutely and simply abrogated as to all things). On this account, whatever reasons are drawn against them from the Old Testament for the right of the magistrate and of war; for the division of inheritances and the like, they are accustomed to resolve with this one answer–that these are judicial and pertain to the Israelite people and the Old Testament, but are now abrogated under the New. The second, in excess, of those who think that law is still in force and should be retained and that Christian states are to be governed like the Jewish (which was the opinion of Carlstadt and Castellio, with whom the Lutheran Brochman agrees). Both wander from the truth. The former because thus many moral things would be abrogated which are contained in the forensic law. The latter because thus many typical things would have to be observed which are most foreign to the reason of our times. The third, of the orthodox, who, holding a middle ground, relieve the matter by a distinction, both according to what has been abrogated and according to what is still in force.

    Turretin goes on to say that the judicial laws that remain are those that have common affinity with natural law found in other societies. Those that have no such continuity in Turretin’s eyes were seen as temporary. He even specifies that the punishments involved  for any civil laws that might remain are not the same as those prescribed originally in the Mosaic code and that the basis for such punishment is actually natural law (211.26.4).

    At base, if you read earlier in the volume (11.1.1-3), you’ll find that what Turretin sees as utmost and eternally abiding is the moral law reflected in both a natural law common to all men and the Mosaic law made only for the particular nation of Israel during the Old Covenant.  Both natural law and the old Mosaic law are now informed by the nature and intent of the New Covenant and its now universal administration.  The substance of what was particular in terms of redemption (the people of God known as Israel) now becomes universal in Jesus Christ.  The Old Covenant administration, therefore, was never meant to be permanent.  Because of this divine strategy of redemption, we can’t immediately assume that because God established a particular law in one era that it remains until otherwise revoked.  This seems to be quite different than what many contemporary advocates of theonomy seem to be advocating when it comes to the applicability of the Mosaic civil code.

    • ChristusEstVeritas 5:06 pm on April 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply

      This is fantastic, stole the first quote for a FB post. If the distinction were truly between God’s law and man’s law, I don’t think the Reformed would be indecisive. But if something is validly founded on natural law, it is just as surely from God as is the Mosaic civil code.

  • Kevin D. Johnson 1:05 am on January 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply  

    On the Relevance of God’s Law to Today 

    TurretinOne of the reasons I appreciate the Reformed faith above others has to do with the idea of balance.  The answer to most every question is usually a “yes” and a “no.”   The relevance of the Mosaic law today is not an EITHER/OR issue as if we must recognize the law as valid without reference to the context in which it was written.  I was asked about whether I agreed or not with R.C. Sproul, Jr’s post commenting on theonomy and reconstructionism.  So, here are some of my thoughts after reading his post and mixing it up with certain reconstructionists on Facebook in recent weeks.

    Simply put, what remains authoritative for us and what has always been authoritative is the moral law as we have received it in nature and through the Scriptures.  In fact, seen through the proper lens, natural law is actually identical to the moral law we have in the Scriptures because both came from God.  Natural law, however, suffers from the fact that it has been implemented by fallen man and only relatively represents the perfect moral law of God.  But, overall, the relevance of God’s moral law has been seen in different ways in differing covenant administrations as we have them in Scripture.  Similarly, the notion that the Mosaic judicial law has permanent and abiding authority without any sort of qualification over the nations either today or in the future is simply not given to us in the pages of Scripture.  Such a fact is not meant to denigrate or downplay the importance of the Mosaic covenant administration but rather helps to establish a more important principle.

    The real authority at work here is the moral law of God as it exists through who he is and what it is he has decreed.  This means that God has put in place a law that is both reflective of his character and subject to the conditions he positively placed upon it, particularly in the Scriptures.  We know from the Scriptures that the law given to the Israelites through Moses was limited in nature and function.  We also know that it continues to serve as a moral bellwether for much of the rest of Scripture.

    However, the law was never anything apart from Christ and so we must understand it with the whole of Scripture in mind–and really, with Christ and his work in the forefront.  The Sermon on the Mount can’t be understood without reference to the Torah and yet Jesus makes clear that even the Torah is limited compared to the legislative authority he personally carries as the incarnate Son.  The lawgiver, not the law, is the paramount authority in place here.  In essence, we can’t speak of morality and justice without first speaking of the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation he brought us.

    This is where the notion of “general equity” comes in.  Chapter 19 of the Westminster Confession of Faith doesn’t say that such an equity is only for today and not for tomorrow nor does it appear that the Confession saw a temporary abrogation of the judicial law of the Torah only to go back to it later once Christ’s Kingdom was in full effect.

    The point of Chapter 19 in Paragraph 5 is that the moral law of God binds everyone and is authoritative over all–this remains true and has always been the case regardless of the covenant administration in which mankind lived. In reality, this is a stronger defense of the entirety of God’s moral law than the notion that we must have the judicial laws of the Torah in exacting and wooden detail as the reigning ideal guide for society as some reconstructionists might propose.  If the judicial laws of Israel were the standard for all times, how could Jesus have said “You have heard it said…but I say to you”?

    The judicial law is still authoritative in one sense but remains relative to the actual moral principles of the gospel behind them.  And, it’s the moral principles that we are really after anyway.  We simply can’t reproduce the sort of ancient agricultural environment in our own day to literally fulfill the law’s demands like helping your neighbor’s animal out of the ditch or allow gleaning laws when most all of us do no farming at all.  But, the moral principles behind the laws remain ultimate and can still be used profitably.

    We see a similar hermeneutic at work with the Apostle Paul.  In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul tells the church to ‘purge the evil’ (ESV) out of their community invoking the common refrain for capital punishment in Deuteronomy.  Yet, the death sentence Paul has in mind is something other than the literal rendering of the statement in the Torah even though the synagogue was a place where justice was decreed locally.  This is especially true when we have examples in the NT where the local Jewish community did not hesitate to pick up stones and try to kill people whether the Empire allowed it or not.

    Here for Paul, “purge” means expel from the community and not expire.  We need to take a long hard look at why that’s the case.  We can of course pretend that Christians didn’t have the right under the Roman Empire to exercise capital punishment otherwise he would have called for it, but such a supposition if true only demonstrates that the Torah’s original judgement is now completely unworkable in the face of a new universal setting for the faithful.

    Paul also has the Corinthians look at oxen in 1 Cor. 9:9 and we learn that the moral principle behind the command is the important thing “for our sake.”  In fact, Paul denies that the command was even really written for oxen as far as it pertains to us and instead endorses a different understanding that seemingly has nothing to do with the original context of the passage.

    Last, look at 2 Cor. 13:1 where Paul invokes himself as a witness three times sufficient to call Deut. 19:15 as proof that the Corinthians had better repent.  Originally, the law clearly requires two or three different people as witnesses yet here Paul calls himself a witness three times.  This also has echoes of Matthew 18:15-18 in it (also an example of three scenarios as witnesses rather than just two or three witnesses)–apparently for Paul it is enough that the truth be said three times rather than having two or three actual or different witnesses.  Paul again becomes innovative with the Torah in putting forward the moral essence of the law rather than valuing a literal obedience when it simply isn’t called for in the specific New Covenant situation.

    So, I say all that to say this — God’s judicial law for Israel was perfect for Israel but was never meant to work for all nations, for all time, or for the end of time.  That does not mean, however, that it was unjust or that we cannot use it to help us understand and guide the church and society in better implementing God’s moral law.  The judicial laws inform our opinion and are relevant when their use is in line with the full import of God’s moral law.  But, the moral law of God found both in nature and in Scripture is what God has placed as the universal standard by which we all are to live.  This is so much the case that even Turretin said there were times that the natural laws exhibited by the Roman empire were preferable to the judicial law of the Torah (v. 2, 11.26.10).  To me, this spiritual understanding of the import of God’s moral law is much more true to that which God ordained from the beginning–to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

    It is also fair to make a further claim here — what I’ve just outlined is generally the received opinion of Reformed orthodoxy found in sources like Calvin, Turretin, the Reformed confessions (such as WCF 19), and elsewhere.  I realize there is some divergence and appropriate disagreement regarding the exact rendering of the importance of the law in Reformed circles today but overall what I’ve outlined remains true to the historical identity of what it means to be Reformed.

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