Bounds of Love: Review, Part 4 – Moving Forward

  1. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 1: Summary
  2. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 2: Strengths
  3. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 3: Weaknesses
  4. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 4: Moving Forward

The_Bounds_of_Love_Cover_Print_v1_largeI welcome “Bounds of Love” as a great step forward in discussion over biblical political philosophy. McDurmon has been willing to see some of the major problems with theonomy’s hermeneutic. Moving forward, McDurmon needs to develop a covenant theology more consistent with his new outlook. The view expressed in “Bounds of Love” is inconsistent with Bahnsen’s covenant theology (which basically followed Westminster’s). Developing a more consistent covenant theology would give McDurmon a better means of articulating his argument regarding the cherem principle, and a more adequate means of answering Bahnsen’s criticism of Poythress. Bahnsen, following Calvin and most of the reformed tradition, assumes the Old and New Covenant are actually the same covenant. This significantly drove his misinterpretation of the law.

Given the unity of God’s covenant throughout history and the Bible, then, is it true that Christians living under the New Covenant are not obliged to keep the Old Covenant law (the commandments of the Old Testament, especially those given by Moses)?…[W]e saw that all of the covenants of God are unified into one over-all Covenant of Grace, fully realized with the coming of Christ in the New Covenant. So if there is one covenant enjoyed by the people of God throughout the ages, then there is one moral code or set of stipulations which govern those who would be covenant-keepers. Therefore, we must answer that of course New Testament believers are bound to the Old Testament law of God. His standards, just like His covenant, are unchanging.
(By This Standard, p. 41-42)

In contrast, McDurmon recognizes fundamental differences between the Old and the New Covenants that cannot be relegated to the level of “administration.” (For a discussion of substance/administration, see here and here)

With the New Covenant, therefore, the cherem principle is entirely changed… Why this change? The discontinuity encountered in regards to the cherem principle is directly related to the difference in nature of the Old Covenant compared to the New. Just read God’s basic description of the change: … Heb 8:8-12; cp. Jer. 31:31-34; Heb 10:15-18.

The New Covenant is said specifically to be “not like” the Old. We know there are many differences already, but what is the fundamental difference in view here? The law continues, as we have noted already, but it is now written on the minds and hearts of God’s people, not merely on stones and books. It is that the New Covenant is administered by the Spirit, from heaven, not from the letter on earth. It is also marked by permanence: whereas the Israelites broke the Old Covenant and God cast them away for it, this New Covenant is wrought by God Himself in our hearts and cannot be broken. It is also marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death. Paul discusses the difference in precisely these terms: … (2 Cor. 3:3–10).

This is hardly to say that the law in its entirety is brought to an end, but to show the difference in the nature of the two covenants and their administrations. The first was a ministry of the letter and death, the latter a ministry of the Spirit and life. (55-57).

Note that they differ in their very natures. They are not of the same substance. The New is “not like” the Old in that it operates internally by the Spirit and cannot be broken, unlike the Old which operated externally by letters in stone and was broken. American Vision sells a book called Christianity and Civilization #1 – Failure of the American Baptist Culture. Edited by James B. Jordan and Gary North, and originally published in 1982, the volume contains an essay by Peter A. Lillback titled “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism.” Lillback explains that in order to hold to the idea, with Calvin, that the Old Covenant was an administration of the Covenant of Grace, one must affirm that the New Covenant is just as breakable as the Old and that the Old operated internally by the Spirit just like the New.

Yet one last matter of importance for Calvin’s understanding of the relationship of the Old and New Covenants must be examined in relation to the letter–spirit distinction. If these two are really one and the same covenant that are different only in externals, then does the mass defection of Israel also imply that there can be a mass defection of the New Covenant era saints? But if this is admitted is not one forced to say that the covenant is defective since God would therefore seem not to write His law effectually on the hearts of His people? But if this is denied, then does not the letter–spirit distinction actually prove that they are two different covenants having a different substance? The Old Covenant of the letter could obviously have many who could fall away from it since the law was not Spirit written. On the other hand, the New Covenant cannot allow any to fall away since they are infallibly secured by the effectual application of the law to their heart. In a word, does the New Covenant allow for such covenant-breaking as the Old Covenant experienced in light of the former’s being only of the letter and the latter’s being of the Spirit? How can Calvin’s claim that the only difference between the two is with respect to the extent and power of the Spirit’s work explain this dilemma? Does this accord with the Bible’s view of the church?

Calvin is keenly aware of this argument that would substantiate the Anabaptist claim of a substantial rather than an accidental difference between the Old and New Covenants.

If McDurmon further develops his line of thought (that the New cannot be broken) he will see that the Old Covenant operated upon a principle of works (Lev 18:5 cited in Gal 3:12 & Rom 10:5). This fits very well with what McDurmon says about the change from the call for immediate death (Old) to a principle of general forgiveness (New).

“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” Deuteronomy 27:26 (cited in Gal 3:10)

The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law according to the cherem principle was specifically a curse. Augustine said

“But the law is not of faith: but The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:12) Which testimony, quoted by the apostle from the law, is understood in respect of temporal life, in respect of the fear of losing which, men were in the habit of doing the works of the law, not of faith; because the transgressors of the law were commanded by the same law to be put to death by the people.1

Note Deuteronomy:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
(Deuteronomy 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)

It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse of the law. We are united to Christ and share in his life through the New Covenant. The New Covenant is therefore marked by general forgiveness, unlike the Old, which was governed by obedience to a law of works – not for eternal life, but for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan (see Bryan D. Estelle’s excellent essay in “The Law is Not of Faith” to unpack this, as well as this essay on Augustine’s view of the Old and New Covenants compared to Calvin’s).

I would encourage McDurmon to read John Owen’s lengthy (150 page) commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13. There he will find extensive, detailed ammunition for his new understanding of the cherem principle and its connection to the Old vs New Covenant.

Along these lines, McDurmon should also recognize that he is in substantial agreement with Kline’s intrusion ethic. McDurmon argues

Cherem is peculiar to the Old Testament administration because it functioned only in the context where God’s presence was in the physical temple/tabernacle, in the altar fire, the land itself was holy and was an agent of sanctions, and the inheritance of God’s covenant promises was through blood descent and external possession of the Holy Land. As we have seen, all of these realties have been drastically altered by the New Testament economy…

This principle is obviously continued in the New Testament, but with the change in temple, priesthood, and land administration comes a transfer of the seat of judgment from the earthly land to the heavenly throne of Christ. God’s consuming fire is no longer on earth in an altar. It was removed. Thus, the same principle of apostasy can be declared in the New Testament, but the sanction is no longer by earthly civil government, it is from the throne of Christ…

Finally, we see this difference manifested in how the New Testament applies the principle of cherem… The word to look for is anathema… 1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9. (50-57)

In the New Testament, the cherem principle applies not to judgment here on earth, but to anathema – that is, eternal condemnation at the final judgment of Christ. Notice what Poythress says about this:

How then do we apply the Bible to modern society? Theonomists are convinced that the Old Testament law even in its details is applicable to modern society, while some of their opponents are convinced that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ introduced a new era in which the Old Testament law is no longer directly binding.2 The issue is not easy to resolve because it depends partly on the hermeneutical frameworks and the sets of questions that one has when one approaches texts of the OT.3 For simplicity I confine myself to comparing theonomy with only one kind of antithetical position, namely the “intrusionist” ethics of Meredith G. Kline.4 Kline argues that Old Testament social and political law is not immediately applicable to us because it was tailored to the special situation of Israel. Israel as a holy nation prefigured the holiness of God’s heavenly kingdom and the holiness belonging to the consummation of all things. For example, the wars against the Canaanites prefigured the Second Coming, when Christ wages a final war against all his enemies (Rev. 19:11-21). Special penalties were appropriate for Israel because of its unique role as a prefigurement of Christ’s kingdom. Ethical practices belonging most properly to the kingdom of God in its final manifestation “intruded” in certain ways into the practice of Israel.2

Therefore McDurmon should develop a covenant theology closer to Kline’s in order to be more consistent with his perspective. I would actually encourage him to embrace Owen’s position, as it is more biblical than Kline’s and avoids some of Kline’s errors while retaining his biblical insight into the Old Covenant. (You could say Owen combines the biblical theology perspective of Kline with the systematic skill of Calvin).

In doing so, McDurmon would also iron out some other inconsistencies in his covenant theology.

Perhaps the ultimate law in this category [separation laws] was that of circumcision: it was a literal bloodline law which symbolized that the seed was to pass through the blood, but also was a mark against the flesh of human generation… We no longer enter covenant with God through bloodline but by adoption. The sons of God are not physical sons, but adopted sons, and Christ has been given the authority to make them sons:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12–13).

In John Owen’s excellent essay “The Oneness of the Church,” he unpacks the implications of this recognition that Israel according to the flesh’s status as a covenant people was tied to Christ coming from Israel according to the flesh. Once Christ came, that status ceased (and God unleashed the Old Covenant curses upon Israel). The only covenant relationship that remained was union with Christ, the true seed, in the New Covenant.

Based upon the above quote, I would not be at all surprised to see McDurmon become a baptist in the near future. The sole foundation of paedobaptism is the insistence that entering the covenant through bloodline has not changed. Furthermore, as Lillback said above, McDurmon’s argument regarding the substantial differences between the Old and New Covenants nullifies infant baptism (“Calvin is keenly aware of this argument that would substantiate the Anabaptist claim of a substantial rather than an accidental difference between the Old and New Covenants.”).


I’m thankful for McDurmon’s new book. One great problem with any attempt to discuss the issue of theonomy is that many theonomists are merely “rhetorical” theonomists. They heard Bahnsen say “God’s law or man’s law” and so they say “God’s law or man’s law” and never look any deeper than that. They don’t stop to think that God’s law has to be properly interpreted before it can be properly applied. They assume anyone who disagrees with Bahnsen is just rejecting God’s law over all of life. Hopefully McDurmon’s book will at least show them that affirming “God’s law not man’s law” does not itself confirm Bahnsen’s interpretation and that disagreeing with Bahnsen’s interpretation does not mean one has abandon the authority of God’s Word. As we have seen, McDurmon’s argument still suffers from numerous problems, but it paves the way for thoughtful theonomists to engage in meaningful dialogue over what the proper interpretation of Scripture and God’s law is, not resting on the mere rhetoric of theonomy.



In confirmation of the above comments about covenant theology, consider the response McDurmon has received from fellow theonomists:

There’s a sense in which– In no way to I believe Joel McDurmon is a dispensationalist. But by pitting the Old Covenant against the New Covenant, it lends to dispensational arguments. That’s a huge red flag for me.


He specifically defines it as a ministration of death and says that it was administered by the letter on earth. This is a characterization of the Old Covenant which any good Covenantalist, especially one of a Theonomic Postmillennialist strand such as Dr. McDurmon, should be not quite pleased with. Whether properly understood today or not, the Old Testament era is still part of the greater Covenant of Grace. It is by no means a “ministry of death” and it cannot be so heavily separated from the New Covenant without doing damage to several rules of interpreting the Scriptures. The Westminster Confession of Faith warns against finding such radical discontinuity within the covenant structure, it reads:

There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”[8]

We may attempt to compare and contrast the different administrative eras of redemptive history in a variety of fashions, but they may not be set at odds with one another. Any and all of the eras of covenant history are a part of God’s greater Covenant of Grace which was set forth after the fall of man. Each differing era of covenant dispensation is a part or segment of the overall Covenant of Grace and to refer to any aspect of that life-promising, life-giving covenant as a “ministration of death” is inconsistent.


  1. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 1: Summary
  2. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 2: Strengths
  3. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 3: Weaknesses
  4. Bounds of Love – Review, Part 4: Moving Forward

  1. A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Chapter 10.—Of the Praise of the Law. 

  2. Calvin actually said something similar. “[T]he saints under the Old Testament set a higher value on this mortal life and its blessings than would now be meet. For, though they well knew, that in their race they were not to halt at it as the goal, yet, perceiving that the Lord, in accommodation to their feebleness, had there imprinted the lineaments of his favour, it gave them greater delight than it could have done if considered only in itself. For, as the Lord, in testifying his good will towards believers by means of present blessings, then exhibited spiritual felicity under types and emblems, so, on the other hand, by temporal punishments he gave proofs of his judgment against the reprobate. Hence, by earthly objects, the favour of the Lord was displayed, as well as his punishment inflicted. The unskilful, not considering this analogy and correspondence (if I may so speak) between rewards and punishments, wonder that there is so much variance in God, that those who, in old time, were suddenly visited for their faults with severe and dreadful punishments, he now punishes much more rarely and less severely, as if he had laid aside his former anger, and, for this reason, they can scarcely help imagining, like the Manichees, that the God of the Old Testament was different from that of the New. But we shall easily disencumber ourselves of such doubts if we attend to that mode of divine administration to which I have adverted — that God was pleased to indicate and typify both the gift of future and eternal felicity by terrestrial blessings, as well as the dreadful nature of spiritual death by bodily punishments, at that time when he delivered his covenant to the Israelites as under a kind of veil.” 2.11.3  

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