Joel McDurmon, President of American Vision, son-in-law of Gary North, and modern face of theonomy has written a controversial new book titled THE BOUNDS OF LOVE: AN INTRODUCTION TO GOD’S LAW OF LIBERTY.
McDurmon says the purpose of his book is to provide a helpful introduction to theonomy for the modern reader and to answer some frequent “questions that even our most prolific and profound writers simply have not directly or adequately addressed.” However, the reader quickly finds out that these questions actually have been answered by theonomists in the past, but not to McDurmon’s liking. Thus McDurmon has set out to write not simply an introduction to theonomy, but a very substantial revision of it as well.
In this 4-part review I will offer a summary of the book, commend its strengths, criticize its weaknesses, and offer suggestions for ways to move the dialogue forward.
In the introduction, the reader is told that theonomy is the application of some OT law to all of life. While this alone is not necessarily unique to theonomy, we are told that the particular distinctive of theonomy is the belief that magistrates are bound by Mosaic judicial laws, meaning they are not only obligated to enforce them, but that they may only enforce those laws. They are not at liberty to create their own law (10). In the first chapter, McDurmon offers as a definition of theonomy “the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.” (17) Noting that this is somewhat vague, he says that a simple definition is not possible because God’s law is complex. (20)
McDurmon then takes up the task of answering which of those civil laws remain obligatory. Commenting on various answers to this question he concludes that ultimately there are only two categories of Old Testament law: laws that abide and laws that do not. (27, 30) When the New Testament refers to the Old Testament law being discontinued, it specifically has reference to “the shadows” which “had only temporal application.” (33) When Paul condemns the law, he is condemning the abuse of the law by those who would continue to observe these shadows in order to establish their own righteousness. (36)
We are told that Old Testament law continues into the New Testament unless it is explicitly repealed. (42) The New Testament repeals the priesthood & ceremonial laws, the separation laws (“the ultimate law in this category” was circumcision), and the land laws, which all terminate in Christ. (49)
With regards to civil law, the most significant concept for understanding discontinuity is the cherem principle. Translation of the Hebrew word is difficult, but it essentially means to be “devoted to destruction.” This principle was peculiar to the Old Testament because it was tied to God’s presence in the temple & the land. (50) Some civil laws were based on eye-for-an-eye, while others were based on God’s immediate judgment under cherem. (52) The preeminant example of this is found in Deuteronomy 13 where an entire idolatrous city is devoted to destruction as a whole burnt offering. The principle of cherem continues in the New Testament, but it is transferred from the holy land to the throne of Christ (thus removing its civil penalties). Hebrews 10:26-29, referring to the destruction of Israel in AD 70, teaches us that the “locus of authority has been removed from earth to heaven.” (55)
This change is related to the difference between the Old & New Covenants. The New Covenant is administered by the Spirit from heaven, not from the letter on earth. The Old Covenant was broken and thus cast away, but the New cannot be. The New is also “marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.” As a result of all of this, Paul continues to apply the cherem principle (“purged from your midst”), but only ecclesiastically.
“Civil governments no longer have authority to apply cherem punishments in the New Covenant.” (58) These include all first table offenses and some second table offenses. Stoning was a ceremonial method of execution, was tied to the principle of cherem and was limited to only some crimes. (60) In addition to the crimes punished by stoning, adultery, bestiality, and sodomy were also cherem punishments, which means they are no longer capital crimes. “I have revised my earlier published views that adultery and homosexual sodomy are punishable by the death penalty.” (65)
McDurmon argues that Matthew 5:17 teaches us that some laws were fulfilled and brought to a terminus. (66) As Johannes Piscator taught, laws particular to Israel are weeded out, and the rest are binding. Westminster Confession 19.4 allows for a variety of opinions on what constitutes general equity because it “was written as a compromise and is therefore vague and unhelpful.” It is wrong, however, to think that general equity applies to ecclesiastical application because “general equity” must be understood in contrast to “particular equity” – both refer exclusively to civil application of Mosaic civil laws: those that bind all nations and those that bound only Israel. (68)
Chapter 3’s conclusion advises how to interpret individual Mosaic civil laws. “[D]oes this law, or part of it, pertain to the old temple rites, calendar, priesthood, sacrifices, etc? Does this law pertain to the old land boundaries? Does it pertain to the bloodline separations or “seed” laws? Does it pertain to any of those aspects of the Old covenant administration that the New Testament demonstrates changed with Jesus? Does it pertain to First Table offenses, special devotion to destruction, or stoning penalties? If so, that law, or part of a law, is vanished away.”
Chapter 4 “The Abiding Judicial Standard” deals with Mosaic civil law that remains binding today. McDurmon says that theonomy’s most distinct aspect is that Old Testament punishments for crime are eternal standards and therefore remain binding. The New Testament speaks “in glowing terms” of OT punishments in 1 Tim 1:8-11, Heb 2:1-2, cf Psalm 19:9 by calling the law “just.” They are just because there is an eternal moral principle running throughout them: lex talionis. Lex talionis (i.e. “eye for an eye”), as taught in Ex 21:23-25, Lev 24:24, and Deut 19:21 gives us a complete system of justice that is “reflected in every single law He revealed.” “The lex talionis says essentially one thing: the punishment must fit the crime—no more, no less… This is not just one more law among others, but rather is a principle of law that runs through all the others, much the same as the principle of love summarizes the whole of the law.” (75) All Mosaic applications of the law are found to be deductions from lex talionis. (82)
The eternal nature of this standard is demonstrated by the fact that any punishment that exceeds lex talionis winds up violating the 10 commandments. “If the state punishes more than necessary, then it will by default be engaging in theft, murder, false witness, or violence of its own—clear violations of moral law in the act of civil punishment.” (76) In Matt 5:38, Jesus is not repealing proportionate retributive justice but is rather correcting the Pharisee’s misapplication of the law to personal offenses. Christians should desire a civil state that is limited and bound by the Mosaic expressions of lex talionis.
Chapter 5 paints a picture of what a modern society following this teaching would look like. “A properly theonomic society in terms of civil government would be closer to classic libertarianism than any other common political position.” Isaiah 2:2-4, 65:17-25 gives us a vision of the theonomic state. There is freedom of religion for all Christian denominations. No one could be forced to work on Sunday or fired for refusing to do so. Traitors and revolutionaries would be banished or executed. Children who attack their parents would be exiled (instead of executed as under Moses). This would apply to incorrigible criminals (who are not honoring the parental authority of the government). These laws are meant to “protect the social order itself.” Kidnapping, human trafficking, and slave trading would be punishable by death (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7). Standing laws and the military draft would be outlawed. There would be no marriage licenses. Divorces would be handled through private courts. But no-fault divorce and easy divorce would be abolished. In cases of theft, double restitution would be required, resulting in indentured servitude if the thief cannot pay. Prison would not be a punishment. Government taxation would fall under the category of theft. (97)
Chapter 6 explains How It Will Come to Pass. It does not require a postmillenial perspective, only a desire to obey God’s law. Obedience to God’s law comes through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Great Commission. The difference between the Old and the New covenants is that the New is of the Spirit. (105) Therefore the kingdom cannot be brought in by the works of man. As the result of the Spirit working in our lives, “we should step up and become modern-day Wilberforces” applying God’s law to every area of life. One practical example is that we must refuse the benefits of the Welfare state in order to replace it with support from family and the church of Christ. (111)
Finally, Chapter 7 takes aim at a similar modern movement led by those calling for a return to the 17th century reformed covenanter position. Because earlier theonomists failed to do the necessary exegesis of the Mosaic law, they confused Westminster covenanters with theonomy. McDurmon argues that in the 17th century there were basically two views: theonomists (who agree with McDurmon that the Mosaic law sets limits upon the state) and Constantinians (who find precedent for their views in Mosaic laws, but do not believe they are limited by them). The covenanters were largely (with a few exceptions) Constantinians who found authority for their views in Roman law, as an expression of natural law (like Mosaic law was). Gillespie, Piscator, Tremellius “spearheaded the argument that the civil rulers were also bound and limited to the punishments.” (130) But the majority of Westminster were Justinian (Roman) establishmentarians arguing for a natural law duty to punish religious offenses. In the end, “Would-be Covenanters […] affirm a model in which, if maintained consistently, the state is unrestrained in nearly all respects” whereas “Biblical law is about liberty and prosperity in Christ.” (134)