Theonomy and the Westminster Standards (2)

PMT 2014-029b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In my previous blog (PMT 2014-028b) I began a series defending theonomy from charges that it is contray to the Westminster Standards. I will continue that study in this article.

Theonomic Specimens from the Divines

Meredith Kline grudgingly admits that advocates of theonomy have some warrant from the Standards, as we saw in the previous article. We discover the reason for such admissions in the writings of the Westminster Divines themselves. Interestingly, while denying the presence of the theonomic theory in the Confession, Sinclair Ferguson admits the theonomic practice:

• Such views were widespread among the Divines in relation to specific crimes. But this is simply to recognize that there may be common ground in practice between the Confession’s teaching and theonomy (In Will S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, <em>Theonomy: An Informed Critique</em> [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], 346-47)

• The strongest position a theonomist could adopt on the basis of the Confession would be that it did not a priori reject the application of the Mosaic judicial punishment for crimes considered seriatim. But theoretical theonomy as such is not the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith. (Ferguson, 348).

• It is essential to notice that there may be similarities in the practical outworking of these two principles. . . . But whatever similarities may arise because of the Confession’s qualifying clause, it would be absurd to suggest that the principles themselves are identical. (Ferguson, 327)

With these types of admissions, the theonomist is practically handed the Confession as a defensive historical instrument for applied theonomy — despite charges that methodological theonomy is lacking among the divines. The evidence is abundantly clear in the writings of many of the Westminster divines, as the following citations will prove.


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As I begin this survey of material the reader should bear two notes in mind: (1) Where necessary I have updated the seventeenth century style to make it more readable. For example, “he must not punish no sinnes” becomes “he must not punish sins.” (2) Some of the citations will assert positions that even theonomists do not maintain, but which arise from a theonomic-like approach to civil ethics. Consequently, as I cite the Westminster divines on certain issues, I will show their theonomic tendencies, even where those tendencies go beyond modern theonomy. I do not endorse all of the views cited.

George Gillespie (1613-48)

One of the leading Westminster divines was Scottish commissioner George Gillespie. In his Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty, Gillespie offers remarkably theonomic observations:

(2) Christ’s words (Matt. 5:17), “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill,” are comprehensive of the judicial law, it being a part of the law of Moses. Now he could not fulfill the judicial law, except either by his practice, or by teaching others still to observe it; not by his own practice, for he would not condemn the adulteress (Jn. 8:11), no divide the inheritance (Luke 12:13-14). Therefore it must be by his doctrine for our observing it.

(3) If Christ in his sermon (Matt. 5), would teach that the moral law belongs to us Christians, in so much as he vindicates it from the false glosses of the scribes and Pharisees; then he meant to hold forth the judicial law concerning moral trespasses as belonging unto us also; for  he vindicates and interprets the judicial law, as well as the moral (Matt. 5:38), An eye for an eye, etc.

(4) If God would have the moral law transmitted from the Jewish people to the Christian people; then he would also have the judicial laws transmitted form the Jewish Magistrate to the Christian Magistrate: there being the same reason of immutability in the punishments, which is in the offenses. (Cited in Christopher Coldwell, ed., Anthology of Presbyterian & Reformed Literature [Dallas: Naphtali, 1991], 182-183)

Samuel Rutherford (1600-61)

Another of the Scottish divines, Samuel Rutherford, was a theologian of great stature and influence. Hetherington (History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines,  394) notes of him that: “While he attended that Assembly, he greatly distinguished himself by his skill in debate, his eloquence in preaching, and his great learning and ability as an author. Few works of that age surpass, or even equal, those which were produced by Rutherford, during that intensely laborious period of his life.”

Rutherford writes of the civil magistrate in his most important work Lex, Rex:

“The execution of their office is an act of the just Lord of heaven and earth, not only by permission, but according to God’s revealed will in his word; their judgment is not the judgment of men, but of the Lord, 2 Chron. 19:6, and their throne is the throne of God, 1 Chron. 22:10. Jerome saith, to punish murderers and sacrilegious persons is not bloodshed, but the ministry and service of good laws. So, if the king be a living law by office, and the law put in execution which God hath commanded, then, as the moral law is by divine institution, so must the officer of God be, who is custos et vindex legis divnae, the keeper, preserver, and avengers of God’s law.”

Later he observes in a similar vein (44:16): “As the king is under God’s law both in commanding and in exacting active obedience, so is he under the same regulating law of God, in punishing or demanding of us passive subjection, and as he may not command what he will, but what the King of kings warranteth him to command, so may he not punish as he will, but by warrant also of the Supreme Judge of all the earth.”

In another work entitled The Due Right of Presbyteries, or, a Peaceable Plea, Rutherford writes:

“It is clear the question must be thus stated, for all the laws of the Old Testament (which we hold in their Moral equity to be perpetual) that are touching blasphemies, heresies, solicitation to worship false Gods and the breach of which the Godly Magistrate was to punish, command or forbid only such things as may be proved by two or three witnesses, and which husband and wife are not to conceal, and form which all Israel must abstain for fear of the like punishment. Deut. 13:8, 9, 10, 11; Deut. 17:5, 6; Lev. 20:1, 2, 3, 4. But opinions in the mind, acts of the understanding, can never be proved by witnesses and such as neither Magistrates nor Church can censure.”

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646)

Speaking of a capital sanctions text considered an embarrassment to theonomy, Burroughs commented on Deuteronomy 13:

“Let not any put off this Scripture, saying, This is in the Old Testament but we find no such thing in the gospel, for we find the same thing almost the same words used in a prophecy of the times of the gospel (Zech. 13:3). [Of Zech. 13 he observed:] You must understand this by that in Deuteronomy. The meaning is not that his father or mother should presently run a knife into him, but that though they begat him, yet they should be the means to bring him to condign punishment, even the taking away of his life; those who were the instruments of his life, should now be the instruments of his death.”

Herbert Palmer (1601-1647).

argued from a theonomic methodology, that “this general rule gives me leave to assert and commend to your most serious considerations and consciences: That whatsoever Law of God, or command of His, we find recorded in the Law-book, in either of the volumes of God’s statute, the New Testament or the Old Testament, remains obligatory to us, unless we can prove it to be expired, or repealed. So it is with the statute-law of this nation, or of any nation.”

William Reyner (d. 1666).

Reyner, referring to the capital sanctions against idolatry, argued: “This duty is principally incumbent upon the magistrate, who is to execute judgment of the Lord, not arbitrarily as he himself pleaseth; but according to the rule of the Word, both for matter and manner.”

Richard Vines (1600-1655).

Vine vigorously argued for the continuance of capital sanctions against blasphemers:

“For the blasphemous and seditious heretics, both Lutherans and others of the Reformed churches do agree that they may be punished capitally, that is for their blasphemy or sedition. But the Socinian stands out here also, and denies it, alleging that the punishment of false prophets in that was especiali jure by special law granted to the Israelites, and therefore you must not look (saith the Socinian) into the Old Testament for a rule of proceeding against false prophets and blasphemers: Nor (saith Calvin and Catharinus) can you find in the New Testament any precept for the punishment of thieves, traitors, adulterers, witches, murders and the like, and yet they may, or at least some of them may be capitally punished: for the gospel destroys not the just laws of civil policy or commonwealths.”

Along with these citations from commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, it would be easy to cite page after page of equally compelling references from the writings of like-minded Puritans of the era. Indeed, Foulner’s Theonomy and the Westminster Confession does just that — oftentimes with helpful interpretive footnotes responding to theonomic critics (Martin A. Foulner, Theonomy and the Westminster Confession [Edinburgh: Marpet, 1997]).


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To be continued.

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