Tuesday, October 21, 2008

By This Standard

The title of this post is only partially related to what content will follow. One of the books I completed this month was Greg Bahnsen's By This Standard. The book is a pared down version of Bahnsen's much larger and more scholarly book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (which I have yet to read).

I highly recommend the shorter version to every Christian, and to anyone who has an interest in Biblical Law and its contemporary validity. The book is a smashing defense of the validity of all of God's Law, including the ceremonial laws. If the last sentence appears controversial, it is not, for what is valid may not be enforced in the same manner. For example, the stipulations of the ceremonial law have been fulfilled in the work of Christ, so that we adhere to the ceremonial law by way of worshiping Christ as our propitiation for all of our sins, even unknown sins, instead of relying upon the priest to release the scapegoat, to use one example.

The moral law, and even more particularly civil laws, are more controversial because they remain in force today in ways different from believing in the work of Christ for our behalf. It is a hard word for the peoples of modernity and postmodernity, and even for Christians among these peoples, when fed the argument that the death penalty is still the valid punishment for homosexuality, adultery, and fornication, to use a pointed set of sins.

It is one thing to recognize that certain stipulations in Ancient Israel and in our modern society adhere to the same principles of law while differing in their manifestation: for example, fences upon rooftops and fences around pools represent laws for protecting life by providing safe environments. It is another thing to recognize that, given the proper level of heinousness and the required evidence to convict, a son or daughter should die for disobeying their parents.

But divorced from the all-too-easy emotional reactions to particular hypotheticals, Bahnsen's major point is rather elementary. If we do not place our faith in God's divinely given laws, what will be the alternative, except autonomous human subjective law? Are we willing to trust in the Sovereign Lord rather than in are own understanding, or can we affirm with Scripture, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding"???

When one grasps the necessity of trusting God's revealed law instead of some fictitious natural law derived from human observation, or some subjective consensus of autonomous individuals, the acceptance of the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws follows by necessary implication. Of course, the issue then becomes the proper identification of the principles implicit in the applications, and the proper translation of those principles into contemporary applications. What a better situation it would be if we fought over such issues as opposed to fighting over whether or not God's law should even be considered!

I do have one quibble with Bahnsen's book, or rather, a quibble with one of his propositions, at least in the way it is phrased. Bahnsen, like so many other fine theologians, described the whole law of God as a reflection of God's character. Now such a phrase sounds honorable, properly meek, and even poetically pleasing. But it also contains a troublesome ambiguity.

What does it mean that the Law of God is a reflection of His character? In one sense, we might say that Creation itself is a reflection of God character, if by saying so we mean that its orderliness reflects God's orderly thinking. In a similar way we can say that God's laws given to men to follow reflect God's Sovereignty as the Lawgiver, meaning that God, being eternally omniscience and omnipotent, as the right and pleasure of commanding His created creatures howsoever He wants. By interpreting the phrase this way we do no harm and elucidate a rather important aspect of God's Sovereignty.

However, another possible interpretation is that, as a reflection of God's character, God Himself is bound to keep the law, that is, God is by nature incapable of transgressing the laws he has given men to obey, for they reveal the limits of His own moral bounds. I am not willing to argue that such an interpretation is what Bahnsen is meaning, but only to point out that such an interpretation can be drawn from the ambiguous term "reflection."

The implications of this second interpretation are severely damaging to an understanding of the nature of God. First, if God were subject to the Law He has given men, it would mean that He could not take the life of men for the reason of His own pleasure. If God is subject to His Laws given to men, it would be wrong for God to have enticed Pharaoh to sin, it would be wrong for God to have commanded an evil spirit to lie to the prophets under Ahab's command, and it would be wrong for God to choose some men to be vessels of wrath and others to be vessels of honor.

To show the complete absurdity of such a view, one needs only consider the summary of the Law: to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself. God certain fulfills the first, but does God love His neighbor as Himself? Indeed, can God love anyone other than Himself as He loves Himself and still be self-sufficient? What about the command to love one's enemy? Can all the passages of Scripture that indicate God righteous wrath upon His enemies be reconciled with the command to love one's enemies? Does not God hate whomever He will hate and love whomever He will love?

It is foolishness, then, to argue that God is in some way, in any way, subject to the Law, which He has given unto men to obey. God's complete determination of all things stands in utter contradiction to many of the stipulations commanded in the Law. Consider: God desired that Christ, the only innocent man and His only Son, should not only die, but bear His wrath. Certainly there is no provision in the Law that gives anyone the right to command an innocent person to die on behalf of another. Yet this is precisely what God decreed from eternity.

God is not subject to the Law, and if the Law reflects anyone about God's character, it reflects His Sovereignty as the Lawgiver who is free to command His creatures in whatever way He sees fit, for His own glory. I think Bahnsen would agree with that, and I think he would see the absurdity of the alternative. Still, I wonder why in particular he chose to use the ambiguous phrase?


Matt Pickens said...

I think the question is, "Could God have given a different law?" Since we have to answer in the negative we have to ask, "Why not?" That only makes sense if the law as given is consistent with God's own person.

To use the example of taking human life we can say a few things. It certainly is not true that God is forbidden to take the life of his creatures. But that is not what the sixth commandment forbids to us either. The prohibition is against murder. As the sixth commandment is applied in the rest of the law we find that there are many times where it is not only permissible but required to take human life. This is done as a reflection of God's justice that is revealed in the laws regarding human life as created in his image and so those laws do reveal something of the character of God.

I don't think that this requires that God be subject to the same laws that he condescends in covenant to give to his creatures and people. God is sovereign in giving the law and judging according to the law. Yet he cannot give commandments that are inconsistent with his character either (all of this is in the context that any revelation of God is by definition anthropomorphic).

Joshua Butcher said...

It is true that God was not willing to give another law, for then His glory would not be accomplished.

And it is true that murder is specifically condemned in the 6th commandment. However, God's determination of all things includes not only a knowledge of all that comes to pass (including murder), but a divine pleasure resulting from such determination. It is true, in one sense, that God delighted in the murder of His Son, for by it His glory is made manifest.

It is also true that how God commands men is not inconsistent with His character (nothing that actually occurs, strictly speaking, is inconsistent with God's character insofar as we consider His willing it to come to pass). However, these admissions only further clarify that ambiguity in the phrase "The law is a reflection of God's character." Reflection is simply an ambiguous metaphor for how God's laws to men relate to His nature.

As for revelation being anthropomorphic by definition, I think this word too (anthropomorphic) is ambiguous given the many ways in which it has been used, especially in recent history. Do you mean to say that God's language is not the same as human language? That revelation is entirely metaphorical (as one meaning of anthropomorphisms is that it is a figure of speech)?

Anonymous said...

Great Post.
American Vision has Bahnsens, Theononmy In Christian Ethics right now with a DVD included with some of his other books in pdf format. It is a great deal if you do not have a copy of TiCE.

Matt Pickens said...

Sorry, Joshua, I just saw today that you had responded to this. I thought blogger sent an e-mail when people replied to comments but I guess now.

Is your point in the first three paragraphs that though God's law reflects his character in the sense that I describe his decree also reflects his character though he sometimes decrees contrary to what he commands in the law? I'm just trying to clarify.

Sorry, no. What I mean by that is as God's knowledge is an attribute of his being that revelation of it is "accomodated" (to borrow from Calvin) so that we can understand and know the things revealed (by both general and special revelation). That's all that I mean when I say that revelation is anthropomorphic. I do not mean to imply at all that God is ineffective at communicating that revelation.

Joshua Butcher said...


God's law reflects His character as lawgiver, not as law-abider. Frequently the mistake is made whereby one assumes that God is not free to decree or determine something that breaks His commandments. However, this is not true, since God's complete determination includes the determination of every sin.

Another good example is that command to love one's enemies. The Bible makes it clear that God does not love His enemies, but hates them. Indeed, if God did not hate His enemies, they would not be enemies, but rather, His elect. The command for us to love our enemies stems from the fact that God is the recompenser of sin, and not we, the creatures.

I'm glad to know that you do not affirm an irrational element of incommensurability between what God knows and what He reveals for us to know. Your use of the term anthropomorphic is broader and older than current usage, which is fine so long as you are able to explain your meaning as you have here.

Thanks for stopping by once again.