Case Study: Methodology and Outcome Pertaining to the Character of God, Law, and Implications
Basic dispensational thought asserts its derivation as Scriptural and as arrived at through the exegetical process, and consistently applied LGH principles. Because of this fundamental principle of origination, dispensationalism cannot simply be an eschatological addendum to an already established system—it must be the direct product of Biblical study. Thus dispensational thought should be philosophically and theologically comprehensive and have great interdisciplinary importance. It ought to be synonymous with Biblical worldview
This idea is nowhere more evident than in relation to the basic understanding of the character of God and how He works. If dispensationalism is the product of Biblical exegesis according to the LGH, then any and every theological affirmation ought to be not just subject to scrutiny by Biblical content, but the Biblical origin of the idea should be demonstrable and readily connected to the most normative understanding of passages being studied.
Testing the Premise
There are three historical views, and perhaps three logical possibilities pertaining to God and His relationship to His legislation: (1) God is under good (authority is under law), (2) God is good (authority is law), and (3) God is over good (authority is over law). Plato took up this discussion (in the Euthyphro), arguing that if the gods were under good, then they were merely intermediaries and the idea of good was supreme. Plato also critiqued the second option, suggesting that the gods being good would illustrate good but would offer no actual definition of good. He also challenged the third view, noting that if the gods were over good, then when they disagreed with one another how could anyone ever know what was the good in that case. Plato didn’t answer the question for the reader, he simply showed the problems with the three logical options. But there was one aspect Plato did not consider (a singular, authoritative Deity sovereignly declaring what is good). Unfortunately, some theological systems have not considered the issue with even as critical an eye as did Plato, and have come to some destructive conclusions.
The three perceptions of the relationship of God to good naturally lead to three views on the present applicability of the Mosaic Law, for example. The view that God is under (or bound by) good leads to a Continuity view—that all three categories29 of Law are still in effect. God legislates from His character. His character does not change, therefore His legislation cannot change, thus we are still under the entirety of the Law. Theonomy and reconstructionism have taken this approach. The Semi-Continuity view is rooted in the idea that God is good (as a definition, being good is being like God), and affirms that the moral aspects of the Law are still in effect. God’s legislation is an expression of His character, and His character remains unchanged, thus the Law must also remain applicable even if some aspects are no longer in force. Reformed/Covenant theology affirms this view and its premises. Both the Continuity and Semi-Continuity views rely on a theological precommitment to a particular view of the relationship of God to good and legislation, and both employ their respective precommitment as a hermeneutic by which to understand not only God’s relationship to the Mosaic Law, but also the relationship of the Mosaic Law to the church. On the other hand, the Discontinuity view recognizes that God as sovereign has authority to determine what is and is not good. He has the freedom to change His legislation without changing His character. Consequently, the Mosaic Law need not be applicable based on a universal constant. That God is sovereign and has such authority to determine and communicate good is exegetically derived,30 as is the fact that the Law was within a covenant given to Israel as a nation.31 God reveals His ultimate purpose for the Law,32 communicates that the Law has been fulfilled by Christ on the cross,33 and emphasizes that the church is not under that Law.34
Greg Bahnsen, affirming the Continuity view, appeals to Matthew 5:17 to argue against three categories of Law with different applicability. He refers to the abiding validity of the Law,35 though he does recognize there needs to be changes in how that Law is expressed, because “The accomplishment of redemption changes the way in which we observe the ceremonial law, and the change of culture and times alters the specific ways in which we observe the case laws. The cases are different but the same moral principles remain.”36 Though he tries to avoid it, Bahnsen’s view is subject to the James 2:10 problem—the Law is all or nothing, and one does not have liberty to change how the Law is administered (unless there is clear exegetical warrant to do so).
David Jones calls the Semi-Continuity view “the prevailing view of the church.”37 This view appeals to Acts 15 to suggest that ceremonial law is not applicable to believers, and he appeals to several other passages38 to assert that civil law is not applicable. Yet, the moral law is applicable today for sanctification.39 Jones and others recognize that the undergirding principle is that authority is law. Some aspect of God’s legislation must stay in effect if His character is to remain intact. Jones adds that,
“Since the Decalogue is a reflection of God’s moral character, the norms codified in the Ten Commandments are universally applicable and demonstrable both before and after their issuance on Mount Sinai.”40
Yet again, the James 2:10 problem is in view—the Law didn’t codify norms, it codified legal mandates, and those mandates were (mostly) not evident before the Law was put in place. Samuel Bolton recognizes that placing believers under the Law seems to conflict with freedom in Christ, but he addresses that conflict almost poetically: “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified, and the gospel sends us to the law again to enquire what is our duty in being justified.”41
Because the Semi-Continuity view is not exegetically derived, it runs into significant exegetical problems, not the least of which relates to the Sabbath. Jones attempts a resolution, but has to do some contortions with the text to get there:
“For Christians, then, the Sabbath is a sign of redemption and, as such, it depicts the eternal rest they have received from Jesus in salvation…Keeping the Sabbath ought not to be a legalistic burden, characterized by lists of permitted and forbidden activities. Rather the Sabbath ought to be a joyous celebration and a blessing…In a specific sense the fourth commandment calls believers to observe a regular day of worship…not to observe the Sabbath, in either a broad or a specific sense, is to behave in a distinctly un-Christlike manner…in the NT…the early church moved the day of Sabbath observance to the first day of the week.”42
Jones’s assertion that the Sabbath is celebration rather than legal burden doesn’t square with the text. The Sabbath was by its very nature as part of the Law a legal burden. The claim that the Sabbath calls believers to a day of worship seems to miss entirely that the Sabbath mandated rest, not worship specifically. The idea that the church moved the Sabbath borders on absurd, and begs the question of where such a move was prescribed and upon what authority. Theological precommitments lead to continual (and destructive) theological supremacy over exegesis.
(Next: Case study continued – John MacArthur’s perspective; conclusions.)
29 Some suggest the Law should be divided into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories. Yet in doing so face the dilemma of James 2:10.
30 E.g., Genesis 1, Micah 6:8.
31 Exodus 19:3-6.
32 Galatians 3:19-24.
33 Ephesians 2:15.
34 Romans 6:14-15, Galatians 3:24.
35 Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Ethics, 3rd Edition (Covenant Media Press, 2021), chapter 2.
37 David Jones, Introduction to Biblical Ethics (B&H Academic, 2013), 76.
38 E.g., Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 2:13-17.
39 Jones, 139.
40 Jones, 139.
41 Samuel Bolton, True Bonds of Christian Freedom (London:UK, Banner of Truth, 1964), 80.
42 Jones, 166.
Christopher Cone, Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, serves as President and CEO of AgathonEDU Educational Group and leads Vyrsity and Colorado Biblical University. Dr. Cone has served as a President, a Chief Academic Officer, and a Research Professor and has served in several pastoral teaching roles. His articles are published at www.drcone.com.