EDITORIAL NOTE: In 2005, SI published a series of articles by Joe Fleener and Aaron Blumer detailing some concerns with the Family Integrated Church Movement. Joe Fleener specifically named Vision Forum Ministries in his three part series. This week, Vision Forum began to issue a response to these articles. We have included the text to the main response on the SI blog. A secondary response/clarification was also published this week, and may be found here. Registered members of SI may discuss this article in our forums. Joe Fleener is also interacting with commenters on his blog. -GJL
Family Squabble An Autopsy of Joe Fleener’s Three Part, “Vision Forum, Patriarchy and Federal Husband,” Part I
by William Einwechter, October 4, 2006
(Vision Forum’s) Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Vision Forum began to receive requests from friends and supporters across the nation who had been hurt and in some cases adversely affected in their local churches as a result of a series of three defamatory articles authored by Joe Fleener and published on SharperIron.org. The articles were also widely disseminated by e-mail and other venues. The articles were noteworthy for their polemical nature, factual errors, lack of research, and, most significantly, for the unwillingness of the author or publishers at SharperIron.org to demonstrate brotherly charity and biblical integrity by contacting the Christians at Vision Forum Ministries to confirm facts or to raise private concerns prior to their decision to bring public charges and accusations to the broader body of Christ.
In response to these articles, Bill Einwechter, elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, drafted the following response. Mr. Einwechter is not a member of Vision Forum staff, but, as a reformed and baptistic pastor who has been an invited guest to several Vision Forum events in the past, is a friend to the ministry. Mr. Einwechter’s three articles will be released one at a time, over the course of the month of October. Where proper attribution is included, permission is granted to publish and disseminate these articles.
Note to readers: Before publishing Mr. Einwechter’s response to Mr. Fleener’s widely disseminated public attacks on Vision Forum Ministries, we privately contacted Mr. Fleener to clarify facts and to summarize our concerns. Jason Janz of SharperIron.org was also privately contacted.
Joe Fleener, blog author on the web forum SharperIron, has written a series of three articles wherein he accuses Vision Forum of distorting the truth of God’s Word in regard to the family and the church. He claims that Vision Forum is disseminating “false teaching” on the family and the church because this ministry’s underlying theology “is a distortion of Biblical Theology.” He further alleges that Vision Forum holds to “an unbiblical theology of the family,” which in turn naturally leads them “to distorted, dogmatic teaching on the church.” These are serious indictments of a Christian ministry whose goal is the restoration of the biblical family. From what he has written, it seems that the opinion of Mr. Fleener is that Vision Forum should either adopt his views (which may be difficult for Doug Phillips and the staff at Vision Forum to do since Fleener never actually articulates what he believes to be the true biblical theology of the family) or cease to function. What should one make of Fleener’s sharp criticisms? How should Vision Forum respond to Fleener’s accusations?
In the view of this author, Fleener’s articles give evidence of serious lapses in logic, biblical exegesis, and understanding of the positions he has decided to critique. Yet, because of the surprising interest these articles have generated, and because of the nature of his invective against Vision Forum, it is necessary to respond. The answer that is given here will consist of an analysis of the content of each article with appropriate rebuttal. As he has chosen to frame his attack on this Christian ministry in three parts, this response will critique each part in turn.
Critique of Fleener Article #1
Introductory Section of the Article
The title of the first article is “Vision Forum, Patriarchy and Federal Husband: Part #1.” The title makes it clear what Joe Fleener is after: he wants to attack the ministry of Vision Forum and discredit it in the eyes of his readers. This should be kept in mind as this response is read. Fleener is not simply engaging in a biblical discussion concerning the proper interpretation of what the Bible says about the family and the church; he is specifically seeking to damage the good name of Vision Forum by accusing that ministry of serious distortions of God’s Word. Those who take it upon themselves to discredit the name and work of others must be prepared to have their critique examined and to face up to the reproach due to them for any false accusations, faulty logic, and fallacious interpretation.
Mr. Fleener begins by sharing his own personal testimony of his love of being a father and a husband and the high priority he gives to these callings from God. This is a good thing, and we are glad that Joe Fleener is so devoted to his family, but what purpose does his testimony serve in a series of articles devoted to attacking a ministry seeking to rebuild the biblical family? This testimony does nothing to advance the point at issue, but it is his way of assuring his readers that he really is a good man and that we can trust him when he speaks to the issue of the family because his heart is in the right place. Well, his heart might be in the right place, and he may be an exemplary husband and father, but for any serious reader the leading concern is not Fleener’s personal life, but whether or not his arguments are biblical and his logic sound.
After letting us know of how committed he is to his family, Mr. Fleener continues to condition the minds of his readers by telling them of his journey from an initial positive opinion of Vision Forum to one of grave concern. He talks of the outward trappings of the ministry, its attractive catalogue, sensible toys, and good books. But this, according to him, is misleading, for all is not well at Vision Forum, and all its attractive packaging hides a ministry that leads Christians astray from the Word of God.
Next, Mr. Fleener tells of his own hand wringing when he was faced with the realization that he had a duty to expose the false teaching of Vision Forum. He assures us that he understands that the family is under serious attack today, that the needs of the family are great, and that the churches are failing in their ministry to the family. So, it was with reluctance that he took on the mantle of revealing the menace that Vision Forum is to the Christian world. He tells us, “I hesitate to critique any group or organization that is making it their mission/vision to ‘communicate a vision of victory to Christian families.’” But, Mr. Fleener is able to overcome his hesitation (for which, he implies, we should all be thankful) and sets himself to the task of unmasking the true nature of Vision Forum’s ministry to the Christian family.
Fleener’s passions for his family, we are told, stand behind his decision to write these articles. Fleener states: “However, there are some things that need to be said. Stronger than my passion for my family is my passion for Christ and the truth of His Word.” He suggests that the problem of ministries like Vision Forum is that they have allowed their passion for the family to distort their understanding of Scripture. But Mr. Fleener, though passionate for the family, does not have the same problem himself, stating that he is free from such bias: “But I will not allow that passion to distort the truths of God’s Word.”
Having assured us that he is a reliable guide, Fleener finally gets to the point of his series. He charges Vision Forum with having a “distorted vision.” And though he does not attribute this distorted vision to evil intention, he makes it clear he believes that the doctrine of the family being taught by Vision Forum is “false teaching” that “carries great potential hurt to God’s people” — serious accusations.
Fleener’s Summary of What Vision Forum and Others Are Teaching
It is commendable that Joe Fleener provides internet links to the Vision Forum website so that his readers can consider for themselves the teaching of Vision Forum and the articles that this ministry has published on the web. This writer strongly encourages all who are interested in the controversy that Fleener is seeking to ignite to read what Vision Forum is saying and make your own informed judgments based on what this ministry is actually teaching. Do not let Fleener’s alarm be determinative in your conclusion. Do your own work. Read the statements and articles, and then search the Scriptures to see if these things be so (Acts 17:11).
Mr. Fleener’s leading opinion of the teaching contained at the Vision Forum website is curious, given the focus of his series. He states that among the articles published there, “Some of what you find is quite good.” What teaching at Vision Forum is “quite good” the reader is not told. Rather, it is his goal to reveal that Vision Forum operates from a particular theological/ethical perspective that he rejects. He is not interested in the positive contribution that Vision Forum is making to the rebuilding of the biblical family. His purpose is not to challenge his readers to use discernment when reading or purchasing Vision Forum materials; his goal is to undermine the entire legitimacy of this ministry and its teaching by tying it to a view of ethics that he believes is wrong. What is that view of ethics and how does he determine that this view is held by Vision Forum?
Fleener contends that “theonomy” is the view of Christian ethics that underlies the ministry of Vision Forum. This may be true or it may be false, but one thing is certain, our critic never actually documents this contention in any of his three articles. Not once, in the defense of his charge, does he point to a particular statement or publication by Vision Forum or Doug Phillips to prove that they adhere to theonomy. How then does he make his case that Vision Forum is a theonomic, or theonomically influenced organization? Believe it or not, his only evidence is that some of the writers that have had articles published on the Vision Forum website are known to be theonomists or have written for the Chalcedon Foundation. That’s it! No other evidence is presented! The logical fallacy of his reasoning is so apparent that anyone, with or without training in formal logic, can see it. This is a classic non sequitur — the conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. For example, Mr. Fleener points out that Vision Forum contains statements on Hermeneutics and Creation that were written by Greg Bahnsen, a leading advocate of theonomy. But neither of the statements by Bahnsen are a specific defense or articulation of theonomy. Here is the syllogism of Fleener’s logic: a. Greg Bahnsen is a theonomist; b. Vision Forum has published statements by Greg Bahnsen on Hermeneutics and Creation; c. Vision Forum must therefore be a theonomic organization. On the basis of such logic, we can conclude that Fleener is a Presbyterian who adheres to the Westminster Confession of Faith. How so? Well, later in his article, he highly recommends to his readers a critique of theonomy written by the faculty of the Westminster Theological Seminary — a Presbyterian seminary that adheres to the Westminster Confession.
It should be further noted that although Vision Forum has published some writings by theonomists, it has also published articles by others who are not theonomists. If one is proof that they are theonomists, why is not the other proof that they are not? It seems to this writer that this is proof that Vision Forum desires to work with all true Christians of good will (theonomists and non-theonomists) who share their commitment to rebuild the Christian family on the basis of God’s Word. Vision Forum, unlike Mr. Fleener, does not reject the teaching of a man or ministry simply on the basis that the man or ministry holds to a different overall theological position than they do. If the particular teaching in question is biblical, they do not care, necessarily, if it was articulated by a Calvinist or Arminian, a dispensationalist or an adherent to covenant theology. The issue is always this: Does the teaching accurately reflect the truth of Holy Scripture? But the issue for Fleener appears to be this: Was the teaching given by a theonomist?
In the last paragraph of this section, Fleener himself seems to have perceived that his rambling attempt to pigeon hole Vision Forum as a theonomic organization might be leaving his readers perplexed and cause them to wonder what this may have to do with the subject at hand. So he says: “At this point, I will ask that you please bear with me. It may seem like we are heading down a rabbit trail. Hang in there and in the end I hope you will see the connections.” Whenever writers feel obliged to say such things to their readers, look out. This is often evidence of a man who is making a poor argument, and he senses it. Nevertheless, Fleener concludes this paragraph with commendable words: “The bottom line is this: all problems are essentially theological problems. If we can learn to think and evaluate [sic] we see in life and read biblically/theologically, we will be better able to chose [sic] those things that please the Lord and avoid those things that do not.” Well said! In fact, this sounds very “theonomic.” If only Mr. Fleener would follow his own excellent counsel.
Before moving on to the next section, we ought to address the question of Vision Forum’s theological/ethical foundation. First and foremost, Vision Forum is committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the absolute authority of Scripture over every area of life and thought. Vision Forum operates on the presuppositional basis that every fact (reality) is a God-created fact, and, therefore, its meaning and purpose must be interpreted for man by God Himself. God has given to man the power of reason, but He never intended for man’s reason to operate independently of divine revelation. Through Scripture God interprets all of reality for man. Man’s responsibility is to use the Scriptures as the basis for knowing God, himself, the world (and all that is therein), and God’s will for his life. Vision Forum believes that every sphere of life is governed by the revealed Word of God, and that all ethical decisions must be based on scriptural principles. Vision Forum believes that sola Scriptura applies to all aspects of faith and practice in every aspect of life — personal, family, church, and state. If these views are what someone means by “theonomy,” then this writer is confident that Vision Forum and Doug Phillips would be honored to call themselves theonomists. However, if by “theonomy” one means that you agree with everything R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North, or Greg Bahnsen, or any other theonomist has ever taught or written, then I am sure they would decline the label of “theonomy.”
The concept of a “label” is important to consider here. Labels (classifications) do serve a useful purpose, sometimes, but in theology they are notorious for fostering misunderstanding. Most of us, the older we get, learn to avoid categorizing our views by labels; we also learn not to judge other Christians or ministries by labels that are applied to them by others. Rather, we see that it is better to simply teach what we believe is the doctrine of Scripture than it is to rely on labels, and that it is better to actually listen to what someone else is saying, than it is to prejudge them on the basis of some label. One of the worst features of the entire series by our critic is his use of “theonomy” in the hope that it will discredit Vision Forum in the eyes of his readers. The center of his attack is based on the prospect that he can discredit this ministry by simply fastening the label of “theonomy” on it. As it has been said, “All labels are libels.” This writer encourages all who have read or might read Fleener’s essays to reject this misleading approach of his, and judge the ministry of Vision Forum on the merits or demerits of what it actually teaches — not on a term that is often very misunderstood.
Fleener’s “Brief Look at Theonomy”
Joe Fleener builds his case against theonomy by, 1) giving a simplistic definition of theonomy; 2) by suggesting that theonomy is a modern deviation from historic Reformed theology; 3) by discarding theonomy’s hermeneutical/theological presumption of continuity between the moral standards of the Old Testament Scriptures and the New Testament Scriptures; 4) by rejecting theonomy’s contention that the civil magistrate in the New Covenant era is responsible to enforce the “general equity” of the criminal law set forth in the Old Testament; 5) by claiming that the New Testament Scriptures set a higher ethical standard than the Old Testament Scriptures; and 6) by his insinuation that the book Theonomy: A Reformed Critique has refuted the theonomic thesis. Let us look at each aspect of his case.
First, Fleener calls his chosen definition of theonomy “simple”; and truly it is. It is correct insofar as it goes, but it is inadequate for understanding the position of theonomy. By using such a brief account of what theonomy means, Fleener is able to make his argument without having to deal with significant aspects of the theonomic position. If a reader is serious about understanding theonomy, he will not limit his research of theonomy to Fleener’s “brief look.” Greg Bahnsen gives the best summary of theonomy in his twelve-point synopsis of the theonomic position. The definition that Fleener gives in his essay is actually point 5 in Bahnsen’s summary. One can only surmise why Fleener chose this one point over against others that are more representative of theonomy. If one is going to limit himself to a one sentence definition of Bahnsen’s view on the essence of theonomy, it would be better to use point 3 in Bahnsen’s synopsis: “The word of the Lord is the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of all men in all areas of life; this word naturally includes God’s moral directives (law).” Theonomy is the application of the doctrine of sola Scriptura to the realm of ethics (moral standards). Theonomy advocates that the whole Word of God (from Genesis to Revelation) sets the ethical standards for all of life. Theonomists may differ on certain aspects of biblical interpretation and application, but they are united in the belief that only God has the authority to interpret the moral sphere (i.e., declare what is right and wrong in His sight), and that He has given man that interpretation in the pages of Holy Scripture. If you believe the statements of the last four sentences, you are, in principle, a theonomist.
Second, Fleener contends that theonomy is a recent aberration from Reformed theology. He claims that theonomy did not originate until 1977 when Bahnsen’s book Theonomy in Christian Ethics was first published; or at the earliest in 1971 with the writings of R. J. Rushdoony. This claim is patently false. Perhaps the specific term “theonomy” was not used to describe the ethical views which are now associated with Bahnsen and Rushdoony, but the view itself is much older than these two men. The foundations of theonomy were laid in the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. The theonomic principle was taught and applied, albeit inconsistently, by such men as John Calvin and Martin Bucer. The Scottish Covenanters were theonomic in their ethics, as were their American counterparts who later came to these shores. The Westminster Confession of Faith supports the essential principles of theonomy. The Puritans sought to establish an explicitly theonomic society in New England. These facts are so well documented that there is no point to belabor them (see footnotes above).
Third, the definition that Fleener uses for “theonomy” is a statement on the presumption of continuity between the two Testaments in regard to the law of God. Here is that definition: “We today are ethically obligated to observe the Older Testament Law of God in every way except those areas where the New Testament specifically frees us from that responsibility” (Greg Bahnsen). In place of this perspective, Fleener would have us follow this one: “We are today obligated to observe the Old Testament Law of God in every way that it is repeated or expanded in the New Testament.” He then makes the perceptive observation that there is “a significant difference” between these two perspectives. Truly there is! Essentially, the view Fleener recommends makes the Old Testament unnecessary for Christian ethics. Another way to state his view is this: The only part of Scripture that can actually determine the duties and moral standards required of Christians is the New Testament. Therefore, in terms of the moral law, the Old Testament is now “God’s Word Emeritus.” The view that the New Testament must repeat or expand the Old Testament law to make it moral law for the Christian carries with it serious implications. For example, it means that the Christian parent has no scriptural basis for the use of the rod in disciplining his or her children, since the command to apply the rod of correction to a disobedient child is no where explicitly repeated or expanded on in the New Testament. On the basis of Fleener’s faulty hermeneutic, the Christian has no direct biblical guidance on the matter of how to educate his child or on the issue of procreation. According to Fleener’s view, the civil magistrate is not under any specific scriptural guidance in regard to identifying what crimes he ought to punish and how a particular crime should be punished — a dangerous recipe leading to either legal anarchy or political tyranny.
Fleener’s assumption of discontinuity between the ethics of the Old Testament and the moral standards of the New Testament flies in the face of a number of biblical texts. Chief among them are Matthew 5:17-19 and 2 Timothy 3:15-16. Jesus emphatically states that He did not come to abrogate the Old Testament Scriptures, and commands His disciples to do and teach even the least commandments of the law (Matt. 5:17-19). The Apostle Paul teaches that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When one considers that “all scripture” in the context of 2 Timothy must include all of the Old Testament, there is a powerful argument here for the full authority and applicability of the Old Testament law to Christian ethics. Contrary to Fleener, Paul does not teach that the only Old Testament Scripture that is profitable for instructing the Christian in righteousness is that Scripture that is repeated or expanded on in the New Testament; Paul says all Scripture.
Fourth, Fleener rejects the theonomic principle that the civil magistrate is bound to consider all the revealed law of God in discharging his duties as a minister of God. Apparently, he believes that the magistrate is under no higher law when it comes to punishing crime than the autonomous dictates of human reason (“natural law”) or cultural customs. Theonomists believe that the punishment of crime is a moral action (i.e., there is a right way and a wrong way to punish evil) and that God’s Word is the only infallible standard for determining what is just and unjust in the punishment of crime.
Fleener begins by taking the usual course of those who reject Old Testament civil law; he states that there was a “death penalty for adultery, disobedient children, homosexuality, etc.” His assumption is that any thinking Christian will automatically reject any view that would call for death for these actions. But those who think they can refute theonomy by simply pointing to the civil sanctions of the Old Testament had better beware of what they are doing. In essence, they are saying that these laws could not apply today because they are too cruel and unloving. But who gave these laws in the first place? Was it not God? To despise Old Testament law because it appears harsh to us today is to despise the God who gave these laws. Furthermore, the New Testament itself says all these penalties were just (Heb. 2:2). Does Fleener say they were unjust? If they were just then, why would they be unjust today? Has God’s nature changed? Has the nature of murder or adultery or rape or theft changed? Has the suffering that is endured by victims of these crimes changed? If none of these things have changed, why would we think that God has changed the penalties for these crimes? Are we wiser than God? Do we understand justice better than God? Are we more loving and compassionate than God? Do we know how to deter crime better than God? In addition, Fleener is wrong when he says that the Old Testament law punished “disobedient children” with death. In reality, the criminal in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 is an evil young adult who is in full rebellion to God and all lawful authority. He is also wrong when he says that “homosexuality” was punished with death. There are no status crimes in the Bible. You were not liable for civil sanctions in Old Testament law for having the disposition to steal, but only for actual acts of stealing. Likewise, no one was liable for civil sanctions for having homosexual lusts, but only for committing actual acts of sodomy that were then proved in a court of law on the basis of the biblical standards of evidence.
Fleener moves on to claim that theonomy bases its view of the civil law on two main points. Again, he is dealing with theonomy in an overly simplistic way; this of course, makes it easier for him (so he thinks) to refute the theonomic thesis that the civil magistrate is under the authority of God and answerable to Him to govern in accord with the revealed will of God given to him in Scripture. Theonomy’s doctrine of the authority of Scripture over the civil ruler (and all men) is based on the following five considerations.
Theological. God is sovereign over all human authority. Thus all magistrates derive the authority of their office from God and are answerable to Him. God’s law sets the standard for the magistrate’s duty and by that law his conduct as a magistrate will be judged. Furthermore, God is both holy and good. The law of God is a reflection of the very nature of God, and therefore it is good and totally just. Old Testament civil law, as a part of the moral law, reflects the nature of God’s goodness and justice. As God cannot change, neither can the moral law. So Old Testament civil law (including the punishments for crime) remains as a true expression of what is good for man (Deut. 6:24; 10:13) and what is just in the sight of God (Deut. 4:6-8, Ps. 19:9; Heb. 2:2). Furthermore, since Jesus Christ is the Son of God, there can be no essential difference between His law (New Testament) and the law of the LORD (Old Testament). In fact, Scripture teaches that there is only one lawgiver, and that that lawgiver is Jesus Christ (James 4:12)! The Son of God spoke the law at Sinai and then clarified and upheld that law (against scribal misinterpretations) in the Sermon on the Mount. The “law of Christ” expresses the same moral law as the “law of God.” How could any trinitarian Christian say otherwise?
Epistemological. As a creature, man is dependent upon his Creator for the knowledge of all that is true. This is because all the facts of God’s creation derive their existence, meaning, and purpose from the mind of God—including the facts of man’s moral nature and duty. Man’s mind, as created by God, is receptive to the knowledge of his Creator, the factuality of the creation, and God’s will for him. But man’s mind was not created to operate independently of God’s interpretive Word. The God of the Bible is a personal God who speaks to man, and it is only when man listens to that Word that he can truly say that he “knows” something. Man’s need of God’s Word is part of the Creator/creature relationship. How then can man know God’s will for civil law? How can he know what civil justice is? He can only know these things by studying those portions of the Word of God that reveal God’s will for the civil magistrate; and the primary revelation of God on civil law is unquestionably in the Old Testament. Ethical. Here we refer to man’s rebellion against God. Man refused to be governed by God’s revealed will, and taking the Serpent’s suggestion, he decided that he could be his own god and determine good and evil for himself (Gen. 3:5). Thus, the heart of man’s original rebellion was ethical: he would determine his own standards of ethics. This shows the folly of a “natural law” basis for ethics. Yes, there is a rudimentary revelation of God in His works, i.e., the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament his handiwork (Ps. 19:1-6), and in man’s conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), but man suppresses that revelation in his unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-20). Man, from the beginning, has been dependent upon God’s Word, and that need did not decrease after the Fall; it only increased. Fallen man needs the Bible to know the will for God for all areas of life. Only the written Word of God has the power and clarity to challenge and overthrow sinful man’s claim of ethical autonomy (i.e., that he is his own lawgiver).
Hermeneutical. In interpreting the biblical revelation of the moral law (in addition to other basic rules of interpretation), there are three important principles that must be followed. First, God only has to say something once to make it a duty binding on man. From whence comes the idea that God has to say something at least twice before we take Him seriously? Second, only the Law-Giver Himself has the authority to abrogate or change a law that He has given (Deut. 4:2; 12:32). It is on this basis that the Christian should assume the continuing authority for every command of God’s law (“standing law”) unless God specifically annuls or in some way changes that law somewhere else in Scripture. Third, it is the “general equity” of the Old Testament laws that are binding and not necessarily the contextual expression of that law (due to cultural and redemptive/historical changes from Old Testament to New Testament).
Textual. The Bible teaches that Old Testament law is a model of righteousness for all nations (Deut. 4:5-8). The Bible teaches that the Old Testament law is “perfect,” “enduring,” and “righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-11; the entirety of Ps. 119 sings the glory, wisdom, and perfection of Old Testament law, including the civil statutes and case laws; see also Rom. 7:12). The Bible teaches that all magistrates are like Israelite magistrates; they are servants of God (Rom. 13:4-6). The Bible commands Gentile magistrates to “serve the LORD with fear” and to “kiss the Son” (Ps. 2:10-12, cf. Rev. 1:5; 2:26-27). The Bible teaches that Old Testament civil law instructs a Christian magistrate in what he needs to know about justice, and it equips him for every good work as a civil ruler (Prov. 8:14-17, 20; 2 Tim. 3:15-16).
This brief presentation of the biblical and theological basis for theonomy should indicate that Fleener has not done his homework and does not understand theonomy or the arguments upon which it is based, and certainly has not answered its arguments in even a cursory way.
Fleener’s argument that the New Testament has abrogated Old Testament civil law and its penalties needs to be answered yet. He begins by saying that if it is true that the Old Testament civil penalties still apply, then “one would expect there to be some example in the New Testament where the penalties of the Old Testament civil law are carried out.” Is this so? One would expect this only if the historical aspect of biblical interpretation is ignored. Neither Israel nor the church were in a position to carry out civil law in the New Testament era. Rome, in the providence of God (Dan. 4:17, 25, 32), was the undisputed civil power, and Rome was jealous to ensure that it had final authority in all matters relating to civil government—Roman law, not biblical law, was the standard that ruled the Roman empire. Furthermore, since only the state is empowered by God to administer the civil law and its penalties, it would not only have been impossible for the church in the First Century to execute criminals, it would also have been sinful. Given Rome’s dominance during this time, the absence of an example of Old Testament civil penalty being carried out in the New Testament in no way proves that God’s standards were abrogated.
After committing this fundamental error of historical interpretation, Fleener then calls on a few New Testament texts as supposed proof that the civil penalties of the Old Testament no longer apply. None of them, when properly understood, prove his point. Fleener’s interpretation of John 8:3-11 is shallow and misleading. In the incident of the woman taken in adultery, rather than canceling Old Testament law (which Jesus said he had not come to do, Matt. 5:17), Jesus upholds the standards of biblical law. The context makes it clear that the whole situation was a setup, and the Jewish leaders were seeking to trap Jesus. Any interpretation of the text must keep this in mind. Jesus is able to silence them and evade their trap by insisting that the Old Testament law of witnesses and stoning be carried out (Deut. 17:5-7; 19:15). The woman’s accusers failed to meet these just standards of biblical law, so Jesus dismisses the woman with the warning to sin no more. This text does not cancel the death penalty for adultery.
Another text that he appeals to is 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. The context of that text has nothing to do with civil law, and Paul is not writing to civil magistrates. Paul is instructing the church in its duty to excommunicate an incestuous man. Excommunication is the church’s highest sanction (the church has no authority to execute anyone). However, Paul may be exhorting the church to pronounce a kind of death sentence against the man when he commands them to “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). It is also to be noted that here Paul is actually affirming the righteousness of the Old Testament law in regard to incest.
The final passage Fleener uses is from Romans 13. When Paul calls on Christians to submit to the civil power over them in this text, he is not thereby commending Rome. According to the Bible, Rome is a beast that God will judge for its sins. The Bible also reveals that Rome was in authority according to the will and purpose of God. Paul does not instruct Christians to rebel, because revolution is not the biblical means of change (regeneration is; and in the Bible change is pictured as coming gradually, cf. Matt. 13:31-33). Romans 13 is actually a text that provides support for the theonomic thesis. As theonomy contends, the civil magistrate is here designated as a servant of God. This implies that it is his duty to rule according to the law of God. But furthermore, this text reveals that God expects the ruler to visit His vengeance on evildoers, i.e., the ruler is God’s instrument to punish criminals with the retribution that God requires (Rom. 13:4). To carry out this duty the magistrate must know whom God would have him punish (i.e., who is a criminal) and how God wants the criminal punished (i.e., the particular sanction to be imposed). For understanding in both the magistrate needs biblical revelation; the specific place that this revelation is given is in the Old Testament. As it turns out, the texts that Fleener thinks are against the doctrine of theonomy are texts that help to confirm it.
Fifth, our critic next says that Christians are held to a higher standard of moral law than the one that was given in the Old Testament. Although he recognizes some accountability to Old Testament moral law, he doesn’t want us to “simply ‘settle’ for the Moral Law of the Old Testament” because if we do we will “actually fall short of the moral and ethical standards to which God holds New Testament believers accountable.” Again, Fleener leads his readers astray. According to Jesus, the entire duty of man is summed up in the Old Testament commands to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:36-40; 7:12). The Apostle Paul teaches believers to love their neighbor by keeping certain commands from the Old Testament, and says the whole duty of Christian love is summed up in the Old Testament law of loving your neighbor as yourself (Rom. 13:8-10). He also says that the purpose of redemption in Christ and the gift of the Spirit is so that the New Testament believer will fulfill the righteous requirements of Old Testament law (Rom. 8:2-4). According to Scripture, one aspect of the glory of the New Covenant is that the moral law revealed in the Old Covenant will be written on the hearts of New Covenant believers (Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 8:8-12). According to Peter (1 Pet. 1:14-16), the ethical standards of the New Testament are based on the same standard as that of the Old—the holiness of God as revealed in His law — and he quotes a text from Old Testament law (Lev. 11:44) to exhort Christians to holy living in every area of life. Where in the New Testament does it say that the moral law of the New Testament is more righteous than the moral law of the Old Testament?
Fleener defends his contention by appealing to two New Testament examples (the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s teaching on giving). Neither prove his point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not contrasting His ethics with those of the Old Testament, but with those of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:17-48). When He says, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time,” He is not referring to Old Testament Scripture (Jesus does not introduce quotations from the Old Testament in that manner). The sayings of those “of old time” are a reference to the teaching of the Jewish Oral Law (later codified in the Mishnah) as passed on and developed by the elders, scribes, and rabbis (cf. Matt. 15:1-9; Gal. 1:14). Every one of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:21-45 can be found, in principle, in the Old Testament. Jesus may have spoken in a more explicit and powerful way in the Sermon on the Mount, but the moral law He gives is not new. The newness of New Testament ethics consists in two factors: 1) we now have a living example of perfect obedience to the moral law in the person of Jesus (John 13:34; 15:12); 2) we now have the indwelling Spirit of God to enable us to keep the moral law (Rom. 8:2-4). But we do not now have a new moral law, only a fuller revelation of the one righteous law of God. The second example Fleener cites is in regard to tithing. He claims that tithing is not mentioned in the New Testament, and for him that means that it is no longer a duty binding on Christians. We have already dealt with this faulty hermeneutic. The truth is that the New Testament does not abrogate tithing, and so the tithe is still a moral duty of the Christian’s service to God. Furthermore, the giving of the Old Testament believer was not limited to the tithe. He too was called on to give to the poor above and beyond his tithe (e.g., Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 15:7-11; 24:19-21).
Sixth, three times in his attack on theonomy Fleener refers to a book, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, that was written by the Westminster Seminary faculty. Fleener appears to lean heavily on this book for his views. He also expects his readers to believe that this book’s critique of theonomy has carried the day in the debate and has silenced the opposition. The fact is that there were three book-length responses to Theonomy: A Reformed Critique that have shown: 1) that portions of the book are sympathetic to theonomy; 2) that portions of the book are unrelated to a critique of theonomy; and 3) that the anti-theonomic parts have been thoroughly answered. To date there has been no substantial (i.e. book-length), scholarly response to the theonomists’ comprehensive answer to this attempt by Westminster Seminary’s faculty to refute theonomy.
Fleener’s “look at theonomy” reveals his hostility to theonomy and the moral and theological weakness of his own position. Essentially, his view is just another version of “New Testament only” ethics. And this is the point of his attempt first to portray and then to discredit theonomy in a series of articles aimed at attacking a ministry whose primary focus is the Christian family. What disturbs him about Vision Forum is that this ministry dares to use not just the New Testament but also the Old Testament in formulating its doctrine of the Christian family. A position that advocates that all of Scripture is authoritative in Christian ethics, including the ethics of the Christian family, is, apparently, offensive to Joe Fleener. That Vision Forum would use Genesis, or Deuteronomy, or Proverbs in a definitive fashion when teaching on the Christian home is, it seems, too much for him. Fleener asserts that Vision Forum is dangerous and is teaching false doctrine! How does he know this? It is quite simple in his eyes: Vision Forum believes in the authority of all of Scripture in Christian ethics and dares to say with David, “Oh how love I thy [Old Testament] law!”
1. These articles can be read at http://emethaletheia.blogspot.com/2005/08/vision-forum-patriarchy-and-fe….
2. It seems to this writer, that Joe Fleener is a passionate fellow, and that, in his articles, one area in which he displays his passion is in his intense dislike of “theonomy.” Perhaps he is not as objective as he wants his readers to believe.
3. Is he condemning Vision Forum for the doctrines expressed in these statements, or simply for the fact that they have published teaching by Greg Bahnsen? Greg Bahnsen, who died in 1995, was a staunch defender of the fundamentals of biblical Christianity and the Reformed Faith.
4. Point number 9 of “The Mission of Vision Forum Ministries” statement says that it is the goal of Vision Forum to develop a “Biblical Worldview Through Presuppositional Thinking” (http://www.visionforumministries.org/sections/home/mission.asp).
5. In points 11 and 12 of “The Mission of Vision Forum Ministries” statement we see their commitment to the authority of God’s law and to the use of God’s law to answer the ethical questions confronting us in the 21st century (http://www.visionforumministries.org/sections/home/mission.asp).
6. There is certainly nothing wrong with the word “theonomy,” which means, literally, “God’s law.” Only antinomians who despise the ethical boundaries of God’s law would want to reject the term in itself. In the book that Fleener’s recommends as the best critique of theonomy, Robert Knudsen states: “Now I must pose the main question of this chapter: ‘May we use the term theonomy?’ In view of the above the answer must be yes. The word theonomy is simply a combination of the Greek words for God and law, theos and nomos. It refers, in the context of this book, to the rule of God through his law. As we have seen, the Scriptures teach that Christians are to obey the will of God and that this will is expressed in his law. Christ himself joined love for himself with keeping his commands…. The life of man as a whole is subject to an order, a lawful order, which holds for him and for his relationships. If this is true, then the use of the term theonomy, or a synonym for it, is not only allowed but is necessary.” Robert D. Knudsen, “May We Use the Term ‘Theonomy’ for Our Application of Biblical Law?” in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, edited by William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), pp. 34-35. What is Fleener’s objection to “theonomy”? Does he reject the concept of “the rule of God through his law”? Or does he deny that Christians are to obey the will of God revealed in His law? One thing seems clear, this man is determined to condemn those like Vision Forum that are serious about a comprehensive understanding and application of the thesis that theonomy is “the rule of God through his law.”
7. The conscientious Christian will want to read both sides of the issue. For a positive, introductory treatment of theonomy see Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Insititute for Christian Economics, 1985) [you can read this book or download it for free by going to http://www.freebooks.com/ ], and William O. Einwechter, Ethics and God’s Law: An Introduction to Theonomy (Mill Hall, PA: Preston Speed Publications, 1995).
8. This synopsis is set forth by Greg Bahnsen in No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), pp. 11-13. Here is the text of that synopsis:
1). The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are, in part and in whole, a verbal revelation from God through the words of men, being infallibly true regarding all that they teach on any subject.
2). Since the Fall it has always been unlawful to use the law of God in hopes of establishing one’s own personal merit and justification, in contrast or complement to salvation by way of promise and faith; commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God’s redeeming grace.
3). The word of the Lord is the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of all men in all areas of life; this word naturally includes God’s moral directives (law).
4). Our obligation to keep the law of God cannot be judged by any extrascriptural standard, such as whether its specific requirements (when properly interpreted) are congenial to past traditions or modern feelings and practices.
5). We should presume that Old Testament standing laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.
6). In regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality (thus reinforcing former duties). The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and “separation” principles, redefining the people of God, and altering the significance of the promised land.
7). God’s revealed standing laws are a reflection of His immutable moral character and, as such, are absolute in the sense of being nonarbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances (thus applicable to general types of moral situations).
8). Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God’s transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes.
9). Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and Judge.
10). The general continuity which we presume with respect to the moral standards of the Old Testament applies just as legitimately to matters of socio-political ethics as it does to personal, family, or ecclesiastical ethics.
11). The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing ‘judicial laws’) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. Outside of those areas where God’s law prescribes the intervention and application of penal redress, civil rulers are not authorized to legislate or use coercion (e.g., the economic marketplace).
12). The morally proper way for Christians to correct social evils which are not under the lawful jurisdiction of the state is by means of voluntary and charitable enterprises of the censures of the home, church, and marketplace—even as the appropriate method of changing the political order of civil law is not violent revolution, but dependence upon regeneration, re-education, and gradual legal reform.
9. See John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, trans. Arthur Golding (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1987). John Calvin, The Covenant Enforced: Sermons on Deuteronomy 27 and 28, ed. James B. Jordan (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990); particular attention should be given to Gary North’s “Publisher’s Preface,” pp. vii-xxv. See also, Christopher B. Strevel, “Theonomic Precedent in the Theology of John Calvin,” in The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, ed. Steven M. Schlissel (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2002), pp. 319-368.
10. See the reprint of Martin Bucer, “The Fourteenth Law: The Modification of Penalties,” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, vol. 5, no. 2 (Winter, 1978-79), pp. 11-16, and Jack Sawyer, “Introduction to Bucer’s De Regno Christi,” Ibid., pp. 8-10.
11. See Richard Flinn, “Samuel Rutherford and Puritan Political Theory,” Ibid., pp. 49-74. For an example of American Covenanter theonomic thought see James R. Wilson, “The Law of God Revealed in the Scriptures by Christ as Mediator,” in The Christian Statesman, vol. 147, no. 6 (November - December 2004), pp. 19-34; first published in 1838.
12. See W. Gary Crampton, “Biblical Ethics and the Westminster Standards,” parts 1 and 2 in The Christian Statesman, vol. 148, nos. 5-6 (September - October and November - December 2005).
13. See John Cotton, “A Discourse about Civil Government,” in Church and State in American History, revised edition, eds. John F. Wilson and Donald L. Drakeman (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987), pp. 3-7. John Cotton, “An Abstract of the Laws of New England as They Are Now Established,” reprinted in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, vol. 5, no. 2 (Winter, 1978-79), pp. 75-96.
14. That is, the Old Testament has been retired from active service in the determination of moral standards for the New Covenant era because it is old and out of date, though it still retains the title, “Word of God.” The Old Testament is like the President Emeritus at a university: It is revered and honored, but no longer has any real authority.
15. A “status crime” is one that “consists not in proscribed action or inaction, but in the accused having a certain personal condition or being a person of a specified character.” Black’s Law Dictionary, abridged 5th edition (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1983), p. 733.
16. Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”
17. Greg Bahnsen defines “standing law” as follows: “Standing law is used here for policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals (e.g., do not kill; children obey your parents; merchants have equal measures; magistrates execute rapists), in contrast to particular directions for an individual … or positive commands for distinct incidents….” No Other Standard, p. 12.
18. “General equity” refers to the universal, trans-cultural principles of justice that form the basis of Old Testament civil law. The principles are universal and trans-cultural because these laws express the righteousness of God.
19. Revelation 17:9,”And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.” See Geneva Notes, John Gill’s Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, among other commentaries…
20. In regard to the question of whether or not believers in Christ are still accountable to the moral law of the Old Testament, Fleener responds : “The answer to this question is really yes and no.” In one place he explains the “yes”: “We agree that we are still responsible to obey the Ten Commandments, etc.” However, in another place he states the “no”: “Jesus leaves no room for question. We are not accountable to the Moral Law of the Old Testament, we are held accountable to a much higher standard!” Fleener’s “no” seems quite emphatic.
21. Interestingly, in Fleener’s scheme, civil magistrates in the New Covenant era are held to a lower standard of civil justice by God. First, they no longer have any biblical standard for deciding what is a crime (i.e., actions the civil government should punish). Second, they are free to punish or not punish crime as they see fit. Since the New Testament is largely silent on the specifics of civil law and the Old Testament no longer has any authority on its own account, Fleener’s view leaves us at the mercy and whim of human reason and conscience. For example, in Old Testament law, rape was considered such a serious crime that it was to be punished with death, but since that law is no longer applicable, men are free now to consider it a less serious crime and punish it or not punish it however their conscience and reason dictates.
22. William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990).
23. These three responses to Theonomy: A Reformed Critique are Gary North, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991); Gary North, Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991); Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991).
24. “Only” in the sense that the New Testament must specifically repeat (in some way) an Old Testament moral standard for that Old Testament moral standard to remain binding on Christians. In this view, the Old Testament law is, at best, a secondary source for ethics from which a Christian can find “wisdom” (though, of course, this “wisdom” is on a lower ethical plane than the New Testament, and this wisdom is not morally binding); at worst, the Old Testament law is considered sub-Christian and discarded as a vestige of man’s unelightened past and God’s toleration of this.
William Einwechter (Th.M.) is an ordained minister and an elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is vice president of the National Reform Association and editor of The Christian Statesman.