Monday, March 9, 2015

Open Letter to Dr. White (Regarding Theonomy)

Dear Dr. James R. White,

Let me begin by saying that of all the great teachers and theologians in the Reformed world alive today, I owe the greatest debt to you. Most of what I learned on matters pertaining to theology and apologetics over the past six years came from listening to your debates and Dividing Line podcast, as well as reading several of your books (The Forgotten Trinity remains my all-time favourite, as it has helped me in numerous encounters with Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims, Mormons and Oneness Pentecostals). I continue to hold you up to my colleagues as the best Christian apologist today against Islam.

That being said, I have over the course of my studies in ethics and social theory in the past two years gravitated towards the Theonomic position. Van Til's maxim of "Theonomy or Autonomy" is one that I take very seriously, as I find that if I were to be truly Presuppositional in my approach to law and ethics, I am forced to say that the scriptures (both Old and New Testament) are the only sure foundation that we can have in questions relating to those issues. On the specific issue of Old Testament judicial law, I find that there is immeasurable wisdom in those laws that we cannot afford to dispense with, and the Church today would be much poorer in its witness to the world if it did not draw from those resources to give coherent answers to the socio-political and economic problems plaguing the world today.

Yes, there is to some extent some cultural baggage contain in the Old Testament Law. I believe that this is the reason why the Reformed Confessions spoke of "General Equity." It is through that principle of General Equity that we are able to filter out those elements of the judicial laws that are strictly for Ancient Israel only, and extract the principles from them that are relevant to every culture and every age. I find it perplexing that you accuse the Theonomic position of Judaizing, when in fact every Theonomic author that I know of recognizes the necessity of contextualizing the principles of those laws to the social situations that we find ourselves in. My Eastern European Theonomist colleagues do not cease to be Eastern Europeans, neither do my African Theonomist colleagues give up their Africanness by adopting the position that they do. Every culture needs to be redeemed under Christ, but nobody is asserting that they have to be changed into some sort of Neo-Israel in the process. To assert otherwise is to assert a Strawman.

That being said, I must speak on the statements that you have made regarding Shari'a and its alleged similarity to Theonomy. As a student in Middle Eastern Studies, who is in the process of reading the Qur'an in the original Arabic and has written no less than two university-level papers on the subject of Islamic jurisprudence, I think that I can speak with some level of credibility on the topic of Shari'a. I can assure you that I did not learn about Shari'a from Fox News (we don't have that up here in Canada). Perhaps I am not up to your level when it comes to knowledge and acquaintance in the Islamic sources, but by God's grace I am getting there, and hope to be just as effective in that area as you are. Be that as it may, I do find the comparison between Theonomy and Shari'a to be both oversimplistic and inaccurate, as there are many points of divergence between the two:
  1. First of all, while Theonomy is comprehensive, it is not exhaustive (that is a distinction many people fail to make). Recall that there are only 613 laws in Torah, whereas Shari'a has tens of thousands of laws covering all sorts of matters that the Torah does not even begin to touch upon. This is because Biblical Law was never meant to be exhaustive. Biblical law has many areas that are "adiaphora," where we can exercise our Christian liberty, whereas Shari'a regulates every part of your life, right down to how you go to the bathroom or what positions you may have sex with your spouse. I've yet to see a Theonomic treatise on the proper biblical way to clip one's toenails!
  2. Many of the Islamic penalties are much more severe than the Biblical penalties. For example, thieves must pay back what they stole in the Torah, whereas in the Qur'an they get their hands chopped off. The number of crimes one may be put to death for is also significantly smaller in the Torah than it is in Shari'a.
  3. Islamic law barely (if at all) distinguishes between sins and crimes the way Biblical law does. For them, most if not all sins must be prevented or punished by the State somehow. Theonomists recognize the Kuyperian concept of Sphere Sovereignty, which limits the extent to which the State can punish that which is unlawful, and leaves it to the spheres of family and church to handle those laws that lack judicial penalties. You will not find any equivalent to Sphere Sovereignty in Islamic social thought, as they tend to mix and confuse the spheres together.
  4. The economic systems are polar opposites. Biblical economics is based on free enterprise, which you'll get from reading any number of Gary North's writings. Shari'a, on the other hand, is based on heavy regulation and taxation (basically Socialism). Every discussion of Shari'a-compliant economics I have ever come across talks about heavy income taxation, banning of interest, and welfare statism.
  5. The Theonomic movement is very Libertarian in its orientation. Rushdoony wrote in the Roots of Reconstruction that Theonomy is close as one can get to Radical Libertarianism. Shari'a has the opposite tendency: It is Totalitarian, and can only be truly enforced in Statist society where civil government reaches into every area of its citizens' lives.
  6. Finally, Theonomists, being orthodox Calvinists, believe that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and that only the Holy Spirit can make the heart desire obedience to God's Law. We do not believe in "salvation by law" as a certain Islamic apologist mischaracterizes us as believing. The idea that a perfect law can behavioristically change hearts and minds may be an Islamic notion, but it is not a Christian one, and we repudiate it wholeheartedly.
These are just a few of the differences between the two systems that come readily to mind. Here is another article which explains the differences between the two. Suffice to say, I find the attempt at comparing the two to totally inaccurate,  and can only be sustained if one is not well-acquainted with both Biblical Law and Shari'a.

With that out of the way, I must speak to one other matter that you raised up in your recent Dividing Line, and that is the behaviour of most of those within the Theonomic camp. I do find it funny that the same accusation is being hurled at Theonomic Calvinists by non-Theonomic Calvinists that Arminians routinely hurl against Calvinists of all stripes. Be that as it may, I agree with almost everything you said in your last DL. It is unfortunate that you've had some nasty scrapes with some of the Theonomic stalwarts, given that your high view of the Law makes you an honourary Theonomist in my book (then again, infights in the Theonomic camp are not unheard of!). I have spoken to various young Theonomists that I know (including a certain individual you know who goes to the same church as you), and many of us agree that there is indeed an attitude problem among many Theonomists. This is not something new, as Bahnsen addressed the exact same problem back in the 90s. I'm not entirely sure why a lot of those "Angry Calvinists" find themselves in the Theonomic camp. I do hope and pray that those of us within the Theonomic camp will heed the admonition to "speak the truth in love," and shed this unfortunate tendency (it has become something of a PR problem for us among other Reformed folk). But I do thank you for raising the issue. I also thank you for recognizing that we are all not like that.

That concludes my Apology (a fititng double-entendre) for the Theonomic movement. May God bless you in your ministry work, and may you continue to equip the saints in dealing with the pressing issues that we face today.