Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Not your grandmother's theonomy

The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God's Law of Liberty by Joel McDurmon

Although it's not really clear from the title, this book is about theonomy, which McDurmon defines as "the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today" (p. 17).

The key phrase here is "including some civil laws". This is a reasonable definition: non-theonomic Reformed people would say that no civil laws remain obligatory for today (only, perhaps, the principles behind the laws). But in his discussion of which civil laws remain obligatory, McDurmon departs in a significant way from older Theonomic writers such as Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North.

In chapter 3, McDurmon argues that crimes relating to worship (e.g. idolatry and blasphemy) and sex (e.g. homosexuality and adultery) carried the death penalty in the Old Testament because of the concept of herem, in which things that could contaminate Israel needed to be destroyed. McDurmon argues that this no longer applies today. Although he isn't clear on this point, he seems to suggest that they should not even be crimes today (though of course, they are still sins). Later in the book he says that in a "properly theonomic society", the government "would have little to do with sex or marriage" (p. 94).

In chapter 4, McDurmon argues that all other Old Testament death penalties (e.g. for rape and kidnapping) still apply, on the basis that the penalties were an expression of God's perfect justice. Yet this does not sit easily with what was stated in the previous chapter: the death penalty for blasphemy was also a just one, yet McDurmon says it no longer applies. In any case, McDurmon's position represents a significant (and very conscious) departure from traditional theonomy.

Finally, with regards to practical application, McDurmon correctly notes that the Great Commission includes a command to disciple the nations, and teach God's law to entire societies rather than just individuals (p. 104). Yet it seems he has a defective view of discipleship. Discipleship, among other things, encourages inner conviction rather than just behaviour modification. That also applies in "teaching the nations". So when McDurmon says  that Christians "should always lead opposition to any and all taxation" (p. 112), one can't help but feel that he has misplaced priorities and is fighting the wrong battles.

The Bounds of Love is an interesting read but not really a book I would recommend.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A significant contribution to historical theology

The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

This is a book of historical theology. It looks at theological development among African-Americans from 1600 to the present day. There are not a lot of early African-American theological writers, but Anyabwile does a fine job of introducing the reader to men like Jupiter Hammon and Daniel Payne, as well as bringing out the theology present in slave songs and testimonies.

As the title indicates, Anyabwile argues that the history of African-American theology is a story of decline: from orthodox Calvinism through Arminianism and Pentecostalism to full-blown liberalism and prosperity theology. One interesting reason given for the rise of liberalism in African-American circles is that "most theologically conservative seminaries adopted the racist segregationist policies and attitudes of the time" (p. 205).

Each chapter of the book covers a different area of doctrine: revelation, theology proper, anthropology, christology, soteriology, and pneumatology. Ecclesiology and eschatology are glaring omissions: Anyabwile says only that outlines for these chapters were "left on the cutting room floor" (p. 241).

Perhaps the most striking thing I read was that in the era of slavery, black people were often stereotyped, but they did not respond by stereotyping white people themselves: "the folk theology of slaves proved resilient against tendencies to denigrate white people as a class or to make pejorative associations with white skin color" (p. 113).

The Decline of African American Theology is a helpful an interesting book, and makes a significant contribution to the discipline of historical theology.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Some good points, but based on an unconvincing hermeneutic

Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William J. Webb

This is a book arguing against smacking (spanking) children. Webb particularly interacts with organisations such as Focus on the Family, which advocates smacking, but suggests a parent administer no more than two smacks at a time. Webb argues that such an approach is not "biblical" at all, in the sense that it has moved beyond what he calls the Bible's "concrete specific instructions". Webb points out that the Book of Proverbs encourages using a rod on the back, rather than a hand on the bottom. Webb than says that the way Focus on the Family has moved beyond the Bible is a good thing, and we should go even further, following the Bible's own trajectory towards a more gentle approach. Webb calls this a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic".

Firstly, the book has a rather condescending feel about it. Webb is constantly "commending" corporal punishment advocates for going beyond the Bible, when they would argue, of course, that they are faithfully following the principles laid out in Proverbs. Webb also notes that he used to believe in smacking, but now he knows better.

Secondly, Webb focuses his attention on a narrow band within the broad spectrum of Christian smacking advocates. He seems to have no knowledge, for example, of Michael Pearl, who does indeed argue for using a "rod". Maybe he knows about Pearl but considers him too fringe or discredited to be worth mentioning. In any case, different pastors, authors, and parents apply the biblical teaching on smacking in different ways (this article from Capitol Hill Baptist Church mentions a plastic spoon), and it's not clear that the Focus on the Family approach can be said to be representative. Webb struggles to articulate what could be wrong in using  an actual rod. The only arguments he gives are: (a) it gives him a feeling of revulsion, and (b) even Focus on the Family avoids it.

Thirdly, at the heart of everything he says about smacking is Webb's redemptive-movement hermeneutic. It's the idea that we look at how the Bible's approach to a certain issue is different to that of the surrounding culture. (In this case, ancient Egyptian and Babylonian laws.) To put it bluntly, we see how the Bible has improved upon that, we discern the direction that the Bible takes us, and go further in that direction. This sounds a lot like improving upon the Bible, and it is. Webb's hermeneutic fails to take into account that in Christ we already have God's fullest revelation. For more details, see Thomas Schreiner's review of Webb's earlier book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

I was all set to give this book a two-star rating, but Webb includes a postscript in which he gives an excellent overview of "alternative" disciplinary methods. Regardless of whether one agrees with smacking or not, there is a lot of helpful parenting advice here. That was good enough to lift the book up to three stars.