Pragmatism, Christian Conservativism, Theonomy, and the Upcoming Election

As we approach this election season, one of the things I have had to deal with as a Christian is the fact that none of the candidates who have any chance of winning are really consistent with my beliefs. Although I am much closer to Romney than to Obama, in reality, we need far more radical change than either of their policies facilitate. This was hammered home to me even this morning on Phil Johnson’s blog, which shows that, basically, any vote for a third party candidate is a vote for Obama.

Then, you have this post from Joel McDurmon of American Vision, in which he seems to imply that, not only does Deuteronomy 1:13 imply that it is wrong to vote for a candidate who does not hold to Christian values, but that it is not “reformed” to do so, since John Calvin didn’t even believe this.

I really do believe that, as I have said many times, many of these problems of how to apply scripture are not issues of the semantics of the text, but of the pragmatics of the text. My concern in writing this post is that the oversimplifications in the way theonomy are actually doing more harm than good at this point.

Now, let me quickly say that I do not mean this as a personal assault against my theonomist friends. I have many dear friends who are theonomists, and I believe their heart is in the right place. I have nothing but applause for their desire to have us take seriously the first five books of the Bible as part of scripture, and not to ignore them in the political realm. Still, as I studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and now as I have continued in studying linguistics, I am concerned about the issue of how they apply the law, in a way that strikes me as extremely impetuous.

Again, when we deal with pragmatics, we are dealing with the way in which speakers communicate more than what is explicitly said, due to cultural backgrounds, assumptions speakers make, etc. One of the major problems in hermeneutics is the problem of Derrida and the deconstructionists. One of the major arguments of Derrida is that one could not know what kind of literature a literary work is, since there is such overlap between the different areas of literature. Hence, because you cannot know what area of literature a piece belongs to, you cannot know the meaning of the text. What is interesting is that speech act theorists, such as Austin and Searle, ended up getting involved in the discussion. The reason is that the type of literature will have an affect on the illocutionary force of the speech act. [for an excellent introduction to Speech Act Theory, click here]

To understand this, let us take the simple phrase “I love you.” What would be the difference of the illocutionary force of this speech act if one was spoken in the context of a science paper about a group of scientists, who have been puzzled by a problem that one scientist finally solves and the context of a romance novel? Obviously, when the scientists say that the love a particular scientist for solving a problem in a scholarly journal, they don’t mean the same thing as when a woman tells her lover “I love you” in a romance novel. Also, remember, because of indirect speech acts, one does not need to have the exact words there in order to have a particular illocutionary force. Consider the example I always use: “You are a pig.” The problem is that there is no word “insult” in the phrase “You are a pig,” and yet, an “insult” is clearly what is intended.

Now, we must consider the problem of value systems in interpreting the law. Christopher J.H. Wright, who has been a major influence on me in interpreting the law, writes the following:

Secondly, what is important about the penal system of Israel’s law is the scale of values it reflects rather than the literal prescriptions themselves. As we saw in chapter 9 above, careful study of Israel’s penology shows that the range of offences for which the death penalty was applied were to do with the central concerns of protecting the covenant relationship and the family/household unit within which that relationship was preserved and experienced. The gradation of penalties also shows a clear priority of human life over property, of needs over rights, and other priorities that challenge the sometimes distorted values of our modern judicial systems. [Wright, Christopher J.H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. IVP Academic. p.407]

To understand what Dr. Wright is talking about, let us take the law prescribing the death penalty for adultery. Now, let us take the scenario of a man who has been faithful to his wife and kids for ten years. A loose woman who “knows how to get what she wants” enters the workplace, and plays him like a fiddle in order to get him in bed with her. He succumbs, and they are caught. Now, the law says that you are to execute such a man. However, the law also says that you are to protect the nuclear family. If you execute this man, then you leave a wife without a husband, and children without a father. Worse than that, the law against adultery is meant to protect the nuclear family, and, if you just simply execute this adulterer, even after a fair trial, you have effectively destroyed the nuclear family by implementing a law meant to protect the nuclear family.

Thus, the law would seem to be contradictory…or is it? Again, if we understand that this law provides a system of values, then we can recognize that the intent of the law is to protect the human family from adultery. Therefore, in this situation, the threat to the human family is the loose woman, and not the man. Hence, the law would seem to suggest that the loose woman should be executed in such an instance, but, given the law’s emphasis on the preservation of the nuclear family, one should not execute the man, as that would totally destroy the nuclear family. Now, there obviously will come a point in time in which the man’s adultery will become a threat to the nuclear family. Obviously, he will have to regain the trust of his family after one act of adultery. Still, that is more than possible, and hence, one act of adultery does not automatically destroy the nuclear family, whereas, a woman who can manipulate men to get what she wants is a threat to the nuclear family. However, if the man’s adultery continues, and starts becoming a threat to the nuclear family, or if the circumstances under which the initial adultery occurred demonstrate that this one act of adultery demonstrates an attitude that is a threat to the nuclear family, then, obviously, the man should be executed.

However, one might ask, “But the law says “the adulterer and adulteress shall die!” It doesn’t say they might die depending upon the threat to the nuclear family. Again, such a view of language is way too simplistic. Not only does it ignore the intent of the text with regards to protecting the nuclear family, but, even worse, it ignores that we are dealing with *legal* literature. Again, as I said above, the illocutionary force is heavily related to the kind of literature we are dealing with. This is where Christopher J.H. Wright [ibid, pgs 406-407] has been extremely helpful to me as well. He points out that there are three laws in which we have an explicit mention of the inability of the penalty to be lessened. These three instances are:

Numbers 35:31 ‘Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 13:6-8 “If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), 8 you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him.

Deuteronomy 19:16-19 “If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. 18 “And the judges shall investigate thoroughly; and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

Hence, we have three different times where the text specifically mentions that these penalties cannot be lessened. This, combined with the fact that some penalties specifically mention a penalty as a maximum penalty [c.f. Deuteronomy 25:1-3] leads Dr. Wright to the obvious conclusion that the law intended to give *maximum* penalties, and not absolute penalties. We do the same thing today. Many of our laws say that the penalty for murder is death, but there are many murderers who are simply put in jail. Whether this is right in the light of passages such as Numbers 35:31 [I don’t believe it is] is entirely irrelevant, since what I am pointing out is that even in our own day legal literature functions on the basis of maximum penalties. The judgments as to exactly how the law is to be implemented must come from the value system of the law itself, as I demonstrated above. It is this value system that is the absolute that controls how the law is to be implemented.

It is interesting that the Torah is full of, not only case law, but also narrative. The narratives help us to understand exactly what value system the law is expressing. More than that, the Hebrew term תורה Torah probably doesn’t even mean “law,” but, rather, “instruction.” That would make sense if what was important was the value system, and the application of the law on the basis of the value system, with each of the penal sanctions as maximum penalties.

This also explains why Solomon asked for wisdom. If these penal sanctions were simple black and white penalties that must be obeyed at all times, then Solomon would not have needed wisdom to rule. Whenever you see x, do y, would be all he would need. In fact, in his first case, he has to deal with two harlots. Although the law says that the penalty for harlotry is death, if Solomon had executed these women, he would have left this baby to grow up without at least one parent. Solomon’s decision was so wise because he, not only was able to find out who the baby’s real mother was, and thus force her to take responsibility for her harlotry, but also, he was able to find out who the offending woman was, and put her to open public shame, and he did so simply by understanding the system of values found in the Torah.

Worse than that, the connection between the wisdom literature and Torah shows us that, as with all Ancient Near Eastern kings, the application of the law was to be done through wisdom. In fact, the book of Proverbs was probably a set of wisdom texts used to train the next king to assume the throne. Although the king also had a copy of God’s law, Israel saw fit to also train the king in wisdom showing the heavy value placed on wisdom in the implementing of the law.

It is this final point that will now allow me to transition into a discussion of the Torah and the current election. The problem with the use of Deuteronomy 1:13 is that it is in the context of one man [Moses] determining who will be leaders of the country under him. Also, in Calvin’s Geneva, you have the same situation. In Geneva, you have the state-church where the leadership of the church was the same as that of the state. Hence, in the very nature of the case, Christians got to determine who their leaders would be.

The problem is that we as Christians cannot determine who our next leaders will be by our vote this election. We are in the minority of a very quickly self-destructing secular society, and while our vote can *influence* who will become president, it will never be able to *determine* who will become president, unlike Moses in ancient Israel, or the Christian populous of Geneva. The electoral collage ultimately makes that decision. We can certainly *influence* which way that goes [however small that influence might be], but we cannot determine it. Hence, yes, if we could determine such things, we would choose leaders who have such characteristics as described in Deuteronomy 1. However, given that all we have is a vote that will only slightly influence an electoral collage, we need to be careful about how we apply Deuteronomy 1.

Again, if we go back to the values of the scriptures, we can see an emphasis placed upon the proclamation of the gospel and discipleship, especially in the great commission, but also in the evangelistic efforts of the church in the book of Acts. Also, I think we have to realize that who a culture puts in office says a lot about the values of that culture. The reason we have a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is because of the values of our culture. We are a culture that is center/right, and being pulled farther to the left all of the time. What this says is that the hearts of the people of this country are not right, and they are in need of the gospel, and in need of the very discipleship spoken of in the great commission.

It is here that I believe the crucial difference between these two candidates comes through. President Obama, by his supporting of “gay rights,” and a whole host of other evils, has been working very hard to, not only make immorality legal, but, as the gay rights crowd wants, to silence any proclamation of the true gospel, which is that God gets to define what sin is, and that man needs to repent and submit to the lordship of Christ. While Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and as such does not himself believe the gospel, at least I can say that he would protect the free proclamation of the gospel. If we do truly believe that it is the proclamation of the gospel that will save this nation, then, in the light of what I said earlier about a vote for a third party candidate being a vote for Barack Obama, we need to consider whether we want to vote for a third party candidate, and thus squelch the only hope this nation has [the gospel transforming hearts through the power of God], or whether we want to vote for a president who, although he is certainly far from what we want, will nonetheless protect the God-given constitutional right that we have to continue to present the gospel, and make disciples of all nations.

Since the Bible puts such a high value on the gospel and Christian discipleship, we should be concerned when our vote actually ends up resulting in not being able to do these things legally anymore. Again, when we, not only look at the context of Deuteronomy 1 as well as the situation to which Calvin was applying it in Geneva, but also the value system the scriptures lay down for us with the gospel being the means by which the heart of the people of this nation must be changed, we find that it is a grossly unwise application of scripture to say that we should vote for a third party candidate. That is also why I found this comment greatly disturbing. If the hearts of the people are not changed, then they will not love a Christian in the White House. Sure, they might reap the benefits of something like that, and love the benefits, but they will long for their own sin again, and their own personal peace. The left thought the same thing, and now, they are having to deal with the harsh reality that a system that does not seek to turn the hearts of the people toward God through the gospel is doomed to failure, because it cannot change the heart. If you force people to do something they don’t want, they will rebel, and there will no longer be a Christian in the White House.

This is the major problem with those who have been accusing those who will vote for Mitt Romney of “pragmatism.” However, once you quote the law about a railing being around the roof of their house, and ask them if they have a railing around the roof of their house, they will say “no.” When they answer that this is because the intent of the law is to protect human life, and having a railing around the roof of our house today would not protect human life, I think we ought to reply that they are being a “pragmatist” as well. While it is true that God has given us absolute commands, it is also true that how those absolute commands are going to apply to a given situation is going to change with the situation. For example, take the law concerning a railing around the roof of your house. The universal stays the same [we are to protect human life] but how that law is applied in various cultures and at various times [the railing around the roof] is going to change. Given the context of Deuteronomy as Moses, a man of God *determining* the next leaders, and given the context of *Christians* *determining* the leaders in Geneva, obviously, there is no parallel to an election in 2012 where we can only, at best, have a small *influence* on what happens.

Also, because of the high value that the scriptures place on the gospel and Christian discipleship, it is more than absurd to say that we should essentially vote for a candidate who is actively seeking to legally destroy the rights we have to these things by voting for a third party candidate. You see, it is the value system as found in the scriptures that gives us the universals, and thus keeps us out of pragmatism, but, nonetheless, allow us to apply those universals to our given situation as culture changes. That is what it means to be wise in how we apply the text of scripture. It is horribly unwise to essentially vote for a candidate who seeks to suppress the proclamation that, “yes, homosexuality is a sin, but there is redemption through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” all because you want to see a Christian in the White House, thinking that will change things when the whole heart of the society would be against the very things any Christian would stand for. We have to begin with the transformation of the heart, and if any vote would be directly or indirectly for a man who would seek to destroy those freedoms we enjoy, we had better go back and rethink our reasons for voting in the way that we have.

As I have said many times, we must go back to the scriptures, and ask what they are intending to accomplish. The answer to how we should apply this text in our situation is that we must seek to accomplish the very same thing the text is seeking to accomplish in our current situation. It is an easy question to answer in some situations, but it is a tough question to answer for many situations, including this one. Still, any application that would not understand the intent of a text, and unwisely contradicts the very value system that is found in the text itself is not a wise application. However, that is my main concern with theonomy. It is not that I believe that the law of God should not be used in the civil sphere; I believe that it should. It is the rash and unwise applications that are made by theonomists that concerns me, and, in this case, I believe that the thonomists who are being unwise by saying that the Bible says we must vote for a third party candidate will actually end up doing far more damage than good.


7 Responses to “Pragmatism, Christian Conservativism, Theonomy, and the Upcoming Election”

  1. Richard Says:

    Thank you for this. Theonomists drive me crazy. Better is the wisdom found in the Westminster Confession which states the Mosaic civil laws apply only as principles of equity. But, my experience is talking to a theonomist is like talking to a brick wall in many cases.

  2. otrmin Says:


    I would say that the *newer* theonomists drive me crazy. The old school theonomists such as Bahnsen, Gentry, and my former pastor Dr. Carl Bogue are [were] very honest and fair men. I go to church with a number of old school theonomists, and the same thing holds true of them. We disagree in our applications of the law, but there is a lot of mutual respect between us, and willingness to learn from each other.

    My concern is with the new theonomists, and how they are taking the law, and acting as if it is the gospel. The Christian Patriarchy movement, militant fecundity, the notion that, if we just get Christians into leadership, people would automatically accept the truths of scripture is very dangerous. Old school theonomy recognized that the mechanism for taking dominion was the gospel. These other things that have grown up sense then will, I believe, eventually logically result in a false gospel, if they haven’t already [think the federal vision].

    What is so hard in talking to the new theonomists is the very attitude of a “brick wall” that you describe. It is the lack of wisdom in being willing to listen and fairly consider the criticisms of men like Christopher J.H. Wright that bothers me. I can only hope that the older theonomists that are still alive will take these men aside, and tell them to stop showing this kind of unwillingness to listen.

    God Bless,

    • Richard Says:

      Thank you for this wisdom. As an elder, it has been a frustrating experience having to deal with a young man in our Reformed congregation who veered off into theonomy and in some ways has almost cult-like tendencies in adopting patriarchy, the family-integrated movement and other airborne diseases from the internet. His confrontational style with those who disagreed turned off most of the church, and his inability to distinguish law/Gospel was pretty revealing, but then he could cite to all sorts of “reputable” sources for his views . I wish the older theonomists would speak some words of wisdom to these men.

      • otrmin Says:


        Yes, I definitely wish the older theonomists would, indeed, speak words of wisdom to these men. However, upon further thought, I am not certain the newer theonomists would even listen to them. I had an online discussion with Bojidar Marinov on Gary DeMar’s site, Not only did I show his exegesis to be way off, but I quoted Greg Bahnsen against him. You can see for yourself that it didn’t even faze him.

        The main problem with the things this young man is involved with is hermeneutical.What I have found best is to do in this situation is to use his hermeneutical methodology to prove something absurd. For example, hermeneutical systems that are weak in the area of pragmatics will fall prey to satires such as this:

        Top 10 Biblical Ways to Acquire a Wife
        10. Find a prostitute and marry her. (Hosea 1:1-3)
        9.Purchase a piece of property, and get a woman as part of the deal. (Ruth 4:5-10)
        8. Find an attractive prisoner of war, bring her home, shave her head, trim her nails, and give her new clothes. Then she’s yours. (Deuteronomy 21:11-13)
        7.Go to a party and hide. When the women come out to dance, grab one and carry her off to be your wife. (Judges 21:19-25)
        6.Cut 200 foreskins off of your future father-in-law’s enemies and get his daughter for a wife. (I Samuel 18:27)
        5.Become the emperor of a huge nation and hold a beauty contest. (Esther 2:3-4)
        4.Find a man with seven daughters, and impress him by watering his flock. (Exodus 2:16-21)
        3.When you see someone you like, go home and tell your parents, “I have seen a woman; now get her for me.” If your parents question your decision, simply say, “Get her for me. She’s the one for me.” (Judges 14:1-3)
        2.Agree to work seven years in exchange for a woman’s hand in marriage. Get tricked into marrying the wrong woman. Then work another seven years for the woman you wanted to marry in the first place. That’s right. Fourteen years of toil for a woman. (Genesis 29:15-30)
        1.Have God create a wife for you while you sleep. Note: this will cost you a rib. (Genesis 2:19-24)

        When people in the very positions you have stated use the term “Biblical,” it is often helpful to bring up the above list. This will force them to define what they mean by “Biblical” pragmatically, and not just semantically.

        Yes, he might be able to find “reputable sources” that agree with him. That is not the issue. Even reputable interpreters can be wrong. The issue is whether what is being said is consistent with the intent of the text. Also, it might be helpful to point out to him that hyperpreterists ransack the writings of orthodox preterists in order to find justification for their unorthodox belief system. Hyperpreterists are more then happy to point you to a “reputable” source for all their interpretations as well.

        Still, only God can open this man’s eyes to the error of these teachings. I will be praying for you as you deal with this problem and I will be praying for this young man! God be with you!

        God Bless,

  3. Richard Says:

    Thanks for linking to your inter-actions with Mr. Marinov. Our young man views Mr. Marinov as a mentor of sorts, so his inability to understand the Gospel is pretty revealing. And sad. I tend to be as pessimistic as you about his inability to hear other views. Our God though is able to open ears, thank God.

  4. Richard Says:

    What is also interesting is the way the “newer” theonomists such as my friend and Marinov have enthusiastically embraced libertarianism as a political philosophy. My reading is this totally contradicts theonomy. I can’t think of an older theonomist who would have embraced libertarianism–it’s like oil and water.

  5. otrmin Says:


    The issue of libertarianism is a touchy one in theonomist camps. I would direct you to this article, for example, for a theonomic perspective on libertarianism that is quite different:

    The confusion is between a humanistic “you can’t tell me what to do” libertarianism, and the liberty that Christ brings. When you have a Christian society, you don’t have to have some of the laws that have came up over the past several years that are slowly but surely eroding our freedoms. They are not needed, because Christ is the lord of the people. However, those freedoms come from Christ and his gospel, not from an artificial imposition.

    As far as Bojidar Marinov, it is hard to know what to say. The difficulty is that I don’t even view Marinov as orthodox. If you are consistent with what he is saying [that you cannot have a distinction between law and gospel without a separation], then one wonders how you can distinguish between the two natures of Christ without separating them. Hence, not only does it lead to a false gospel, not only does it lead to authoritarianism, but it also leads to a denial of orthodox Christology [a point Marinov left untouched in our discussion]. Add to that the confrontational behavior, and [I hope it doesn’t come to this, but] it may end up becoming necessary to use church discipline.

    I will keep you in my prayers, Richard. While many of these people are very stubborn, God can indeed open their eyes. It is to that end that we can pray.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: