Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rethinking It All: Theonomy

My formative years of learning about what the Christian faith means in the day-to-day ethics of living came from the relatively small, but quite outspoken group known as the Theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists, headed by such luminaries as RJ Rushdoony, Gary North, and Kevin Craig. While practical application differed between the various schools of theonomists (how many schools? as many as there were theonomists), the exegetical base established by Greg Bahnsen seemed to be reasonably normative. That is to say, the Torah has abiding moral and legal principles for life in a post-resurrection world, which should not just be applied in a private or "spiritual" sense, but in the public realms of jurisprudence and legislation. In other words, "God's Law or Chaos" (so says a bumper sticker I have in my collection).

For many years, I have come under flak for being sympathetic to the theonomic cause. (I prefer the appellation 'theonomic' over 'Christian Reconstructionist' largely because of political differences inherent in those titles.) One professor even labeled the movement as 'demonic', albeit in some jest. The vitriol of many theonomic writers, especially North and David Chilton, occasioned this sort of derision. Looking back on some of their more polemic writings (especially "Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators"), it doesn't strike me as odd in the slightest that theonomists were, by and large, a lonely bunch. I still hold onto the basic tenet and exegesis: the Old Testament, especially the Torah on which the whole is built, is fundamentally important to the Christian Church and we ignore it or 'spiritualize' it to our own peril. The Torah of Moses does have very significant things to say not just about our individual, private or family lives, but also about our public and political discourse, especially in an increasingly antagonistic pluralist polytheist society (for many in the Church, I realize, the realities of the demonic side of the 'principalities and the powers' is a reality that the North American branch of the Church has not yet fully understood or contended with, but we are starting to feel the pressure).

My rethinking comes along the lines set forth, not only by the theonomists, but by much recent and erudite scholarship that is pouring over the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. That is, the ever present, and apparently and paradoxically divise, debate about Paul and the Torah, whether on the more scholarly level (Westerholm, Sanders, Wright, et al) or the more popular Lutheran-esque revisions (Piper and company). When thinking about this, though, it is important to set it in proper historical context, especially as we find it in the book of Acts: how does the relation of the Torah ("holy, just, and good") to the Gentile converts work?

In reading Marcus Bockmuehl's Jewish Law in Gentile Churches and Mark Nanos' The Mystery of Romans, I have been introduced to the halakhic concept of how Gentiles were supposed to act in the land of Israel if they wanted to be part of the common life and the worship (however limited they might experience it) of the one true God. These regulations are found primarily in Leviticus 18-20 (further confirming my suspicions that the Church's ignorance of this book has been theologically deadly) and consist mainly of three categories: idolatry/blasphemy, blood regulations (both dietary and 'blood shedding'), and sexual immorality. Interestingly enough, these same things appear in Acts 15 under the auspices of the Apostolic Decree, a document drafted to answer the question "What must Gentile converts to the Messiah do in order to be saved?" Of course, here, a redefinition of soteriology is in order -- in Acts the question is not "how does one get into heaven" but "how does one have a place in the eschatological community that will have a place in the age to come". Salvation is never primarily individualistic (although it does involve the individual), but speaks of how we are to be truly human now, in anticipation of God's final plans for creation (for example, Rom. 8).

These categories (which in later Rabbinic thought would be categorized under the heading of "Noachide Laws") give the theonomist much to think about. Many of the laws to Israel were exactly that, to Israel as it lived in the land. The relevance to diaspora Judaism has been much debated in Jewish circles, and Christians should consider the relevance to ethnic Jews who follow Messiah, as they are the restoration of "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (of course there is much debate here). But to the Gentile who believes in Messiah? It would seem that many of the laws, especially concerning 'ritual' or Sabbath or kosher or circumcision, do not have anything to say to the Messianic Gentile. These are the things that make Jews Jews, and Paul says (and the Apostolic Decree confirms) that "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (that is, Jews are Jews who follow Messiah, Gentiles are Gentiles who follow Messiah, they do not need to become the other). In thinking about public ethics, then, it becomes important not to overstate the theonomic case, but what is there in Lev. 18-20 and Acts 15 (not to mention Ex 20, the Ten Commandments, but that is another story for another time) must be studied and understood. In many ways, it seems, the New Testament understands the Gentile converts to not be a separate institution, but a part of God's eschatological community, which includes the restored Israel of which I've spoken in previous posts. The Church, then, is to be neither Gentile nor Jew, but builds off of what God started with Israel and forms something new, where the distinctions between Jew and Gentile are relativized in Messiah, but certainly foundational ethical principles form the basis of continued community life, in both intra-community dialogue and table fellowship and also in public discourse and legislation.

No comments: