Thursday, October 30, 2008

R. Scott Clark on Theonomy and the Reformed Confessions

R. Scott Clark has a piece that, from its absurd opening, I at first thought was intended as a humorous article (link).

RSC writes, "One of the more interesting ways in which theonomy is contra confessional is its Barthian-like rejection of the classic Reformed doctrine of natural law and implicitly it’s skepticism regarding natural revelation."

I. The Evidence
Let's explore this claim, using the WCF as approved by the PCA. Nature as a revelatory source is mentioned exactly five times in the WCF.

1) I:1
1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manner, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

2) I:6
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

3) XX:4
And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account.

4) XXI:1
The light of nature sheweth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

5) XXI:7
As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

II. The Analysis
1) Of the five instances, all are fully acceptable to "theonomists," at least in the broad sense of the term "theonomist" (which itself is a problem with RSC's post).
2) Of the five instances, three (numbers (1), (4), and (5)) are fully supportive of the theonomist position that (where it speaks) Scripture is more clear than nature.
3) Of the remaining two instances:
i) The first (number (2)) assigns to the "light of nature" a role in determining the circumstances of worship. If this contradicts theonomy, then it also (and even more clearly - since the section is on the law of worship, not of nations and societies) contradicts the Regulative Principle of Worship. But, however, such a conclusion is absurd. Therefore, the premise that this contradicts theonomy is false. In fact, a better interpretation is to suggest that "light of nature" in this section means that we use "common sense" to govern the circumstances of worship.
ii) The second (number (3)) is negative: it prohibits people from using the pretense of Christian liberty to publish opinions that are contrary to the light of nature. If the meaning of the "light of nature" is roughly the same here as in the other sections, i.e. essentially "common sense," then there is nothing unacceptable to the theonomist here either. Furthermore, this does not relate specifically to the law of nations (to civil law), but to the moral law.


A second claim by RSC: "For the divines, as for Calvin, civil government is one thing, salvation is another. Theonomists confuse these two things far too often." This sounds absurd. RSC unfortunately fails to provide any examples to substantiate his over-the-top claim.


A third claim by RSC: "Unlike our theonomists, the divines believed that there is a natural law, that it can be and is known, that it contains specific precepts that are revealed with sufficiently clarity to be applied, even by the unregenerate, to specific instances." If, for the sake of the argument, we grant this assertion, that kind of claim is not embodied in the confessions. Instead, quite the opposite. The Confession clearly contrasts the general (it even uses the term "in general" in instance 5 above), vague light of nature with the clear light of Scripture.

Given that the confession appears to contradict RSC's claim that "natural law ... contains specific precepts that are revealed with sufficient clarity to be applied ... to specific instances," and given that the light of nature itself reveals that nature's light provides general principles rather than specific precepts, we can properly reject this RSC's claim.

Furthermore, even if it were not the case that the confession outright contradicts RSC's claim and even if the light of nature did not undermine RSC's "specific precept" assertion, still RSC's indictment would not address theonomy. Why? Because theonomy simply maintains the Reformation hermeneutic that the less clear should be interpreted by the more clear. Scripture is more clear than nature, as it itself teaches and the confession (following Scripture) clearly indicates.

Therefore, I would respectfully call on RSC to revise his posting against "theonomists," or perhaps come up with a new title for those who
a) confuse civil government and salvation (unlike any "theonomists" I know);
b) refuse to accord the light of nature a revelatory role (unlike any "theonomists" I know); or
c) argue that the light of nature is a non-existent thing (unlike any "theonomists" I know).

Or perhaps RSC meant his post as a joke, in which case the pie is on my face for getting at first and then falling for his very out of season April Fools' Joke.


UPDATE: From his comment box, RSC adds this sentiment: "I don’t write these posts to convince the invincible theonomists but to provide help to those who know that theonomy is wrong but who are unaware of the alternative offered by an adaptation of the historic Reformed theory of natural law." That's an interesting thought, don't you think?


Anonymous said...

Here's are some biblical citations of natural law:
in Genesis; in Job, in the concept of Logos in gospel of John, more particularly in Matthew 7:11; Mark 10:1-9; Romans 1:19-21; 2:14-15, 12:17; 13:6; I Cor. 11:1-16; and I Peter 2:12, 3:16.
from C. H. Dodd "Natural Law in the Bible" 1946 (a book, not an article)

Turretinfan said...


"Citations of natural law," is an inaccurate description. Regardless, no one (that I know of) is denying that there is light in Nature. That's so far from being an issue that it is gladly conceded.