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Reconstructionism: Greg Bahnsen's Retrogressive Ethics

Chafer lived before the contemporary Chalcedon movement and believed that "No legalist proposes to carry forward into grace the judgments which governed the social life of Israel, or the ordinances which governed their religious ritual in the land."230 Since then, however, men like Greg Bahnsen have come on the scene who do indeed believe that the laws of the Old Testament are yet binding on both the Christian and society.231 An article by Bahnsen entitled "God's Law in New Testament Ethical Themes"232 is based on this view and reveals a critical deficiency in his perspective. We will now turn our attention to the contents of his article and provide some reasons why it is so retrogressive.

In this essay, Bahnsen begins by quoting Paul's expression, "the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:2). He then provides the commentary, "perhaps the most fundamental ethical concept in either the Old or the New Testament is that of the will of God," adding, "Paul can encapsulate New Testament ethics in one stroke, saying, 'Be not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is'" (Eph. 5:17).233 This begs the question, "Where do we find the will of God?" if this is of such vital concern to the Christian. It is Bahnsen's reply to this important question that will occupy our attention.

The "will of God," according to Bahnsen, must be discovered in the Old Testament. The New Testament, he observes, "offers little by way of an explicit answer to such a question." Therefore, he concludes, it is the Old Testament that is the "unchallengeable norm for Christian conduct."234 Here are his convictions.

Indeed, we are to aim to stand perfect, fully assured in all the will of God (Col. 4:12). Well, where do we learn, understand, and become assured of God's will? The New Testament offers little by way of an explicit answer to such a question. We learn that the will of God stands over against the lusts of men (1 Pet. 4:2), and in a very few cases we are told what the will of God specifically requires (e.g., abstaining from fornication and giving thanks in all things, 1 Thess. 4:3; 5:18). However, there is no detailed discussion of the requirements of God's will, and concrete guidance in God's will as such is not systematically explored. Why not? Especially since the will of God is such a crucial ethical theme, we might have expected differently. The answer lies in recognizing that the common conviction of the inspired New Testament writers is that the will of God has been given a specific and sufficient explication in the Old Testament already. It is simply assumed that one can speak of "the will of God" without explanation because it is obvious that God's will traces back to the revelation of his will in the law previously committed to scripture.235

This telling explanation cuts to the core of Bahnsen's ethical perspective: the believer's primary norm for behavior is not Christ's commandments, but the details of the Mosaic economy. Bahnsen believes that "every attempt to reject the [Old Testament] law of God in the New Testament era meets with embarrassment before the text of the New Testament itself."236 However, every attempt to reference the believer's rule of life to the details of the Mosaic era is, in fact, rejected by New Testament teaching. Here, then, are some reasons why Bahnsen's untenable position is so retrogressive.

1. Bahnsen perpetuates details of an economy designated as "beggarly elements" in the New Testament (Gal. 4:9-10).

Neither Chafer nor Bahnsen recognize the Mosaic era for what it really was. Chafer expects the Mosaic age to be resurrected in an earthly "kingdom age" following the "age of grace." Bahnsen believes that the Mosaic law-code is to remain in force during the present church age. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' comments on Romans 5:20 are pertinent, incisive and significant:

The very word "added alongside," that Paul uses here, tells us that the Law, in and of itself, is not something that is of fundamental importance to us. It is something additional, it is something that has come in for the time being, for a particular function. It is not fundamental in the sense that sin and salvation are fundamental; it is something that enters, an addition, something that "comes in alongside of" . . . It has a function, but it is not vital in the matter of salvation. . . . What then is the function of the Law according to the Apostle? It has been brought in alongside in order that the offense, the sins, might abound.237

The New Testament portrayal of the Mosaic age does not support either Chafer's or Bahnsen's view. Instead, it clearly depicts the former age of Israel as an interlude interposed between the preceding and more abiding Abrahamic faith-covenant and the arrival of its promised "seed," who is Christ (Gal. 3:16-25). Although it certainly had an organic relationship to the Abrahamic covenant and was therefore "not against the promises of God" (Gal. 3:21), Paul described the Mosaic law-covenant, in terms of legal administration, as "not of faith, but 'the man that does them shall live in them'" (Gal. 3:12). This is a New Testament fact that cannot be adequately acknowledged in Covenant Theology, for in order to maintain their system, they must view the Mosaic age as another administration of the "one Covenant of Grace."

The period of Mosaic law, "added" to the Abrahamic covenant, is described as an age of immaturity (Gal. 3:24; 4:2-3). When "faith came" in Christ, a new age of maturity and sonship was ushered in (Gal. 4:4-7). Paul saw any attempt to impose the old economy as the rule of life as a forfeiture of the liberty Christ had purchased with his precious blood (Gal. 5:1-4). To assert as Bahnsen does that the "perfection" of Christian (and societal) behavior is to be found in the "exhaustive detail" of a paidagogos,238 therefore, can only be described as retrogressive. Paul saw the details of the Mosaic period as useful only in a past age of childhood. Bahnsen wants to continue to apply those childhood rules to adult sons in an age of grace and spiritual maturity.

If it can be shown that any of the mandatory laws of the old age are no longer a standard of judgment under the New Covenant, then Bahnsen's unequivocal endorsement of the "abiding validity of the law in detail" is shown to be invalid. In fact, nothing could be clearer in the New Testament than the fact that the dietary distinctions of "clean and unclean" no longer obtain in the new age (Rom. 14:2,14; 1 Tim. 4:3-5; Acts 10:10-16; 15:28-29; Mark 7:19). These dietary laws were temporary, and have been set aside with the establishment of a better covenant. The New Testament embarrasses anyone who seeks to reference the believer to the details of Old Covenant case-law.

2. Bahnsen perpetuates an economy that has been terminated.

The New Testament also speaks with clarity regarding the starting and ending points of the Mosaic age (Gal. 3:17, 19; Heb. 8:7, 13; 10:9; Matt. 27:51). Yet Bahnsen sees the totality of "the commandments of God's law in the Old Testament" as a "sufficient and valid standard of God's will."

This is an appropriate point to discuss a crucial Biblical distinction. Fully understood, this distinction would dispel a great deal of confusion. The Mosaic covenant, as a legally valid administration in history, had a beginning and an end, as the above passages indicate. However, the inspired documents that emerged in the historical unfolding of that defunct economy abide in the Messianic age. To assert, therefore, that the Mosaic covenant has been terminated does not mean that its documents are irrelevant in the present church age. This critical distinction forces us to face the question: "How then, is the abiding literature of the Old Testament to be used by the church?"

The New Testament approach to the Old Testament is Christ-centered, not law-centered. In the post-resurrection use of the Old Testament by Christ and the post-Pentecost use by the apostles, these documents were consistently used to confront men with "the things concerning" Jesus the Messiah (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 17:2-3; 26:22-23). This perspective provides a revealed priority in approaching the Old Testament. And it certainly calls into question Bahnsen's confident assertion that the New Testament views the Old Testament as a detailed law-code that is still binding on Christians. Viewing the Old Testament in the new age as an enduring and detailed law-code is precisely what the New Testament does not do. Was it not a preoccupation with Moses that so blinded the punctilious Scribes and Pharisees that they could not recognize the Messiah when he stood right in front of them (Matt. 12:2; Luke 7:29-30; 2 Cor. 3:14-15).

The book of Galatians illustrates why the New Testament does not reference the believer to the details of this terminated legal administration. It is because the very foundation of that abolished covenant is "not of faith" (Gal. 3:12). To make any one of its specific codes binding - even something that is "nothing" such as circumcision - is to become a debtor to fulfill all of the rest of its more than six hundred details (Gal. 5:1-4). There is no other way to put it: the New Testament views any attempt to impose the details of a former era of childhood upon the church as a threat to the truth as it is in Christ (Gal. 4:11, 21).

Bahnsen's effort to impose Israel's detailed national law-code on the church is totally inappropriate to the spiritual nature of the gospel era (Rom. 14:17). It is to erroneously encumber the new spiritual and eternal kingdom of Christ with the administrative law-code of a former earthly and temporal nation. The legal stipulations in force during the Israelite theocracy related specifically to the separation of a geographically defined nation from all other nations. These rules were typical and temporary in nature, and were ultimately replaced by the spiritual realities introduced with the coming of Christ (Heb. 8:5; 9:8; Col. 2:17). All temporal worship dimensions under the Old Covenant, therefore, such as "Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (John 4:20), no longer obtain. They have been superceded by the spiritual worship Christ referred to when he explained, "the hour comes when you shall neither in the mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father" (John 14:21). In the New Testament, God's people (the church) are no longer distinguished geographically (Israel vs. the nations), but as a spiritual entity separated unto God and called out from an evil world system (1 John 2:15-17). In the old theocratic era it was appropriate to defend the honor of God with the sword. In the new spiritual era, God's kingdom is not to be conceived of in terms of militaristic conquest or magisterial authority, as Jesus' words to Peter and Pilate clearly reveal:

Put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword . . . my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place (Matt. 26: 52-53; John 18:36).

3. Bahnsen imposes an economy on people for whom it was never intended

Bahnsen uses Christ's words, "if you would enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:16-17) to prove that what is "ethically good" must be referenced "to the Old Testament law." This is a fatal mistake. Both the Old and New Testaments confirm that the Old Covenant was made specifically with Israel. It is totally inappropriate, therefore, to impose the legal principle of an exclusive and abrogated Mosaic Covenant - "do this and live" (Luke 10:28) - upon all men in general, and upon Christians in particular.

Who knew more about Mosaic law than Paul? And yet, he was willing to "become all things to all men so that by all possible means [he] might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). When among the Gentiles, therefore, he became as one "without law" (anomos) - a flexibility that was impossible for anyone still bound by Old Covenant rules and regulation. It was an evangelistic freedom based on his own sense of deliverance from the rigors of Mosaic law. And yet, he did not regard himself as "lawless," but "in-law to Christ" (ennomos Chrisou) (1 Cor. 9:21). As F. F. Bruce astutely observes,

Paul's way was not to impose the Mosaic law on them [Gentiles], but to emphasize the law of Christ - to insist that the gospel which had brought them salvation had ethical implications and to spell out in detail what those implications were.239

It is not the Old Covenant laws that determine what is "ethically good," therefore, but rather the manifestation of God's love in and through his Son. It is ethically good for us to love one another because Christ first loved us (John 13:24-25). It is ethically good for us to please our neighbors because Christ "pleased not himself" (Rom. 15:2-3). It is ethically good for us not to be self-centered because Christ made himself of no reputation and gave his life a ransom for many (Phil. 2:3-7). It is ethically good for us to avoid illicit sexual relations because he purchased our bodies with his own blood (1 Cor. 6:18-20). And it is ethically good for us to freely give of our material goods to those in need because Christ became poor that we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). There is nothing in the law that comes close to defining that which is "ethically good" compared to that which is exemplified in the person and work of Jesus Christ! Again, to refer the believer to the stifling details of a terminated code rather than to the new and living way of grace and truth in Christ (John 1:14-18; Heb. 10:20), is manifestly retrogressive.


230. Chafer, p. 208.

231. Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1975, pp. 34-35, 44.

232. Greg.Bahnsen, Biblical Ethics, 2:9, September, 1979.

233. Bahnsen, p. 10.

234. Bahnsen, p. 1.

235. 236. Bahnsen, p. 1.

237. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter Five, London: Banner of Truth, 1971, pp. 284-285.

238. Gal. 3:24; not a teacher, but an attendant appointed by the parents to watch over a child to see that he got to school and did his lessons.

239. F.F. Bruce, "The Grace of God and the Law of Christ," God and the Good, Lewis Smedes, ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, p. 29.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 58-62.