Book Review: The Bounds of Love (Part 2)
Having introduced Joel McDurmon's The Bounds of Love previously, I would like to continue to my review with some Reformed challenges and steps for moving forward in the Reformed world.
Now that I have taken a look at the argument of the book as a whole, I do have a number of challenges and objections to it. In this section, I am not aiming to argue against McDurmon so much as to pry into his argument some and make an effort to come to an understanding.
One of the first things that came to my mind as I was reading it was his initial definition of theonomy: “Theonomy is the biblical teaching that Mosaic law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.” Perhaps this was his goal, but how is that distinctively theonomic? I’m not even sure that’s distinctively Reformed. (Talking with a Lutheran friend of mine about it, and his initial thoughts were “so basically everyone is a theonomist?) Perhaps McDurmon’s point was to make theonomy broad enough to include more people. As he develops his argument, he makes theonomy considerably less broad than his original definition lends itself to be.
A related issue is a note he makes in the Epilogue about the lex talionis and A.W. Pink. McDurmon says,
“...I argue that even theologians such as A. W. Pink can be called theonomic. While I was ridiculed for making this statement in public, the mere fact that Pink demands a modern application of lex talionis makes him by definition a theonomist, even if his theology in other places is inconsistent with that. At worst we would call him an inconsistent theonomist” (pp. 137-138, emphasis McDurmon’s).
I was taken aback when I read this. A number of places throughout the book, McDurmon refers to natural law in scare quotes. I can’t help but think that, given the current Reformed debates, he had the natural law/two kingdoms guys (uncharitably called “r2k” by many) in mind. Whether or not this is the case, if holding to the lex talionis principle makes one a theonomist, then David VanDrunen is by definition a theonomist. In discussing the death penalty in Genesis 3, VanDrunen writes,
“This primordial revelation of God’s justice seems to anticipate the principle underlying the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Both Scripture and many ancient legal codes articulated the lex talionis in simple formulas, such as ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ Behind such simple formulas lurks a basic judicial principle that remains an ideal for any just legal system, even when the lex talionis is rarely or never applied literally. This basic principle is proportionality. Punishment should not to be too lax or too harsh, but should match the wrong. (Though not immediately obvious, the lex talionis idea, I believe, can account for the just concerns about restoring the victim as well as punishing the offender…)” (Divine Covenants and Moral Order, pp. 56-57).
VanDrunen asserts the validity and justice of the lex talionis a number of times throughout the book. If McDurmon is going to consider Pink a theonomist, wouldn’t VanDrunen also be a theonomist since he appears to meet the same criteria? (And once again, if VanDrunen is a theonomist, isn’t basically everyone a theonomist?)
As I’ve mentioned, a number of times McDurmon referenced natural law and put the term inside scare quotes. I am fully aware that people use the term “natural law” in a variety of different ways (as people do with the term “theonomy”), but I found McDurmon’s lack of charity to be a bit hypocritical. While he accuses others of not being charitable and/or lying about theonomy, he never seems to extend the same grace toward fellow Reformed brothers who are trying to understand and utilize God’s natural law. In its most basic form, natural law is the moral law of God written on mankind’s heart at the moment of creation. It’s why Cain knew he shouldn’t murder and why Abimelech knew adultery was wrong. Natural law is not some autonomous doctrine of man. Man’s failure to keep the natural law does not invalidate it any more than Israel’s failure to keep the Mosaic law invalidated that. I would contend that natural law is a thoroughly biblical concept, and very useful today. I would not so much ask that McDurmon agree, but I would ask that he extend charity where he expects charity.
As a libertarian, I’m always happy when I find people arguing for some type of libertarianism. As a two kingdoms guy, I’m very nervous about anyone baptizing a certain political or economic theory as “the biblical view.” Even while I agree with many of the things McDurmon argued for along the lines of his “classic libertarian” world, there are still areas where I recoil. One is with regard to a common libertarian mantra, very popular amongst anarcho-capitalists, that “taxation is theft”. McDurmon agrees with this. All taxation, in his view, is theft and therefore illegitimate for governments to use. Aside from the question of where governments get a revenue to meet their minimal budgets, one of his claims in Chapter 6 was very confusing to me,
“On the way towards total elimination, taxation of individuals and businesses must be returned exclusively to the local level. State taxation, if any, should only be upon counties, and Federal taxation, if any, should only come from states” (p. 112).
If taxation is theft, wouldn’t it always be theft? Wouldn’t that include, and prohibit, governments stealing from other governments? Also, if taxation is theft without exception, why must we suffer it on a local level? Wouldn’t the consistent response be to never compromise given McDurmon’s refusal to compromise in other areas? Why make allowances for any period “on the way” to elimination? If taxation is theft, it is always theft, whether it is from governments upon people, businesses, or other governments.
In general, I rather enjoyed reading The Bonds of Love. It was certainly not what I expected, but it is a very welcome addition to the current discussions in the Reformed world. I have already addressed a few of my concerns, but I was not simply critical of the book either. I think McDurmon had some very good things to say as well. Many people have reacted very harshly to the book, but I think that McDurmon has added substance to the debates.
The cherem principle was a very welcome contribution to the discussions regarding theonomy. This book is designed to be a brief introduction and therefore is not exhaustive. I hope that McDurmon continues to develop a more articulated and exegetical defense of the cherem principle. I think that it would be very helpful.
I also appreciated that McDurmon was honest that only some of the civil laws apply today. More work needs to be done on this topic. Matthew Tuininga, in his forthcoming work on Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, explores the idea that some of the civil laws were inadequate from God’s standpoint of justice — some of the laws regulated sin more than establishing justice (see divorce and polygamy regulations, for example). What does this teach us about general equity and applying the law of God to very imperfect nations? Also, I would like to see more discussion about general equity and some of the land laws, like the laws about the poor gleaning in the fields, the sabbath laws (like the year of jubilee), and the restrictions on lending. McDurmon’s approach seemed to dismiss all of these as under the cultic, ceremonial laws. I would like to see them explored more thoroughly with the general equity principle. I believe that they have implications for our socio-economic laws today.
I also very much appreciated his last chapter regarding what is not theonomy. Reading Calvin’s Institutes, specifically on the civil government (4.20), I was struck by how different Calvin sounded than many of the theonomists that I was interacting with. It is anachronistic to claim anyone in the past would subscribe to modern day labels. Certainly we can take concepts from people and develop them without making them into advocates for us. McDurmon certainly doesn’t reject everything Calvin says, but he is honest about very real differences. The same can be said of his treatment with the covenanters and puritans.
I am very glad that I read The Bounds of Love. More things can be said about it, and there are a great deal other reviews that can be read about it. I certainly do not agree with everything he says in the book, but I am glad that it was written. People are allowed to change their views about things, and I applaud McDurmon for having the courage to do so, even when it may be unpopular (he doesn’t strike me as a person who cares about saying what is popular). I hope that this book allows the conversation about God’s law to move forward. It is a conversation that needs to be held.