Book Review: The Bounds of Love (Part 1)
The Bounds of Love is Joel McDurmon’s newest book where he aims to write an introductory-level treatment of theonomy and to “address a few simple but serious needs” (p. ix). McDurmon seeks to offer a popular level defense of theonomy while offering some productive movement forward with stale discussions of theonomy that are found scattered around the reformed world. When I received the book I was anxious to read an introduction to theonomy from a leader in the movement’s resurgence for the simple reason that listening to people defend their position, and treating it in a way they find fairly represents them, is a necessary first step I find lacking in many internet discussions. You only treat ideas fairly when you listen to the people who hold them. Toward that goal, I found McDurmon’s book to be helpful.
There are already a number of treatments of this book that have already been written, and so my goal is not to exhaustively analyze and critique the book. What follows will be a three-part review: an overview of the structure and argument, a brief challenge to terms and ideas, and a summary portion highlighting some of the strengths and a hopeful way forward. In general I found it to be a helpful book — though it appears to have detractors within the theonomic community. I hope that there is more honest and substantive dialogue because of this book. Toward that end, I hope that my objections and questions are perceived by advocates of theonomy (and/or advocates of this book) as honest inquiry and received with charity.
The Bounds of Love has an introduction followed by seven chapters and an epilogue. The chapters follow a very logical pattern. Chapter 1 is where McDurmon discusses the nature of theological definitions, their strengths and shortcomings, and then offers a very concise definition for theonomy as follows: “Theonomy is the biblical teaching that Mosaic law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today” (p. 24). The definition is not robust nor exhaustive, and this is by design. Theological concepts often require more thorough treatment than can easily and accurately be transmitted with the brevity required by simple definitions. McDurmon understands this, and so he offers the concise definition above in order to build upon that definition for the remainder of the book.
In Chapter 2, McDurmon discusses the division of the law. He discusses the difficulty in creating consensus on a proper division of the law. The Reformed position (see Westminster Confession of Faith 19) is a three-fold division of law: ceremonial, judicial (also called civil), and moral. McDurmon holds this but also discusses the difficulty of knowing which laws fall into which category. He is helpful at this point, particularly in his discussion of the term “law” as it is used Biblically in Galatians and Hebrews.
Chapter 3 is where McDurmon starts to develop his theonomic ideas. Theonomy is known for arguing that civil governments are bound by the civil laws in the Mosaic economy. McDurmon, a theonomist, starts to nuance this position by arguing that only some of the civil laws apply today. That means he must defend where he draws the line. McDurmon spends a large portion of the chapter developing the cherem principle. He defines cherem as “specially devoted to destruction” (p.50). He suggests the cherem principle is ceremonially tied to the cultic elements of Israel and argues that as they come into the new testament age, the death penalties associated with the cherem principle become spiritually, and not civilly, punished. He argues that the First Table offenses of the Decalogue are no longer to be punished by the state,
“Cherem and stoning penalties were reserved only for First Table offenses. Civil government no longer has jurisdiction over First Table offenses. These punishments, as regular mandatory punishments, are no longer in effect. Only in extreme or aggravated cases in which blasphemy or false worship aims to lead to revolution, sedition, terrorism, or treason would civil government intervention be appropriate” (p. 61).
This evolution of thought doesn’t end with First Table offenses either. McDurmon has revised his views on the civil punishments for sexual sins as well,
“In light of [the cherem principle], I have revised my earlier published views that adultery and homosexual sodomy are punishable by the death penalty. There are still, however, sanctions that can be imposed” (p. 65).
This is a significant development in McDurmon’s thought, one which is proving to be less than popular among his fellow theonomists.
In Chapter 4, McDurmon starts to develop the backbone of theonomy, the idea that the civil laws still apply for governments today. He argues that they are righteous laws, they have moral implications, and they are biblical. The lex talionis principle is crucial to his argument. Lex talionis is the standard by which governments must adhere to when punishing crimes. Stated simply, the lex talionis principle means that, “the punishment must fit the crime — no more, no less” (p. 82). The lex talionis then becomes a standard of proportionality, by which justice is separated from injustice.
Chapter 5 is where McDurmon outlines what a theonomic society would look like,
“A properly theonomic society in terms of civil government would be closer to classic libertarianism than any other common political position” (p. 86).
McDurmon builds a vision of society where privacy and personal property are sacred, the military industrial and prison industrial complexes are gutted, the government is held to the same standard of ethics as it’s citizens, and life and liberty are sacred. Government is largely decentralized and all property is privatized. Self-governance is crucial and the family is the main source for the structure and order of society. Isaiah 2.2-4 and Isaiah 65.17-25 are two of the texts that he argues picture this theonomic society of peace and justice.
In Chapter 6, McDurmon outlines how such a society will come to pass. Many people have the idea that theonomy is about top-down control (and I believe for some it is), but McDurmon’s vision is one that comes from the bottom up. It comes through Christians who are faithful to the Great Commission, teaching the nations to obey, and the Spirit of God blessing that work and prospering it. He acknowledges that his post-millennial eschatology plays a large role in his vision of the future, but that is to be expected. He closes by proposing some ways that Christians can be faithful citizens and bring about changes in society through local activism.
In his final chapter, McDurmon summarizes a number of views that are often associated with theonomy that he argues are not theonomy. He runs the gamut of history, from Constantine, to Aquinas, from the reformation through the covenanters and puritans, showing errors in applying God’s law consistently. His purpose is to show that theonomy is not just about the government punishing sin, but about the government submitting to the law of God and using his standards of justice outlined explicitly in his word, not autonomous human reason.
In the next part, I will address the challenges of The Bounds of Love as well as the effort moving forward.