Monday, September 20, 2010

The Theonomy Debate during the Reformation

Like today, during the Reformation
there were those who believed that
the word of God--not autonomous
man--was to govern the
sword of the state.

The debate over theonomy is not unique to modern times.  It also occurred during the Reformation, as we see in Kenneth L. Parker’s book, The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine and Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War.  While we don't endorse everything Parker says in this book, the following info gives a helpful overview of some of the debate:
"While [John] Whitgift and [Thomas] Cartwright agreed that the moral law endured and the ceremonial law was abrogated, they clashed over the application of Old Testament judicial laws and penalties in English society. … Whitgift argued that these laws were established by God for one nation in a particular time and place. They did not bind the Christian magistrate or limit his power to make laws and assign penalties. The seventh of the 39 Articles affirmed that ‘the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites do no bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth.’ But in the 1570s, Cartwright and others objected to this teaching. Bishop Sandys of London complained to Bullinger in August 1573 that ‘foolish young men’ were disturbing the peace of the Church, and outlined their presbyterian programme. Among the points of contention was that ‘the judicial laws of Moses are binding upon christian princes, and they ought not in the slightest degree to depart from them.’[1]
"While Cartwright claimed that some parts of the judicial law were limited to the Jews, he denied that ‘any magistrate can save the life of blasphemers, contemptuous and stubborn idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incestuous persons, and such like, which God by his judicial law hath commanded to be put to death.’ [2]  The death penalty also applied to sabbath-breakers. Humphrey Roberts complained that ‘if one do steal, or comit murder, the laws of the Realm doth punish with death. But for Idolatry, swearing, and breaking the Sabbath day, there is no punishment. And yet, the same God which said: Thou shalt not steal, said also … Thou shalt remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.’ [3] While Charles George dismissed this adherence to the judicial laws as ‘one of Carthwright’s wildest anachronisms’, this view attracted a surprising number of adherents and influenced the legal codes in the colonies."
Kenneth L. Parker, The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine and Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 57-58.

[1] Hastings Robinson, ed., The Zurich Letters (Cambridge, 1842), pp. 295-6.

[2] John Whitgift, Works, volume 1 (Cambridge, 1851), p. 270. 

[3] Humphrey Roberts, An Earnest Complaint of Divers Vain, Wicked, and Abused Exercises, Now Commonly Practised on the Sabbath Day (London, 1572), sig.B2V.

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