Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Theonomy, the Westminster Confession and Antinomianism: The Fallacies of Matthew Winzer: Part 1 (by Vindiciæ Legis)

Critique of an argument on page 84 of Matthew Winzer’s article: The Westminster Assembly & the Judicial Law: A Chronological Compilation and Analysis. Part Two: Analysis, appearing in The Confessional Presbyterian, volume 5 (2009).

If Greg Bahnsen, according to theonomy critic Matthew
 Winzer, commits "an antinomian fallacy," then so
does the Puritan Thomas Manton.  Does Winzer
 really believe this about Manton?
Winzer appears to have at least two main objectives in this part of his article. The first is to drive a wedge between Greg Bahnsen and Anthony Burgess by showing that their positions are in serious conflict and that Bahnsen has misread Burgess. The second is to demonstrate that Bahnsen and Theonomy share a common premise with antinomianism and are therefore in error and certainly at variance with the Westminster divines.

Winzer quotes Bahnsen as follows and alleges he is here representing “an antinomian fallacy” by linking the binding force of a law with the punishment which follows its violation:

“The binding force and authority of any particular commandment always lies in its penal threat; if no punishment is to follow the violation of the law, then the law is merely a suggestion…” (TICE,1 435).

Winzer’s claim may surprise the reader and it would certainly have surprised the puritan Thomas Manton who wrote:

 “A law implies a sanction, or a confirmation by penalties and rewards; for otherwise it is but an arbitrary rule or direction, which we might slight or disregard without any great loss or danger” (Complete Works, 2: 179).

“The law that stateth duty doth give us the knowledge of sin, and without a sanction of penalties and rewards all is but an arbitrary direction, which we may observe or neglect at our pleasure, and no harm or good come of it. Now these are horrid and uncouth notions, that stab religion at the very heart” (Complete Works, 18: 112).

Similar statements are made throughout Manton’s Complete Works. More are supplied below.  Obviously, Winzer’s quarrel is as much with Manton as it is with Bahnsen.

We can note that only two of the Westminster divines are quoted by Winzer in the section we are discussing, namely Anthony Burgess and Scottish commissioner, Samuel Rutherford. However, both were men of high standing in the Assembly and there is no reason to believe that their views at this point were not reasonably representative.

He deals with Anthony Burgess first and then later with Samuel Rutherford. It is helpful to reverse this order and consider his Rutherford quotation first:

“The binding authority in the law laying on the sinner an obligation to doe and act is different from the binding power of the law to suffer punishment, for transgressing of the law. The former agreeth to the Law simply, as it is a Law: the latter agreeth to the Law as it is violated and disobeyed” (Spirituall Antichrist, 1: 87).

Notice that Rutherford posits two different binding powers or authorities in the same law. The Bahnsen quote above (from TICE, 435) is entirely consistent with the second of these. There is therefore no real conflict between what Bahnsen (or Manton) wrote and what Rutherford wrote.

Winzer’s first quote from Anthony Burgess is:

“fundamentall errour of the Antinomian, about a law in generall; for they conceive it impossible but that the damning act of a law must be where the commanding act of a law is” (Vindiciae,2 61).

He could have extended this a little further by adding:

“and this is frequently urged (as I showed the last time:)  Therefore observe, that there are only two things goe to the essence of a law, (I speak not of externall causes) and that is first, Direction, secondly, Obligation…”

The extension makes it clear that Burgess is writing about the essence of the law (that which makes the law to be law). This essence is direction and obligation and corresponds to Rutherford’s first “binding authority in the law laying on the sinner an obligation.”

Burgess then goes on to speak of “two Consequents of the Law which are ad bene esse that the law may be better obeyed.” These two consequents are the “sanction of the law by way of a promise” and the “consequent act of the law, to curse, and punish.” Ad bene esse is a Thomistic phrase (literally: for the well being) meaning necessary for the utility (usefulness) of the law. Think of it this way: Adam would still have been a man if God had created him without eyes. However, eyes were necessary for Adam’s well being as a man. His utility would have been impeded without them.

This agrees with Rutherford’s second “binding power of the law to suffer punishment” and neither Burgess nor Rutherford conflict with Bahnsen (or Manton) as quoted above. No evidence has been presented that Bahnsen commits what Burgess describes as a “fundamentall errour of the Antinomian.”

A paragraph or so later, Winzer quotes Burgess again from Vindiciae Legis, p. 61:

“as for the other consequent act of the law, to curse, and punish, this is but an accidentall act, and not necessary to a law; for it cometh in upon supposition of transgression ... a law is a compleat law oblieging, though it do not actually curse.”

Attached to this quotation from Burgess, Winzer has the following footnote:

“Remarkably Greg Bahnsen quoted this passage from Anthony Burgess (TICE, 551) but failed to see how it contradicted his own view that punishment is essential to law” (Winzer, 84).

What Bahnsen actually wrote was: “Thomas Manton noted that ‘A law implies a sanction,’ and Burgess commented that such a sanction is imposed ‘that the law may be the better obeyed’” (TICE, 551).

       Two things are strange here. First, although the phrase “that the law may be better obeyed” is indeed taken from Vindiciae Legis, p. 61, it is not part of Winzer’s quotation as the reader might reasonably expect. It is not even hidden in the ellipsis. Perhaps he does not want to alert his readers to the fact that Burgess, like Bahnsen, is linking sanctions to the law. Secondly, Winzer ignores Bahnsen’s Manton quotation. But one can see why he would ignore it, because it would seriously undermine his case if he took on Manton as well.

Notice how Burgess says that the “act of the law, to curse and punish, this but an accidentall act.” In the context which Burgess uses it, the meaning of “accidentall”3 is “contingent.” It is a contingency of the law that in the event of a transgression, a punishment will follow. In the language of Burgess, a punishment is one of the “Consequents of the Law.”

Notice also that the punishment in question is said by Burgess to be an “act of the law.” It is not an act of something other than the law.

A law without such a contingent or “consequent” would be worthless, which is the point that both Bahnsen and Manton are making. It’s hard to believe that Burgess would have disagreed.4 Such a law would not reflect the righteousness of a Holy God, and as Bahnsen says, would be no better than “merely a suggestion.”

Anyone doubting this should pause here to ask himself about a law without any sanctions, which might be broken willy-nilly without any consequences whatsoever, in this life or the next. Did the Almighty ever issue such a law? A law without utility? Of course not. As Manton says, it would “stab religion at the very heart.”

(posts in this series: part 1part 2)

read entire piece on PDF


  1.         Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nutley, New Jersey: The Craig Press 1979).
  1.         Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis: or, A Vindication of the Morall Law and the Covenants, From the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians and more especially Antinomians. In XXX Lectures, preached at Laurence-Jury, London. The second Edition corrected and augmented (London: James Young, for Thomas Underhill, 1647).
  1.         Burgess also uses “accidentall” in connection with “God’s positive law” of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “that which is accidentall to it, viz death infallibly upon the eating of it” (Vindiciae, 104).
  1.         Burgess writes, “It’s true, if we take cursing or condemning potentially, so a law is always condemning: but for actual cursing, that is not necessary, no not for a transgressour of the Law, that hath a surety in his roome” (Vindiciae, 6). 

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