Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Commissary General Henry Ireton's Defense of Theonomy at the 1648 Whitehall Debates

The debates over theonomy existed long before our day. Back in England in 1648after the tyranny of Charles I had endedthe country had the opportunity to build a freer nation. One of the matters discussed, which was taken up at the Whitehall Debates, was whether civil government had the authority to prohibit violations of the First Table of the Law.

The purpose was to determine how much liberty of conscience a proposed constitution should allow; was enforcing the First Table of the law really a violation of liberty, or a just requirement by God? Would the First Table of the Lawthe foundational aspect of theonomybe rejected for man's sinful autonomy?

"If the ground of that which made it sin [in
the Old Testament], and the ground of the
punishment, do remain the same now, then
the sin is to be restrained as it was then,
and that which was sin then is sin now."
-- Henry Ireton
Rising to the occasion to defend theonomy was the Commissary General, Henry Ireton (1611-1651). Ireton was a leading figure in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. On his involvement with the New Model Army, BBC History writes, 
The poor performance of the Parliamentarian forces at Newbury led, in 1645, to the creation of the New Model Army, a single force under Sir Thomas Fairfax. As the summer's campaigning began Fairfax demanded his old comrade-in-arms, Oliver Cromwell, as lieutenant general of horse. On the night before the Battle of Naseby (June 1645) Ireton led a raid on the Royalist camp and took a number of prisoners. Cromwell had him appointed night commissary-general and put in command of the cavalry on the left wing of the Parliamentarian army. He fought bravely but was wounded and captured, escaping after the Parliamentarian victory.[1]
Ireton was also Cromwell's son-in-law, and signed the death warrant of Charles I. He helped Cromwell subdue Ireland, and went on to become Ireland's Lord Deputy. 

During the 1648 Whitehall Debates, he was the most vocal advocate for the civil enforcement of the first table of the law (with the Congregational theologian Philip Nye being the second most vocal advocate being). Here are many of his arguments throughout the debate[2]:

Ireton's Defense of Theonomy at the 1648 Whitehall Debates

Liberty of conscience should not taken to the level of allowing people to practice whatever they want in the name of Christianity:
But here’s the case. The question is now: Whether you shall make such a provision for men that are conscientious, [in order] that they may serve God according to their light and conscience, as shall necessarily debar any kind of restraint on anything that any man will call religion? That’s the very question; truly, it is so, or else you will make no question. If you could bring it to such a restraint for [the power of] the magistrate to punish, only [in the case of] men that are members and servants of Jesus Christ, all that are here would give an ay to it. But whether, admitting that to be never so good, as I think it is, [and] our great duty and our great interest to endeavour [to secure it]—yet whether we shall make our provision for that in such a way as shall give to all men their latitude, without any power to restrain them, [though they were] to practise idolatry, to practise atheism, and anything that is against the light of God? [That is the question.] ... 
[I ask] whether this be not the question [really at issue]: that [all that] will join with you in civil things [shall be free from any restraint in spiritual things]? Now I come to tell you of what kind those things are that conscientious men do think the magistrate ought to restrain. I do not think any man conscientious [that says] that the magistrate ought to restrain a man from that which Jesus Christ does teach him; but men have consciences to say that there are many things that men may own and practise under pretence of religion, that there may, nay there ought to be the restraint of them in; and that is the ground of our question. But if I have mistaken this, I shall willingly be mistaken. However, I am sure of this in general, that there is no exception to the putting of this in this Agreement but this: that you cannot so provide for such a reserve as this is for men really conscientious, that they shall not be persecuted, but you will by that debar the magistrate of a power that he ought to have to restrain. 

Old Testament civil laws that are not abrogated in the New Testament still bind civil rulers:
It is good to keep to the question which was first drawn; and, as it is last, it is a catching question: Whether Jesus Christ hath given such power? It was not the business of Jesus Christ, when he came into the world, to erect kingdoms of the world, and magistracy or monarchy, or to give the rule of them, positive or negative. And therefore if you would consider this question, whether the magistrate have anything to do in anything which men will call religion (for you must go so large), you must not confine it [to the inquiry] whether Jesus Christ have under the Gospel given it, but you must look to the whole scripture. As there is much in the Old Testament which hath lost much, yet there are some things of perpetual and natural right, that the scripture of the Old Testament doth hold forth, wherein it does bear a clear witness to that light that every man hath left in him by nature, if he were not depraved by lust. There are some things of perpetual right in the Old Testament, that the magistrate had a power in before the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. And unless you can show us that those things are not a perpetual right, nor had not their perpetual end, but had only their temporary end, so as to determinate by his coming in the flesh, you must give us leave to think that the magistrate ought according to the old institution to follow that right.

Civil rulers should enforce the first four commandments:
My Lord, I perceive it’s every man’s opinion, that the magistrate hath a protective power; and if you will apply ‘matters of religion’ [only] to the First Table, it will be granted [that he should also have a] compulsive. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods but me.’ ‘Thou shalt make no graven image,’ &c.; ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.’ And then for the fourth, ‘Thou shalt not do any manner of work [on the sabbath day].’ [Repeating the question]: Whether the magistrate have or ought to have any power in matters of religion? ...

I take it for granted, whether there be any here that assent [or not, that] in those words which we call the four first Commandments are matters of religion, the fault or non-performance whereof relates to God only, the duty and satisfaction if a man do observe them relates to God only. I speak concerning such things. As to them I give my ground thus, that as to those things the magistrate hath a power to restrain men, and ought to do it; and I argue first from the possibility of the thing. Those are things against which there is a testimony in the light of nature, and consequently they are things that men as men are in some capacity [to judge of], unless they are perverted—indeed a man perverted in his own lusts cannot judge of anything, even matters of common honesty. 
Secondly, those who are subject[s] and not the judges, they are likewise in [a] capacity to judge of the evil of those things even by the light of nature. And in that respect I account it proper and not unsuitable to the judgment of men as men, and of magistrates as magistrates, because—if anybody will take notes of it in writing he may—because in such things the magistrate, by the light that he hath as a man, may judge, and the subject may, by that light that he hath as a man, be convinced.
In the next place I go to grounds of scripture, and show that this is the magistrate’s duty. And first I will take it for granted, till somebody give me reason to the contrary, that ’tis the injunction [of the Old Testament], and likewise it hath been the practice of magistrates in all the time of the Old Testament till the coming of Christ in the flesh, to restrain such things. If any doubt it they shall have proofs: [first], that the magistrates of the Jews as magistrates were commanded to restrain such things; secondly, that they were commended when they did it; thirdly, that they were reproved when they did [it] not. This is clear through the current of the Old Testament.

New Testament excommunication does not replace Old Testament civil sanctions:
And first, because I see the answer[s] to these are obvious, I shall speak to the two chief [answers], and show you what is objected. That is first, [that] what the magistrates of the Jews might or ought to do is no rule to others, for they were to do it as [ecclesiastical] magistrates, church matters concerning them; [that by] the punishment of death, or such other punishments, they did but allude to excommunication in the time of the Gospel; and that you can make no [such] inference from what they ought to do as to conclude a perpetual duty of magistrates, but [only] a duty allegorically answered in the duty of ecclesiastical [officers in ecclesiastical] things. 
This I have heard to be one answer; and to this I shall but apply one reason to show the inconveniency of this answer [to] those grounds that we give from scripture, and that is thus. If it do appear that those that were the magistrates among the Jews, whether they were ecclesiastical or civil magistrates, were to exercise this power, not only to persons within the church, but [to persons] without the church [and] professedly no way within the compass of the church, then that objection is taken away. But I think [it is clear that] they were to extend this power to those that were out of the church. They were commanded to beat down the idols and groves and images of the land whither they went; they were commanded that they should not suffer the stranger that was within the gate to work on the sabbath, [and not] to suffer swearers or idolaters of any kind. And if any man doubt that, it is an easy matter to produce scripture for that purpose. So that it is clear to me, they did [it], considered as civil magistrates, as magistrates having an authority civil or natural, and not as [ecclesiastical] magistrates or as persons signifying or typifying the power of ecclesiastical officers under the Gospel; and therefore what was a rule of duty to them (unless men can show me a ground of change) [should] be a rule and duty of magistrates now.

If the ground of a civil duty remains, then the civil duty itself remains:
And that rule or duty to them leads me to the next evasion: that what was a rule to them under the Law as magistrates does not hold under the Gospel. Now to this I answer—and I do these things because I would give men grounds against the next meeting to consider of some things—I say that I will acknowledge as to those things enjoined, the practice whereof was commanded, the neglect whereof was reproved in the magistrates of the Jews, whose end was typical and determinative, to end at the coming of Christ—to all those [things] the duty of the magistrate doth cease either as to restriction or compulsion. [It] doth cease because it relates [not] to the things themselves. But for those things themselves for which they had a perpetual ground in relation of the duty to God, a perpetual rule by the law written in men’s hearts, and a [perpetual] testimony left in man by nature, and so consequently for those things whereof the ground of duty towards God is not changed—for those things I account that what was sin before is sin still, what was sin to practise [before] remains sin still, what was the duty of a magistrate to restrain before remains his duty to restrain still.
And thus I have given my grounds why we ought [not] to bind the hands of the magistrate[s so] that they shall not restrain men from evils, though against God only, that are given as breaches of the First Table. ...
This, therefore, which was the rule then, is a rule to a magistrate as a magistrate [now], and as the magistrate of a kingdom or a nation: that [which] was then a rule to them that were then [magistrates], to deserve this commendation if they did it, and reproof if they did it not, is a rule to magistrates under the Gospel, unless in such things the evil or good whereof as then was taken away [by the coming of Christ]. If the thing which he had a power to restrain [were temporarily or typically evil], then I agree that by the coming of Christ in the flesh it was taken away. But if the thing were morally and perpetually evil, and so that which was the ground of the duty [then] will remain the ground of the duty still, then I conceive the duty as to such things remains the same still. I would I could express it shorter—but men may take it shorter. But I would have some [persons] answer [these grounds]; that is, to deny that the magistrates had power to restrain, or [to assert that they exercised it not] as civil magistrates of a civil society, and [that it] extended only over the members of an ecclesiastical society; and if it were a duty then, to show me some grounds why it should be altered now, and be subject to men to [be] judge[d] of. ...
Because this gentleman doth relate an argument from me, I’ll tell you how I put it. That which was evil in the time of the Jews, and remains as evil now, and hath the same ground of evil now that it had then—and especially if such a thing was evil even before that law [was] given; for such a thing, what was the duty of a magistrate to restrain then [remains his duty to restrain now], though I cannot say to restrain it with the same penalty. For the imposing of a penalty was judicial, but the imposing of a restriction was not judicial but perpetual. This I take for granted. That [which] was evil then and remains upon the same ground equally evil now, if the Jewish magistrate ought to restrain that even in persons not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, so ought Christian magistrates to restrain it, if they be Christians, even in those that are not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction. ...
We shall desire no more [than this]: that if the ground of that which made it sin, and the ground of the punishment, do remain the same now, then the sin is to be restrained as it was then, and that which was sin then is sin now.

The restraint of offenses against the First Table of the Law by Old Testament magistrates extended beyond church members:
I shall desire but a word or two. Truly I did endeavour, when I began, to go in the way that men might judge whether there was weight in what was said in the reply; and I perceive there was no other ground laid than what I said, [or] than what Mr. Nye did add further as a rational satisfaction to men, why such a thing might be entrusted. But I suppose, [since this is so], the grounds [which we urged] of this [power] are such as to lay a ground why upon conscience it is or should be the duty of magistrates in a commonwealth to use what power they have for the restraining of such things as sins against the First Table, [as are] practices forbidden in the First Table; and I would very fain once hear somebody to answer to these grounds that I lay to that. 
I have heard an answer to one of those grounds: that [such] things are subject to men’s judgments, to the judgment of the magistrates and to the conviction of the subject, [and that hence they cannot in reason or with safety be made matter of compulsion]. But I have heard none upon the scripture ground, and I would hear something of that. [I argued] that in the state of the Jews the magistrate there as a magistrate, and as a magistrate not of a church only but as a magistrate of a nation, had [the] power and [the] right [to restrain such things]—nay, it was a duty upon him; he was enjoined to it, and when he did it he was commended for it, and when he neglected it he was condemned and brought to ruin for it—and [it was] to be exercised to others than to those that were members of the church only. 

The New Covenant era does not forbid the civil enforcement of the First Table of the Law:
I think if we were now upon the question of what an ecclesiastical judicature or church magistrate should do, it would very well be that that should be the rule that Mr. Goodwin says: that such punishments should be used by the ecclesiastical officers (and only such) as are warranted by the Gospel, upon which the outward calling of the church hath its ground; but it is concerning a civil magistrate, or a magistrate of a mere civil constitution. I say this. If any man do but consider, in the Gospel there is nothing that is to be called and taken as a positive institution, but that [which is expressly so designated]. I will desire that it may not be taken any advantage of. 
But [for] the Gospel, the parts of it are either historical, expressing what Christ did when he was in the flesh and how he was brought to death, as the four Evangelists, and the Acts of the Apostles; or else they are exhortatory, written by way of advice to the churches of the Saints in the several parts of the world; and they are written to them, [partly] as applied to what was in general to be the condition of all Saints in all ages to the world’s end, and partly [as applied to] what things were the condition of all the Saints to whom these Epistles were written. 
As for the historical part of the Gospel—or [the] prophetical, that’s the Revelation—I suppose no man from the historical part will go to make it necessary that in the historical part there should be anything of [the] institution of ecclesiastical or other magistrates. In the epistolary part, if we first consider that all the Saints or churches to whom these Epistles were written were all under a condition of persecution under heathen magistrates, rather than having a power of magistracy in their own hands, we have no reason to think that the Epistles written to them should be intended as to give the rules concerning magistracy. 
But since there was a rule concerning magistracy, that is [a rule] by which the magistrate might judge what was evil and what was good—first, [a rule] had from the light of nature, [and] secondly, [a rule which] had a more clear foundation in the Moral Law (as they call it), that gave grounds which way the magistrate[s] might go—the Epistles do as well leave the magistrate[s free] in the punishment of those things that are in the First Table, upon prudential grounds, not tying them up to the judicial grounds of the Jewish commonwealth, but, when there should be any magistrates Christian[s], leaving them to those foundations and rules of their proceeding which they had a ground for in nature, leaving [to their decision] that which was good or evil, to restrain or not. 
I conceive the whole drift of the Gospel hath been to apply [restraint] in that kind either to what things are [un]fit to be used amongst men in society as Christians, or else [to] things that [it] were the common duty of men, not [merely of Christian] magistrates, [to restrain]—though [indeed] it says something of that, and if any will say [that he will seek the ground of this action in the Gospel itself], I shall think it to be very good. But this I shall wish to be considered: whether in relation to what is said in the Gospel, if the penalty does cease, then the punishment of it at all does cease. 

The New Covenant era does not exempt civil rulers from punishing idolaters any more than it exempts them from punishing theft and murder:
Then I would fain know whether, by the same ground that idolatry should [not] be punished [with death], murder [also] should not be punished with death. And what should exempt the magistrate under the Gospel from punishing idolaters—what you can imagine should excuse the magistrate under the Gospel, or should deter him from punishing them, with death or other punishment, which under the Judicial Law are punishable with death—[I would know] whether the same thing will not serve to this [end]: that now even for murder, for theft, for all those things that are evils against men, which in that law had their particulars [of punishment] prescribed—whether it would not hold as well for these, that now there ought to be a liberty under the Gospel, [for] it is a time of mercy, and that we ought not to punish those things.

read the 1648 theonomy debate at Whitehall in its entirety 


[1] "Henry Ireton (1611 - 1651)," in BBC History (2014). Retrieved January 14, 2014, from
[2] Arthur Sutherland Pigott Woodhouse, "Puritanism and Liberty, being the Army Debates (1647-9)" from the Clarke Manuscripts with Supplementary Documents, selected and edited with an Introduction A.S.P. Woodhouse, foreword by A.D. Lindsay (University of Chicago Press, 1951). Chapter: PART II.: THE WHITEHALL DEBATES. Retrieved January 10, 2014 from

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