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The study of history is largely the study of conflict, and similarly, the study of church history is usually the study of the church’s conflict, with either internal or external forces. The internal disputes of the church were so heavily scrutinized that the disagreement could often be distilled into one word or phrase, determining which side you took. These were not silly semantic squabbles, either; martyrs bled and died over syllables, not because of the words themselves but over the timeless truths they communicated.
The term “Shibboleth” comes from Judges 12. Jephthah and the men of Gilead defeated an invading group of Ephraimites, who then attempted to flee.
And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.
There are many examples of this technique in military contexts, but we’re interested in the culture wars and theological disputes where there are likewise many examples of its use.
The earliest and simplest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” was the flashpoint between the church and the Roman state’s claim: “Caesar is Lord.” Similarly, in the fourth century, the Arian controversy was boiled down to a single question: Was the Son homoousios or homoiousios with the Father? We believe, in the words of the Nicene Creed, the Son is “of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.” Again, in the Reformation, two gaping cracks appeared between the Protestants and Rome, distilled in two slogans: sola Scriptura and sola fide. This strict dividing line resulted in very little neutrality and crystal clarity on the issues. And in more recent times, the reliability of Scripture has been an issue. Liberals – due to various verbal contortions – were able to affirm Scripture’s “inspiration” or “infallibility.” But conservatives got wise to their tricks and began using the term inerrancy to ferret them out.
The Need for a Shibboleth:
It is our conviction that church history in coming centuries will view the early 2000s as an equally crucial period for the church. But what’s the heresy? It’s hard to name it precisely, if it can even be called an “it.” It’s like Arianism, of which there were multiple progenitor heresies and numerous different strands of Arianism itself. The tangle of errors I have in mind are cultural Marxism, social justice, critical theory, and their various offspring. While each ideology is different, they share two important characteristics. First, they import a secular anthropology – usually different shades of egalitarianism – and a secular standard of justice, which, due to its lack of transcendent grounding, constantly evolves to meet its advocates’ needs.
As conservatives, we’re used to debating the liberals on issues of personal morality (e.g., homosexuality, abortion, gender roles, etc.), but we’re having difficulty dealing with them on issues of societal morality (or, you could say, social justice). This is not because the Scripture is silent on issues of public justice; on the contrary, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy speak extensively on the subjects. The problem, as always, is not with Scripture but our mangling thereof. Most churches rarely preach from or study these books whereas Jesus and the Apostles quote them frequently. Furthermore, most Christians hold that civil law is no longer applicable, so even when it is read, it is never seen as relevant, binding, or important. And because we won’t apply it, when questions about racial issues, slavery, and economics come up, we don’t have a foundation from which to begin our moral reasoning, and this tends to result in people resorting to their right- or left-wing political philosophies for answers. This ought not be (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). God’s law is sufficient to deal with both personal and political morality. In some sense, then, we should all be theonomists, that is, people who whish to see God’s law obeyed. But this raises the obvious question:
What Is “Theonomy?”
When the word “theonomy” gets thrown around, people tend to think of the Reconstructionists like R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen, and their compatriots. And while their specific flavor of theonomy was somewhat unique, Christians have historically looked to the civil law of Moses to inform them on what is right and wrong in a civil polity. This has resulted in most historically Christian countries – such as our own United States – having legal systems that (at least in their primitive forms) look suspiciously like Israel’s legal system. This was not because the Founders were busy reading Rushdoony; it was completely organic because the belief in God’s word as sufficient and authoritative was simply a given in their cultural milieu. Indeed, classical Protestant theology has always held that the civil law of Moses, while not completely binding, is still relevant and applicable. The Westminster Confession says (19.4):1
To them [Israel] also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
From this passage, pastor and theologian Doug Wilson has coined the term general equity theonomy. The idea is that the principles taught in the civil law rather than the specific content is what is still binding. Every single Christian should be able to assent to the following proposition:
The principles of justice taught in the civil law of God should be the blueprint and foundation for how Christians seek to order their lives and society as a whole.
If you can say “Amen” to that, you’re a theonomist in my book.2
By this definition, virtually all Christians are theonomists. Most Roman Catholics, even with their commitment to “natural law,” would qualify as “theonomists” under this definition. As Doug Wilson has said, “All Christians are theonomists in principle. From there, it’s just a matter of exegesis.” The abiding validity of the civil law seems implicit to Paul (Romans 13:1-4):
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
By what standard is the magistrate to judge “good” and “bad” conduct? As the magistrate carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer, how is he to determine what sort of punishment befits God’s wrath? At a bare minimum, we can say that since everything God commands is good, and since God gave civil commands, that they are good, whether or not we believe them to be absolutely binding, a magistrate could certainly look to them to as an example of what is good. But I think it’s quite clear that Paul had specifically the law of Moses in mind since he goes on to say (Romans 13:8), “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Does Theonomy Work as a Shibboleth?
Now that we’ve defined what sort of theonomy we have in mind, can it actually help us? Absolutely. With our definitions in mind, any congregant can simply ask their elders if they believe in theonomy as defined above. If they say “no,” then their foundations on which to oppose increasing leftist totalitarianism are nonexistent, and it’s only a matter of time until they cave to cultural pressure. If they say “yes,” as is more likely, then we can go to the Bible and draw out the principles of the Mosaic law. Suppose a pastor says something along the lines of, “White people must repent for their ancestors’ sins.” A congregant can open up Scripture and see if that’s a legitimate assertion; they can assess whether the “sins” in question actually sins according to God or things the left disapproves of, whether it is appropriate to repent for ancestral sins, and whether one can rightly be said to be “guilty” of an ancestor’s sins. Scripture answers all these questions. Again, the problem is that many Christians wouldn’t know where to look in Scripture to find these answers. That’s on us, but by embracing the civil law as a model of civic righteousness, we can begin to answer these questions. Once they’re committed to theonomy in principle, it’s a matter of exegesis. Once they’re committed to defining justice according to God’s standards, it becomes very easy to counter social justice talking points. When they say, “Let justice roll down like a river,” (Amos 5:24), we can reply, “The standard of justice Amos was using was God’s law, so what does Deuteronomy say about X? What are the principles taught and how do they apply to our situation?”
To put it succinctly, theonomy works as a shibboleth because all the social justice, critical theory, Marxist ideologies rely on a standard of justice outside of Scripture. Theonomy as defined above, using the principles taught in the civil law to determine what is just, is almost impossible for any Christian to disagree with. And once we’re agreed on using God’s standard of justice, victory is already within our reach.
The LBCF 1689 says essentially the same thing, and the Belgic Confession, in the Continental Reformed tradition, speaks similarly (Art. 36): article 36 reads in part:
We believe that our gracious God, because of the depravity of mankind, has appointed kings, princes, and magistrates; willing that the world should be governed by certain laws and policies; to the end that the dissoluteness of men might be restrained, and all things carried on among them with good order and decency. For this purpose He has invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evil-doers and for the protection of them that do well.