Clark, Robbins, and Theonomy

I admit to being somewhat of a novice on the topic of Theonomy. This post neither intends to promote Theonomy nor critique it but only to note some historical observations.

There are parts of a series of three letters between Gordon H. Clark and John Robbins which relate to Theonomy.

Letter 1: Clark to Robbins, undated (early April, 1980 is my best guess)
Letter 2: Robbins to Clark, April 9, 1980
Letter 3: Clark to Robbins, April 14, 1980

In the first letter Clark writes,

Bahnsen’s treatment of me, as also Rushdoony’s of some years ago, is logically irrelevant to the merits of Chalcedon theories. But I suppose they influence me to some extent. Similarly  the fact that Bahnsen is not in accord with the Reformed position, and was dismissed from the Seminary because of his deviation, is logically irrelevant; though it seems to me that the wisdom of the Reformed theologians deserves a certain respect and presumption of truth.

However, I shall not argue the truth of the position in this letter; right now I wish to learn about your consistency.

Although I shall have some other arguments (which seems invalid to me), your main material comes from Deut. 20. Therefore I would like to ask you

Would you have advocated the massacre of every German man, woman, and child after our victory in World War II? And if Hitler had not gone to war, would you have let the women and children go free, and just killed the men? The same question could be asked in the case of our Civil War.

You know what a fetish I make of logic; and the above is not an argument, but simply a test of your consistency.

The reference to Deut. 20 seems to be in relation to Robbins’ complete opposition to the military draft, a position which Clark does not agree with him on. (Note: part of the problem in the record is that in this series mostly only Clark-to-Robbins letters are extent and few Robbins-to-Clark letters)

In the second letter Robbins responds,

Thank you for your recent letter posting a test of consistency. I wish you would also argue the truth of the proposition “The government has the authority to conscript men (or women) for its own purposes.” … Your fetish for logic has my complete respect. … I do not, of course, rest my case on a few verses of Deuteronomy 20. I have also mentioned a few verses in 1 Samuel 8. I might also mention Exodus 21:16, as well as the eighth commandment.

As for your reference to Rushdoony and Bahnsen: I am not sure what you are driving at this in paragraph, for as far as I can tell, my views on the draft and those of Rushdoony and Bahnsen are quite different. Both of those men seem to favor a limited draft; I see no warrant for any draft at all.  …

And as for Bahnsen’s deviation from the Reformed position, if some errors are better than others, I much prefer his error (and I have not read Theonomy, but I presume its thesis is similar to Rushdoony’s Institutes) to the reigning error of antinomianism in so-called Reformed churches. My position is that of the Westminster Confession, which states that the general equity of the judicial laws binds us even today. I believe you also take this position in your 1957 essay on The Christian and the Law in which you cite passages from the Old Testament commanding the care of animals.

Now, if one accepts as true the proposition that the general equity of the judicial laws of ancient Israel binds us even today, must one therefore favor the extermination of all Germans after World War II and of all Southerners during the Civil War? Of course not. Why? Because the commands given in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 are not judicial law, as the commands in Deuteronomy 20:5-8 are. They are ceremonial law, and they expired with the Old Covenant, just as the food and sanitation laws did, which are equally awkwardly classified under the inadequate head of ceremonial law.

The extermination of the Canaanitic cities was a religious act. The verb used in verse 17, which is translated as “utterly destroy” means to devote to God for religious purposes.

And in the third letter Clark responds,

… your letter expresses a doubt as to what I meant by my references to Bahnsen. Nothing very deep. I merely wanted to make clear that Bahnsen’s attack on me, in the material you sent, which could have soured me on various proposals, was not the motivation of my letter. If you and Bahnsen agree on a point for different reasons, I am merely interested in the point and do not transfer to you any bias I may have against him.

How Deut. 20:10-18 is ceremonial law escapes me. Ceremonial law has to do with religious observances, primarily the temple or tabernacle service. It has to do with formal worship. The command against adultery, for example, is not ceremonial. It is moral, civil, and is not a direction for formal worship. The material in Deut. 20:10-18 is strictly military. So is the earlier section. That the priest speak in verses 2, 3 does not show that it is ceremonial. Priests can encourage the soldiers and instruct them as to their civil duties. Note also that verse 5 speaks of officers. Are they not military officers? So far as I can tell all of the chapter is military and not ceremonial. Hence it would seem to me that if one wishes to apply something to our present day, one would have to accept all the chapter or none.

Well, there is a lot more to these letters as far as the question of the military draft goes. (And that is an interesting topic itself) But, I’ve cut these bits out to point out some observances about Clark, Robbins, and Theonomy.

1. Gordon Clark was opposed to Bahnsen’s Theonomy.

2. John Robbins (here in 1980) seems to me to have some interest in Bahnsen’s Theonomy.  (That Robbins was pro-Theonomy early in his career was also told to me by his son-in-law Tom Juodaitis on a visit I made to him at the Trinity Foundation.) (Note also that Robbins writes “In the early days of The Journal of Christian Reconstruction I contributed a few essays and book reviews to that publication.” Robbins, “Will the Real Greg Bahnsen Please Stand Up?” Trinity Review, August 1992.) Robbins here has a strong view of what constitutes “general equity” in the Confession. His defense of his position, claiming the extermination commands of Deuteronomy 20 to be part of the ceremonial law sounds almost a bit like an argument a Theonomist might use.

3. John Robbins ardently opposed Theonomy later in his career, as evidenced by his article “Theonomic Schizophrenia” (among others) for the Trinity Review. This is after he had read Bahnsen. (which he hadn’t done yet in 1980).

4. I see a danger in Robbins of starting with a Libertarian framework and making the Scriptures fit this view. Robbins had first studied Libertarianism with Hans Sennholz at Grove City College. Later (and I believe I have the chronology correct) Robbins becomes a Reformed Christian and then some more time after that an ardent “Clarkian.” I must admit to this same error as I came to thinking through my Christian political views after already being a Libertarian. Now I would go lighter on the “Libertarian” seeing some good things in their views, but others not entirely Biblical. That is why, in a post I made in 2014 on “Libertarianism in the thought of Gordon H. Clark” I mentioned that Clark wasn’t fully a Libertarian though he shared many of their extremely-smaller-government views.

5. As for Theonomy, I’ll make one comment. Noting Robbins’ perhaps overzealous Libertarian views, it is important to make sure to study the Scriptures to reach a view, and not to first read the Scriptures WITH that view.


About douglasdouma

I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (BSME), Wake Forest University (MBA), and Sangre de Cristo Seminary (Mdiv). I've learned far more from books than in school. I'm particularly in debt to Martin Luther, Ludwig von Mises, and Gordon H. Clark for any thoughts I have.
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4 Responses to Clark, Robbins, and Theonomy

  1. My old boss studied under Hans Senholz at Grove City. There are some great stories about Sennholz. Apparently, he was a difficult professor, so after a week or two of class, there would also be quite a number of students who wanted to drop out. As a good German, he always started on time and ended on time as well. Anyway, one year, there was a ROTC kid in the class, and the kid found it all too difficult. One day, about 15 seconds after the class had started, the ROTC kid walks in, interrupting Sennholz. The kid walks to the front of the room and hands Sennholz a drop slip to sign. He looks it over and without saying a word signs it and hands it back. The ROTC walks away, but just as he reaches the door, Sennholz speaks out in loud language and in his German accent: “Fine soldier you’ll be, retreating at the first sign of danger!”

  2. Matt Doyle says:

    Here is Dr. Bahnsen’s response to the Robbins article that you mentioned in your blog (Theonomic Schizophrenia). This is “the rest of the story.”

  3. Pingback: Was Gordon Clark a Theonomist? | A Place for Thoughts

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