Book Review: How Firm a Foundation?: An Exegetical and Historical Critique of the "Ethical Perspective of [Christian] Reconstructionism" Presented in Theonomy in Christian Ethics
If anyone has studied just a little on the subject of theonomy (the school of thought whose most controversial tenant is to follow consistently the Westminster Confession of faith and actually apply the teaching that the general equity of the judicial laws of Moses ought to be our standard and guide for civil government today - see Westminster Confession of Faith XIX.IV), then he or she would know that the the exegetical grounds of theonomy can be established from a various number of passages in Scripture - many in the New Testament (Rom. 3:31, 7:12; Gal. 5:14; 1 Tim. 1:8-11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 2:2; Jas. 1:25, 2:8-12).
However, Timothy Cunningham seemingly bases this entire book on the premise that if Bahnsen’s view of Matthew 5:17-20 can be dismantled then the entire Christian Reconstructionist school of thought will theologically and exegetically collapse.
It’s a very confusing read because at times Cunningham seems to have done his homework and recognizes other theonomic authors (Rushdoony, DeMar, Gentry, North); yet at the same time he somehow has missed that theonomy nowhere ever comes close to standing or falling on a single text of Scripture.
Matthew 5:17-20 is a good text to use in support of the theonomic premise; and it’s a helpful text to be sure. Incidentally, I find Bahnsen’s exegesis of that passage very plausible. Yet while Cunningham makes some interesting exegetical arguments against Bahnsen’s interpretation in Matthew, there was nothing in them to warrant an all out abandonment of Bahsnen’s view. Nonetheless, even if Cunningham is right at every point in which he disagrees with Bahnsen on the interpretation of that particular passage, it does nothing in countering the theonomic premise of Christian ethics - especially with regard to the civil magistrate.
After about 130 pages of “counter arguments” against Bahnsen's exegesis, Cunningham takes 50 pages to explain why the history of Reformed Theology is not in agreement with the theonomic perspective. One only need to do some light reading - very light reading, perhaps just the brief book “Theonomy and the Westminster Confession” (64 pages) by Martin Foulner - to discover (from primary sources) the Reformers’ view concerning the theonomic perspective in Christian ethics.
Finally, Cunningham concludes his chapter with an argument against Bahnsen’s take on the woman caught in adultery in John 8. He claims here that Bahnsen’s understanding of Deuteronomy 19:15 is incorrect (big surprise given the rest of the book). He then for some reason indicates that based on this passage of Theonomy in Christian Ethics Bahnsen does not have a view concerning two witnesses being necessary for capital crimes. It’s almost hard not to throw your hands up in the air at this point. Just read Bahnsen or any of the published theonomists. The position is always that there needs to be at least two credible witnesses in order for capital punishment to be administered.
I was going to mention how gracious Cunningham was toward Bahnsen (for it seemed that way in the introductory pages). Yet when throughout his work he writes things like, “[Bahnsen’s] ignorance...suggests that he neglected to perform the routine scholarly check of reviewing his proposed counterargument…” (p. 50), I'm inclined to leave that out. Furthermore, it leaves me to question Cunningham’s own scholarly ability.
After having graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in philosophy from Westmont College, three years later Greg Bahnsen was awarded two graduate degrees simultaneously (Th.M. and M.Div) from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). He was known by friend and foe alike to be one of the most vigorous and able scholars in his time. Given the above and taken with the endorsement from his former professor Dr. John Frame that Bahnsen was “absolutely the very most prepared student I have ever had” (The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Geg L. Bahnsen , p. 13), I find it nearly impossible seeing Bahnsen being ignorant concerning anything on which he was writing, let alone neglecting to perform routine scholarly work on the subject.
All in all, this book promises a lot but delivers nothing. So in my opinion (for whatever it’s worth), this book is not worth your time.
P.S. If you’re interested, here are three great articles on the Westminster Confession of Faith XIX.IV
Happy studies! :)