A. W. Pink and Theonomy
Jun 11, 2015 by Joel McDurmon

After reading selections from A. W. Pink’s The Sermon on the Mount, I have no problem identifying Pink as a theonomist. There will be some, no doubt who wish to demure from that assessment, as well as others who accuse me of stretching the truth on account of it. But let the record show that Pink’s work affirms the basic central tenets of Theonomy: that God’s law is the standard for human action in all areas of life, including those abiding standards for the civil magistrate revealed in the judicial law of Moses.

Christ “reestablishes” the law

The following passage from Chapter 7, “Christ and the Law—Continued,” makes clear that in fulfilling the Law, Christ was not only fulfilling it on our behalf, but confirming and  reestablishing it as the standard for us to follow. Pink writes,

Our passage begins at 5:17, in which our Lord made known in no uncertain terms His attitude toward the Divine Law. False conceptions had been formed as to the real design of His mission, and those who were unfriendly toward Him sought to make the people believe that the Lord Jesus was a revolutionary, whose object was to overthrow the very foundations of Judaism. Therefore in His first formal public address Christ promptly gave the lie to these wicked aspersions and declared His complete accord with the Divine revelation at Sinai. Not only was there no antagonism between Himself and Moses, but He had come to earth with the express purpose of accomplishing all that had been demanded in the name of God. So far was it from being His design to repudiate the holy Law, He had become incarnate in order to work out that very righteousness it required, to make good what the Levitical institutions had foreshadowed, and to bring to pass the Messianic predictions of Israel’s seers.

“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). Well did Beza say upon this verse, “Christ came not to bring any new way of righteousness and salvation into the world, but to fulfil that in deed which was shadowed by the figures of the Law: by delivering men through grace from the curse of the Law; and moreover to teach the true use of obedience which the Law appointed, and to grave in our hearts the force of obedience.” On the dominant word “fulfil,’ Matthew Henry pertinently pointed out, “The Gospel is ‘The time of reformation’ (Heb. 9:10)—not the repeal of the Law, but the amendment of it [i.e. from its pharisaical corruptions, A.W.P.] and, consequently, its re-establishment.

Just as we’ve seen with Charles Spurgeon (here and here), we now see Pink favorably quoting Theodore Beza and Matthew Henry in support of the idea that “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 includes within its definition the concept of “reestablishing” the Law as a standard of living, and that Spirit-led sanctification means being given both the learning and the power to obey that standard.

Understanding the Categories

But what parts of the law are “reestablished”? This is just speaking of the “moral” law, right? In Chapter 6, “Christ and the Law,” Pink argues that it is the whole of the Law, the categories simply being understood in different ways:

It is also to be observed that no further reference is made to the prophets throughout this Sermon (let those who have such a penchant for prophecy take due note!), and that from verse 18 onwards it is the Law which Christ treats of. Before proceeding farther we must next inquire, Exactly what did Christ here signify by “the law”? We answer, unhesitatingly, The whole Jewish Law, which was threefold: ceremonial, judicial, and moral. The ceremonial described rules and ordinances to be observed in the worship of God; the judicial described ordinances for the government of the Jewish commonwealth and the punishment of offenders: the former was for the Jews only; the latter primarily for them, yet concerned all people in all times so far as it tended to establish the moral Law. The moral Law is contained in the Ten Commandments. . . .

The ceremonial law has not been destroyed by Christ, but the substance now fills the place of its shadows. Nor has the judicial law been destroyed: though it has been abrogated unto us so far as it was peculiar to the Jews, yet, as it agrees with the requirements of civic justice and mercy, and as it serves to establish the precepts of the moral law, it is perpetual—herein we may see the blasphemous impiety of the popes of Rome, who in the canons have dared to dispense with some of the laws of consanguinity in Leviticus 18. While the moral law remains forever as a rule of obedience to every child of God, as we have shown so often in these pages. . . .

The argument here is two-fold: first, the “Law” includes the whole of the Law, even as it is divided into three categories. Secondly, even as we consider certain parts of those categories as pertaining to Israel only, nevertheless we do not dismiss them wholesale. Even the ceremonial law abides in the sense that Christ is the substance of them. In regard to the judicial law, only those that pertained specifically to Israel are to be regarded as abrogated. Those that pertain to justice in general are to be considered as God’s standards of civil righteousness and justice forever.

Readers will probably recognize this argument which has precedent with the Puritans going all the way back to William Perkins as well. We are to consider the Mosaic judicial law itself as being divided in two parts: that which serves Jewish ceremonial purposes, and that which serves moral purposes. Those many parts of the judicial code which pertain to certain land laws and Sabbaths, Jubilees, seed and family laws, priestly and temple rites, etc., pertained to Israel in particular, not the whole world. These are what Perkins and others referred to as those laws having only “particular” equity. These expired with Old Testament Israel—particularly, in my view, with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Those judicial laws, however, which explain, apply, and serve moral purposes—and this includes the punishment of crime—must be understood as applying to the world in general, as they explicate civil justice in general. Thus, these are said to have general equity, and they oblige modern states and governments today as much as they did Israel. These are God’s standards of civil justice and punishment for all times and all places.

Civil Law and Punishment

Pink’s exposition later gives a clear confirmation of this principle, namely in the Chapters dealing with retaliation. He writes,

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: . . .” (Matthew 5:28-42). Christ is not here pitting Himself against the Mosaic law, nor is He inculcating a superior spirituality. Instead He continues the same course as He had followed in the context, namely to define that righteousness demanded of His followers, which was more excellent than the one taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees; and this He does by exposing their error and expounding the spirituality of the moral law.

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (v. 38). These words are found three times in the Pentateuch. They occur first in Exodus 21, a chapter which opens thus, “Now these are the judgments.” The word “judgments” signifies judicial laws. The statutes recorded therein were so many rules by which the magistrates were to proceed in the courts of Israel when trying a criminal. The execution of these statutes was not left to private individuals, so that each man was free to avenge his own wrongs, but they were placed in the hands of the public administrators of the law. This is further borne out by the third occurrence of our text in Deuteronomy 19, for there we read, “And the judges shall make diligent inquisition . . . and thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (vv. 18, 21).

Pink goes on to argue that this “eye for an eye” passage is an abiding standard for penal sanctions.

First, this Divinely prescribed rule was a just one: “And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour: as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again” (Lev. 24:19, 20). What is more equitable than an exact quid pro quo? Surely it is a most elementary and unchanging principle of sound jurisprudence that the punishment should be made to fit the crime—neither more nor less. . . . If it be objected that in this Christian era justice is far more tempered with mercy than was the case in Old Testament times, then we would remind the objector that “Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7) is found in the New Testament. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2) are the words of Christ Himself.

Since it is a just standard, it stands to reason that any other standard of punishment would be more or less than just, and thus, not just. Thus, some people’s concept of “mercy” is in actuality injustice. On the flip side of this, this law is true mercy in that it protects society from criminals, but does not allow more vengeance than is due. Pink continues:

Second, this Mosaic statute was a most merciful one. It is to be observed that in Exodus 21, both before and after the rule recorded in verses 23-25, legislation is given concerning the rights of “servants” or, as the word really means, “slaves.” If their masters, out of brutality or in a fit of rage, maimed them, then the magistrates were required to see to it that they in turn should be compelled to take a dose of their own medicine. Who can fail to see, then, that such a law placed a merciful restraint upon the passions of the owners and made for the safeguarding of the persons of their slaves. Moreover, this statute also curbed any judge who in righteous indignation at the cruel injury of a slave was inclined to punish his master too severely: he was not allowed to demand a life for an eye, or a limb for a tooth!

So the principle of just punishment establishes boundaries for magistrates, not just would-be criminals. It ties the state’s hands when it comes to potential tyrannies. So let’s be clear here: without Theonomy, you open the door wide open to tyranny. In fact, many Christians end up promoting tyranny because they abandon this Mosaic judicial standard.

In case we may be left wondering whether Pink was explicating how things where only under the Old Testament system, he adds this:

Ere passing on let it be pointed out that this law of judicial retaliation ought to be upon our statute books today and impartially and firmly enforced by our magistrates. Nothing would so effectually check the rapidly rising tide of crimes of violence. But alas, so foolish and effeminate is the present generation that an increasing number are agitating for the abolition of capital punishment and the doing away with corporal punishment, and this in the face of the fact that in those countries where capital punishment is most loosely administered there is the highest percentage of murders, and that as corporal punishment is relaxed crimes of brutal violence are greatly increasing. Those who have no regard for the persons of others are very tender of their own skins, and therefore the best deterrent is to let them know that the law will exact from them an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

He returns to the theme of mercy, this time blasting false mercy:

“No man needs to be more merciful than God. The benefit that will accrue to the public from this severity will abundantly recompense it. Such exemplary punishment will be warning to others not to attempt such mischiefs” (from Matthew Henry’s comments on Deut. 19:19-21). Magistrates were never ordained of God for the purpose of reforming reprobates or pampering degenerates, but to be His instruments for preserving law and order, and that by being “a terror to the evil” (Rom. 13:3). The magistrate is “the minister of God,” not to encourage wickedness, but to be an “avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). Let it not be forgotten that Christ Himself affirmed of the judge who refused to “avenge” the poor widow of her adversary that he was one “who feared not God neither regarded man” (Luke 18:2).

In the subsequent Chapter, Pink reviews and restates his position again. Here he approvingly quotes even a dispensationalist who in large part agrees:

Even Mr. F. W. Grant (a leader among the “Plymouth Brethren”) agreed that, “The righteousness of the law of course remains righteousness, but it does not require of any that they exact for personal wrongs. There is no supposition of the abrogation of law or of its penalties. The government of the world is not in question, but the path of disciples in it. Where they are bound by the law, they are bound, and have no privileges. They are bound, too, to sustain it in its general working, as ordained of God for good. Within these limits there is still abundant room for such practice as is here enjoined. We may still turn the left cheek to him that smites the right, or let the man that sues us have the cloak as well as the coat which he has fraudulently gained: for that is clearly within our rights. If the cause were that of another, we should have no right of this kind, nor to aid men generally in escape from justice or in slighting it. The Lord could never lay down a general rule that His people should allow lawlessness, or identify themselves with indifference to the rights of others” (The Numerical Bible).

Pinks repeats his view again in the third chapter on this passage:

The words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (v. 38), occur three times in the Pentateuch. They enunciated one of the judicial laws which the Lord gave to Israel. That law was prescribed solely for the guidance and use of magistrates. Its design was threefold: to protect the weak against the strong, to serve as a salutary warning unto evil-doers, to prevent the judge from inflicting too severe a punishment upon those guilty of maiming others. As such it was a just, merciful and beneficent law. If the principle of this statute—the infliction of corporal punishment on those convicted of crimes of violence—was universally and strictly enforced today, it would make this world a much safer place to live in.

So it’s clear once again that Pink saw this law as a judicial law and not just as a moral law. It pertains to the civil magistrate, and should be inforce to prevent tyranny. It would also have beneficial effects in society if it were.

Conclusion

What have we seen from Pink thus far? He believed that Matthew 5:17 referred to the whole law of God in all its categories. Dare we compare Pink’s unhesitating answer “the whole of the law” here with someone else’s phrase, “in exhaustive detail”? I don’t see why not. Further, Pink believed that the word “fulfill” in that passage pertained not only to the work of Christ for our justification, but to a reestablishment of the law as a standard of living. He was able to quote Beza and Henry in support of these views as well.

Pink continued to note that while the law could be divided into three categories, these categories are not to be understood as means of dismissal. Rather, the judicial law itself was divided between some that expired with Israel, and some that continue to bind us today. Those that continue to bind us today include standards for the civil magistrate. These standards include the punishment of crime. This was most clearly the case in Pink’s exposition of the penal standard of “an eye for an eye.” He did not merely argue pragmatically that “it would be nice” to have such a law because it would be better than what we have now, but he said “it ought to be on our statute books”—which is a statement of moral obligation rooted in the abiding nature of  this law. It is clear from this that Pink believed (as Gill and others before him) that part of the Mosaic judicial law, including its penal sanctions, remains binding today, and ought to be enforced by the civil magistrate.

For these reasons, I do not hesitate to call A. W. Pink a theonomist, for his position as explicated above is nothing short of Theonomy. Would he have disagreements over some particulars with Rushdoony, Bahnsen, North, and McDurmon? Most likely. Was the greater balance of his message in a different area than social theory? Yes. But on the fundamental distinctives of Theonomy, he was in line with us.

Pink goes on to argue, in this work, that exalting God’s righteous standard to its rightful place—including the realm of civil punishment—would indeed have beneficial practical effects in society. He also notes very clearly the failure of the church to do so. We will cover his comments on this failure tomorrow.


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