Gillespie Against Theonomy

It will be asked, “But how does it appear that these or any other judicial laws of Moses do at all appertain to us, as rules to guide us in like cases?” I shall wish him who scruples this, to read Piscator’s appendix to his observations upon the 21-23 chapters of Exodus, where he excellently disputes this question, whether the Christian Magistrate is bound to observe the judicial laws of Moses, as well as the Jewish Magistrate was. He answers by the common distinction, he is obliged to those things in the judicial law which are unchangeable, and common to all nations [ie. General Equity]: but not to those things which are mutable, or proper to the Jewish Republic [ie. Particular Equity]. But then he explains this distinction, that by things mutable, and proper to the Jews, he understands the emancipation of an Hebrew servant or handmaid in the seventh year, a man’s marrying his brother’s wife and raising up seed to his brother, the forgiving of debts at the Jubilee, marrying with one of the same tribe, and if there be any other like to these; also ceremonial trespasses, as touching a dead body, etc. But things immutable, and common to all nations, are the laws concerning moral trespass, sins against the moral law, as murder, adultery, theft, enticing away from God, blasphemy, striking of parents. Now that the Christian Magistrate is bound to observe these judicial laws of Moses, which appoint the punishments of sins against the moral law, he proves by these reasons. Read More»

Paul J. Barth | “The Civil Magistrate’s Duty to Punish Sins Against the Moral Law | George Gillespie” | April 3, 2015


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  1. Far be it from me to dispute with Gillespie. I will further add that I parted company with Rushdoony and company for good almost three decades ago (although I admit that his Shoah revisionism and things that might be taken as racist were the wedge issues). However, as a student and teacher of history, I mourn that American slaveholding did not follow the Mosaic stricture, releasing every baptized slave in the seventh year and not sending him out empty, while keeping only those who had grown attached to the owner’s household. Had our country been “theonomistic” on this score, we would have saved ourselves a great deal of grief.

    I will add that much as I love Southern people, I do not engage in Confederate nostalgia; have zero sympathy with Doug Wilson’s view that Southern slavery was basically benign; and regret that our country still has to count people by supposed “race”.

    To get back to Gillespie, I have come to greatly appreciate those 17th century giants the older I get.

    • Peter, that’s an interesting and quite valuable point. Theonomy, if consistently applied, would have led in the American South to something comparable to what happened in most (not all) of Latin America where pagans could be slaves but those who accepted baptism could not be. Of course, the conquistadores were not modern liberals and their treatment of the native population was certainly not what we would consider appropriate, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say the native populations in Latin America were not treated that much differently from serfs and peasants in much of contemporary Europe. Perhaps the best parallel would be the converted Muslims in Sicily, and those among the Moorish “conversos” in Spain and Portugal who managed to convince their Catholic superiors that they were sincere converts and were not subject to some of the waves of expulsions of “conversos” who were in fact still crypto-Muslims.

      Latin America was not a good place to be in the 1500s and 1600s if you were a native. But it says a lot that the American South was a far worse place to be in the 1600s and 1700s and most of the 1800s if you were a black slave, or for that matter, a native Cherokee or a member of other tribes forced onto the Trail of Tears.

      American race-based chattel slavery truly was horrible at a level significantly worse than most (not all, but most) of how European overlords in the same eras were treating conquered populations. People who want to defend American slavery need to take a hard look at the facts.

      Yes, I know about French slavery in Haiti. Yes, I know about slavery in British and Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. Yes, I know about the slave revolts in Brazil. There were worse places to be than a Virginia plantation, and some of them included being “sold south” to Georgia or Louisiana, and the situation in the Caribbean, with a massive mortality rate, was even worse than that.

      While there were exceptions, most of Latin America treated the native population, and later the African and mixed-race population, considerably better than that.

      That’s something Presbyterian and Reformed theonomists who defend slavery should seriously consider. Their theonomic doctrine ought to make them opponents, not supporters, of Southern slavery practices. With the particularly awful exceptions of Haiti and Louisiana, Catholic doctrine led to better treatment of enslaved people than the doctrine professed by Reformed people in the American South. That’s not complimenting Catholics but it definitely is criticizing professed Calvinists in the American South who were slaveowners.

    • Thank you.

      On the issue of “…releasing every baptized slave in the seventh year and not sending him out empty…” — yesterday I was reading a writer on the roots of slavery in Virginia who can fairly be described as being not just liberal but “woke.”

      In his attack on the Virginia leadership, he noted that the early “indentured servants” in Virginia were obligated to a seven-year term of labor, at the end of which, if they successfully completed their term of service to their masters, they would receive land or sometimes money from their masters. Things were handed differently with Africans, however, who if they did things wrong, were punished not just with adding additional years to their term of service but with lifetime servitude.

      I have no reason to believe that writer understands the biblical issues involved. However, what he cites would appear to be prima facie evidence that the Virginians were modeling their laws after Old Testament principles, at least on a “general equity” level, but at an early date decided different indentured servants should be treated differently if they were racially different. It wasn’t just being non-English — at least two indentured servants in early Virginia history, one of them Dutch and one of them Scots, had years added to their time of service as a penalty for their behavior, but an African was sentenced to lifetime servitude.

      I do not claim to be an expert on the early colonial legal system or practices in Virginia. But if what that writer presents is both accurate and in context, it would appear the early Virginians knew the biblical principles and made a deliberate decision to violate them with people considered to be “other,” i.e., not just non-English. I don’t think we can fairly say that racial categories had yet been developed in the 1600s in England, but the English **DID** understand that they had more in common with Scotsmen and Dutchmen than they did with, for example, with “Moors” or “Turks” or others from a non-European background.

  2. @Darrell Todd Maurina:

    Thank you for your comment on my initial comment. I have other quibbles with the theonomists–I see the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial law as a valid point; even if natural law suffices only to show fallen man that he is totally fallen, it is still natural law. But, as you probably noted, I saw the question of race-based slavery as falling under “the general equity thereof [Mosaic civil law]” as mentioned in the WCF. Moot now, but…

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