Spirit of the Law: A Critique of Dr. Joel McDurmon’ Cherem Principle as Put Forward in His Book, The Bounds of Love

Table of Contents

 

Part 1

Cherem and the Purpose of Law

Dr. McDurmon on Cherem

Part 2

A Ministry of Death?

Arguments from Silence: Dr. McDurmon’s Abridgment Theory

5th Commandment

7th Commandment

Part 3

God’s Judgment: McDurmon’s Paradox

None Dare Call it Treason

Conclusion

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

 

God’s Judgment: Dr. McDurmon’s Paradox

 

Dispensing with the exegetical elements of Dr. McDurmon’s recent work, we will now move towards a broader topic: the idea of judgment. In all fairness to Dr. McDurmon, he does not seem to be arguing that his posited changes in cherem law completely retracts them from any type of enforcement. In fact he specifically makes the case for two forms of punishment for these law-breaking actions: ecclesiastical censure (excommunication) and direct societal judgment from heaven (such as was manifested against Jerusalem in 70 A.D.). The central narrative of many portions of The Bounds of Love is that the civil magistrate may not rightfully attempt to proscribe sanctions against offenders in the area of cherem law

On the subject of excommunication we heartily concur with Dr. McDurmon that the Church should not tolerate such evil practices within its congregations. To be cut off from communion with Christ’s Bride on earth is no laughing matter either; for to be so separated from God’s people is to be symbolically cut off from God Himself. The goal of such censure should always be reconciliation but nevertheless, how much better off would our churches be today if they denied people access to the benefits of the Church who continually engaged in gross and unrepentant sin?

Specifically speaking, for the church to place someone under excommunication is to place them under the ban, and the idea of the ban circles right back around to the Hebrew term cherem. The connection between excommunication, the ban, and cherem is ably noted by Rushdoony when commenting on the correlation:

Curse, ban, and anathema are basically the same concept. That which is under a curse, ban, or anathema is devoted or dedicated (cherem), i.e., given over to destruction at the requirement of God. In the church, the concept of the curse, ban, or anathema appears as excommunication.”[1]

Even though the underlying theme of the curse or ban is death, the church is allowed only excommunication as its highest possible sanction, meaning it must stop there. Symbolically speaking, excommunication means the same things as the civil magistrate’s death sentence: both sanctions remove the offender from contact with law-keeping people. Dr. McDurmon argues in favor of the continued practice of church discipline and dutifully cites passages where we see such judgments handed down from the Apostles.

Yet, when we turn to the civil magistrate, Dr. McDurmon’s position is that the magistrate does not have the same operating standard as the minister; he has no sanction against the cherem laws. For Dr. McDurmon, the two different institutions operate by differing standards in the New Testament era. It is telling that his argument for this is an argument from silence.

No cases of people being executed by the civil rulers for cherem infractions can be found in the New Testament Canon we are told. The conclusion drawn from this is the civil penalties for these crimes have been revoked. As we shall see, it is premature to make these assumptions based on the silence of the New Testament. In the days of the Apostles there were no righteous, God-fearing magistrates. We do not see any civil punishments which are in accord with any Biblical standards anywhere in the New Testament. This is not because God has revoked the ability of civil rulers to punish for offenses against His law.

We do not see His laws enforced because the rulers themselves were wicked. In fact, an unwillingness to obey God and implement His righteous law is a large factor in why both apostate Israel and pagan Rome would be totally obliterated by God within a fairly short amount of time from the closing of the New Testament Canon.

Furthermore, an argument from silence is a dangerous hermeneutic to employ when dealing with Biblical law in the New Testament precisely because we do not see any upholding of Godly laws. If Dr. McDurmon is going to argue that his point is supported by the fact that the New Testament nowhere records a person being executed for violations of the laws which he has grouped as cherem, then he cannot object when another scholar posits the same proofs in support of a total abridgment of theonomic standards for law. What’s good for the goose must be good for the gander.

The concept of the church being expected to enforce a standard different than that acted upon by the state creates further problems as well. The Christian view of society holds to a form of “institutional pluralism” where the three sanction-bearing societal institutions, family, church, and state, are all governed by the same law: God’s law. Within this pluralistic, hierarchical structure, individuals have the right of appeal from one institution to another.

If a man is wrongfully disinherited by his family he can appeal to the church or state for further investigation of his claims. If a man escapes punishment by the state for being a thief, the church can excommunicate the man and thus pressure him to repent and make restitution. This is quite a balanced and well-oiled system but in order for it to function all three governing agencies must be using the same yardstick, the same system of judgment. Gary North succinctly expresses our point here:

There is no doubt that Christianity teaches pluralism, but a very special kind of pluralism: plural institutions under God’s single comprehensive law system. It does not teach a pluralism of law structures, or a pluralism of moralities, for this sort of hypothetical legal pluralism (as distinguished from institutional pluralism) is always either polytheistic or humanistic.”[2]

To foist differing standards of judgment upon the different institutions is either polytheistic or humanistic. These are strong words but they are not easily dismissed. To remove from the state the ability to punish crimes for which the family and church are expected to render judgment is to fundamentally alter the fabric of Christian society. Taking things one step further, to thus truncate the civil magistrate is not only to alter society; it is, moreover, to spell its doom. This single point is in my mind the elephant in the room throughout Dr. McDurmon’s publication on the subject, and he plainly tells us as much. When speaking of the enforcement of the cherem principles, he says that the “sanction is no longer by earthly civil government, it is from the throne of Christ.”[3] And a little later he says that the law-breakers would receive an “even worse judgment that will come from the throne of grace. This judgment fell, in history, in God’s providence, in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in the greatest demonstration of cherem devotion to destruction ever.[4]

The implications of this admission are astounding and that it is here cited as a proof for his argument is telling. God will obliterate, completely destroy, societies for permitting actions to go unpunished which He Himself has supposedly forbidden the magistrate to punish. This is a paradox extraordinaire. According to Dr. McDurmon’s thesis regarding the Cherem Principle, there is nothing a society can do to “remove the evil from its midst” which, if unchecked, will invite God’s destroying wrath. We must tolerate the wicked acts and then accept God’s vengeance upon our land. Dr. McDurmon’s theories nullify the very nature of the magistrate’s role. He must be an onlooker to the heinous acts which will bring a nation’s judgment and destruction. Safe to say, this is not a good plan for maintaining a working society.

 

None Dare Call it Treason

 

In a society which claims God as its king (that is to say a covenanted nation) God’s law is the operating standard for all human judgment and any failure to live by or enforce that law is treason against the terms of the covenant. The role of all three covenantal institutions, as well as God-fearing individuals, is to protect and promote the sanctity of the covenant. If the covenant is broken, the society is exposed to the consuming wrath of God. In this way, we can see that a necessary function of all three of these institutions, and the foremost job of the civil magistrate, is to avert the wrath of God.

When a petty criminal steals fifty dollars’ worth of goods from the local supermarket, he has broken the law and the state can lawfully intervene and force the man to pay restitution to the store owner.[5] In so doing, the state brings justice to the situation in so far as one man has wronged another. But more importantly, the justice of God has been satisfied. Now, we all recognize that the practice of justice cannot atone for the sin committed, but it can, by its restorative action, placate God’s demand for just judgment and law-keeping.

Any crime is primarily against God because it is primarily an offense against His holy covenant law. The job of the magistrate is to intervene into the situation and restore law and order before God does so personally. Once things have gotten bad enough for God to supernaturally intervene, pleading personal righteousness won’t help much. God judges societies in history and on earth, and He judges by the standard of His revealed, holy law. Woe unto those who would remove one jot or tittle and then teach others so.

Dr. McDurmon’s revolutionary thesis creates quite a problem (if acted upon) for the covenanted nation. The civil magistrate is forced to stay his hand while God’s covenant stipulations are trampled upon and the entire nation judged. The crux of the argument here is going to be over how to define the role of the state in the dispensing of God’s covenant to man. Does the state act only to restore law in relationships man to man? Or must it have its eye fixed on rendering justice unto God and recognizing that all sins are sins against our Covenant King? The Bible is clear as to which takes precedence. God’s word says:

“If one be found slain in the land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it is not known who hath slain him, then thine Elders and thy Judges shall come forth, and measure unto the cities that are round about him that is slain: And let the Elders of that city, which is next unto the slain man, take out of the droves an heifer that hath not been put to labor, nor hath drawn in the yoke. And let the Elders of that city bring the heifer unto a stony valley, which is neither eared, nor sown, and strike off the heifer’s neck there in the valley.

Also the Priests the sons of Levi (whom the Lord thy God hath chosen to minister, and to bless in the Name of the Lord) shall come forth, and by their word shall strife and plague be tried. And all the Elders of that city that came near to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: And shall testify, and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. O Lord, be merciful unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay no innocent blood to the charge of thy people Israel, and the blood shall be forgiven them. So shalt thou take away the cry of innocent blood from thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord.”[6]

God’s consuming vengeance must be stayed. Clearly the focus of such a commandment as this is not only to restore man-to-man relations since, after all, the murderer is not caught. Rather the concern of the governing authorities is that in avenging Himself, God not destroy those who didn’t actually commit the act. It must be pointed out that there are also strong ceremonial elements to this passage, such as the sacrifice of the heifer, but the general equity remains and it speaks volumes. The magistrate must concentrate the ire of God against the law-breaker or else broad judgment (plague and strife) will befall all of the people.

To deny the separation of covenant-keepers from covenant-breakers is to accept the downward leveling of society. It is to tolerate that which God finds intolerable and thus invite His judgment. It is no short of covenant treason. And this point does not go unrecognized by Dr. McDurmon. He comments that “only in extreme or aggravated cases in which blasphemy or false worship aims to lead to revolution, sedition, terrorism, or treason would civil government intervention be appropriate.”[7]

The great irony herein is that blasphemy and false worship are always revolutionary, always seditious, and always treason against the God of the covenant. If Dr. McDurmon really believes that the magistrate can still intervene when covenant-breaking action could lead to or are themselves directly treasonous, then he has not really moved the ball down the field at all. This is because these actions are always treasonous!

It is on this point most of all which we would like to pressure Dr. McDurmon to please explain what he means in greater detail. Is he arguing that there are non-treasonous ways to break God’s covenant? Is it sometimes permissible to publicly blaspheme God and other times not? He himself opens up quite an arbitrary enforcement of the law when, after spending time demonstrating his thesis as to why all these commands do not belong unto the civil realm, he concludes that the civil magistrate actually still could enforce the Biblical penalties if the actions are “bad enough”. But who defines bad enough? Who defines treason? Rushdoony provides a keen definition of treason for us:

Because for Biblical law the foundation is the one true God, the central offense is therefore treason to that God by idolatry. Every law-order has its concept of treason. No law-order can permit an attack on its foundations without committing suicide. Those states which claim to abolish the death penalty still retain it on the whole for crimes against the state. The foundations of a law-order must be protected.”[8]

This point is rejected by many today in the name of “humanitarianism” and “compassion” but the truth remains that a society cannot tolerate an attack against its foundational principles. The foundational principles of a covenanted nation will be God’s treaty and the things contained therein. His laws must be obeyed and His honor and office must be respected. Any attack against the person or law of God will be the greatest form of treason that can be committed against the nation in covenant to God. The implicit import here is that Dr. McDurmon’s thesis constitutes either a shifting of its foundational premises away from those things expressed in Scripture and acted upon by Christians for two millennia, or it is has radical suicidal tendencies. Rushdoony speaks on this dilemma, saying:

The basic premise of the law and of society today is relativism. Relativism reduces all things to a common color, to a common gray. As a result, there is no longer any definition for treason, or for crime. The criminal is protected by law, because the law knows no criminal, since modern law denies the absoluteness of justice which defines good and evil. What cannot be defined cannot be delimited or protected. A definition is a fencing and a protection around an object: it separates it from all things else and protects its identity. An absolute law set forth by the absolute God separates good and evil and protects good. When that law is denied, and relativism sets in, there no longer exists any valid principle of differentiation and identification.”[9]

This brings us rather full circle in our discussion of Dr. McDurmon’s thesis. In denying the law its fundamental quality of separating the good from the evil, Dr. McDurmon has set forward a system of law where the lines become fuzzier and fuzzier until treason cannot be defined. Dr. McDurmon himself seems unable to define treason and must lamely conclude that if certain actions become bad enough they may be treason. Over against this lack of definition, it should be posited that any attack against or transgression of the law-order of God constitutes wicked treason and revolution. God’s Word is clear and we must have the integrity and honesty to stand upon it. Dr. McDurmon’s society is one which must tolerate treasonous acts and thus be subject to the downward leveling and eventual suicide which all such lack of differentiation inevitably brings.

 

Conclusion

 

We have submitted these petitions with a spirit of both humility and grave concern. If the forcefulness of the arguments presented is found distasteful, may the reader be assured that no hostility is borne by the writer. Writing rebuttals and critical reviews is a rather tough business, especially when conducted amongst friends.

In review, the main thing which we hope to accomplish by this work is to establish a better foundation upon which to further the examination of Dr. McDurmon’s Cherem Principle thesis. To Dr. McDurmon, three requests are made in conclusion: the hermeneutics used to reach the conclusions which this book does must be solidified, it must be shown that this new system can produce a definition of and defense against treason, and until these theses have been more thoroughly evaluated the rather uncharitable put-downs of past Christians need to be revoked.

In too many places throughout the reviewed work the hermeneutics and exegesis appeared to be a derivative of the conclusions. Over and above the exegetical qualms, the end result of the Cherem Principle thesis leaves us on a seemingly slippery slope.

Lastly, I have chosen here not to respond to Dr. McDurmon’s marathon of shame wherein he glibly condemns everyone from John Calvin to 17th century Reformed Baptists as being “dangerous” and Papists who only used God’s law as a pretext to advance the social theories of Justinian and Constantine. Aside from advancing characterized versions of historical figures, Dr. McDurmon’s rather heated accusations fall to the ground unless it can be ably demonstrated that the civil magistrate is forbidden to enforce those laws which he has identified with his “Cherem Principles”.

In a spirit of agreement we would thank Dr. McDurmon for not trumpeting our forefathers opinions and views as the gospel truth and we would concur that there are a great deal of men today who are little more than romantic play actors fantasizing about good-ole days that weren’t actually so good. That being said, our efforts in the here-and-now must be towards the goal of furthering God’s Gospel message and all of its ramifications to the praise of the glory of the riches of His grace. A great deal of excellent and pointed work has been done over the last fifty years, work which looks to bear fruit in the near future. Let us not turn aside from that path lest we forsake the good way and lose the small amounts of ground we have gained.

“Treason doth never prosper for if it succeed, none dare call it treason”

 

Acknowledgments

 

In closing I am obligated to express my indebtedness to my wife Rachel, whose self-sacrifice in watching our kids and doing the chores allows me the time to write. To Dr. Paul Raymond for allowing me to use the library at New Geneva to aid in the compilation of sources. Eli Jones and Caleb Green of Richmond Reformed Bible Church for their constant help and support throughout. Again to Caleb Green for taking the time to narrate this into audio form (narrating most of it twice because I couldn’t stop editing it). Fred Beall, for contributing the cover art. And especially to Jonathan Character who single-handedly structured this work into a format and presentation that was hopefully comprehensible. Finally, as a show of sincerity, I would like to thank Dr. Joel McDurmon who has shaped a great deal of my understanding of the Christian faith.

Sola Deo Gloria

Sola Gracia

Sola Scriptura

Solus Christus

Sola Fide

 

 

[1] Rushdoony, Institutes, p. 660 (content in parenthesis supplied)

[2] Gary North, Political Polytheism (Tyler, Texas: The Institute for Christian Economics, copyright 1989) p.576 (emphasis in original)

[3] Dr. McDurmon, Bound of Love: ch. 3

[4] ibid

[5] Or in the case of our “enlightened” society today, the state apprehends the petty criminal, forces the store owner to pay further for the criminal’s incarceration where he is exposed to much more severe criminals and he then returns to society prepared to engage in much worse acts than robbing a convenience store. Meanwhile, law-abiding societies have been paying for the whole operation.

[6] Deuteronomy 21:1-9

[7] Dr. McDurmon, Bounds of Love: ch. 3

[8] Rushdoony, Institutes: p, 38

[9] Ibid. p. 119

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