John Murray On Hermeneutics, The Law, And Coherence.

An entire book could be written on the issue of hermeneutics and the law, namely the various ways which scholars, including especially the reformed, argue for the abrogation of the case laws or civil code which applies the decalogue. This activity took on increased activity with especially with Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s ‘Theonomy in Christian Ethics’. (Contents abstract only). Dr. Bahnsen has never been challenged directly in this work, namely because it is a perfect example of applying established principles of biblical interpretation. However, the seeds of opposition were planted long before his work.

If one were to choose a trusted voice to lean on for an argument against the continuation of the civil code, there is hardly any more orthodox than Dr. John Murray. Murray was highly esteemed by Bahnsen, and indeed anybody who is anybody in the Reformed Presbyterian community knows of the immense contributions of Murray. Furthermore, he wrote what J. I. Packer called his “masterpiece”, namely his ‘Principles Of Conduct’. Referring to the classic passage which formed the main focus of Bahnsen’s work, he wrote the following. In referring to Matthew 5:17 Murray wrote, “The meaning of ‘destroy’ is not to break or transgress but to dissolve. It is similar to our English word ‘abrogate’ or, as in Wiclif’s translation, ‘undo’. Jesus says that he did not come to abrogate the law or the prophets” (149).

The above statement makes the following one all the more puzzling. “Our Lord instituted divorce as the proper recourse for the innocent spouse who had been wronged by adultery on the part of the other. By implication our Lord abrogated the death penalty for adultery. But in the abolition of the death penalty the sin of adultery is not relieved of any of its heinousness as a violation of God’s law. It is precisely because the spirituality of the law and the wickedness of its violation are more fully revealed that the abrogation of the penal sanction takes place” (54-55). At this point Murray directs the reader to refer to his earlier work on divorce (1953), and it is by far one of the best treatments on the subject. However, the above quote needs some scrutiny.

Firstly, one cannot escape Murray’s lack of coherence in his treatment of the law, ethics, and hermeneutics. He later goes on to agree with Jesus that he came not to abrogate any of the law, and yet here he states the exact opposite! Murray even argues that Jesus did not abrogate the ceremonial or ritual laws, but only that we “discontinue the observance of the rites and ceremonies of the old economy” (150). On this point he is to be applauded. Again, “Jesus is saying that he came not to abrogate any part of the Mosaic law” (150). Secondly, this contradiction on Murray’s part is justified by what can only be described as a “pietistic spirituality hermenuetic”.

Murray seems to suggest that because Jesus taught that divorce was an acceptable response to adultery within the church, that this somehow brings out some kind of “spirituality of the law and the wickedness of its violation,” which justifies the supposed abrogation of the penal sanction in the civil sphere. So simply divorcing someone is somehow more demonstrative of the wickedness of adultery than is the penal sanction! One imagines that the guilty party would beg to disagree! This is a conception of “spirituality” which is unbecoming of a man of Murray’s stature, and a cop out frankly. Another book could be written on the manifold understandings of “spirituality” which don’t line up with the scriptural evidence.

Thirdly, there is an even more fundamental hermeneutical flaw which occurs with Murray which precedes this bizarre interpretation. After demonstrating that the NT in fact appeals to the OT civil code with respect to consanguinity and affinity (49ff), he then goes on to argue that because Jesus taught that divorce was allowed for adultery, this somehow is interpreted by him to mean a replacement of the penal sanction, about which Jesus was silent. In any other case, such as the inclusion of infants in the covenant, Murray would have argued that everything continues which has not been specifically changed in the N.T. Instead, he argues from silence that Jesus is teaching that divorce within the church somehow replaces a penal sanction of a state’s civil code.

There would be, and there are in fact are many examples of where these kind of hermeneutics lead people astray. In actual fact, it is the basic presupposition of opposition to the civil administration which has led otherwise orthodox people to reverting to hermeneutical principles which they would otherwise refute. One can only look at the two kingdom theology of men like Horton and Escondido, to see how far some will go. It saddens me to find this in Murray, and I certainly don’t want anyone to avoid his work, but on these points I must beg to differ. If there is one thing which ought to characterize the Biblical Christian worldview, and indeed any worldview, it must be coherence, and on this score Murray and those who follow his hermeneutics on this point, do not cohere.


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