Theonomy has been a little buzz word in some Hobart circles over the last few weeks. You can read my first article on the topic here. Let's recap, the theonomic soundbite:
“The word ‘Theonomy’ comes from two Greek words, theos (God) and nomos (law). Together, these words simply mean ‘God’s law’…Theonomy is the biblical teaching that Mosaic law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today” (Joel McDurmon - The Bounds of Love, pp. 12 & 24).
I am continuing to briefly discuss concerns that I am aware of. Conversation is good. This certainly isn’t exhaustive nor is it the last word. If you have specific concerns/questions please contact me.
I have heard it said that Theonomists have a narrow focus on civil government, which is the agenda behind everything. This is simply a misguided assessment. It also highlights a substantial misunderstanding of the Theonomic position.
“Theonomy is indeed much broader than civil government. It is about all of life - individual, business, work, family, church, medicine, science, etc. It is, however, the unique position of Theonomy to say that Mosaic judicial law contains abiding standards to which civil governments today remain obliged. In this view, the whole of the word of God reveals abiding standards for the whole of life and society” (Dr Joel McDurmon - The Bounds of Love, p. 26).
“Theonomy is not a scheme for personal self-justification. God’s grace, expressed in the accompliushed and applied redemption of Jesus Christ, alone can save us…Theonomy is the Christian’s pattern of sanctification. The believer’s life is comprised not only of repentance and faith, but also of continual growth into conformity with the stature of Christ…The law of God has social, interpersonal, and political directions as well as dictates for the individual heart” (Dr Greg Bahnsen - Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 37).
“Man’s justification is by the grace of God in Jesus Christ; man’s sanctification is by means of the law of God….The purpose of grace is not to set aside the law but to fulfil the law and enable man to keep the law…The goal of the law is not lawlessness, nor the purpose of grace a lawless contempt of the giver of grace…[T]he Biblical doctrine of law includes all law, civil, ecclesiastical, societal, familial and all other forms of law” (Rousas J Rushdoony - The Institutes of Biblical Law, p.4).
“The preaching of the gospel to every person, and the teaching of the law to every person, is the basis of discipling the nations…No institution is exempt: church, state, family, economy, school, farm, etc. Every institution has a structure of responsibility and standards of performance. What Christ demands is a discipling of men and institutions by means of His standards of righteous performance. If civil government bears the sword, then it should bear the sword in terms of God’s law. If a corporation makes a profit, then it should make a profit in terms of God’s law…[A]s long as you have to operate institutions in terms of some standards, you should operate them in terms of God’s standards” (Dr Gary North – Unconditional Surrender, p. 375).
The application of the Mosaic Law within the sphere of civil government is that naughty Theonomic distinctive. It's the pork chop in Jerusalem for those akin to natural law and political pluralism. But be sure that this distinctive sits within a broader, reformed theological framework. It is not the single lens that Theonomy looks through. All of life is under the reign and rule of Jesus. There is no neutrality. All thoughts are to be made subject to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). All thoughts. God’s Law-Word is to be rightly applied to every sphere of faith and life (1 Timothy 1:8-11, Westminster Shorter Catechism 2).
Government begins with the individual. Self-government is foundational to all other types of government. Family, Church and civil government are interdependent institutions ordained by God. Each has delegated authority within their sphere of sovereignty, as well as ministerial duties and responsibilities within those spheres. None is to intrude on any of the other's authority, duties or responsibilities. Christ laid down the blueprints for the individual and these institution in the Scriptures. Autonomous man does not have the authority to create the rules; rather man is to be faithfully obedient as a steward. I will concentrate on civil government. Theonomy advocates small civil government with limited authority and no mandate to intrude into the responsibilities assigned by God to the family (including business/organisations) and church. This does not necessitate anarchy but rather rule of law; and law is defined by God in His Word.
The Theonomic position concerning civil government includes:
- the civil government is appointed by God (Romans 13:1) as His minister in the civil realm (Romans 13:4);
- the authority vested in the civil government is legally ministerial and thus limited not by the people but by the sovereign, King Jesus and His revealed Law-Word (Romans 13:3-4, cf. Matthew 28:18-20, 1 Timothy 1:8-11);
- the primary responsibility of the civil magistrate is to "bear the sword...[as] God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil" (Romans 13:4);
- the civil minister of God determines good/evil by lawfully using the Law of God and "purging" the land of evil to provide a free society wherein the gospel can be preached (1 Timothy 1:8-11, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, cf. Matthew 5:17-19);
- those who do good are to be unfearful in submitting themselves to their governing authorities out of faithfulness to God (Romans 13:2,5-6);
- when the civil government goes beyond the bounds of its sphere of authority defined by God in Scripture, men are called to resist that tyranny (Acts 5:27-29) in as peaceful a manner as possible.
Theonomy does not advocate legalism. It does not teach salvation by grace plus or through works of the law. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone to God's glory alone. Theonomists advocate the Biblical requirement that all institutions are to be faithfully obedient to King Jesus' Word. We argue that when the Law of God is rightly used and applied by the civil magistrate (and all other institutes) it is "according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God" (1 Timothy 1:11).
I have heard it said that Theonomists teach the Mosaic Law is applicable in its exhaustive detail today. Doesn’t that mean capital punishment for idolaters (Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 27:29), false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:1-10), adulterers (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuals (Leviticus 18:22,20:13), Sabbath breakers (Exodus 31:14,35:2), blasphemers (Leviticus 24:10-16) and many others? How cruel.
Perhaps you heard that through the Hobart grapevine. Or you may have read it in Dr Greg Bahnsen’s book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics; “Chapter 2 - The Abiding Validity of the Law in Exhaustive Detail (Matthew 5:17-19)." What most critics do not do is read the 550+ page book which provides detailed qualifications to that statement. Theonomy advocates "that the law is good if one uses it lawfully" (1 Timothy 1:8) and when the Law is used lawfully it is “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11). Theonomists do not advocate a blanket, all is binding, approach to the Law of God.
In saying this we must be careful in how we frame the question. Who determines what punishment is just? What is the basis for determining something to be a sin and a crime. As Christians we ought to take the Scriptures as the only rule for all of faith and life (1 Corinthians 10:31, 2 Timothy 3:16, WCF 1.2). I will expand on this in another article.
Theonomy is a reformed Biblical worldview that applies all of Scripture to all of life. The overarching Theonomic approach to the Law of God is that; “although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (WCF 19:6). The Law of God is the measuring yard for life as individuals, families, churches and societies. The lawful usage of the Law of God is not “contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but do sweetly comply with it; the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely, and cheerfully, which the will of God, revealed in the law, requires to be done” (WCF 19.7).
Theonomists generally agree with the Westminster Confession’s (19.1-7) three-fold division of God Law’s; moral (WCF 19.1), ceremonial (WCF 19.3) and judicial (194). Theonomy does not advocate a blanket application of all Old Testament Laws today. Theonomists recognise the Biblical distinction between the Old and New Covenants, the different administration of those covenants, the associated change in law (Hebrews 7:12), and that all of the covenants build upon each other and find their fulfilment in Christ (Matthew 5:17-19, 2 Corinthians 1:20). Theonomy teaches that the moral law continues to be the “perfect rule of righteousness” (WCF 19.2); “all…ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament” (WCF 19.3); and the “general equity” laws of the judicial law is binding today on every nation (WCF 19.4).
No one disputes the perpetual binding nature of the moral law. Likewise, most Reformed people don’t believe the ceremonial law to be binding today. Perhaps it’s only the dispensational position that asserts Christ’s return will see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and a reinstating animal sacrifice. Theonomy understands that the laws pertaining to ceremony (sacrifices), clean and unclean distinctions, seeds, clothing and dietary requirements represented boundary marking laws that were administered to reveal a distinction between Jew and Gentile in the Old Covenant. These distinctions have been fulfilled and transformed by Christ. They are abrogated by Jesus (e.g. Acts 10:9-15). Ethnic Jews are no longer the people relationally closest to God. All those in Christ (and His body, the church) are the people who are as relationally close to God as one can get (Acts 2:39, Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Tribe or tongue no longer defines relational distinctions. Those boundary laws have been abrogated by Christ. The middle curtain was torn asunder. All in Christ come into God’s presence. Food, animal and dietary laws pointed to the old separation of Jew and Gentile. It pointed to what happened at Babel. Bacon was not allowed. But pigs do fly. Pentecost brought about the reversal of Babel and people from every tribe and nation are brought into covenant with God, through Christ. All who are justified are brought near (Acts 2, cf. Genesis 11). The boundary marking laws are not binding today. I recommend reading Dr Joel McDurmon’s book, The Bounds of Love (especially chapter 3).
But I digress. The heat is over the judicial laws. Theonomy advocates that the general equity laws (WCF 19.4) are binding in the New Covenant. These general equity laws are binding on civil governments of every nation and together with the moral law are to be used to form the basis of every nation’s law code (see Gary North’s Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus). The West led the way in this for centuries. We have sold our inheritance for a bowl of soup.
I will deal with Theonomy and the penal sanctions of the Old Testament plus Theonomy and reformed/Presbyterian confessions/standards in more details in articles to follow.