Theonomy and the Reformation

Heroes of the Reformation

The 16th century Reformation transformed the western world. [1] Many of our societal freedoms were won by men like Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Knox, Bucer and the like. These men were used by God to impact the world and topple tyrannies. This was accomplished through a return to faithful teaching and preaching of the Bible. The Reformers thundered the Word. They were bold men and often spoke hard words. These men taught that the Word of God applied to all of faith and life. The Bible once again became man’s ultimate standard. Sola Scriptura pulled the rug from under the feet of ecclesiastical and political tyranny.


Unfortunately, Calvin was not consistent with his cry of Sola Scriptura when it came to the application of Biblical Law to the commonwealth. [2] He was writing in a time when “the common laws of nations” was the accepted law theory. This idea that some laws are common to most nations “was first articulated by Greek and Roman classical philosophers and jurists.” [3] This legal theory does not honour Christ as having all authority and power (Matt 28:18-20); nor does it acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Bible. It is a systematic philosophy that has sought to explain common laws of peoples without starting with the God of the Bible. Prominent 17th-century jurist political philosopher, economist and statesman, Samuel von Pufendorf, stated it like this; “for we…deny that there is any positive law of nations proceeding from a superior.” He continues; “the reason why such constitutions are common to many nations doth not arise from any mutual covenant or obligation, but it is wholly to be attributed to the particular pleasure of the several legislators, who by accident agreed in these ordinances, without the least regard to one another.” [4] Pufendorf was a faithful Lutheran who sought to harmonise Biblical theology with Enlightenment political theory. [5] However, trying to synchronise Scripture with the theory of the day has always lead to unfaithfulness to the Bible. Yes, there are some common laws amongst most nations. This is obvious. It did not come about via random processes over time. Man is the imago dei (image of God). He has the Law of God written deep in his heart (Romans 2:14-16). All men are religious and their religion is codified in their laws. Every law sits atop a religious presupposition. Man’s fallen nature drives him to deny the reality of God (Romans 1:18-23) but his laws presuppose God and His Law-Word.

Calvin did not give any Biblical warrant for his view against God’s Law being the ultimate standard for civil government. He simply piled on insult and rhetoric in his Institutes (4.20.14). [6] Calvin was undoubtedly one of the greatest theologians whom God gifted to His church. But he erred on this point and was ultimately inconsistent with his Reformation catch cry, Sola Scriptura. Semper reformanda, the church must keep reforming. This is not to open the gates to every new doctrine under the sun. Our standard is the Bible. As the Reformers proclaimed, church councils have erred and contradicted themselves. [7] We must Reformation in high esteem, but we cannot think the 16th century solved every Biblical enquiry. It did not. God continues to mature His church as she disciples the nations. The Reformers accomplished the huge task of turning the church back to the authority of the Bible. We have the responsibility to stand upon those heroes’ shoulders and work out Sola Scriptura into every square inch of this world.

Theonomy is not exclusively a doctrine of civil government. We advocate the applicability of God’s Word to all of faith and life. There is no neutrality. We are to glorify Christ through faithful obedience to His Word. Thus, Theonomists have sought to take Sola Scriptura and apply it to the office of civil government. We identify the civil government as the minister of God who must bring his office under the obedience of Christ (Romans 13:1-7). Civil magistrates are limited by the Law of God. Unbridled, autonomous civil power is unbiblical. Giants of the Reformation taught, to varying degrees, that kings and rulers are limited by and subject to the Law of God. Not all of them consistently applied this Theonomic position. However, we must continue to build upon their foundation and keep reforming.

A sample of Reformation thinking

John Knox

The thunder from Scotland. He was not afraid to confront tyrannical monarchs and nobility with the Law/Word of God.

“Kings then have not absolute power to do in their regiment what pleaseth them; but their power is limited by God’s Word. So that if they strike where God commandeth not, they are but murderers; and if, they spare, where God commandeth to strike, they and their throne are criminal, and guilty of the wickedness that aboundeth upon the face of the earth for lack of punishment. Oh, if kings and princes would consider what account shall be craved of them, as well of their ignorance and misknowledge of God’s will, as for the neglecting of their office!” [8]

"No manifest idolater, nor notorious transgressor of God's holy precepts, ought to be promoted to any public regiment [i.e. government], honour, or dignity, in any realm, province, or city that has subjected itself to his blessed evangel." [9]

Martin Bucer

German reformer who influenced the continental and English reformers. Along with Thomas Cramner, Bucer substantially influenced the second revision of the Church of England’s Common Book of Prayer.

“Although the service which secular authorities owe to the community does not consist in preaching the divine Word and Law, yet civil officials must ‘govern’ according to the Word of God and, in the measure of their power, help the success of the divine Word. For as there is no power ‘which is not from God, and everywhere the present powers’ are established by Him (Romans 13:1), it certainly follows that this power must be exercised according to the order and will of God. Only so will this power at last procure the real welfare of its subjects and thus stimulate them to recognize, praise, and glorify God as the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings. But the citizens are not governed for their good and for the true glory of the supreme King when the secular authorities do not rule according to the divine Law and are not set to observe it themselves. For where God is not recognized and obedience to Him is not required before all things, there peace is not peace, justice is not justice, and that which should be profitable brings injury instead….

Consequently a civil officer should day by day govern and treat the people of God according to the divine Law. In great humility and constant awe, he stands before God in order to avoid the least mistake in executing such a great commission. This Solomon observed. He asked God to give him a teachable heart before all things, so that he might judge his people and know the difference between good and evil (I Kings 3:9). In this prayer he professes that he had been placed above God's people and not above a people belonging to Solomon himself (I Kings 3:8), to judge it, to lead it to good, and to keep it from evil. He also con fesses that human reason” has not the power of distinguishing between evil and the true good, of judging rightly, but needs to learn such things from God. Thus enlightened, we can well recognize the heavy divine plague with which God has plagued us and which come from the fact that we call ourselves Christians and consider ourselves the people of God, and yet our officials who have the power have fallen into the errors of believing that the divine Law does not concern them, that they must judge and make regulations more according to the pagan imperial law and other human sentences than according to the sentence of God. In this they show themselves bailiffs of men and not of God, since they govern their subjects according to the sentences of men and not according to the divine pronouncement.” [10]

Heinrich (Henry) Bullinger

Swiss reformer who was the successor of Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. He was a church pastor, writer and theologian.

“I have now lastly to speak of that sort which are called the judicial laws…This treatise will not be unpleasant nor unprofitable to every zealous hearer, although it doth specially belong to the courts of law, where judgement is exercised: for the judicial laws were with wonderful faith and diligence set out of God…”

“Now these judicial laws are the most ancient, and very fountains of all other good laws which are to be found almost in all the world.”

“Kings are not set as lords and rulers over the word and laws of God; but are, as subjects, to be judged of God by the word, as they that ought to rule and govern all things according to the rule of his word and commandment.” [11]

Johannes Piscator

German reformed theologian and writer who was known as a teacher and instructor of reformation leaders.

"The Magistrate to glorify God. The sixth point is established on that famous maxim of the Apostle: ‘Do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor 10:31) Hence, indeed, it follows that the Christian magistrate is to pilot his government so that all of its actions are directed to the glory of God: that is, with this in view, that God should be gloried through such government Because he himself is likewise one of Christ’s disciples, and Christ has instructed all of his disciples, saying: “So let your light shine in the presence of men, that they may consider your good works, and may glorify your Father, who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). But truly good works are only such as are done according to the written law of God, just as it was the certain and unshakeable rule of the Son of God’s life, and the Son’s works were done that his heavenly Father alone should be gloried, while men witnessed him present his obedience to those laws.” [12]

George Gillespie

Scottish Covenanter and Westminster Divine

"The orthodox churches believe also, and do willingly acknowledge, that every lawful magistrate, being by God himself constituted the keeper and defender of both tables of the law, may and ought first and chiefly to take care of God's glory, and (according to his place, or in his manner and way) to preserve religion when pure, and to restore it when decayed and corrupted: and also to provide a learned and godly ministry, schools also and synods, as likewise to restrain and punish as well atheists, blasphemers, heretics and schismatics, as the violators of justice and civil peace." [13]

Gillespie relied on and agreed with Piscator’s work when dealing with the Law of God. Gillespie writes; “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 [Piscator] proves by these reasons… These are not my reasons (if it be not a word or two added by way of explaining and strengthening), but the substance of Piscator’s reasons. Unto which I add, 1. Though we have clear and full scriptures in the New Testament for abolishing the ceremonial law, yet we nowhere read in all the New Testament of the abolishing of the judicial law, so far as it did concern the punishing of sins against the moral law, of which heresy and seducing of souls is one, and a great one. Once God did reveal his will for punishing those sins by such and such punishments. He who will hold that the Christian Magistrate is not bound to inflict such punishments for such sins, is bound to prove that those former laws of God are abolished, and to show some Scripture for it.” [14]

Samuel Rutherford

Scottish Presbyterian pastor, Scottish Covenanter, theologian and a Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly.

"I lay down this maxim of divinity; tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin either habitual or actual, is not from God; the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate as magistrate, is good, in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, Rom. 13:4. for he is the Minister of God for thy good; and therefore a power ethical, political, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent, than a license to sin." [15]

The Reformers answered the foundational question; “by what standard,” by pointing man back to the authority of the Bible. Many of them planted the seeds of the Theonomic position. Please note that this is not to say that all Reformers were explicitly and/or consistently Theonomic. What the above quotes show is that many of the prominent Magisterial Reformers (i.e. non-Anabaptists) argued that the civil magistrate is a minister of God who must govern by the standards we find in the Scriptures. The civil magistrate’s role is ministerial and thus he is not autonomous. He does not have authority to create law ex nihilo, rather he is to govern by the precepts, principles and laws revealed in the Law-Word of God. As a faithful minister, he is to apply God’s Law in his vocation. This is the position that we need to rediscover. The Bible is our ultimate authority.

Once Christians accept the ministerial nature of the civil government (Romans 13:1-7), we will be able to have a mature discussion. Only when God's people unashamedly proclaim the authority of the Scriptures over all of life will we be given a seat at the table of public opinion. Only then will we be in a position to provide our societies with Biblical blueprints. As always, reformation starts with God renewing individuals. This work flows to families, communities and then nations. The Gospel brings individuals to repentance. The Spirit removes man’s heart of stone and replaces it with a living law bound heart of flesh (Hebrews 10:16, Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 11:19-20). Man is never liberated unto lawlessness. He is set free from his bondage to sin and made a servant of God through faithful obedience to His Law. Amongst other things, the Law of God reveals God’s character/glory (Leviticus 11:45), shows our sinfulness (Romans 7:7-8), leads us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), is used in the process of sanctification (Hebrews 8:10, 10:16-23, 1 John 5:1-5) and is the tool of dominion (1 Timothy 1:8-11).

In coming articles, I will look at penal sanctions and Theonomy in the reformed confessions.

End notes

[1] Hammond, P. (2014, November 24). How the Reformation Transformed the West. Retrieved from

[2] McDurmon, J. (2014, September 8). Calvin’s great error on biblical law. American Vision. Retrieved from

[3] Gregg, S. (2011). Natural Law and the Law of Nations. Acton Institute. Retrieved from

[4] von Pufendorf, S. (1672). The Law of Nature and Nations, Excerpt. Retrieved from

[5] Acton Institute. (2010, July 20). Religion & Liberty: Volume 12, Number 1. Samuel von Pufendorf. Retrieved from

[6] Calvin, J. (1599). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Retrieved from

[7] German History in Documents and Images. Imperial Reformation - Luther and Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (1521). Retrieved from

[8] Knox, J. (1845). Select practical writings of John Knox. AGES Software copy, p.184. Retrieved from

[9] Knox, J. (1558). Summary of the Proposed Second Blast of the Trumpet. Retrieved from

[10] Bucer, M. (1523). Instruction in Christian Love, pp. 35-37. Retrieved from

[11] Bullinger, H. (2004 Reformation Heritage Books reprint). The Decades, Volume 1, 2004, pp. 217-218, 223-224. If you search Google Books look for The Third Decade of Bullinger and you can retrieve it here

[12] Piscator, J. (2015 American Vision reprint). Disputations on the Judicial Laws of Moses, p.14. Purchase the book here

[13] Gillespie, G. (1644). Works, 1:12. Retrieved here

[14] Gillespie, G. (1644). Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty. Retrieved here

[15] Rutherford, S. (1644). Lex, Rex. Retrieved here

[16] Picture credit: The reformatory painting of St. Peter's Church. Retrieved here


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