An Introduction to Theonomy and Reformed Confessions

religion and politics

Heresy is declared by an ecclesiastical court after due process and adequate trial. Individuals do not pronounce a position to be heretical, the church does. Critics of Theonomy make haste to build various strawmen, proceed to tar them well, grab the masses of churchmen by their emotions and then burn that baby real good. All those with forks and picks stand back, breath in the satisfaction of the toxic, charred remains of Theonomy and its so-called legalism. Only problem is that a strawman is exactly and only that. No matter how many of them you burn, the true position will keep moving forward. The self-gratification of feeling victory over a myth holds no gravitas. The truth wins. God’s Word prevails. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Is 40:8).

Theonomy appears to be a cuss word here in the deep south of Tasmania. It gets under people’s skin and up their pious noses. Some simple advice: don’t believe everything you’ve been told by the critics. Well poisoning is rife. Barrows are pushed against Sola Scriptura in all of life. We need to stand firm. Definitions are important in debates. He who owns the definition wins the debate. So, let’s recap. What exactly is Theonomy?

Dr Joel McDurmon, a leading proponent of Theonomy, summarises the position as such; “the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today. ‘Theonomy’ is a much broader subject than merely civil government and social theory, but this is where it is, in my opinion, most distinct from other positions…By including the word “some,” the new or hasty reader will (or should) at least not get the impression that Theonomy has no discontinuities with Old Testament law in view. Several critics have levelled this charge, absurd as it is. Let us foreclose even the possibility of such a charge up front.” [1]

Critics, please note

1. Theonomists are not advocating the holus-bolus continuation of the Mosaic Law in the new covenant era. Re-read this point please;
2. Point one clearly demonstrates that Theonomists are not trying to turn every modern nation into Old Testament socio-political Israel. We believe that most of Exodus are case laws expounding the Ten Commandments in the context of Old Testament Israel. Applying the Ten Commandments today through case law will take time, wisdom, discussion and maturity;
3. The scope of Theonomy is broader than applying the Law of God to civil government. It is an aspect that sits within the broader reformed systematic worldview that sits atop Sola Scriptura. Theonomists have always said this.

But, I’ve heard that Theonomy either teaches works righteousness or infers it. Sounds terrible. Get out the tar and feathers. But again, this is wholly untrue. Every Theonomist that I have read explicitly and repeatedly teaches that man is saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone. Theonomists teach that man’s justification is solely applied and accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus, dying on the cross, rising again and ascending into heaven. Every Theonomist belabours this exact point, all external good works (personal, familial, ecclesiastical, civil and social) flow out from salvation.

But don’t take all this from me. The Godfather of Theonomy, RJ Rushdoony, put it this way; “For Christians, justification is only by God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, who satisfied God’s justice or righteousness for us. Because we are now made just in Christ, we know that God’s law-word is true, and it is our way of life. Hence, for us to live in Christ is to apply His law-love word and to make it the governing principle of every area of life and thought...Because salvation and justification are from and through Jesus Christ, so too our law and justice. To go to another law is to place ourselves under an ungodly plan of salvation and justification. The humanistic state tells us in effect, concerning its fiat laws, This do, and live. Our Lord says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6). Our Lord thus makes clear that in no area of life, including the state, can we “come” to or approximate God’s requirements and His Kingdom call other than through Jesus Christ. A rival plan of justification by law such as the humanistic state demands is thus anathema. The justified live in terms of God’s justice, God’s law.” [2]

Rushdoony makes these comments in his magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law; “For the Bible, on the other hand, man’s salvation and sanctification are not products of science and reason, nor are they impersonal. The personal God by His sovereign grace redeems man through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Man’s response to salvation is thoroughly personal. It means, on the one hand, the personal worship of and devotion to the triune God. On the other hand, it means a personal extension of the life of grace to other persons by our behavior. Our Lord declared, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Matt. 19:19). Love is the fulfilling, or putting into force, of the law (Rom. 13:8), because God’s law is His personal law for people, to be used to create a society or culture of love, whereas humanistic law is impersonal and creates a statist order. Statist ideas of love mean statist action; the biblical doctrine means that we manifest our concern for others by putting God’s law into effect.” [3]

Theonomists uphold the Biblical truths of Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Solus Christus, (through Christ alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and Sola Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). The rest of this article will illustrate this from the perspective of many of the Reformed confessions of faith.

I think the reformed confessional standards speak for themselves. Theonomy, as defined by Theonomists, does not contravene them. The Westminster Confession of Faith is explicit regarding the contentious application of Case Laws of God - i.e. the Judicial Laws of Moses. The Divines were clear; “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (WCF 19:4). The general equity or the justice of the Judicial Law is still relevant today. What this cannot mean is that the Law of God does not apply to the Civil Magistrate. We need to understand how to apply the justice of the Law of God in the civil realm. That means hard work in terms of understanding and applying the Judicial Laws of God. The Westminster Divines were not the only ones who saw a discontinuity and continuity between the covenants.

The Westminster Confession of Faith

"The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed" (The Westminster Confession of Faith [1647, original edition], 23:3).

"As magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons, upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies (The Westminster Confession of Faith [1647, original edition], 26:2).

“God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.

Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.

To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

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; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works. So as, a man's doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.

Neither are the forementioned uses of the law 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, requireth to be done.”

(The Westminster Confession of Faith [1647, original edition], 19:1-7. Viewed here: http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html).

The Belgic Confession

“We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ended with the coming of Christ, and that all foreshadowings have come to an end, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians. Yet the truth and substance of these things remain for us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have been fulfilled.

Nevertheless, we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to his will.” (The Belgic Confession: Article 36: "The Civil Government.” Viewed here: http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html#Article 25).

“We believe that because of the depravity of the human race our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers. He wants the world to be governed by laws and policies so that human lawlessness may be restrained and that everything may be conducted in good order among human beings.

For that purpose he has placed the sword in the hands of the government, to punish evil people and protect the good.

And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God's law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship.

They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them.

And the government's task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.

Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God's Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.

And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

(The Belgic Confession: Article 36: "The Civil Government.” Viewed here: http://www.reformed.org/documents/BelgicConfession.html#Article 36).

Scottish Confession of Faith

"We confess and acknowledge empires, kingdoms, dominions, and cities to be distinguished and ordained by God: the powers and authorities in the same (be it of emperors in their empires, of kings in their realms, dukes and princes in their dominions, or of other magistrates in free cities) to be God's holy ordinance, ordained for manifestation of his own glory, and for the singular profit and commodity of mankind. So that whosoever goes about to take away or to confound the whole state of civil policies, now long established; we affirm the same men not only to be enemies to mankind, but also wickedly to fight against God's expressed will.

We further confess and acknowledge, that such persons as are placed in authority are to be loved, honoured, feared, and held in most reverent estimation because they are the lieutenants of God, in whose sessions God himself does sit and judge (yea even the judges and princes themselves), to whom by God is given the sword, to the praise and defense of good men, and to revenge and punish all open malefactors. Moreover, to kings, princes, rulers, and magistrates, we affirm that chiefly and most principally the conservation and purgation of the religion appertains; so that not only they are appointed for civil policy, but also for maintenance of the true religion, and for suppressing of idolatry and superstition whatsoever: as in David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah, and others, highly commended for their zeal in that case, may be espied.

And therefore we confess and avow, that such as resist the supreme power (doing that thing which appertains to his charge), do resist God's ordinance, and therefore cannot be guiltless. And further, we affirm that whosoever denies unto them their aid, counsel and comfort, while the princes and rulers vigilantly travail in the execution of their office, that the same men deny their help, support and counsel to God, who, by the presence of his lieutenant, craves it of them.”

(Scottish Confession of Faith – Chapter 24 - 1560, co-authored by Scottish reformer, John Knox. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/anonymous/scotconf.xxvii.html).

In summary

A cursory reading of many reformed confessions reveals that the reformers were Theonomic. They believed that “some” of the Mosaic Laws still applied and were applicable to the civil magistrate. So, Theonomy, as defined by Theonomists, does not contravene Reformed confessional standards. Strawmen built for tar and fire are simply custom made for undermining brothers without talking it through in a fair and reasonable manner. It’s time for the Hobart Reformed, Presbyterian and wider evangelical community to be honest and accurate when representing the views of Theonomic brothers in Christ. Charity, patience and long suffering are hallmarks of Christian love. And critics take note: misrepresenting a person's theological position is bearing false witness, white anting an event is simply deception and spreading false information about brothers is simply lying. None of these are characteristics of Christian ethics.

In future articles, I will give some exposition and further examples of Theonomy in the reformed confessions. This was simply an introduction to the topic.

End Notes

[1] McDurmon, J. (2016). The Bounds of Love – An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty. American Vision, P. 17.

[2] Rushdoony, RJ. (1986). Christianity and the State. PP. 39-40. Retrieved here http://chalcedon.edu/research/books/christianity-and-the-state-3/

[3] Rushdoony, RJ. (1982). The Institutes of Biblical Law - Volume 2. P. 248. Retrieved here http://chalcedon.edu/research/books/institutes-of-biblical-law-law-and-society-vol-2/

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