Theonomy's Dispensational Hermeneutic
by Lee Irons©

  • The word "Theonomy" means "God's Law." It comes from two Greek words, theos, "God," and nomos, "law."
  • "Hermeneutic" is a rule of interpreting Scripture.
  • The "Dispensational" hermeneutic holds that any given Old Testament law is no longer obligatory unless it is specifically repeated in the New Testament. The "Dispensational" hermeneutic is one of discontinuity.
  • The Theonomic hermeneutic assumes that unless the Old Testament law in question has been specifically qualified by the New Testament, it remains in force. The Theonomic hermeneutic is one of continuity.
  • Obviously, the Theonomic hermeneutic is the opposite of the "Dispensational" hermeneutic. Giving an article the title "Theonomy's Dispensational Hermeneutic" is a great attention-getting device, but it remains to be seen whether the title makes any sense.
  "Theonomy" is loosely equated with the "Christian Reconstruction" movement. Greg Bahnsen wrote a book entitled, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. He summarizes the book in this way:

God's will for our lives is found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with the Old Testament Law and Prophets carrying in our day the full authority of God's written Word unless specifically qualified in the New Testament.

The relationship between the two Testaments is not adversarial. Jesus did not come to abrogate the Old Testament; He came to purify it (in opposition to Pharisaical distortions) and put its intentions into force (Matthew 5, esp. vv. 17-20) by empowering His People to obediently fulfill its promises.

Bahnsen's thesis is pretty much the view of Reformed Theology in general and the Westminster Confession of Faith in particular. So it acknowledges that the New Testament has definitely qualified many Old Testament laws, most notably the laws concerning animal sacrifices.

There are no more temple sacrifices, no more Levitical priesthood (and there never will be again), and the New Testament explains why (e.g., the book of Hebrews). In some cases we don't even need the New Covenant to tell us that some Old Testament laws are no longer letter-applicable: the Old Testament itself tells us about the dramatic change of priesthood that was to occur with the coming of the Messiah; many laws would someday obligate no more. As Bahnsen puts it,

The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superseded (Heb. 7:11f.,28) . . . . The former commandment with reference to ceremonial matters was set aside . . . in order that God's people might have a better hope, for the ceremony was imperfect and kept men at a distance from God (Heb. 7:18f.). [S]uch a change in stipulation is also a confirmation of the Older Testamental law as implied in Psalm 110:1,4. (Theonomy, pp. 208-209).

Of course, in a sense, all of the Old Testament Laws are still binding upon us. For example, we are still responsible to bring before God the blood of a sacrificial lamb. But we also know that that Lamb is Christ (John 1:29). It makes sense, then, to expect, for example, that most of the Old Testament laws concerning the shedding of blood find their satisfaction in Christ.

The difference between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant is not the Standard of Righteousness, but the priestly path to forgiveness of sins (violations of that Standard), and the Spiritual ability we have to obey it (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:27; Jeremiah 31: 31-34 + Hebrews 8:8-13; Romans 8:3-5 + Ephesians 4:13).

Greg Bahnsen’s interpretation of Matt. 5:17-19, as formulated in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, lays a foundation for the ostensible exegetical basis of the theonomic thesis. Bahnsen takes this passage as a proof-text the abiding validity of the Mosaic law “in exhaustive detail,” for Christ affirms that “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law” (v. 18). Naturally, since the civil law is part of that Mosaic law, it remains today as a normative standard even after the coming of Christ.
Matthew 5:17-20
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
However sound that exegesis may be, it is not sufficient to establish the theonomic thesis. And the exegesis is sound. And it establishes prima facie the Theonomic thesis. Here is how Bahnsen summarizes the Theonomic thesis in his book No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (another version of this summary is in the 2nd edition of Theonomy, and it has been published in numerous other works by Bahnsen):
  1. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are, in part and in whole, a verbal revelation from God through the words of men, being infallibly true regarding all that they teach on any subject.
  2. Since the Fall it has always been unlawful to use the law of God in hopes of establishing one's own personal merit and justification, in contrast or complement to salvation by way of promise and faith; commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God's redeeming grace.
  3. The word of the Lord is the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of all men in all areas of life; this word naturally includes God's moral directives (law).
  4. Our obligation to keep the law of God cannot be judged by any extrascriptural standard, such as whether its specific requirements (when properly interpreted) are congenial to past traditions or modern feelings and practices.
  5. We should presume that Old Testament standing laws[note26] continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.[note27]

26. Standing law" is used here for policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals (e.g., do not kill; children, obey your parents; merchants, have equal measures; magistrates, execute rapists), in contrast to particular directions for an individual (e.g., the order for Samuel to anoint David at a particular time and place) or positive commands for distinct incidents (e.g., God's order for Israel to exterminate certain Canaanite tribes at a certain point in history).

27. By contrast, it is characteristic of dispensational theology to hold that Old Covenant commandments should be a priori deemed as abrogated - unless repeated in the New Testament (e.g., Charles Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 124 [1967], pp. 239-242).

  1. In regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality (thus reinforcing former duties). The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and "separation" principles, redefining the people of God, and altering the significance of the promised land.
  2. God's revealed standing laws are a reflection of His immutable moral character and, as such, are absolute in the sense of being non-arbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances (thus applicable to general types of moral situations).
  3. Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God's transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes.
  4. Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and Judge.
  5. The general continuity which we presume with respect to the moral standards of the Old Testament applies just as legitimately to matters of socio-political ethics as it does to personal, family, or ecclesiastical ethics.
  6. The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing 'judicial" laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. Outside of those areas where God's law prescribes their intervention and application of penal redress, civil rulers are not authorized to legislate or use coercion (e.g., the economic marketplace).
  7. The morally proper way for Christians to correct social evils which are not under the lawful jurisdiction of the state is by means of voluntary and charitable enterprises or the censures of the home, church, and marketplace - even as the appropriate method for changing the political order of civil law is not violent revolution, but dependence upon regeneration, re-education, and gradual legal reform.

Notice what these principles tell us about the theological and moral character of theonomic ethics. The foundational authority of scripture (#1) and the precious truth of salvation by grace alone (#2) provide the context within which every other theonomic thesis is developed and understood. "Theonomic" ethics is committed to developing an overall Christian world-and-life-view (#3) according to the regulating principle of sola Scriptura (#4) and the hermeneutic of covenant theology (#5). The new and better covenant established by Christ does offer Biblical warrant for recognizing changes in covenantal administration (#6), but not changes in moral standards, lest the divinely revealed ethic be reduced to situationism or relativism -- just one tribal perspective among many in the evolutionary history of ethics (#7). Righteousness and justice, according to Biblical teaching, have a universal character, precluding any double-standard of morality.

"Theonomic" ethics likewise rejects legal positivism and maintains that there is a "law above the (civil) law" to which appeal can be made against the tyranny of rulers and the anarchy of overzealous reformers alike (#9). Since Jesus Christ is Lord over all (cf. #3), civil magistrates are His servants and owe obedience to His revealed standards for them (#9). There is no Biblically based justification (cf. #5) for exempting civil authorities from responsibility to the universal standards of justice (cf. #7) found in God's Old Testament revelation (#10). Therefore, in the absence of Biblically grounded argumentation which releases the civil magistrate from Old Testament social norms (cf. #5, #6), it follows from our previous premises that in the exercise of their offices rulers are morally responsible to obey the revealed standards of social justice in the Old Testament law (#11). This does not mean, however, that civil rulers have unlimited authority to intrude just anywhere into the affairs of men and societies (# 11 #12); their legitimate sphere is restricted to what God's word has authorized them to do -- thus calling for a limited role for civil government. Finally, Christians are urged to use persuasive and "democratic" means of social reform - nothing like the strong-arm tactics slanderously attributed to the theonomic program (#12).[note28]

28. For example, the main thrust of a widely read article on theonomic ethics by Rodney Clapp in Christianity Today, vol. 31, no. 3 (Feb. 20, 1987), was captured in its title: "Democracy as Heresy." He recklessly accuses theonomists of seeking "the abolition of democracy" (p. 17), when surely Clapp is aware that the word 'democracy' is susceptible to an incredibly wide range of definitions and connotations (e.g., from an institution of direct rule by every citizen without mediating representatives to a governmental procedure where representatives are voted in and out of office by the people, to the simple concepts of majority vote or social equality, etc.). Theonomists are opposed to some of those ideas, but surely not to what is commonly understood by the word: namely, democratic procedures for choosing representatives to rule. Indeed, in reply to Mr. Clapp's inflammatory rhetoric, Dr. Gary North very appropriately pointed out as a historian the irony that it was precisely our Puritan (and theonomic) forefathers who fought for and established this kind of "democracy" in the Western world!

  This is really pretty standard Reformed ethics. It should be surprising that "Theonomic ethics" should be at all controversial in evangelical circles.

The bulk of Bahnsen's lengthy treatise on Theonomy does not discuss politics, but only the basic concept of the abiding validity of the Old Testament generally. Indeed, the section which does address politics is called "Application of the Thesis to the State" (p. 315). Bahnsen's particular application of Theonomy to the State is not the Theonomic thesis itself, but only an "application of the thesis." Ditto for applications made by R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North.

Bahnsen writes in his summary volume, By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today,

[T]hose who agree with the foundational conclusion of [Theonomy] -- that God's Law is binding today unless Scripture reveals otherwise -- may very well disagree among themselves over particular matters in interpreting what God's law demands at this or that point, or ... may disagree over how these demands should be followed today (p. 9).

Leaders of the "Christian Reconstruction" movement have had their disagreements on the application of the Theonomic thesis. Rushdoony and North disagreed to such an extent that they weren't even talking to each other! Bahnsen disagreed with Rushdoony on several issues. Based on the Theonomic thesis, I personally do not believe in "capital punishment" for any crime. That might surprise many opponents of Theonomy, who assume that "Theonomy" means nothing if not the execution of homosexuals.

For theonomy rests on a further assumption that is not quite as ostensible. That assumption is that the civil law was given to Israel for the purpose of governing the societal and political dimensions of Israel’s life, and that as such it was to function as a universal standard for socio-political ethics. It was not given to Israel for Israel’s sake alone but to Israel for the sake of the nations, that they too might be governed by the same socio-political standards. This is an easy assumption. Western Civilization is based on this assumption. Here is an example from the Supreme Court of Delaware, back in 1837:
Long before Lord Hale declared that Christianity was a part of the laws of England, the Court of Kings Bench, 34 Eliz. in Ratcliff's case, 3 Coke Rep. 40, b. had gone so far as to declare that "in almost all cases, the common law was grounded on the law of God, which it was said was causa causans," and the court cited the 27th chapter of Numbers, to show that their judgment on a common law principle in regard to the law of inheritance, was founded on God's revelation of that law to Moses.
State v. Chandler, 2 Harr. 553 at 561 (1837)

America was built on the assumption that the civil law was recorded in the Scripture and preserved for us so that statesmen and legislators would have a divine blueprint for the civil magistrate.

"The civil law was given to Israel" is an interesting phrase if you think about it.

One could think of law being "given" to man if law is a blessing. Otherwise, one might think of law being "imposed." The revelation of God's will to man should be a cause of awe, and man has a fearful obligation to obey the laws of his Creator.

Where is "the civil law?" One component of Biblical "civil law" would surely be a prohibition of murder, and punishment by death. This is found in Genesis 9. (Actually, only the punishment for murder is found in Genesis 9. The actual prohibition against murder must have been "given" to man earlier; in fact, before the murder of Abel by Cain.)

Were the nations outside Israel in the Old Testament expected to prohibit murder and punish it by death? How about homosexuality? Irons (author of the article at left) says no. Leviticus 18:24-30 says that the nations (the people, collectively, the demos) in the Promised Land were to be executed (literally, "devoted" as a sacrifice -- "hormah") as a punishment (our modern word, not necessarily a Biblical word) for violating the laws "given" to Israel. So it seems rather obvious that God expected the laws relating to Israel as a society (not merely the laws governing individual Israelites personally) to be obeyed by Canaanite society, and all other societies as well (e.g., Jonah/Nineveh, and the prophets generally).

Deuteronomy 4:5 Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
6 Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
7 For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
8 And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
40 Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, for ever.
Ephesians 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
2 Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise;
3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Bahnsen argues that the civil magistrate in Israel was obligated to obey "the civil law," as were all other nations, as are all nations in New Testament times. Bahnsen says the following propositions were true of

  • Israel in the Old Testament,
  • other nations in the Old Testament, and
  • all nations in the New Testament:
  1. God Sovereignly Appoints and Removes Rulers
  2. Rulers, as God's Appointees, are Not to be Resisted
  3. Rulers Bear Religious Titles (e.g., "minister")
  4. Hence Rulers are God's Vicegerents, Avengers of His Wrath
  5. The Magistrate Must Deter Evil but Honor the Good
  6. The Magistrate Must Rule, then, According to God's Law
  7. Therefore, the Magistrate is Subject to Criticism and Judgment for Lawlessness

Bahnsen's exposition of these seven propositions as they are found in Scripture relating to Israel, to the nations around Israel, and in the New Testament, is overwhelming. M.G. Kline spoke of Bahnsen's "over-heated typewriter." There is a bedrock of civil continuity throughout the Bible.

As a general rule, the Theonomic thesis is sound, and it applies to society, government, and individuals. There are many ways to apply the thesis, as Bahnsen admits, but all nations are obligated to obey God's Law in the Christian Scriptures. For centuries, this has been an operating assumption of legislators and courts. It has also been part of Christian missionary endeavors which have shaped civil law in formerly heathen nations. Yesterday's missionary efforts are today called "colonialism."

Go back, now, and re-read the paragraph at left. A prima facie case for that assumption has been made. Western civilization was built on that assumption.  Lee Irons has the massive burden to disprove it. Declaring that "the civil law" is "theocratic" or that it is "typological" (we encounter those two terms in the next paragraph) does not disprove the assumption that it is also a model for all other nations. There is no Biblical reason why a law cannot serve more than one purpose.

Only if this assumption is valid will the exegetical argument from Matt. 5:17-19 yield a theonomic conclusion. On the other hand, if it can be shown that Israel did not receive the civil law as part of a socio-political paradigm but rather as a theocratic, typological kingdom, then it would appear that the civil laws of Israel are not necessarily binding on today’s common-grace civil governments. The yellow-highlighted sentence is the core of the article's argument. It is not a valid Biblical principle to say that the Scriptures should not be applied by today's governments because the Scriptures are "theocratic" or "typological." Don't be baffled by 50-cent theological terms.
  • A verse in the Bible can serve as law in a "theocracy," it can serve as a law in a "monarchy," it can serve as a law in a "democracy." 
  • A verse in the Bible can serve as law in any conceivable human social arrangement, and also tell us something about Christ's reign as King, or about our salvation, or about the next life ("typology").

The phrase "common-grace civil governments" is special theological jargon we'll also have to unpack.


We've all been trained by secular schools and liberal (big-government) media to react with unthinking horror at the word "theocracy." Let's think (for a change).

The word "theocracy" means "God governs." The Greek word theos means "god." If a nation says "We're a nation under God," and if a nation is committed to obeying God's Commandments, rather than the commandments and traditions of men, then that nation is committed to being a "Theocracy" (whether it claims to be or not).

Clearly, an Islamic theocracy, committed to obeying the Koran and Hadith, is a very different kind of theocracy from a Christian Theocracy committed to obeying the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Scriptures.

A Christian Theocracy is under God -- the God of the Bible. America used to claim to be "under God" -- the God of the Bible -- and every historian of any competence will admit that all the American colonies were "theocratic." Even today, America's official national motto is still "In God We Trust," a theocratic motto.

But there's really nothing special about being a "theocracy." Every government in the history of the human race has been a "theocracy," and it is not possible to avoid being a "theocracy."  The question is not whether a government is a theocracy or not, but WHO is the "theos?"

  • An Islamic theocracy is under Allah.
  • A Hindu theocracy is under Shiva.
  • A Secular Humanist theocracy is one where every man is his own god.

All these false theocracies under false gods should repent and become Christian Theocracies. Their governments should follow the model of the Christian Scriptures. (Whatever that is, whether you adopt the Rushdoony version, the North version, the Bahnsen version, or some other "application of the thesis to the state.") There is no Biblical or logical reason why a Christian Theocracy -- such as that found in the Bible -- cannot be a model for all other theocracies.

Proving that Israel was a "theocracy" does not prove that only Israel should be governed by God's Law. All nations, all societies, all institutions, all individuals should be "Theonomic." Or perhaps we should say, All nations, all societies, all institutions, all individuals should be committed to becoming more perfectly "Theonomic," eventually out-doing Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen in their faithfulness to God's Theonomic blueprints.

Proving that a given statute in the Bible is "theocratic" therefore does not prove that governments today should not follow that law. Irons has not met his burden of proof.


The word "typology" also occurs in Irons' paragraph at left. The argument advanced seems to be that if a passage of Scripture is "typological," it must not be applied by real governments in the real world. This is not a logical or Biblical inference.

Let's begin by remembering that all Scripture is Law. All Scripture is breathed-out by our Divine Lawgiver (2 Timothy 3:16; Isaiah 33:22). Rushdoony spoke of "the Law-Word of God." In John 15:25 a Psalm fulfills a prophetic function but is still labeled "Law." The Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 145, finds civil law in Psalm 119:69. Psalm 65:2 "is by God required of all men" (WCF 21:3). "The civil law" that Irons writes against is not isolated in the books of the Torah, but is found throughout Scripture.

Some of these verses are also "typological." That doesn't mean they are no longer "law." They are still pronouncements of our Lawgiver. They command us and our institutions.

Psalm 72 was written about King Solomon of Israel (either by David or by Solomon), but is usually considered a "type" of the Messiah. Isaac Watts clearly thought this. The fact that Psalm 72 is a "type of Christ" does not preclude Solomon from being obligated to obey this Psalm as a model of Godly Government. That does not preclude any other king -- such as the kings mentioned in the Psalm ("Tarshish," "Sheba," "Seba"), or the nations mentioned by Watts ("Persia," "India") -- from using the Psalm as a model of Godly Government. No nation on earth in 1719, 1862 or in the 21st century is excused or precluded from using this Psalm as a model of just and righteous civil government -- just because the Psalm is labeled "typological" by some theologian. God put this song in the Bible to govern us, as well as to tell us something about Christ.

Don't be fooled by words like "theocracy" and "typology." Psalm 72 is clearly "theocratic," "typological," and authoritatively binding on all civil governments for all time, as long as they exist. If you are a king or other magistrate, God has legally obligated you to study and apply Psalm 72 to your civic responsibilities. This has been the common assumption of Christians for two thousand years.

Psalm 72

1 Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.
2 He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
3 The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
4 He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
5 They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.
6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.
7 In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
8 He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.
9 They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.
10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
11 Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.
12 For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.
13 He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.
14 He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.
15 And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.
16 There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.
18 Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.
19 And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.
20 The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

“Jesus Shall Reign”
Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David, 1719.

  1. Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
    Does his successive journeys run;
    His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
    Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
  2. Behold the islands with their kings,
    And Europe her best tribute brings;
    From north to south the princes meet,
    To pay their homage at His feet.
  3. There Persia, glorious to behold,
    There India shines in eastern gold;
    And barb’rous nations at His word
    Submit, and bow, and own their Lord.
  4. To Him shall endless prayer be made,
    And praises throng to crown His head;
    His Name like sweet perfume shall rise
    With every morning sacrifice.
  5. People and realms of every tongue
    Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
    And infant voices shall proclaim
    Their early blessings on His Name.
  6. Blessings abound wherever He reigns;
    The prisoner leaps to lose his chains;
    The weary find eternal rest,
    And all the sons of want are blessed.
  7. Where He displays His healing power,
    Death and the curse are known no more:
    In Him the tribes of Adam boast
    More blessings than their father lost.
  1. Let every creature rise and bring
    Peculiar honors to our King;
    Angels descend with songs again,
    And earth repeat the loud amen!
  2. Great God, whose universal sway
    The known and unknown worlds obey,
    Now give the kingdom to Thy Son,
    Extend His power, exalt His throne.
  3. The scepter well becomes His hands;
    All Heav’n submits to His commands;
    His justice shall avenge the poor,
    And pride and rage prevail no more.
  4. With power He vindicates the just,
    And treads th’oppressor in the dust:
    His worship and His fear shall last
    Till hours, and years, and time be past.
  5. As rain on meadows newly mown,
    So shall He send his influence down:
    His grace on fainting souls distills,
    Like heav’nly dew on thirsty hills.
  6. The heathen lands, that lie beneath
    The shades of overspreading death,
    Revive at His first dawning light;
    And deserts blossom at the sight.
  7. The saints shall flourish in His days,
    Dressed in the robes of joy and praise;
    Peace, like a river, from His throne
    Shall flow to nations yet unknown.

G. J. Stevenson’s Notes on the Methodist Hymn Book relates:

Perhaps one of the most in­ter­est­ing oc­ca­sions on which this hymn was used was that on which King George, the sa­ble, of the South Sea Is­lands, but of bless­ed mem­o­ry, gave a new con­sti­tu­tion to his peo­ple, ex­chang­ing a hea­then for a Christ­ian form of gov­ern­ment. Un­der the spread­ing branch­es of the ban­yan trees sat some thou­sand na­tives from Ton­ga, Fi­ji, and Sa­moa, on Whit­sun­day, 1862, as­sem­bled for Di­vine wor­ship. Fore­most amongst them all sat King George him­self. Around him were seat­ed old chiefs and war­ri­ors who had shared with him the dan­gers and for­tunes of ma­ny a battle—men whose eyes were dim, and whose pow­er­ful frames were bowed down with the weight of years. But old and young alike re­joiced to­ge­ther in the joys of that day, their fac­es most of them ra­di­ant with Christ­ian joy, love, and hope. It would be im­poss­i­ble to de­scribe the deep feel­ing man­i­fest­ed when the sol­emn serv­ice be­gan, by the en­tire au­di­ence sing­ing Dr. Watts’ hymn…

Who so much as they could real­ize the full mean­ing of the po­et’s words? For they had been res­cued from the dark­ness of hea­then­ism and can­ni­bal­ism and they were that day met for the first time un­der a Christ­ian con­sti­tu­tion, un­der a Christian king, and with Christ Him­self reign­ing in the hearts of most of those pre­sent. That was in­deed Christ’s king­dom set up in the earth.

This interpretation is "postmillennial" and "Theonomic."
King Jesus sits enthroned at the right hand of God and is extending His reign over all the earth.
The "premillennial" or "dispensational" interpretation is that
Psalm 72 does not commence fulfillment until after Christ returns and begins to sit upon a literal throne in Jerusalem for nine hundred years or more, after which Satan is loosed and causes so much trouble that a defeated Jesus grabs His football and goes home.
In making this argument, we are simply following an accepted hermeneutical principle: in order to determine the meaning and present application of any piece of legislation, one must first seek to understand its original purpose and function. Theonomy’s proposal regarding the present normativity and application of the civil law today stands or falls with its presuppositions regarding the purpose and function of the civil law in its original Israelite context. If those presuppositions can be shown to be out of accord with the overarching typological purpose of the Mosaic covenant in redemptive history, then the theonomic thesis will be exposed as an arbitrary misappropriation of theocratic, covenant legislation to the non-theocratic, common-grace institution of the modern state. Just because you show that a passage of Scripture is "typological" or "theocratic" does not mean that Persia and India should not hear the Word of God in that song, poem, exclamation, historical narrative, or question and obediently convert their Islamic and Hindu theocracies into Christian societies obedient to the Word of Christ our Lawgiver, Judge and King (Isaiah 33:22).

Why cannot Israel be in some ways "typological" and also "civil" (in an abiding sense)?

What is a "common-grace civil government?" Why should it not be a Godly Government like the one Psalm 72 commands all earthly governments to become?

Who says there is such a thing as a "non-theocratic, common-grace institution of the modern state"? Doesn't that just mean that the State gets to be whatever it wants to be? Isn't that a prescription for tyranny?

The idea that heathen governments should repent and become Christian governments -- obeying Genesis 9, Leviticus 18, Psalm 72, and the rest of the Scriptures -- minus the Levitical priestly requirements that foreshadowed Christ -- has been the mainstream understanding of Christendom for centuries. Lee Irons has assumed a huge burden to show that this assumption is wrong. He has not yet discharged that burden.

Non-theonomists who are Reformed accept and rejoice in the covenantal hermeneutic that finds enormous continuity between the testaments. Furthermore, they can agree that every jot and tittle of the law retains its force in the New Covenant in some way. However, if the civil law was never given with the intent of framing a standard of pre-consummation socio-political ethics, then, though Christ did not come to destroy the law, he has fulfilled it in a manner that yields a vastly different conclusion. If by his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand, the theocratic kingdom of Israel now finds fulfillment in Christ’s heavenly, eschatological kingdom, the jots and tittles of the law retain their validity today but without providing a mandated blueprint for the reformation of contemporary society. What if the law-giver’s intention in giving the civil law to Israel was to foreshadow this heavenly kingdom? What is "Christ's heavenly, eschatological kingdom?"

Whatever the phrase means, why is it mutually exclusive with the Theonomic conclusion of the Supreme Court of Delaware (above) or the Theonomic ideal of John Cotton's Abstract of the Laws of New England, in which the civil statutes were annotated with the appropriate verses from the Bible?

When does "Christ's heavenly, eschatological kingdom" exist? Now? In the future? Why can the nation of Israel be governed by these laws if they are only appropriate for this "heavenly" kingdom? Why not in Puritan New England? Why not in 21st century India or Persia?

Why has Irons taken on the burden of suggesting that Christianizing pagan governments is not Biblical?

To say that Psalm 72 is "typological" of Christ's reign, or that all of the Old Testament laws which relate to governments were "typological" does not prove that politicians should not prefer them over Islamic law, Hindu law, or Soviet law. Irons just assumes that typology precludes application (and for the life of me I cannot understand why), but never proves it.

One piece of evidence that the civil laws of Israel were typological of the eternal kingdom is that they are inextricably bound up with the land. For example, the law of the parapet gives as its rationale the concern to avoid bringing blood-guilt upon one’s house (Deut. 22:8). This concern only makes sense on the assumption that the land itself is holy and must be carefully protected from blood-guilt which would defile it and result in the expulsion of its inhabitants (Nus. 35:33; Deut. 19:10). Of course the Promised Land was special, and shedding blood polluted the land. God wanted Israel to be concerned about the land. But was that the only reason God prohibited murder, or required safety precautions? Could it not be based on the fact that man is created in the Image of God? Is Irons suggesting that murder is no longer wrong because there is no holy land to pollute?

In the New Covenant, is only the Promised Land holy? Christians are not to sanctify (make holy) the entire earth (Matthew 28:18-20)? If people are exposed to danger outside Palestine, there is no civil liability for the land owner for not installing railing around the danger? There is no longer any need to worry about innocent people shedding their blood because we're outside the Promised Land? Why would anyone reason in this way? Why is Irons trying to move governments away from God's Law?

American juries have awarded verdicts in tort cases where safety rails were not in place, based on Deuteronomy 22:8. Were they wrong to do so?

Even theonomists would acknowledge that the land was a type of the eternal kingdom — the eternal inheritance we have in Christ and ultimately in the new heavens and new earth. But if the civil laws can all be shown to have this inextricable connection with the land, then it follows that they are likewise typological of the eternal kingdom and cannot be isolated arbitrarily from that typological function and applied to the non-typological nations of today, none of which are in redemptive covenant with Jehovah. Who says that the legal and civil functions of this verse were "arbitrarily" separated from typological functions?

Why is the land not typological of the entire world of which Christ is Lord and Savior (Matthew 28:18-20)? Why is it that if the Promised Land is adversely affected by disobeying God's Commandments, that every land (nation) should be concerned to apply God's Law?

Why are we not now in the New Heavens/New Earth? Why should we not be applying God's Law?

Now this leads to an interesting observation. If theonomy recognizes the typological nature of the land promise but insists that the civil law retains a non-typological validity, then theonomy and dispensationalism begin to display a surprising convergence — at least on the hermeneutical level. This is late-night college dorm theological banter. If you're a statesman or a missionary trying to Christianize pagan governments, you can safely ignore it and get back to the work God gave you.
In many ways, theonomy takes a dispensational approach to the civil law. As long as theonomy retains its distinctive hermeneutic of presuming the continuing validity of the jots and tittles of the Mosaic law unless further revelation gives explicit notification of their nullification, it is unable to resist the dispensational-sounding conclusion that Israel’s land promise still awaits literal fulfillment. Just as dispensationalists argue that the silence of the NT reinforces the validity of the land promise, so theonomy argues that the silence of the NT reinforces the validity of the civil law. And if the NT never states that the literal land promise has been abrogated by fulfillment in Christ, then, according to the theonomic hermeneutic, the land promise, including its very specific boundaries, must still remain in effect — as with the civil law. The church (the New Israel) will inherit Palestine sometime in the future. Israel's land promise
(1) has already been literally fulfilled (Joshua 21:43-45; 1 Kings 4:20-21,24-25);
(2) was an "incubator" for the Messiah, which purpose has been fulfilled, but without of necessity terminating laws concerning murder, homosexuality or adultery, even though those laws affected the land;
(3) was conditional, and fulfilled by negation in AD 70. That is to say, Israel was promised the land if they kept the covenant. They did not, and the land spewed them out;
(4) was typological of the whole earth.

None of these considerations negate the assumption that these laws should be observed by nations today.

Do dispensationalists really argue that "the silence of the NT reinforces the validity of the land promise?" That's not the dispensational hermeneutic. In fact, the NT has much to say about the land promises, but never ties the land to civil laws in any way that suggests the civil laws are no longer a civil blueprint.

Interestingly, theonomy cannot critique this argument without abandoning its whole position. We can well imagine that theonomy’s anti-dispensational, covenantal sympathies will encourage it to find some way of avoiding the dispensational position that the jots and tittles delineating the boundaries of the land promise continue to be literally normative. But theonomy’s jot-and-tittle hermeneutic hampers the free development of its covenantal sympathies. In fact, it could very well undermine and ultimately negate them, logically forcing theonomy to embrace the dispensational conclusion that specific boundaries of Israel’s land promise remain unfulfilled. Bahnsen admits that land promises were fulfilled or were typological or Levitical. Just because murder (the shedding of innocent blood) polluted the promised land (as Irons observes, citing Numbers 35) this does not mean that murder is permitted in the New Testament. This is not rocket surgery. Irons seems so desperate to join Theonomy and Dispensationalism that he overlooks the obvious.
The non-dispensational hermeneutic of theonomy wants to argue that the NT clearly applies the land promise to Christ (Heb. 3-4) and even expands it to the new heavens and new earth (Rom. 4:13). Thus, the land promise finds present fulfillment as we by faith rest in Christ. The land promise has many applications, and none are mutually exclusive. "Resting in Christ by faith" is only one application. It does not preclude others. It does not preclude obeying laws which affected the land.
On the other hand, the dispensational hermeneutic of theonomy, if allowed to assert itself, will admit that our spiritual inheritance in Christ is likened to Israel’s inheritance of the land, but will want to argue that this in no way rules out a genuine literal fulfillment of the jots and tittles that map out the land of Palestine as Israel’s inheritance. Since the NT never explicitly states that the boundaries of the land promise have been modified or expanded or abrogated, we have no right to assume that such modification has occurred without the express revelation of the law-giver. Even if it be admitted that the apostles apply the land promise to our spiritual inheritance in Christ, we cannot necessarily infer an abrogation of the literal jot and tittle description of the boundaries of the earthly inheritance (see Gen. 15:18). The fact that Irons, Bahnsen, Rushdoony, and North have differing interpretations and applications does not overturn the entire Theonomic thesis. It may only mean there is more homework to be done. But it does seem clear that Irons and Theonomists agree against Dispensationalists that the land issue has been settled.
Theonomy could make this dispensational argument and still remain postmillennial in its eschatology by pointing out that the church is the new Israel. And since the jots and tittles of the OT are not abrogated but confirmed by Christ, the church can expect to inherit the land of Palestine sometime in the future, perhaps in the fervently expected Golden Age of “Zion’s glad morning.” Presumably, theonomy would want to distance itself from such a conclusion. But ironically, it will be forced to use a non-theonomic hermeneutic to do so. It would have to appeal to the typological system of which the land of Palestine was an integral part. It would then argue that the land had an exclusively typological purpose that finds total fulfillment in Christ. No Theonomist I know claims that there are no types. The presence of a type does not overturn the Theonomic thesis. God can have more than one purpose in imposing a law. A type of the next life can simultaneously be a blueprint for this life. A type of heaven can simultaneously be a mandate for life on planet earth.
However eager to make such arguments with respect to the land, theonomy then inconsistently reverts to a dispensational hermeneutic with respect to the civil law: “God’s law was not given exclusively as a foreshadow of the consummation (remember, no explicit statement of Scripture speaks of the law in this way); it also rendered impartial justice in pre-consummation situations” (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, p. 120). Remember that theonomy recognizes that the civil law may to a certain extent be subject to some Christological, typological fulfillment, just as dispensationalism allows that some promises originally given to Israel may have secondary application to the church (e.g., Jer. 31:31ff). Thus, theonomy could just as easily argue that “Israel’s earthly land was not given exclusively as a foreshadow of the heavenly inheritance (remember, no explicit statement of Scripture speaks of the land promise in this way); it also provided God’s people with a geo-political existence on earth, and it must continue to fulfill this function in our preconsummation situation.” Highlighting the inconsistency and arbitrariness of theonomy’s hermeneutical procedure is the fact that the civil law and the land are integrally connected. The penal sanctions of the Mosaic law were given in order to keep the land pure from the defilement of heinous sins — idolatry, sorcery, pagan sexual perversions, adultery, murder, etc. — so as not to pollute God’s heritage and thus to secure Israel’s retention of the inheritance (Nus. 35:33-34; Lev. 18:24-30; Jer. 3:1). It is true that one function of the penal sanctions of the Mosaic law was to keep the land pure. But the Bible never says that that is the only function of those laws. There is no exclusive connection between "penal sanctions" and the Promised Land, as seen in Genesis 9, which contains "penal sanctions" but antedates the land promise (Genesis 15:8).
  Generally speaking, what was "fulfilled" (in the sense of being abrogated) in the Mosaic Law are laws related to and inseparable from the Levitical priesthood. Jesus placed the New Covenant under the Melchizedek priesthood. But that priesthood had a "civil law" (see generally Genesis 14). Our father Abraham was a Theonomist:

For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.
Genesis 18:19

And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.
Genesis 26:4-5

Christians are the sons of Abraham and heirs of the promises made to Abraham, if they too are Theonomists.

"Theonomy" is the Gospel:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the Gospel unto Abraham, saying,
           In thee shall all nations be blessed.
Galatians 3:8

"Blessings" are the reward of the Lawgiver to Theonomists. "The blessings of liberty" -- "Good News" indeed -- come only through obedience to God's Law.

Only a non-theonomic hermeneutic — i.e., a Christocentric hermeneutic that bases itself on the general pattern of the apostles’ interpretation of the OT — can provide an adequate response to this kind of reasoning. We must argue that the NT application of the land promise to our inheritance of justification and eternal rest in Christ is constitutive and absolute. It is not merely one application among several. It is not merely a possible application based on similarities or analogies. Rather, the land promise has been exhaustively fulfilled in Christ and his eternal kingdom. There is just as much Biblical argument to say that the land promise is now a global promise, and that God's Laws should be applied globally.
But if theonomy employs a Christocentric hermeneutic at this point, why not at other points as well? If the broad pattern of apostolic interpretation of the OT leads one to conclude that the land promise is fulfilled in Christ, then it also leads one to conclude that the civil law is likewise fulfilled in Christ. We have the same kind of data in both cases. With regard to the land promise, we cannot adduce a single NT text that explicitly transfers the land promise to an exclusively spiritual inheritance. What we do have is scattered instances where the NT writers apply OT passages concerning Israel’s land inheritance to the church’s spiritual inheritance in Christ (Rom. 4:13; Eph. 6:3; Heb. 3-4; I Pet. 3:9-10). Similarly, with regard to the civil law, we cannot adduce any explicit NT passages which state that the civil law is not a binding standard of socio-political ethics for the nations of the world. But we do find several instances where the Mosaic civil punishments are applied to the spiritual sanction of eternal punishment (Heb. 2:1-3; 10:28-29). When you hear the phrase "the civil law is fulfilled in Christ," what is being said is "the government doesn't have to obey God's civil law any more." But Jesus said he came to fulfill every jot and tittle. Why should we feel obligated not to steal, kill, or commit adultery if those laws were also "fulfilled" by Christ?


There are many NT passages which support the claim that the civil law is a binding standard of socio-political ethics for the nations of the world. See below.

I would argue that the pattern is the same for both cases: the apostolic interpretation is constitutive. The silence of the NT regarding other possible applications (whether of the land promise to a literal millennium, or of the civil law to a theonomic blueprint for socio-political ethics) is loaded with significance. Of course, arguments from silence are notoriously liable to be fallacious, but not necessarily. If one can establish a broad hermeneutical approach to the relationship between the testaments, then the silences of the NT can be interpreted with greater objectivity. Irons' "broad hermeneutical approach" is probably the biggest problem here. He wants all-or-nothing. The Bible is too complex and nuanced for that kind of fundamentalism.
Bahnsen himself uses this approach. Bahnsen first establishes, on the basis of the Lord’s statements in Matt. 5:17-19, that the jots and tittles of the OT are still binding even in the New Covenant era unless the Lord himself tells us otherwise. Then, he notices that the NT is silent regarding the applicability of the OT judicial law as a standard of socio-political justice. Thus, he concludes, Christ has not suspended the judicial law (thus conceived); and, if not, then he has validated it as a blueprint for civil society today. Setting aside the question of whether his premises are correct, Bahnsen’s argument from silence is logically valid. Bahnsen never "notices" what Irons says he "notices." Bahnsen says there is a pervasive teaching in the NT that the civil magistrate is obligated to obey God's Law. See Theonomy, chapter 19, "The Civil Magistrate in the New Testament," in which he argues that the New Testament, in places like Romans 13 and elsewhere, teaches:
  1. God Sovereignly Appoints and Removes Rulers
  2. Rulers, as God's Appointees, are Not to be Resisted
  3. Rulers Bear Religious Titles (e.g., "minister")
  4. Hence Rulers are God's Vicegerents, Avengers of His Wrath
  5. The Magistrate Must Deter Evil but Honor the Good
  6. The Magistrate Must Rule, then, According to God's Law
  7. Therefore, the Magistrate is Subject to Criticism and Judgment for Lawlessness

These identical points are also applicable to the so-called "theocratic" magistrate in Old Testament Israel, as well as applicable to all governments and empires outside of Israel, as Bahnsen forcefully argues in chapters 17 and 18 of his book. The analysis in chapters 17-19 consumes over 80 pages of text, packed with Scripture citations. In other words, it is not because the NT is silent that we assume covenantal continuity, but because the NT explicitly and repeatedly affirms continuity that the Theonomic thesis is positively established.

I too want to make an argument from silence. In order to do so in a manner that is logically valid, I must first establish the hermeneutical presumption that the entire OT is fulfilled in Christ and his eternal kingdom. It is not merely that there are parallels between the law and Christ, or that the law finds expression in some sense or in some degree in Christ. Rather, “Christ is the telos of the law” (Rom. 10:4). He fulfills it all. In fact, a careful exegesis of the very text Bahnsen uses to establish his hermeneutic (Matt. 5:17-19) turns out to establish a hermeutical presumption that is the very antithesis of theonomy. “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law, until all is accomplished” (v. 18). The jots and tittles of the law are not “validated” or “confirmed” in Christ but “accomplished.” Matthew’s use of the term “accomplished” in v. 18 interprets and explains his use of “fulfilled” in v. 17. (Besides, scholars have shown that the term pleroo simply does not bear the meaning “confirm” in Greek. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, Appendix C.) Thus, Matt. 5:17 affirms the very opposite of theonomy: everything in the law (even down to the smallest letter and least stroke of the pen) has been realized in the eschatological kingdom that has dawned with the advent of the Messianic king. Again, what does it mean to say the entire OT is fulfilled in Christ and his eternal kingdom? It's OK to commit adultery in this life?



Irons ignores verse 19. Irons is violating verse 19. Jesus says Irons is "least in the Kingdom."

What does it mean to say a law has been "realized?" The question is whether Christians have a moral obligation to obey the Scriptures of the Older Testament. Should the governments of Persia and India follow the Theocratic model of Solomon in Psalm 72? How does Irons' statement ("realized") answer this practical question?


Matthew 5:17-20
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

2 Timothy
When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also.
3:14 But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
15 And that from a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

With this broad hermeneutical premise in hand, we are in a good position to make proper deductions from the silences of the NT. The fact that the NT never once applies the civil law to the common-grace state (e.g., the Roman empire) is significant. As Dan McCartney says, “The way the New Testament applies the Old Testament to the state is the way we ought to do it. That is, it does not, so we should not” (Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, p. 148). The silence of the NT regarding any socio-political application of the law to contemporary society is powerful evidence of the civil law’s original intent and function as a typological structure that points to eschatological realities. The kingdoms of this world will have to look elsewhere if they desire a model for earthly, pre-consummation statecraft. Read chapter 19 of Bahnsen's book and then defend the claim that the New Testament never utters a prophetic witness against the State. Defend the claim, if you will, that "prophetic utterances" are not tied in any way to the Holy Scripture which Paul told Timothy to use as a blueprint.

Is Irons claiming that we should give the State a blank check? That there is nothing to say to the State?

Governments must look "elsewhere" than the Bible? Where?? Why??? Remember Bahnsen's summary of the Theonomic thesis:

God's will for our lives is found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with the Old Testament Law and Prophets carrying in our day the full authority of God's written Word unless specifically qualified in the New Testament.

"The Scriptures" that Paul urged Timothy to follow are God's Word. They are authoritative and obligatory -- unless God's Word authoritatively decrees otherwise. Why on earth should governments look "elsewhere" for civil direction?

That which functioned as a type of the eschaton cannot serve as a model for a temporary structure destined to pass away with the arrival of the eschaton. "Eschaton" is a 50-cent word for something future, something prophetic. Irons is saying that the civil laws in the Old Testament Scriptures -- like the law requiring safety railing to protect people against public hazards -- functioned as a type of heaven, or the millennium, or something else in the future, and therefore . . .

. . . and therefore what??

Did those laws not function as a model for ancient Israel? Did they not function as a model for Canaan, Nineveh, and Babylon (as the prophets forcefully declared)? Do they not function as a model for the India, Persia, and United States of America? Have American juries been sinful to follow this Biblical model?

Irons seems to be saying that today's governments are "temporary," "destined to pass away" with the arrival of heaven, or the millennium, or "Christ's heavenly, eschatological kingdom." Just because earthly governments are to pass away, does it follow that they can endanger the lives of their subjects by ignoring God's Law? Why are God's Laws not models for today's governments, even though they might someday pass away? Irons makes claims, but no argument to support his claims.

A corollary of this is that the only way the law can be “applied” or “observed” is by faith in Christ and by virtue of union with Christ. If the primary “application” of the law is its Christocentric meaning and eschatological fulfillment, then the New Covenant people of God after the fullness of the time has come will “observe” the civil law by whole-hearted trust in Christ, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). How does one "observe" these laws by "trusting in Christ?"
  • Leviticus 18:23
    Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.
  • Leviticus 20:15
    And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.
  • Leviticus 20:16
    And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Can anyone be faithfully "trusting" in Christ while having sex with an animal?

Does a civil government "observe" these laws by "faith in Christ" if it does not also tell people "That's against the law; don't do it." If voters elect me to the legislature, should I not follow this model? What are Christian statesmen to do, according to Irons? Wait for the eschaton, I guess. Let pagan tyrants rule the earth. Ignore Psalm 72. "Trust in Christ." "Whole-heartedly."

Both theonomy and dispensationalism have become so enamored of the earthly, shadowy dimensions of the law that they seek to soft-pedal the apostolic conviction that Christ is its final, complete, and absolute fulfillment. They both acknowledge (though in varying degrees) that elements of the Mosaic economy may be applied to Christ by way of analogy. But they still want to cling to some literal, jot-and-tittle interpretation that gives renewed life to the shadow even after the reality has come. They both reveal the smallness of their faith — a lack of wholehearted trust in Christ which “observes” the law by virtue of union with him who fulfilled it. If they embraced Christ and Christ alone as the center and circumference, the sum and substance of all that the law pointed to, dispensationalism and theonomy would be able to see that neither the millennial reign of Christ on earth, nor the application of the civil law to today’s societies, is necessary in order to do justice to the literal, jot-and-tittle significance of the Old Covenant. Yet, not holding fast to the Head, they cling to the passing types, “which are all shadows of what is to come,” and thus dismiss him who is “the substance” (Col. 2:17) and “the truth” (John 1:17) as a mere “secondary application” of the law but not its reality Incarnate. Should students in a government-run school be taught not to kill, not to steal, and not to have sex with animals? If I'm on the School Board, how do I vote when the Board is determining school policies? If I'm a teacher in a classroom, how do I teach? If Johnny steals Jane's notebook, and Jane says "Teacher, Teacher, Johnny violated the Eighth Commandment (Exodus 20:15)!", does the teacher tell Jane, "Jane, you're holding fast to a shadow of what is to come. Stop clinging to passing types."
To summarize:  
First, the typological nature of Israel’s theocratic form and function in the history of redemption is the root issue dividing non-theonomists and theonomists. Since we differ on this point, we differ on the proper application of the civil law in the New Covenant, not to speak of the function and significance of the civil law in the Old Covenant itself. Surely there is no disagreement about "the function and significance of the civil law in the Old Covenant itself." Don't we all agree that magistrates in Old Covenant Israel were obligated to obey the civil law? Even though it may have been a "type of Christ?"
Second, the fact that the NT consistently and exclusively applies it to the church and is totally silent about any further application to the state would suggest that the civil law was typological of the eternal kingdom. If it had been given to provide a divine standard of justice for pre-consummation civil governments, then the NT’s silence on this point is puzzling. But once we understand the thoroughly Christocentric nature of the apostolic hermeneutic, such silence is only what we would expect. "Totally silent?" Click the link to review the outline of Bahnsen's argument. Then read Bahnsen's book and look up all his Scripture references.
And finally, the theonomic-postmillennial hermeneutic has been shown to show a startling convergence with that of dispensationalism. Although theonomy and dispensationalism obviously come to radically different conclusions on a whole range of theological issues, yet they display a chilling congruity in their respective conceptions of Christ’s fulfillment of the shadows of the law: for both, the person and work of Christ may embody some levels of its significance, but not all. In fact, it is the literal, jot-and-tittle, earthly significance which for both constitutes the real meaning of the former economy. While dispensationalism reverts to the Judaistic error with respect to Israel’s total theocratic status, including the geographical inheritance in the land, theonomy does so selectively, with respect to the theocratic form of Israel’s socio-political organization.  
Appendix Notice the italicized phrase "but not all" above. The article seems to be saying that all of the significance of God's Law in the Older Testament is found in Christ. Yet in the next paragraph, below, there still seems to be some sense in which even unbelievers, to say nothing of Christians who seek to bring civil government under the Crown Rights of King Jesus, are still obligated to obey God's Law. Is this not a contradiction?
Is there any sense in which the unbeliever must observe the civil law? Yes. To the extent that the civil law and the law written on the heart overlap, to that extent the unbeliever is under the civil law, both in its positive precepts and in its threatening sanctions (Rom. 2:14-15; 1:32). Historically this overlap has been called the general equity of the civil law (WCF XIX.4). Since many of the various civil laws contain an underlying moral principle reflected in the moral law as summarized in the ten commandments, we must recognize that unbelievers are subject to the ethical obligation represented by that underlying principle, since all men, whether believers or not, are bound by the eternal normativity of the moral law. Significantly, however, this general equity is a product of God’s general revelation — what the Confession calls “the light of nature” (WCF I.1, 6; X.4). It is not strictly speaking a part of the original purpose of the civil law as it functioned within the total typological system of the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, to be precise, the unbeliever is bound directly to the moral law itself rather than the covenantal sanctions of the Mosaic civil law. It is for this reason that Paul can say categorically, “As many as have sinned without the [Mosaic] law shall perish without the [Mosaic] law” (Rom. 2:12), “for where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15; cp. 5:13).1 Although the Gentiles sinned apart from the covenantally-specific Mosaic law, and so cannot be held accountable to its covenantally-specific sanctions, they did transgress the law written on their conscience (which identical in content to the moral law), and so will be punished accordingly. Irons seems willing to endure statesmen legislating after their own hearts, even though it mirrors God's Law, but doesn't want statesmen self-consciously using the Scriptures as a civil model.

Every Word of God our Lawgiver is Law. Every Law of God is written on the heart of every created human being, though suppressed in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18ff.). The Law given to Moses on Sinai can be labeled "covenant-specific," but mere labeling doesn't prove that men are not obligated to obey it. "Covenant-specific," like "typological" and "theocratic," is just impressive-sounding theological jargon.

The Westminster Confession's use of the "civil law" is thoroughly "Theocratic" and Theonomic, extending far beyond anything that might be called "general equity" or "light of nature" ("whatever precisely is meant" by those phrases).  See Bahnsen's Appendix 2, "The Civil Magistrate According to the Westminster Confession of Faith" (which also covers the catechisms, which are arguably more "theocratic" than the Confession per se). M.G. Kline (followed in many respects by Lee Irons) has admitted that Theonomy has Confessional support:

At the same time it must be said that [Theonomy] is not without roots in respectable ecclesiastical tradition. It is in fact a revival of certain teachings contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith – at least in the Confession’s original formulations. ...

In support of this position, Bahsen [sic] makes precedential appeal to the Westminster Confession of Faith (pp. 537 f.) and, as already intimated, there is a degree of validity in that appeal. For though we may hold that on the subject of the civil magistrate the Confession, even in its original form, is non-Erastian, we must still admit that the original Chapter 23 did attribute to the state the function of enforcing the first four laws of the Decalogue. It must also be acknowledged then that in its original intent, WCF 19:4 must also have placed the “four first commandments containing our duty towards God” (19:2) under the jurisdiction of the state, whatever precisely is meant by saying that the judicial laws given to Israel “expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

Ecclesiastical courts operating under the Westminster Confession of Faith are going to have their problems, therefore, if they should be of a mind to bring the [Theonomic] aberration under their judicial scrutiny.
Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error” [review article of Theonomy in Christian Ethics, by G.L. Bahnsen] WTJ (1978/79): 172-189.


1. Most scholars now recognize that in Pauline usage, and that of the NT generally, “the law” (nomos) almost uniformly denotes the institutionally-specific corpus of legislation comprising that particular historical administration of the kingdom of God known as the Mosaic covenant.  


Lee Irons was pastor of Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel, Van Nuys, California. he is married and a 1996 graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. He completed a B.A. degree in Greek at UCLA (1992).  
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