Am I A "Theonomist?"
I claim to be a Theonomist, but
maybe I'm not. Are you? I find myself in agreement with 99% of the words written
by Greg Bahnsen in the column at left. Some Theonomists say that's not enough. In
the right-hand column, I've added some additional support to Bahnsen's comments,
and where I differ with Bahnsen, I'm candid about it.
Am I A "Theonomist?"
|Dr. Van Til taught us that "There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy" (Christian-Theistic Ethics, p. 134). Every ethical decision assumes some final authority or standard, and that will either be self-law ("autonomy") or God's law ("theonomy"). While unbelievers consider themselves the ultimate authority in determining moral right or wrong, believers acknowledge that God alone has that position and prerogative.||The opening sections of Bahnsen's article should not be controversial. So I've placed another summary of Theonomy by Bahnsen in this right-hand column. This 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 this summary has been published in numerous other works by Bahnsen):|
|The position which has come to be labeled "theonomy" today thus holds that 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. Our obligation to keep God's commands 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.||
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.
Jesus My Savior
|When any of us come to Christ for salvation, it is with a sense of our sin and misery before God. Our very need of the Savior arises from a conviction of sin, brought home to our hearts by the Holy Spirit showing our guilt for violating God's commandments. As Paul wrote, "I had not known sin except through the law" (Rom. 7:7). The law defines what sin is (1 John 3:4). As such the law cannot be our personal vehicle for gaining favor with God. It rather aims at Christ as our only righteousness, tutoring us that justification must be by faith in Him (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:24).|
|So theonomy teaches that 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. As Paul said, it was "through the law" that he learned to "die to the law" as a way of self-salvation (Gal. 2:9). Commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God's redeeming grace. "By grace you have been saved through faith... not of works.... We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God previously prepared that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10).||
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.
|In What is Faith? J. Gresham Machen urged that "a new and more powerful proclamation of that law is perhaps the most pressing need of the hour.... A low view of laws always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail" (pp. 141-142).|
Jesus My Lord
|Seems like every Christian should be a "Theonomist" at this point.|
|After coming to Christ in faith and repentance we all naturally ask how a Christian should live. A. A. Hodge answers: "While Christ fulfilled the law for us, the Holy Spirit fulfils the law in us, by sanctifying us into complete conformity to it" (The Confession of Faith, p. 251). Paul wrote in Romans 8:4-9 that unregenerate men are enemies of God who cannot submit to His law, but those who walk by the Holy Spirit subject themselves to that law. Paul himself endorses that we should "delight in the law after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22).||
On a recent podcast, J.D. Hall criticized R.J. Rushdoony's slogan, “Justification is by grace through faith; sanctification is by law.” I'll take the bait: check this out. Rushdoony's slogan seems to be Hodge's as well.
|The Christian confesses that Jesus is the Lord, thus looking to the directives of Jesus to guide his life. Jesus said "if you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Moreover, we will strive to teach others to observe whatever He has commanded us (Matt. 28:18-20). Such healthy and necessary moral standards are surely not burdensome to the believer who bows to Christ as the Lord (1 John 5:3).||
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).
|As our Lord, moreover, Jesus teaches us that man is to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). We have no right to edit God's commandments for ourselves, deciding to follow those which agree with our preconceived ideas and rejecting the others. James teaches that we are not to become "judges of the law," but rather doers of that law (4:11-12); to break even one point of it is to be guilty of breaking it all (2:10). The whole law is our duty, except where the Lawgiver and Lord reveals otherwise. God forbids us to diminish His commands on our own authority (Deut. 4:2). "Every scripture" (even the Old Testament) is profitable, said Paul, for "instruction in righteousness" so that we would be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).||
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.
|Accordingly theonomy views God's laws directing moral behavior to be a reflection of His unchanging character; such laws are not arbitrary, but objectively, universally, and absolutely binding. It is God's law that "you are to be holy because I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16, citing Leviticus). The law may not be criticized or challenged by us. It is "holy, righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12). This moral law was revealed to Israel in oracles and ordinances, but even the Gentiles show the work of the law upon their hearts and know its ordinances from the natural order and inward conscience (Rom. 1:32; 2:14-15). Who, then, is under the authority of God's law? Paul answers "all the world" (Rom. 3:19).||From Bahnsen's summary:
|Here's where the "controversy" might start. Some Christians (like Dispensationalists) view the Old Testament as irrelevant, unless repeated by the New Testament. I'll add the text of some of the verses cited by Bahnsen.|
|The law revealed by Moses and subsequent Old Testament authors was given within a covenantal administration of God's grace which included not only moral instruction, but gloriously and mercifully "promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come" (Westminster Confession of Faith VII.5). God's revelation itself teaches us that New Covenant believers, who have the law powerfully written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31ff.; Heb. 8:8-12), no longer follow the foreshadows and administrative details of the old covenant. They are obsolete (Heb. 8:13), having been imposed only until the time when the Messiah would come (Heb. 9:10; Col. 2:17).||
This passage is quoted by the writer to the Hebrews:Hebrews 8:8-12
days are coming, says the Lord,
When Jeremiah prophesied these words, he said God would write His TORAH on the hearts of Christians. Not just so that we would have them memorized, but that we would obey them. How do you think the Hebrews of Jeremiah's day understood this prophecy? Theonomic? How do you think the Hebrews of Jesus' day understood this letter quoting Jeremiah? A repudiation of Jeremiah's Theonomy, or a strengthening of it? Jeremiah's thought is also seen in the prophet Ezekiel:
19 And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in My statutes and keep Mine ordinances, and do them. And they shall be My people, and I will be their God.
27 And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep My judgments and do them.
The Prophets of the New Covenant were Theonomic.
6. 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.
|Thus, for example, on the basis of God's own instruction, we no longer resort to animal sacrifices at the temple and a Levitical priest (Heb. 7-10); the cultic dietary laws have been set aside, for God has cleansed the unclean meats (representing the Gentiles) from which Israel was to be separate or holy (Acts 10).||
Bahnsen says "no more animal sacrifices," but that doesn't comfort many anti-Theonomists. He says the dietary laws are out, but that's not good enough for them. Rushdoony and Bahnsen did not agree on the issue of the dietary laws. Some Theonomists still observe them. So some anti-theonomists accuse [all] Theonomists of being "judaizers." On a recent podcast, J.D. Hall accused Rushdoony of being a "Judaizer," and guilty of "the Galatian heresy." I wonder which is worse, being a "Judaizer" or calling down God's "Anathema" on a Godly Christian man like Rushdoony.
I personally think there is good reason to continue observing the dietary laws. Contrary to Bahnsen's claim, it is not inescapably correct to say that "clean" and "unclean" symbolize the difference between "Jew" and "Gentile," because the clean/unclean categories existed in Noah's day -- before there was "Jew" and "Gentile" -- and still exist (in some sense) in the Apostolic age (verses). Read more.
Was Rushdoony therefore not a "real" Theonomist because he disagreed with Bahnsen on the issue of the dietary laws? Or vice versa? No, because both believed that it was the Bible itself that must tell us what "Theonomy" really is, not theories of "natural law," and we'll have disagreements about what the Bible says, but we'll work through them like Bereans.
Unfortunately Theonomists disagree among themselves, and anti-Theonomists call Theonomists "dangerous," and there's not a lot of Scripture-searching, like the Bereans.
"Better safe than sorry," I say. It's obvious to me that after Christ shed His blood, shedding any other blood in an attempt to propitiate the wrath of God is a bad idea. Mixing wool and linen? Maybe there's something to that. If it's still a good idea to "Honor your father and mother" (Ephesians 6:1-3), maybe it's a good idea to ask some questions about the creatures that go along the bottom of the water cleaning up after other fish (if you catch my drift). God isn't arbitrary or stupid.
|[Bahnsen continues below]|
|Theonomy teaches, then, that in regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality. The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and "separation" principles, redefining the people of God (e.g., Matt. 21:43), and also altering the significance of the promised land (e.g., Rom. 4:13; 1 Peter 1:4).||Who could disagree with this?|
|What is crucial to notice here is that theonomic ethics comes to these conclusions on the basis of Biblical instruction. Men have no right to alter or spurn Old Testament laws on their own say-so, social traditions, or preconceived ideas about what is morally appropriate or inappropriate in the Mosaic law. They have no right to include more in the discontinuity between old and new covenants than can be warranted from divine revelation.||Who could disagree with this?|
|Theonomy thus teaches that we should presume that Old Testament laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation. Theonomy's methodology stands squarely against that of dispensational theology which maintains that all of the Old Testament commandments should be deemed -- in advance of exegesis -- to be abrogated, unless they are repeated in the New Testament.|
|On this issue the words of our Lord are definitive and clear in Matthew 5:17-19. Jesus declared that he did not come not abrogate the Old Testament Law and Prophets, but to give them their full measure. John Murray wrote that Jesus' "fulfillment" of the law "refers to the function of validating and confirming the law and the prophets" (Principles of Conduct, p. 150). With respect to the Old Testament's moral standards, Jesus went on to insist that until the end of the physical cosmos, not the slightest stroke of the law will pass away. "Therefore whoever shall break one of these least commandments and teach men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Jesus confirmed the validity of the law, even down to its least commandment, and censures anyone who dares to teach otherwise (without authorization from the Lawgiver Himself). New Testament Christians must operate on the presumption of continuity with the Old Testament moral code.||
There's a lot of heated debate about the meaning of those two Greek words. What do they mean? You don't have to know Greek to figure it out. What Jesus is saying is that He came to create conditions in which the follower of Christ is committed to obeying the law and the prophets, and teaching others to obey them as well. Some anti-theonomists claim that Jesus "fulfilled" God's Law for us, therefore we don't have to keep it (compare Hodge above). Sounds like the Pharisees, who said it was enough to keep their own man-made traditions instead of God's Law. The next verse makes clear what the Greek words mean:
"Doing" and "teaching" are not things Jesus came to destroy or to abrogate. He came to fulfill the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, of making a people for Himself that would be heartfelt Theonomists.
I've heard J.D. Hall on more than one video describe Bahnsen's exposition of Matthew 5:17-19 in Theonomy in Christian Ethics as taking up "half the book." If you have your copy of the book, place one finger at page 39, where Bahnsen begins his exposition of Matthew 5:17-19, and another finger at page 86, where he finishes looking at that passage. Hold all those pages between your thumb and index finger. Does it look like "half the book?" Maybe it seems like "half the book" to anti-theonomists because Bahnsen put lotsa Greek stuff in that chapter. And they probably didn't read the other "half" either.
Many people think that Theonomists are "Pharisees" and "legalists." But Jesus says His disciples are more righteous than those who use God's Word for their own selfish purposes:
The religious leaders of Jesus' day were "hypocrites," as Jesus repeatedly said. Outwardly they postured as Theonomists, but they were actually committed to evading God's Law, not putting it into practice. The legalistic religious leaders were the enemies of God and the enemies of Theonomy:
King of Kings
|In what sense is Jesus a "political"
figure? Isn't that breaching wall of separation between religion and politics?
Jesus is a political figure because he is the Christ, the Messiah, the King
of kings. By His Word,
His Word "rebukes" kings now. Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Dictators only wish that this rebuking did not begin until after His Second Coming.
||Here is more from Bahnsen's summary. His article
on the left continues below.
|That general continuity which we presume with respect to the moral standards of the Old Testament applies to political ethics. John Murray called it a fatal error "if it is thought that the Christian revelation, the Bible, does not come to the civil authority with a demand for obedience to its direction and precept as stringent and inescapable as it does to the individual, to the family, and to the church"||All political entities are required to be "Theonomic." Any doctrine of "separation of church and state" which says otherwise is a lie.|
An updated version of this section is found here: www.Anarcho-Theonomy.com
Bahnsen says entities calling themselves "the State" or "the government" or "the civil magistrate" are obligated to follow God's Commandments in the Scriptures (including commandments in "The Law and the Prophets"). I agree. I also believe entities calling themselves "La Cosa Nostra" ("Our Thing"), "Yakuza," "Solntsevskaya Bratva" ("Russian Mafia"), "Sinaloa Cartel," or any of dozens of other similar criminal entities, are also morally obligated to follow God's Commandments in the Old Testament.
|In addition to being the Head of the church, Christ has been made King over all other earthly kings (1 Tim. 6:15), the "ruler of the kings of the earth" (Rev. 1:5); to Him by right they owe allegiance and obedience. He has been invested with all authority in heaven as well as on earth (Matt. 28:18), and it is to be our prayer that God's will be done on earth just as perfectly as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Jehovah has established His Son as King upon His holy hill, and thus the kings and judges of the earth are now required to submit reverently to Him and serve the Lord (Ps. 2:6-12).||What happens if entities calling themselves "civil governments" take seriously the Law of God, submit to Christ the King and serve Him as Lord? What happens if "governments" repent of theft, murder and vengeance? I would say they would "go out of business." Nowhere in Scripture does God command human beings to conquer other people groups, or form "the State." By definition, "The State" violates God's Law by stealing, murdering, and taking vengeance. Most of the Bible is filled with criticisms of empires. Entire books are dedicated to chronicling kings and judges. In spite of this, most Christians believe the Body of Christ should not be involved in politics -- that is, should not oppose the most concentrated, well-funded evil on the planet.|
|So theonomy teaches that civil
rulers are morally obligated to enforce those laws of Christ, found
throughout the Scriptures, which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain
from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention). As Paul
wrote in Romans 13:1-10, magistrates -- even the secular rulers of Rome -- are
obligated to conduct their offices as "ministers of God," avenging God's
wrath (compare 13:4 with 12:19) against criminal evil-doers. They will give
an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their
Creator and Judge. Christian involvement
in politics calls for recognition of God's transcendent, absolute, revealed law as
a standard by which to judge all social codes and political policies. The
Scottish theologian, William Symington, well said:
|I believe a strict Theonomic application would
not only shrink the size of government -- by cutting welfare,
education, and other activities which are carried out more humanely, effectively
and beneficially by families, charities, and churches -- but would abolish
civil governments entirely.
God created human beings in a social form we would call "Patriarchy." When Noah got off the ark with his family, all human beings existed in a state of "Patriarchy." Abraham the Patriarch had perhaps thousands of people in his family as a result of evangelism, domestic apprenticeship, job-creation, charity, and home-church. Romans 13, a much-misunderstood passage, prohibits Christians from violently resisting demonic empires, but does not condone imperial conquest and plunder of the weak by the strong.
Jesus prohibits His followers from being "archists" (Mark 10:42-45), which logically means Christians, while orderly and peaceful at all times, are technically "an-archists."
I feel that Christians who are not Theonomists let the State off the hook.
I agree that everyone -- civil magistrates, mafia hit-men, prostitutes -- are obligated to submit to Christ by obeying His inscriptured Word. I worry that many Theonomists envision little more than a "Theonomic Oligarchy" in which a small plurality of Theonomic activists elect a slate of "Theonomic candidates" to political office to execute the unrepentant demographic. This, I guess, would be an "amillennial Theonomy," whereas a more robust "Postmillennial Theonomy" would come closer to the Biblical vision of the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea, resulting in widespread conversion, repentance, obedience, and cultural sanctification, rather than a more pessimillennial theocratic whack-a-mole. (I also consider myself a "Theocrat.")
|The Apostle Paul affirmed that one of the uses of the Old Testament law which we know to be good is the restraint of criminal behavior (1 Tim. 1:8-10). Jesus endorsed the penal sanctions of the Old Testament law, condemning those who would make them void by their own human traditions (Matt. 15:3-4). Paul likewise upheld the penal standards of the Mosaic judicial law (Acts 25:11). The author of Hebrews leaves us no doubt about the inspired New Testament perspective on the Mosaic penalties, saying "every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward" (2:2). God requires that judges not punish too harshly or too leniently, but assign a penalty proportionate to the crime (cf. "an eye for an eye..."). To uphold genuine justice in their punishments, magistrates need the direction of God's law. In observing the law which God revealed to Israel, all nations should respond "what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law?" (Deut. 4:8).||For Matthew 15, see Mark 7,
For the most orthodox of Theonomic reasons, I believe
"capital punishment" -- a liturgical shedding
of blood -- was a
"ceremonial" law, and is therefore abolished. For all crimes.
|Although Israel as a political body has expired -- and along with it its judicial law as a constitution -- the general equity of those judicial laws is still required (Westminster Confession XIX.4). Similarly, when a public library goes out of business (and your library card thus expires), the truth of what was written in its books is not abolished or changed. Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel. George Gillespie, widely regarded as the most authoritative theologian at the Westminster Assembly, wrote: "the will of God concerning civil justice and punishments is no where so fully and clearly revealed as in the judicial law of Moses.... He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still" ("Wholesome Severity Reconciled...," 1645).||I agree with Rushdoony that the Westminster Confession at this point is corrupted by "natural law" thinking inherited from statist Greco-Roman philosophy. The Reformers and Puritans were not as consistently Biblical in their thinking about Biblical Law as Bahnsen and Rushdoony were centuries later. As someone ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which is confessionally tied to the Westminster Standards, Bahnsen was unable to break free from those standards where they were not consistently Biblical. More here: The Theonomy Debate|
|Those who do not favor taking God's law as the ultimate standard for civil morality and public justice will be forced to substitute some other criterion. The civil magistrate cannot function without some standard of good and evil. If that standard is not the revealed law of God, then in some form or expression it will have to be a law of men -- the standard of self-law or autonomy. Men must choose in their civil affairs to be governed by God's law (theonomy), to be ruled by tyrants, or acquiesce to increasing social degeneracy.||
It may seem like "Theonomy" is all about politics. This should not be the case. 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. More specifically, the book deals with the basic objections to God's commanding us at all, which are often the "Law vs. Grace" or "Law vs. Gospel" objections. This is really the heart of most objections to Theonomy. That and executing adulterers.
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. Indeed, the section which does address politics is called "Application of the Thesis to the State" (p. 315).
Bahnsen writes in his summary volume, By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today,
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, as we've noted. 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 and adulterers.
"Theonomy" means God has the right to command man. It does not mean "the State" does.
God created human beings in a Family. The institution of a priesthood was temporary. The creation of "the State" was an act of rebellion against God's Law. That means society should be a patriarchal (family-centered) Christocracy.
John M. Frame's Theory of the State: An Anarchist Salute -- Contains a brief overview of the "Vine & Fig Tree" vision of Anarcho-Theocracy.
Please leave a comment: Am I a Theonomist?
What Is "Theonomy"? | Dr. Greg Bahnsen, New Horizons (April, 1994)
An Appraisal of Theonomy | Nelson D. Kloosterman, Published in New Horizons, 15.4 (April 1994): 7-9.
Thoughts on Theonomy | G.I. Williamson | New Horizons, April 1994
For Further Reading
Here are some recent (2014-15) articles, blog posts and Facebook discussions I've had on the subject of "Theonomy."
|Favorable to Theonomy||Possibly Unfavorable|
The Theonomy Debate (McDurmon v. Hall)(Comments on a Reformed Baptist analysis)
Is 1 Cor 5:13 the "general equity" of Deut 22:21? (Comments on a Reformed Baptist analysis)
Why Old Testament "Holy Wars" are Not a Civil Model Today and why there is no such thing as a "civil code" in the Bible.
The Case Against "Capital Punishment" -- A short introduction. Contains links to more thorough treatments
Conversation with Kurt and Tom
My Weekend with the "Covenanters" - I was invited to join a Facebook Group called "Christians for the Civil Recognition of Christ's Kingship." I lasted one weekend. I believe the Mafia should recognize Christ's Kingship. This group should be called, "Christians for Christ's Recognition of Archists."
|General Biblical Issues||About the Author|
|Kevin Craig first encountered
"Christian Reconstructionism" around 1974.
He was personally tutored by R.J Rushdoony, wrote a regular column for The Chalcedon Report, and as a Chalcedon Scholar substituted on occasion for Rushdoony when he was unable to fill the pulpit in the Westwood chapel where the Institutes of Biblical Law was delivered.
KC was also tutored one-on-one by Bahnsen, who wanted to see if someone could be ordained in the OPC through an apprenticeship, rather than the modern seminary model.
Gary North has published a few of his articles, including this one. North says KC is either in the "Who's Who" or the "Who's Not" of Christian Reconstructionism.
Kevin Craig founded Vine & Fig Tree (a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation) in 1979.