Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision?

[Originally written August 2016]

The Aquila Report, an independent web magazine containing content of interest primarily for and about those in the evangelical and confessional wings of the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches, has been publishing excerpts over the last few months from Dewey Roberts’ (PCA) new book on the Federal Vision. I have benefited from those other excerpts and plan on reading the book. However, a recent excerpt titled Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision is rather poor, in my opinion. It wound up being a 3 part series. Each part was spaced about a month apart and Dewey’s line of reasoning was not at all clear across the 3. I had to re-read several times to make sense of his claims.

Dewey argues “Federal Vision is the natural progression of the principles of theonomy. That is why many the first-generation federal visionists are theonomists. The Federal Vision is simply the principles of theonomy applied to the doctrine of the covenant.” He argues that there are two strands to theonomy: 1) “the reconstruction of society according to the civil or judicial laws of the Old Testament” and 2) “the application of the law to the covenant community.” “The difference between these two strands is the difference between society and the church.” The problem here is that only the first strand is what everyone understands theonomy to be: a particular political philosophy. The second strand, as simply stated, is just basic reformed theology (see WCF 19.6 for example) and nothing uniquely theonomic. However, Dewey apparently means something other than the application of the moral law to the covenant community. This is part of the lack of clarity in the articles.

In Part 2, Dewey argues that, with regards to strand two, “In Theonomy in Christian Ethics, Greg Bahnsen made several statements which laid the foundation for the development of the Federal Vision theology.” These several statements have to do with “the objectivity of baptism and the sacraments apart from…the Spirit,” “obedience to the commandments as necessary to being built up in the means of grace and rightly partaking of the Lord’s Supper,” and “Perseverance defined in [a] way [that] is not certain.”

The fist of these statements becomes the heart of Dewey’s thesis. In Part 3 he says

[The] connection between Bahnsen’s theonomy and the Federal Vision which I have asserted in my earlier articles… is this:

Bahnsen’s theonomy places so much emphasis on obedience to the law that it over-emphasizes external and objective grace and under-emphasizes internal and subjective grace. It is a very small step from Bahnsen’s position on the objectivity of the sacraments to the Federal Vision’s position of restoring the objectivity of the covenant, particularly with respect to the sacraments.

…When Bahnsen moved towards the objectivity of the sacraments, he was moving in the same direction as the FV statements above…

There is a bridge between them for some theonomists and that bridge is the objectivity of the sacraments and an over-emphasis on objective grace…

Not every theonomist will become a Federal Visionist. Not every Federal Visionist is a former theonomist. But the connection between them, once again, is the objectivity of the sacraments.

The only evidence Dewey provides to establish this connection is one single quote from Bahnsen about baptism taken from a chapter titled “SANCTIFICATION BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.” Dewey’s support for Bahnsen’s “move towards the objectivity of the sacraments” is lacking.

However, Dewey does happen to hit on a particular point that I think does establish a connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision. In Part 2, he provides a couple of quotes about covenant continuity pre and post-fall.

In another passage, Bahnsen writes about the necessity of persevering obedience:

Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law.[5]

In this passage, Bahnsen makes no distinction between the persevering obedience to the law by Adam in paradise, Israel in the Promised Land, and Christians today…

Concerning the law both before and after the fall, Bahnsen says:

The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious. Subsequent to salvation the law shows us how to respond to God’s grace and love.[8]

In the context of this quote, Bahnsen emphasizes that the law reveals the redemptive work of Christ, but his caricature of the law’s work is too optimistic. He does not distinguish between the grace of God before the fall and after the fall, particularly its effect on the unbelieving conscience.

This is the heart of the connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision: the rejection of the law/gospel distinction (which is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction). However, it is not the case that the Federal Vision represents a natural progression of a view of the law established by theonomy. Rather, both theonomy and the Federal Vision are the natural progression of something prior to both: the teaching of Norm Shepherd.

Norm Shepherd

As I have explained elsewhere, Shepherd very strongly rejected the Covenant of Works and any distinction between the function of the law pre- and post-fall. He understood the implications of doing so very well, which is why he rejected the imputation of the active obedience of Christ and argued that we are justified by faith and works (see O. Palmer Robertson’s The Current Justification Controversy). After many years of controversy, he left Westminster Theological Seminary, but not until after he was the thesis advisor for Greg Bahnsen’s WTS thesis titled “Theonomy in Christian Ethics.” A paper titled Reason and Specifications Supporting the Action of the Board of Trustees in Removing Professor Shepherd explains

Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term “covenant of works” but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter Vll that the first covenant “was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In contrast, in the second covenant, the covenant of grace, the Lord “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.”…

He describes the requirement of our covenant-keeping obedience in terms drawn from his description of Adam’s covenant-keeping. We have resources that Adam did not have, Mr. Shepherd shows. We have forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ; we have the Spirit to move us to obey; but we also have the same covenant condition to meet, and the same threat for disobedience…

The ‘covenant dynamic’ of Mr. Shepherd makes the function of our obedience in the covenant to be the same as the function of the obedience of Adam in the covenant before the fall. … Adam’s covenantal obedience in the garden did not merit any reward; neither does our covenantal obedience. But both are required by the covenant command. The threat for disobedience is eternal death. This threat is as real for us as it was for Adam in the garden. The warning of the New Covenant must not be blunted or made hypothetical in any way. God’s threat to Adam or to Israel was not idle, and the same sanction of the covenant is directed against us in the New Covenant.

Gosh, I wonder where Bahnsen got the idea that “Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law.” and “The law, both prior to and after the fall, is gracious.”

Shepherd was the godfather of the Federal Vision (see the Federal Vision “Obedient Faith: A Festschrift for Norman Shepherd“).

Bahnsen has said that the development of his theonomic thesis started in college when he began wrestling with how to consistently defend Sabbath observance among Christians. However, once he reached seminary his studies were clearly poisoned by Norm Shepherd’s false gospel. While Bahnsen himself remained in the firm hands of his Savior Jesus Christ, as evidenced in his lectures, his theonomic thesis got off on the wrong tracks and over the years it led him further down the wrong track. Referring to his death, John Robbins noted “Bahnsen was cut short by God, which IMO was an act of mercy to him.” To give an example, consider Bahnsen’s trajectory on Romans 10:4. In his thesis he wrote:

Romans 10:4. As indicated previously, this verse declares, not that Christ terminates any and all obligation to the law of God, but that Christ is the end of the law as a way of righteousness. The believer is imputed with the righteousness of Christ which comes by faith; he does not earn it by the works of the law, for if righteousness came through the law, then Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21). Law-righteousness is terminated by faith-righteousness, but Paul does not say that the law is terminated in all respects for the believer (only as a personal way to justification). [4] [italic original]

However, footnote 4 states:

“[4] For the previous verses in Romans, the reader can consult with profit: Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1835 [1972] ), and John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959).
NOTE: Bahnsen later wrote in No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics, (Tyler, TX: institute for Christian Economics, 1991), pp. 26-27: “I have been persuaded by Daniel Fuller that Romans 3:31 (“we uphold the law” by faith) is better interpreted— better than I did in Theonomy—as Paul saying that his message of salvation through faith endorses or substantiates the same message as found in the Old Testament (the law): see Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980). Likewise, Fuller convinces me that I was wrong to say of Romans 10:4 that it sets aside the law as a way of attaining righteousness—since the law was never presented as such in the Bible anyway (even the Old Covenant).”

Daniel Fuller explicitly denied sola fide and argued against it. He and Shepherd share very similar views (see Samuel E. Waldron’s dissertation Faith, Obedience, and Justification). In Bahnsen’s old view, he maintained a law/gospel distinction because one meaning of “law” was “law as a covenant of works.” This is the sense in which Christ fulfilled the law – as a covenant of works. The reformed law/gospel distinction is the covenant of works/covenant of grace distinction. This is what Shepherd, Fuller, and FV all reject. In No Other Standard, we see that Bahnsen came to embrace their rejection of the law/gospel distinction. “[T]he law was never presented as such in the Bible.”

Bahnsen’s original comment on Rom 10:4 appeared in a section of TICE dealing with negative statements about the law in Scripture. He said the negative statement about the law in Rom 10:4 referred to the law as an objective means of obtaining righteousness (the covenant of works – though Bahnsen did not use that phrase, presumably because of his training at WTS). In “By This Standard” (1985) chapter 18 “New Testament Opposition to the Abuse of God’s Law” Bahnsen asks “How can the Bible contain two completely different evaluations of the law of God?” His answer is that “there is an unlawful use of God’s law, a use which runs counter to the law’s character and intent, so that the law’s good nature might be perverted into something evil. The abuse of the law is indirectly condemned by Paul.” This abuse of the law is exemplified by the Judaizers who thought they could be justified by the law.

“[P]assages in Paul’s writings which seem to take a negative attitude toward the law of God can be correctly harmonized with Paul’s equally strong endorsements of the law by distinguishing at least two (among many) uses of the word “law” in Paul’s epistles. [1] The revelatory use of “law” is its declaration of the righteous standards of God; in this the law is good. The legalistic use of “law” refers to the attempt to utilize the works of the law as a basis for saving merit; this is an unlawful use of the law and receives Paul’s strongest condemnations.

[1] Cf. Daniel P. Fuller, “Paul and the Works of the Law,” Westminster Theological Joumal, XXXVIII (Fall 1975), pp. 28-42. For a modern statement of the covenantal position that the Old Testament did not teach justification by law-works (legalism), see Fuller’s fine exegetical study, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980). (183)”

Thus Bahnsen now interpreted Rom 10:4 to say “Indeed, the aim or goal (“end”) of the law’s teaching was Christ, who brings righteousness to all who believe (Rom. 10:4).” This is the Federal Vision’s favorite way of dealing with the text. Bahnsen came to embrace the FV belief that there is no objective law/gospel distinction anywhere in Scripture. It occurs only in the subjective heart of sinners who abuse and misunderstand the law. From the Joint Federal Vision Profession:

Law and Gospel

We affirm that those in rebellion against God are condemned both by His law, which they disobey, and His gospel, which they also disobey. When they have been brought to the point of repentance by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that the gracious nature of all God’s words becomes evident to them. At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people. We further affirm that those who are first coming to faith in Christ frequently experience the law as an adversary and the gospel as deliverance from that adversary, meaning that traditional evangelistic applications of law and gospel are certainly scriptural and appropriate.

We deny that law and gospel should be considered as hermeneutics, or treated as such. We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the
faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart.

Indeed, Bahnsen appears to have been kept in Christ by God’s mercy, though his logical rigor was pushing him towards the FV false gospel since both theonomy and FV were rooted in Shepherd’s rejection of law/gospel in favor of monocovenantalism. Note Bahnsen’s monocovenantalism apparent already in his “Theonomy in Christian Ethics”

One could anticipate that the law of the Mosaic covenant would have permanent validity from the fact (1) that the other Older Testamental covenants have continuing significance in the New Covenant (e.g., Adamic covenant—Rom. 16:20; Noahic covenant—2 Peter 3:5- 9; Abrahamic covenant—Rom. 4:16 f.; Davidic covenant—Rom. 15:12) and (2) that God has such a character that He does not alter the covenant words which have gone forth from His lips (e.g., Ps. 89:34). The covenants preceding the Mosaic covenant all contained the element of law (Adam—Gen. 3:19; Noah—Gen. 9:6; Abraham—Gen. 17:14), and the succeeding Davidic covenant as well as the history, poetry, and prophets of the later Old Testament continue emphasis upon the law (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 119:97; Hos. 8:12). Accordingly New Testament morality also stresses the law (e.g., Rom. 3:31; James 2:8-11; 2 Peter 2:21; 1 John 5:3) in a way which covenant consciousness would lead us to presume. The New Covenant presents no new covenental law or moral order, just as the Older Testament predisposes one to expect: “He is the Lord our God; His judgments are in all the earth. Remember His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant which . . . He confirmed to Israel as an everlasting covenant” (1 Chron. 16:14-17, NASV). The perpetuity of God’s commandments follows from the eternality of His covenant of which they comprise an inalienable part.

(p. 184)

Any indication of a “move towards the objectivity of the sacraments” in Bahnsen should be understood as a byproduct of Shepherd, not as a byproduct of theonomy directly. Bahnsen certainly was not the source of FV’s objective covenant.


Bahnsen was strongly influenced by Rushdoony’s political philosophy. Though Bahnsen has given the best defense of theonomy, Rushdoony is seen as the godfather of theonomy. Rushdoony was operating from the same rejection of the law/gospel distinction.

The Westminster Confession is one of the great documents of the Christian

faith but at one point it has rightly been criticized over the years… This problem in the Westminster Confession is it’s concept of a covenant of works… Now it’s this idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to dispensationalism and a

great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace… So Paul is saying in Galatians 3:12 that when we walk in terms of covenant faithfulness we receive God’s blessing… Thus I am very sure that the men who wrote the Westminster Confession would have been horrified by Scofield’s notes and yet there is a connection between what they said on the covenant of works and the Scofield’s notes.

Lecture: Is There a Covenant of Works?

For many more points on the connection between theonomy and Shepherd, see John Robbins’ Companion to The Current Justification Controversy. And make sure to read this post from Greg Bahnsen’s son David that includes evidence collected from his father’s personal files demonstrating very clearly Bahnsen’s agreement and support for Shepherd on this point: Greg Bahnsen and Norm Shepherd – The Final Word.


In conclusion the connection between theonomy and the Federal Vision is Norm Shepherd’s false gospel. However, the question arises “What would Bahnsen’s presuppositional political philosophy have looked like without Shepherd’s poison?” We have started to get a glimpse of that in Joel McDurmon’s writings. McDurmon is the President of the theonomist organization American Vision. His new book “The Bounds of Love” written as an introduction to theonomy argues against Bahnsen and the theonomic thesis that the civil government should enforce violations of the first table of the law as well as numerous violations of the second table of the law. What is worth noting is that McDurmon’s central argument for rejecting Bahnsen’s view is the differences between the Old and New Covenants, specifically that the New Covenant is “marked by general forgiveness as opposed to the call for immediate cherem death.” A biblical understanding of the law/gospel distinction has led McDurmon to reject theonomy and embrace something closely approaching reformed libertarianism (he just needs a few more corrections, as pointed out in my review of his book).

4 thoughts on “Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision?

  1. Pingback: Episode 42 – Is Theonomy Biblical? –

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