Podcast Discussion of Theonomy (According to Christ)

I recently discussed the issue of theonomy on the According to Christ podcast. It’s a complicated topic, so it takes more than an hour to discuss, but hopefully we touched on enough points to lead people into further study. I try to be as detailed as possible in my analysis and criticism because Bahnsen was as detailed as possible in his defense. He listened to critics (not always fully, imo) and gave detailed replies. My argument does not simply rest on a general, vague appeal to typology. Rather, I seek to provide very concrete arguments from typology – more concretely than Bahnsen’s previous critics. However, an adequately thorough presentation of these arguments would require a book, not a podcast.

At one point I misspoke. I stated that Bahnsen could not understand Israel as a type of the church. Bahnsen stated on page 440 of Theonomy in Christian Ethics “With respect to typology it might be suggested that Israel as a nation is a type of the church of Christ. There is certainly scriptural warrant for that comparison.” Bahnsen then proceeded to demonstrate the incompleteness of a general appeal to the typology of Israel, insisting that any argument from typology much be very specific in how Israel’s typology translates into the abrogation of certain penal sanctions. Bahnsen said

[S]ince the argument from typology would appear to contradict the direct assertion of Scripture (cf. Matt. 5:17-19), then much more than a typological connection must be mentioned. It must be demonstrated that Scripture warrants the suggested inference from the typological connection to the argumentative conclusion. The artistic and pedagogical designs inherent in the Scriptures certainly must not be ignored or despised; however, neither must they be abused by trying to make them say something which Scripture itself does not say. The infallible interpreter of Scripture is not an imaginative model brought to bear on the data of the Bible (thus threatening to operate like a Procrustean bed) but is the Scripture itself (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.IX). Without specific biblical moorings and key didactic confirmations, from point to point, typology degenerates either to allegory or a mere projection of the typologists clever or artistic imagination.

I agree and have thus sought to be concrete in my arguments from typology. Lord willing I will be able to put those arguments down in the more concrete form of a book in the future. For now, I hope the brief podcast discussion is helpful.

8 thoughts on “Podcast Discussion of Theonomy (According to Christ)

      1. Brett

        Would it be in relation to Covenant theology? Or just theonomy on its own? ( I plan to listen to the podcast shortly on the way to work.)

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        1. Well, first priority is finishing a short (25 page) summary of 1689 Federalism. At some point after that would be a book specifically on theonomy. But realistically it will be a few years.

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  2. Battlecast Boris - As you can imagine, totally NOT my real name ;)

    That Essay from that Super Annoying Twitter Follower

    ~~Introduction~~
    So I listened to that podcast you linked and it was honestly the most helpful podcast on the subject of theonomy I’ve ever heard. Thank you so much! I’ve adjusted my original thoughts accordingly. I would now say, at the very least, that Dr Clauson has broadly misunderstood the term.

    The podcast was really helpful, for me, in parsing out the distinctions between the modern understanding of theonomy & the Covenanters’ view of theonomy – the old view and the new view. I hope you don’t mind as I voice my thoughts on where I am & let me know how off I am.

    ~~First the Definitions~~
    Older theonomy would seek a “general equity derived from the judicial law of the Mosaic Covenant applied with some liberality to the modern Civil Magistrate.”

    Modern theonomy would seek a “strict import of punishment, as it was handed out under Mosaic Law, to the modern Civil Magistrate without much flexibility.”

    I think I am correct in saying that you would think of the older view as not being theonomy because of the lack of the use of the word theonomy. To give you my prior knowledge on the subject, (1) my broad understanding of the term was based on Dr Clauson’s broad definition and (2) my narrower understanding would have been the definition of theonomy provided by Joel McDurmon, which I would generally agree with. “The biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory today.” I’ve called this the ‘most modern theonomy’.

    ~~My Theological Background (Skip to save time)~~
    For background, I would consider myself a Reformed Baptist and hold to a 1689 Covenant Theology, having been influenced by Sam Renihan’s The Mystery of Christ, which is my favorite book on the subject, and by Pascal Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology. But I am also a very convinced postmillennial & presuppositionalist, my primary influences being Loraine Boettner, R.C. Sproul, Owen, Hodge, Van til, and Jeff Durbin. Loraine Beottner’s explanation of postmillennialism would be the best summary of my thoughts on the subject at this time. My primary interests are in covenant theology and eschatology.

    But it is as a postmillennial that I have inevitably had to engage the discussion surrounding theonomy, despite not being of supreme interest origninally, since I am pretty active in a number of postmil groups online. My understanding of theonomy had been heavily influenced by the running definitions provided in those groups and in those discussions. The discussions have often surrounded trying to define what theonomy is. In my experience the minority view has been Bahnsen’s strict view, the most common view is one akin to Joel McDurmon’s, and also somewhat common is an even broader view like Dr Clauson’s.

    I have thus been heavily influenced in how I previously understood the term ‘theonomy’ by this diversity of viewpoints and discussions. I’d note that I’m by-&-large reeeally turned off by Reconstructionists and most of my discussions with them have gone poorly.

    ~~Connection between Modern Theonomy & Westminster Divines?~~
    I would, however, tend to give greater credence to the idea the modern theonomy has deeper & older roots. I’ve studied George Gillespie from the Westminster Assembly, I think that I’d say he is very close to Bahnsen & a lot of the modern theonomists & I think it is fair to say that the modern theonomists inherit a tradition & and set of principles he expounds on in his work.

    In the podcast Shwartly??? (yes, I know that has to be spelled wrong) defined theonomy as: “All the Old Testament laws that are moral in content that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics are binding on all men, Jews and gentiles, for all time, both the Old and New Covenant administrations. Therefore not only are the Ten Commandments obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations, and applications of the commandments. In addition the civil penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but required as well.”

    Bahnsen summarized his own general hermeneutic as, “Old Testament laws retain their abiding validity unless they are explicitly abrogated in the New Testament.” I think that this idea was similarly articulated before Bahnsen and Shwartly by the Scottish Covenanter George Gillespie most notably.

    Gillespie was one of the leading and most influential theologians at the Westminster Assembly and an important influence on WCF Chapter 19. Gillespie’s thesis in his 1644 London tract, which he wrote while serving as part of the Assembly, was “to vindicate the lawful, yea necessary use of the coercive power of the Christian Magistrate in suppressing & punishing heretics & sectaries.”
    Gillespie argued that “the judicial law was not typical,” and thus it cannot be lumped in with the ceremonial law, but rather it is abiding unless the New Testament abolishes it. He articulates this by saying that: “Though we have clear & full scriptures in the New Testament for abolishing the ceremonial law, yet we no where read in all the New Testament of the abolishing of the judicial law, so far as it did concern the punishing of sins against the moral law.” And that, “he who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still; and he who was not punished by death then, is not to be punished by death now.” Further he said that, “the Christian Magistrate is bound to observe these judicial laws of Moses which appoint the punishments of sins against the moral law … and those things in the judicial law which are unchangeable, and common to all nations; but not to those things which are mutable, or proper to the Jewish Republic.”

    I would say that Gillespie was a Reformation era theonomist (heavily influenced by Johannes Piscator, a probable theonomist with very similar views to Gillespie). His use of “general equity”, which from his writings was contrasted against “particular equity” – Israel particular laws – would find its place in WCF. There are some differences between Bahnsen & Gillespie, as there always are between those in the same camp.

    ~~Objections to Modern Theonomy ignoring the Reformation debate concerning the Mosaic Law~~
    I think one of my objections to modern theonomy is the way it understands the views of the Mosaic Covenant at the time of the Reformation. During the Puritan Reformation men like Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford were on the ‘same side’ or part of the same group when interpreting the Mosaic Law; they could not be so easily separated. But while a man like Rutherford was similar, in the same group, his articulation was different than Gillespie.

    Rutherford was a fellow Scottish Covenanter & Westminster Divine. He wrote, “that whatever rulers were commanded to do in the Old Testament, all rulers are obliged to do”, but also expressed disagreement with Gillespie about the manner & severity of certain civil penalties.

    This intramural debate among the Covenanters about what the Biblical evidence specifically requires was common amongst the Westminster Divines. All agreed that the laws of the Commonwealth of Israel had passed away with the end of that nation, as the Confession states. But (1) some Divines believed there were principles for the general equity which were useful for the Civil Magistrate, (2) while others believed that some or most civil laws remained obligatory, (3) while others still seemed to believe that all non-particular civil law remained obligatory.

    But the modern theonomists, particularly Bahnsen, in establishing themselves as part of the historic Reformed tradition looked back at a Reformation era debate, chose one extreme of that debate that they liked, and then claimed exclusivity over its origins & definition. There’s my objection to what Bahnsen did, but at the end of the day he did it.

    So I would say that I’d grant Bahnsen historical precedence in Gillespie. Having read sections of Gillespie, as well as Rutherford for that matter, I have to note their particular similarities.

    ~~My Mind Changed~~
    Though I grant the historical connection, I have to say that my mind is changed with regards to the original definition & theology of the word ‘theonomy’. As modern theonomists articulated the term ‘theonomy’, they would exclude the so-called ‘general equity theonomy’, that articulated by Doug Wilson and Joel McDurbon.

    I like what McDurbon has expressed in his definition; and at the end of the podcast, when you were expressing your thoughts on retribution, the Noahic Covenant, and the 10 commandments, I was in full agreement. And I appreciated you giving the background of the rise of theonomy with the PCA.

    ~~Concluding thoughts & questions regarding the ‘most modern’ theonomy~~
    First, what do you think of my thoughts more generally? I like to think clearly about these kinds of things, but I also really make an effort to research as well so that my thoughts are my own and not a regurgitation of someone else’s.

    Second, I have to note how much I appreciate your specificity of categories. I actually listened to you when you first joined the According to Christ podcast to discuss 1689 Covenant Theology after it was shared with me by a friend, which was very helpful for me in formulating my understanding of Covenant and what ultimately made me into a 1689er. The clarity of category was very helpful, talking about the problems with even the use of the words ‘substance’ & ‘republication’ because of how easy they are to misinterpret. This is relevant because I can just see, especially after listening to this According to Christ podcast on theonomy, how one could bristle at the lack of distinction, definition, and categories in the most modern discussions regarding theonomy.

    But this raises a relevant question: can the most modern, broad definition of theonomy – to include someone identifying themselves as a ‘general equity theonomist’ as well as the ‘reconstructionist theonomist’ – be reversed at this point? When someone calls themselves a general equity theonomist, I know what they mean, and it is a pretty common descriptor on the internet and amongst certain pastors and theologians.

    And again, as I stated earlier, I’m generally convinced by your argument that (1) it was modern theonomists who were the first to claim that specific word for themselves and (2) the way in which modern theonomists have articulated the term ‘theonomy’ would exclude so-called ‘general equity theonomy’. And yet, with my knowledge, I probably won’t feel that twinge of annoyance when I see the term called ‘general equity theonomy’ on the internet tomorrow – it won’t bother me even if I intellectually know there’s an incorrect foundation there. Not saying that is right, but it is what I expect to experience.

    Third, do you have any articles or resources on the principle of retribution, originating from the Noahic Covenant, that you expressed in the podcast?

    Fourth, I am NOT a theonomist by the modern definition of theonomy. I’d generally agree with what you discussed at the end of the podcast about modern civil government, but in the internet world that is what is called a ‘general equity theonomist’, for better or worse (probably worse).

    Fifth, did you ever write that 15-25 page summary of 1689 Federalism you mentioned on the first According to Christ podcast?

    Sixth, thank you for patience and the work you write.

    Seventh, I appreciate your time, but don’t feel compelled to respond to everything since it is your time that I’m taking.

    Blessings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I think I am correct in saying that you would think of the older view as not being theonomy because of the lack of the use of the word theonomy.”

      That is only partially correct. More importantly I do not consider it theonomy because it is not in agreement with the theonomic thesis (Mosaic judicials bind all nations because never abrogated and all civil government is also limited to those laws).

      “First, what do you think of my thoughts more generally?”

      I appreciate the attention you have given this, and your open attitude about it. Give this new post a read, and read the links at the bottom of it. https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2020/09/18/theonomy/

      Read McDurmon’s book The Bounds of Love – particularly the chapter “What a Theonomist is Not.” His other book “A Consuming Fire” is also recommended.

      Regarding the term: My main concern is for theological precision and definitions so that we can have a meaningful conversation. At the end of the day, I don’t care about the label. I care about the discussion and what people believe. I get frustrated with the label because I think people abuse it and that it obfuscates matters. For example, Jeff Durbin calls himself a theonomist and frequently appeals to Bahnsen. But when pressed, he says theonomy just means “God’s law.” I have asked repeatedly for Durbin to say what exactly he believes about God’s law (theonomy) and he simply will not answer. He will not explain his position. It is important for me to distinguish theonomy from the Covenanter view because they are wrong in different ways. A critique of Bahnsen does not apply in the same way to Covenanters. So to have meaningful discussion, we need to distinguish the views (call them whatever you want, so long as it does not obscure the important differences).

      “Third, do you have any articles or resources on the principle of retribution, originating from the Noahic Covenant, that you expressed in the podcast?”

      Not really at the moment. It’s something I need to spend more time on, but I don’t have time. I believe David VanDrunen might have a paper on it. At the very least he discusses it in his book Divine Covenants and Moral Order. Joel McDurmon also discusses it in Bounds of Love.

      “Fifth, did you ever write that 15-25 page summary of 1689 Federalism you mentioned on the first According to Christ podcast?”

      Not done yet.

      “Sixth, thank you for patience and the work you write.”

      My pleasure. Thank you for caring and seeking to properly understand God’s Word.

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