Theonomy?

Summary

Theonomy rightly believes that political theory must be deduced from Scripture, but it misinterprets Scripture – namely the law given to Israel and covenant theology as a whole.

Operating Definition

Theonomy is the starting presumption that the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel have not been abrogated therefore all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce them (including the specific penalties) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).

Defining Our Terms

Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was used by Greg Bahnsen in the 1970s to describe his presuppositional political philosophy in contrast to “autonomy” (man’s reason independent of God’s revelation). This post addresses theonomy as defined and defended by Bahnsen. (If you think theonomy has a broader definition, that is a separate discussion we can have. For the purposes of this post, theonomy is being defined according to Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis). Bahnsen argued that

[T]heonomy 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)… Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel… “He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still.”

What Is “Theonomy”? PE180 New Horizons (April, 1994)

Likewise, Brian Schwertley summarizes

The core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. 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 (both Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations).

Therefore, not only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality, fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). 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 are required as well.

That being said, theonomists do not always agree with each other regarding particular Old Covenant judicial laws. Bahnsen therefore clarified that even when they do not agree, there is still nonetheless a distinct, definable view called “theonomy.”

Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…

Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?

[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.

Chapter 2 “A Recognizable, Distinct Position,” in No Other Standard

Theonomy’s strength is its commitment to presuppositionalism – the belief that political philosophy and civil law must be deduced from Scripture. Its weakness is its actual exegesis of Scripture. While I agree that Scripture must be the source of our political philosophy, I believe that theonomy has misinterpreted Scripture on two foundational points. (Note: Bahnsen was a very gifted logician and I respect him enough to interpret and critique him according to his systematic understanding of theonomy.)

The Law(s) of God

Theonomy rejects the distinction between moral law (a transcript of God’s nature that applies at all times) and positive law (law that is created and abrogated at God’s will for certain times). Instead, it holds to a mononomism that sees all biblical law as an unchanging transcript of God’s nature. Bahnsen argued “Does God have a holiness, a standard of ethics, of perfection that is changing?… Jesus says every jot and tittle and he doesn’t allow us to draw lines and seams and divide God’s law up into what we’ll accept and what we won’t.”

I agree with the historic threefold division of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral law transcends and predates Mosaic law and applies to all image bearers. Ceremonial and civil law are positive laws created for Israel under the Old Covenant and have been abrogated. Theonomy teaches a different two-fold division of Mosaic law.

The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. (Two subdivisions within each category will be mentioned subsequently.) This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation. On the other hand, ceremonial laws–or redemptive provisions–reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

(By This Standard, 97)

The important point is that due to a mistaken exegesis of Matthew 5, theonomy has no category for positive law that may be abrogated. Not only moral (which includes judicial) law, but even “restorative” law continues (though the way we observe it changes).

It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”

Has God Changed His Mind? (Lecture 2 of 6)

Covenant Theology

The reformed law/gospel distinction refers to two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is rooted in the distinction between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Messianic Covenant of Grace. While Bahnsen held a law/gospel antithesis with regards to salvation through faith in Christ (even having a better interpretation of Matt 5:20 than many reformed theologians), he was influenced by his thesis advisor Norman Shepherd with regards to covenant theology.

Shepherd left WTS under controversy for teaching that we are justified through faith and works. He rejected the Adamic Covenant of Works and emphasized the unity of the Covenant of God. RJ Rushdoony likewise said

[T]his 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. Precisely because He is God the only kind of covenant He can enter into with man involves free grace on His part. It is at the same time a covenant of law but every covenant is a law relationship… [T]he covenant of God with man is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of law. [B]asic to the making of a covenant with God was the invoking of curses and blessings, Deuteronomy 27 and 28 give us that very, very clearly.

106. Systematic Theology – Covenant: 01 The Covenant and 02 Is There A Covenant Of Works

Following these men, Bahnsen said

The New Testament and Covenant continue the same demand for 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. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics (201-2)

I reject this monocovenantalism. I affirm the Adamic Covenant of Works as distinct from the Messianic Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, I recognize a typological element to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. Those blessings typified the blessings Christ earned for us through his perfect obedience to the moral law while the curses typified the judgment that we all deserve (and those outside of Christ will receive) for breaking God’s moral law. Theonomy’s commitment to monocovenantalism and mononomism, and its subsequent understanding of Mosaic blessing and curse, prevents it from affirming this understanding.

Stoning as Typological (Cherem) Curse

After responding to every known criticism offered against his thesis, Bahnsen held out the theoretical possibility of one remaining criticism that would be a valid objection.

[I]t must be argued by somebody who feels the penal sanctions were not given to anybody but Israel that there is a very strong distinction within the law itself between stipulation and sanction. That God stipulates this kind of behavior and then he lays down a punishment if you don’t follow that stipulation, and that the fact that a law binds Israel as well as the Gentiles with respect to stipulations does not therefore mean that the law with respect to sanctions binds Israel and the Gentiles. You see, the premise then is that there is a difference between stipulation and sanction. Now, is there exegetical evidence for this distinction?… Well, we haven’t been given evidence of that distinction.

It is precisely this distinction that I affirm and give evidence for (see links below – notably this one). The stipulations in question are part of God’s unchanging moral law for all image bearers. Violation of this unchanging moral law warrants eternal death at the final judgment. However, at the fall God delayed this final judgment, beginning a post-fall world restructured in subservience to the work of Christ. The death penalty instituted under the typological Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was a typological, positive law addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a typological curse.

“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal. 3:12)

Commenting on Gal. 3:12 (Lev. 18:5) Augustine said “Now those who were living by these works undoubtedly feared that if they did not do them, they would suffer stoning or crucifixion or something of this kind.”

“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10).

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)

It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a typological covenant of works that we are free from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).

In A Consuming Fire: The Holy of Holies in Biblical Law, Joel McDurmon notes “some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule; others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.” He notes “These laws were typological.”

The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).

Conclusion

While theonomy presents an appealingly simple answer to the question of political philosophy and civil law, our presupposition must be Scripture properly interpreted.

Further Reading

by me:

by others:

20 thoughts on “Theonomy?

  1. Pingback: An Interesting article on Theonomy | Effectual Grace

  2. Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 promise an increased standard of living for obedience to God’s Law (blessing) and a decreased standard of living for disobedience to God’s Law (cursing).
    I don’t understand what you’re saying Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 typify?
    Heavenly blessings after death?
    Weren’t OT saints also promised heavenly blessings after death?
    NT saints only get heavenly blessings after death but not an increased standard of living in this life?
    Where does the Bible say that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Deut 28 and Lev 26 promise temporal blessing for obedience to God’s law *according to Leviticus 18:5*.

      Yes, that typified eternal blessing for one who could perfectly obey the law (i.e. what was promised to Adam in the garden and what Christ alone actually did).

      “Weren’t OT saints also promised heavenly blessings after death?”
      Yes, the gospel was revealed to them in types and shadows, promising eternal life to those who believed in the coming Messiah.

      “NT saints only get heavenly blessings after death but not an increased standard of living in this life?”
      Yes.

      “Where does the Bible say that?”
      First of all it teaches that the old covenant is obsolete. Deut 28 and Lev 26 are not promises of the New Covenant (see Heb. 8:6-13; Galatians 3).
      Second, consider the cross. Christ perfectly obeyed the law and he suffered for it. Throughout the NT we are told that Christians will follow him in his suffering if we believe and obey. This book elaborates if you’re interested http://www.1689federalism.com/the-kingdom-of-christ-abraham-booth/

      See the quote from that book in this post https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/1689-federalism-theonomy/

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  3. JD

    Brandon, your posts are always helpful; your last post on Romans 13 was especially good. I’m not sure about some of your thoughts on theonomy. The other commenter thinks that temporal blessings/curses generally follow obedience/disobedience and I’m inclined to agree. The Old Covenant may be obsolete, but how do we know that such consequences are not illustrative of moral principles that were promulgated as part of the form of the covenant, but themselves pre-dated it, as in the case of the rest of the moral law? This needn’t be an individual promise, but a general social rule, which was likely the case in the Old Covenant as well.
    This may be academic until we have a more righteous society, but is it possible that the church’s testimony might suffer if we openly admit that our ethics makes no difference to the quality of our society?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment JD. For starters, I recommend reading Joel McDurmon’s “A Consuming Fire.” Circle back with me after that and I’m happy to elaborate.

      “is it possible that the church’s testimony might suffer if we openly admit that our ethics makes no difference to the quality of our society?”

      Did I say that somewhere?

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  4. JD

    Brandon, no you did not say that. That was my own inference. I was wondering that if temporal blessings/curses don’t follow from obedience/disobedience, then is there any connection between our ethics as a society and the consequences of our actions? If a society is unrighteous, can it expect to continue in temporal prosperity and why or why not? I would have said no because eventually God will judge. But if temporal prosperity doesn’t follow from obedience, is there any connection?

    Thank you for the recommendation; I will read the book.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. John Calvin said there is no such thing as “natural consequences.” There is no such thing as “nature.” God rules, not impersonal “laws.” God says (Deuteronomy 28, etc.) He personally rewards obedience and penalizes disobedience. That’s just who the God of the Bible is.
        http://VFTonline.org/Patriarchy/predestination/baalismJBJ.htm
        Job is the temporary exception that eventually proves the rule.
        God can also withhold His judgment on the wicked in His mercy.
        Ephesians 6:1-3 proves that the rule of Deuteronomy 28 is still in effect.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. JD

    I’m wondering if the blessings/curses of Deut 28 (and other texts) are specific instances of principles that also work outside of and antecedently to the Mosaic Covenant, maybe something analogous to natural consequences. But I will read McDurmon.

    I’m not sure I see the force of the two passages you cited since the truths taught there would presumably have been true during the Old Covenant also, i.e., Deut 28 and Psalm 73 are true at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Why is Theonomy unbiblical? – Ask the Pastor

  7. Pingback: Assessing Theonomy | Effectual Grace

  8. Pingback: Episode 42 – Is Theonomy Biblical? – theolodudes.com

  9. Pingback: 1689 Federalism & Theonomy | 1689 Federalism

  10. Pingback: Why is Theonomy Unbiblical? - Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary

  11. Mike McEvoy

    You said:
    “The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).”
    I think you would agree that there are still capital crimes that merit capital punishment (correct me if I’m wrong). So, is there a single standard for what crimes should merit the death penalty and those that should not? Is it OK for a society to abolish the death penalty in case of murder? (I don’t think so.)
    I guess what I’m asking is this: I think we would agree that there are more than zero crimes for which the death penalty is appropriate. You seem to be arguing that the line is perhaps somewhat less than the OT standards for capital crimes. Can you offer some clarity on how you think a society SHOULD go about structuring its laws, including what are just penalties for crimes? I think you and I would agree that not every society’s justice system is actually just. So, what is the appropriate basis for a justice system?
    Am I somehow mixing categories?

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    1. Thanks for the question Mike. As for which actions the bible requires the death penalty I would look to the principle of “lex talionis” (eye for an eye), which was articulated in Gen 9:5-6 and paralleled/expanded in Lev 24:17-21; Exodus 21:22-25; Duet 19:18-21. The taking of life is required when life is taken. Consider Vern Poythress:

      One of the most general principles of God’s justice is the principle of similar measure. “As you have done, it will be done to you, your deeds will return upon your own head” (Obad. 15). Jer. 50:29, Hab. 2:8, Joel 3:4, 7, and other passages articulate the same principle in varying forms. The famous law of punishment, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exod. 21:24), embodies the same principle in a specific juridical context. It was never intended as an excuse for personal vengeance but as a directive to judges making decisions regarding penalties in cases of injury (Exod. 21:22-25). The death penalty for murder comes in the same form, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9:6). Gen. 9:6 is an exceedingly significant passage because it is spoken to Noah immediately after the flood. The character of Noah as representative of all his descendants and the otherwise universal context of the passage (Gen. 9:7, 11-19) show that here we are dealing with a principle of truly universal scope, and not merely with something specially tailored to Israel as a holy nation. The same principle comes up in New Testament teaching. “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2). “Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her. To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning” (Rev. 18:6-7). “They poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Rev. 16:6).

      The principle of similar measure applies both to judgments by God, such as the judgment on Babylon in Rev. 18:6-7, and to judgments by human authorities, such as the penalties of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” in Exod. 21:24…

      Justice on a human level is a shadow of that great act of justice and mercy where Jesus Christ bore the just penalty for our sin. Hence all the Old Testament penalties point forward to the justice of God at work in the sacrifice of Christ…

      This punishment for theft reflects on a human level the nature of our obligations to God for our sin. Payment for sin must include both restoration and punishment. In restoration we must restore or repair the damage done to others and to God’s honor. In punishment we must in addition bear damage in ourselves corresponding to our evil intent…

      Using the same principles of recompense we can explain more thoroughly the penalty of capital punishment for murder (Gen. 9:6). Suppose Bill deliberately kills Al. In analogy with theft, proper recompense involves two elements. First, restore what has been damaged (restoration). Second, have the offending party subjected to the same process in reverse (punishment). The first stage would involve raising Al back to life, while the second would involve Al killing Bill under the supervision of legal process. But of course human beings are unable to achieve full recompense in this situation. Only God can bring Al back to life. Such a resurrection will indeed take place at the last day, but until then all human reflection of God’s justice will necessarily partake in preeschatological imperfection. Since perfection cannot be attained immediately, what is actually done in a case of murder? The dead man must be left dead. There is no restoration. But at least the second part of the process, namely punishment, can be carried out. The avenger of blood, that is, the nearest family representative of Al, kills Bill under the supervision of legal process, as outlined in Num. 35. Note that the element of reciprocity is carried out as fully as is practicable. Since Al himself is dead and cannot participate in the judicial retribution, the nearest of kin substitutes for him…

      From the cases above and the way in which the injured party is involved, we can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured.9 Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being. Moreover, in the typical penal case in Mosaic law, the ruling authorities are mentioned either not at all or only tangentially (e.g. Deut. 17:9). Undoubtedly elders, judges, kings, and others with ruling authority would have played a role in making sure that proper procedure was followed in determining guilt (Deut. 17:6; Num. 35:24-25). But in the cases discussed above the injured party always has a central role in execution of the penalty. The injured party rather than the state as such has this central role because of the principles of reciprocity and balance involved in God’s justice. When Al deliberately damages Bill, God’s justice fittingly pronounces a recompense exactly in reverse. Bill, not merely God himself acting in his own person, receives authorization under the eye of governing authorities to restore the balance by bringing the same damage on Al. In short, biblical principles of justice enable us to begin to understand why human beings are involved in punishment and why some sins receive more severe punishment than others.

      http://frame-poythress.org/ebooks/the-shadow-of-christ-in-the-law-of-moses/

      I would differ from Poythress at this point in my studies in that I would now see a legitimate place for civil laws that extend beyond strict justice. I believe communities may enact laws for the good of the people as well. For an elaboration, see here https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2020/06/30/a-note-on-reformed-libertarianism/

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