- What is Theonomy?
- Why is Theonomy Wrong?
a. It ignores national Israel’s nature and unique status.
b. It ignores the biblical witness about Mosaic Law.
c. It ignores progressive revelation.
d. It ignores covenantal distinctions.
- What is the Alternative?
a. A proper view of Israel.
b. A proper view of law.
c. A proper view of Scripture.
d. A proper view of covenants.
What is Theonomy?
In researching this topic, it became apparent that there are many variations of theonomy. I will identify which theonomists I am using and do not pretend to answer variations not identified.
“Theonomy, in the technical sense, teaches that Old Covenant judicial laws are the universal moral standard of civil law for all Gentile nations. The basic presupposition of theonomy is that God gave the judicial law to the nation of Israel as a universal law of perfect justice for all nations because it is a perfect reflection of God’s own moral character. Some of the most prominent early proponents of this kind of theonomy include Greg Bahnsen, Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North.” The summation: law given by God to national Israel is a universal law of perfect justice; this denies the progressive revelation of Scripture.
In the Prologue to Greg Bahnsen’s By This Standard, Gary North wrote: “As Christians rediscover that at one time in American history, this was a Christian nation, and Western civilization was once Christian civilization, the question then arises: What makes a Christian society appear visibly different from any other kind of society? The answer today is exactly what it was in Moses’ day: ethics.” He goes on to assert the ethics we need are those found in the Mosaic Law. Do not pass over this: North claims a nation and an entire civilization were once Christian; this is grossly simplistic and reminiscent of how papist Rome sees the world. North sees no difference in the ethics given by God to Christians than what was given to a mostly unregenerate people 3,000 years ago, living in a different covenant community. This flat perspective pervades theonomic theology.
Bahnsen gave this description:
The most distinctive aspect of theonomic ethics, if not also its most controversial application, is its endorsement of the continuing validity and social justice of the penal sanctions stipulated within the law of God. Were it not for the fact that the theonomic position leads to this conclusion, if one is to be logically and Biblically consistent, many critics would not find it necessary to try to refute the position.
Critics have used a large variety of methods to avoid being driven to an endorsement of the Old Testament penal code. In the meantime, they have done precious little to propose an alternative and Biblically sanctioned approach to the punishment of criminals in our own day. What little they have to say regarding this subject is easily faulted for embodying the same arbitrariness and/or tyranny which characterizes the penology of humanists.
Why should the divinely revealed standards of crime and punishment found in the Bible be unacceptable? When we turn to the arguments of non-theonomists, we do not find very compelling answers.
Note the position of the theonomist: Using the Old Testament penal code as the standard of penal sanctions in modern societies. Failing to do this results in arbitrary standards and tyranny. Lacking in these apologetics for theonomy is any discussion of the laws at work in the New Testament times and how Christians are taught to live within those arbitrary, tyrannical societies; as well as how these societies operated without the sanctions insisted upon by Bahnsen and his fellow theonomists.
More from Bahnsen:
Quite simply, civil magistrates ought to mete out the punishment which God has prescribed in His word. When one stops to reflect on this proposition, it has an all-too-obvious truthfulness and justice about it. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). If civil magistrates are indeed “ministers of God” who avenge His wrath against evildoers, who better would know what kind and degree of punishment is appropriate for every crime than the Lord? And where would He make this standard of justice known but in His word? The penal sanctions for crime should be those revealed in the law of the Lord…Where God has prescribed it in His word, such civil punishments for crime are quite necessary.
This is the drumbeat of the theonomists: God’s penal laws are just, they are found in the Mosaic economy, they are to be imposed on every society as the only sane, honorable sanctions known to man, given by God. A lack of biblical theology (the study of the redemptive history in Scripture) is the glaring error in Bahnsen’s view.
“Those who hold to “Dominionism” and the various expressions of it (Theonomy, Christian Nationalism, and some forms of the doctrine known as “Biblical Patriarchy”) use a hermeneutic that employs Old Testament Scripture to interpret the New Testament Scripture to prove the veracity of its claims.” This statement shows how critical it is to understand how progressive revelation is employed by the Holy Spirit as Scripture was written. This desire to establish God’s kingdom on earth has been the misguided goal of some of His covenant people before and after His first advent. In 17th century England, a movement to install Oliver Cromwell as the king of England with “the law of God” as its rule caused quite an uproar, drawing in saints from all groups. This movement was called the Fifth Monarchy; its fundamentals were later summed up in a poem by William Blake:
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold;
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand;
Till I have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The goal of the Fifth Monarchy was to establish the kingdom of God “in England’s green and pleasant land,” by dent of force with carnal weapons. Much of the dominion theology for the Fifth Monarchy was derived from the misappropriation of Daniel 7, wherein they described the four kingdoms as contemporary states of their time – with the return of Christ Jesus being after those kingdoms were subdued. Their charge was to subdue those kingdoms and establish a righteous kingdom for the Lord to accept. This mindset is focused on things below; the Lord Jesus bids us to fix our eyes on the heavenlies (Colossians 3:2). And it is, as Joshua observed, using the Old Testament to interpret the new in addition to using current event to interpret Scripture. Neither of these hermeneutics leads to the proper biblical understanding.