Why is Theonomy Wrong?

It ignores progressive revelation.

An undeniable truth (nonetheless denied by some) is that the special revelation given us in the Bible expands on itself providing more clarity about the nature of man and of God. One review of Geerhardus Vos’ book on Biblical Theology had this helpful description:

The unfolding or progressive character of revelation enables the biblical theologian to trace the increasingly rich display of God’s own self-disclosure to sinners. In this way, the Scriptures become more than a proof-text of doctrine; more than a “topic” for the present-day. The Scriptures are seen to be organically linked and historically interconnected. One part of Scripture is integrally united with other parts. Hence the advocate and practitioner of biblical theology is always searching backwards and forwards in the unfolding history of redemption. The crucial question for the interpreter of the Bible becomes: how is this passage organically related to what God has disclosed of himself before, and what he will yet disclose of himself in the future? Indeed, if all Scripture is God-breathed, then every part of revelation is directly related to the plan of the Revealer for the history of redemption. His revelation, given in history, has both a retrospective (looking backward) and prospective (looking forward) dimension. The new order or the new creation which God progressively displays in Scripture, advances toward its fulfillment and consummation.

Here’s an example from Scripture that should shed light on this. In Exodus 25, the children of Israel are given skills to do all the work He required (see Exodus 31), which was initially told to Moses in chapter 25:8 & 9 “let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.  According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.” The true meaning of this elaborate earthly tabernacle is not found in the books of Moses, nor in the stone temple that gets so much attention. Scripture tells us the tabernacle of Exodus was a copy of the heavenly things, that Christ is better than the Levitical priests because His one-time sacrifice put away sin permanently for His people (Hebrews 9:23-30).

All of Scripture builds upon was previously revealed. One cannot properly understand the Word of God by stubbornly clinging to the Old Covenant as the final word any more than “unhitching” the old in favor of the new. The last book of the Bible relies on a solid knowledge of the Old Testament, the true meaning of which relies on a spiritual knowledge of the New. Theonomy wrongly assumes Old Covenant laws can be lifted from their covenant context and applied to any nation and people. The truth of Scripture is that God has given mankind law in conjunction with the Fall and knowing this gives the Christian what he needs to know in order to advocate God-honoring laws in his country. This “universal law” as I call it (some call natural law – I do not like this term because nature does not create or give laws) is demonstrated in history within and without Scripture, leaving no man the excuse that he doesn’t know right from wrong, evidenced by Cain’s response to his crime. This universal law is not a written code but a principle based on knowing good and evil. Stoning a child who was disrespectful of his Jewish parents was the law in Moses’ day (Leviticus 20:9) but that does not mean that is the proper punishment in all nations and cultures. Theonomists tend to not be able to handle the tension of laws and penalties that do not line up with the Bible.

First century Roman government was not in accord with God’s laws and it was the unbelieving Jews who wanted a Messiah that would physically overthrow Rome. Jesus and His apostles spoke not a word about rebelling against the government to establish a “Christian rule,” but they did teach by word and deed how to live a God-honoring life in spite of being ruled by reprobates. We would do well keep in mind the new sheds light on and interprets the old; theonomy rests on a flat view of Scripture, where all people are subject to nearly every law and regulation of the Mosaic Covenant. That’s where the most detailed legislation is found, given to a mostly unregenerate people. Law-keepers love lists. But the law is not faith (Galatians 3:12).  

It ignores covenantal distinctions.

This problem is foundational and underlies many of the issues already reviewed. There are many who claim there is a grand Covenant of Grace which has two adminstrations, Mosaic and New. It appears this mono-covenant view was developed by Ulrich Zwingli, as a means to convince himself of “infant baptism” after his belief of credo-baptism became known by the state-church that employed him – and threatened him with the loss of his position if he did not turn back. 

In the end, Zwingli’s new doctrine of baptism was built around a completely new hermeneutical approach to Scripture as whole, i.e., the idea of the unity of the covenant of grace. This was a doctrine forged in the heat of the Anabaptist controversy in the summer of 1525. It was first used to bolster the argument for infant baptism in Zwingli’s “Reply to Hubmaier” in November of that year.

This has been enshrined in the Westminster system of theology, as one of their modern theologians confirms: “This one Covenant of Grace is administered in different ways during different periods in the Bible….these are simply different methods of administering the same Covenant of Grace. The character of the covenant is not changed by these different methods of applying it….So there is one Covenant of Grace but different ways of administering that covenant.” Other well-known theologians in this camp include Louis Berkhof, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, and John Murray. They argue that, since children were included in the Old Covenant they must be included in the New Covenant, seeing as how both covenants are merely two adminstrations of the Covenant of Grace. This fails to recognize progressive revelation and the truth of Scripture, which tells us the New Covenant is not like the Old Covenant.

“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah —  not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31 – 34)

This well-known passage is glossed over by far too many. In the Mosaic Covenant, most members did not know God – they only knew about him. In the New Covenant, all know Him, from the least to the greatest. In the Mosaic Covenant, sins were covered for a season, for the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin. In the New Covenant, the once for all sacrifice of Christ provides an everlasting forgiveness of sin, which will be remembered by God no more. What a contrast to the never-ending shedding of blood that reminded Israel of their sin every week of every year! 

John Owen was a congregationalist, a group that agreed with much of the Westminster System other than the hierarchy the Presbyterians had established. Owen was considered by 17th Baptists to be a like-minded brother in many areas, including his view of the old and new covenants:

we may consider that the Scripture doth plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, as what is spoken can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant. The one is mentioned and described, Exod. xxiv. 3—8; Deut. v. 2—5; namely, the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai; and which is commonly called the covenant, where the people under the Old Testament are said to keep or break God’s covenant, which for the most part is spoken with respect unto that worship which was peculiar thereunto. The other is promised, Jer. xxxi. 31—34, xxxii. 40, which is the new gospel covenant as before explained, mentioned Matt, xxvi. 28; Mark xiv. 24. And these two covenants or testaments are compared one with the other, and opposed one unto another, 2 Cor. iii. 6—9; Gal. iv. 24—26; Heb. vii. 22, ix. 15—19.

One must ignore what Scripture says to claim the old and new covenants are but one covenant with two “administrations.” They differ in purpose, membership, structure, priesthood, mediator, and law. The Old Covenant was comprised of mostly unregenerate people; the law and covenant and religion given them was tailored to such a people. It is described as shadows of the heavenly things. People with stone hearts were given a law written on stone tablets, and they worshiped in a stone temple. In the New Covenant, people with hearts of flesh have the law of Christ written on fleshly tablets, and they are the temple of God! We who are in Christ must not retreat to the shadowlands.