Why is Theonomy Wrong?

It ignores national Israel’s nature and unique status.

National Israel was founded by God as a theocracy, a nation in which priests rule in the name of God. “In the name of God” carries the meaning that what is said and done is according to His will. To facilitate this, God gave to this nation law that was not given to any other nation. In all of the world’s history there has been only one theocracy. 

As He was giving law to Israel, YHWH explained why He was doing this. “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 14:2, NKJV) This type of language describing the relationship between national Israel and God is found all over the pages of Scripture; see 2 Samuel 7:23-24 for another example. Of no other nation has He spoken in such terms, except for the spiritual nation of which national Israel was a type and shadow. The type was a carnal people, the anti-type is a spiritual people. The world is not Israel, either national Israel or spiritual Israel.

Our Presbyterian brothers are fond of claiming the “church” today is the same as the “church in the wilderness”. This is part of their scheme of claiming one people of God with one law to bind them. This is one of the consequences of failing to comprehend the meaning of words based on context. The Greek word behind “church” means “assembly” or “congregation” and is used to describe the Hebrew people (Acts 7:37 – 38; Hebrews 2:11 – 12), an assembly of town-folk (3 times in Acts 19:32-41), and the called ones of God in Christ (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:9 – 11, and many more). The ekklesia of Christ are of a different nature than the ekklesia of Moses; the former is a spiritual people who are the body of Christ, the latter were a temporal people (with a remnant who were spiritual), a shadow of what was to come.

When one ignores national Israel’s status, there is the tendency to treat others as Israel and apply the laws and covenant promises and penalties to them. This will cause unregenerate people to ridicule and rebel, while those imposing these laws and penalties tend to coercion and carnal means to impose their will on others.

It ignores the biblical witness about Mosaic Law.

The Mosaic Law is called that because it was given as the foundation of the Mosaic Covenant. The biblical context for each mention of the Decalogue or the ark of the covenant shows the Decalogue to be an integral part of the Mosaic Covenant and the testimony or witness of that covenant (Exodus 31:18, 32:15, 34:27 – 29). This key aspect of the Decalogue being a testimony of God’s covenant with Israel is further developed in Exodus 25 and 26, with the ark being the “ark of the testimony” (see Exodus 25:22 for emphasis). This is reminiscent of Exodus 16:33 – 34 when Moses was commanded to put manna in a jar as a testimony of God’s promise of provisions, seen in Exodus 16:4 – 5. 

Paedobaptists are the originators of making the testimony of the Old Covenant equal to God’s eternal moral law that binds all men. But where do we see the warrant in the text for appropriating the testimony of the Sinai Covenant as binding on anyone outside that covenant community? Let us read what is recorded: 

And Moses called all Israel, and said to them: “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and judgments which I speak in your hearing today, that you may learn them and be careful to observe them.  The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.  The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive. The Lord talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up the mountain.” (Deuteronomy 5:1-5, NKJV)

Right after this, Moses repeated the Decalogue. Right there, you have the covenant tied to the capstone of the laws within tied to the people to whom it all was given.

There is a range of opinions among theonomists as to how to view the Mosaic Law. In defending his view of this division in the Mosaic Law, Bahnsen wrote:

A category distinction is unmistakable in God’s declaration, “I desire faithful love, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). That statement would have made no sense whatsoever if Israel could not tell the difference between the laws demanding sacrifice (which we call “ceremonial”) and the laws demanding faithful love (which we call “moral” and “civil”). Are we to believe that the ancient Israelites lacked the mental acumen to catch the contrast between laws which bound Jews and Gentiles alike (e.g., the death penalty for murder, Lev. 24:21-22) and those which bound Jews but not Gentiles (e.g., the prohibition on eating animals that died of themselves, Deut. 14:21)? Whether they used the verbal labels of “moral (civil)” and “ceremonial” (as we do) is beside the point. Indeed, if the Israelites of old could not tell the difference between moral laws (defining moral obligation) and ceremonial laws (defining redemption for those who sin against the moral laws) – and if we today do not draw that distinction – then the purity of the gospel has been compromised.

Bahnsen’s position doesn’t recognize the condition of ethnic Israel (mostly unbelieving) and assumes they are able to understand Hosea 6:6 in that state. Israel was told many things they failed to understand, as were the disciples of Christ. Do not miss the concluding statement about how important these categories of law are: “if we today do not draw that distinction – then the purity of the gospel has been compromised.”  How can this be, when Bahnsen himself goes on to tell us that our obedience to these laws is the outcome of our salvation, not the cause of it. Bahnsen is unable to see that law is tied to covenant and priesthood and, as with those two, can be brought to an end as regulation. Since – as Bahnsen rightly notes – all Scripture is for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16 – 17), law remains as revelation. Paul’s use of Mosaic Law in 1 Timothy 5:18 does not warrant the presumption that all Mosaic Law is binding on the saints as regulation, but it is reason to embrace that it is useful to us as revelation which instructs and edifies.

If the Lord meant the Mosaic Law to be seen as divided up into 2 or 3 categories, why did He mix all these alleged categories up in the same passage or verse? Take the Decalogue for example. The 4th word, both versions (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) have phrases that are “ceremonial” and not “moral” and other aspects that are “moral” but not “ceremonial.” Many passages in Leviticus are likewise a chaotic mush IF the intention was for us to see two or three categories of law therein. “The Mosaic law is viewed by the Scriptures as a unit. The word torah (“law”) when applied to the law of Moses is always singular, although it contains 613 commandments” It’s reasonable to admit there are distinctions within the Mosaic Law, as there is in USA law. We have laws against capital, felony, and misdemeanor crimes; Israel had similar distinctions. Picking up sticks on the 7th day was nothing for the Gentile; it was a capital offense for the Jew. I think what He intended was for us to see different covenants with different laws; all covenants and laws from God will have some things in common, yet they also have some differences. When you divide the law into parts, it’s all subjective as to which laws go in which box.

The placement of the Pentateuch beside the Ten Commandments within the ark of the covenant demonstrates its equality in terms of divine origin, authority, and covenantal essence. Moses specifically recalled that the two tablets held tightly in his two hands were representative of the covenant (Deut. 9:15). Yet the value of this compendium is better comprehended if one knows the particulars from which it is derived. Therefore, the details of the covenant are more important judicially than is a summary. The Ten Commandments, though unique in delivery, do not hold a higher position of authority than the rest of the Law, or of Scripture in general any more than the words of Jesus in the NT made distinct by red type. The tables of stone epitomized and represented the Lord’s covenant with Israel which included not only moral law, but ceremonial law as well.

While Paul freely referred to Old Covenant law and instructions in his letters, does this lend support to the tripartite view, especially with its “moral law” emphasis?

Two observations from these texts suggest that the tripartite view is too simplistic in its formulation. First, in contexts of moral instruction, Paul cites from the entire law, not just the moral law. Paul certainly highlights the Decalogue as instructive (Rom. 13:9; Eph. 6:2)—often the Decalogue is cast as the moral law or at least a summary of it—but by no means does Paul use only the Decalogue in allowing the law to instruct Christians. As seen above, Paul’s moral teaching is informed by the civil law (1 Cor. 9:9; Gal. 5:13–14; 1 Tim. 5:18–19) and even the ceremonial law (Eph. 5:2; Phil. 4:18). Apparently for Paul, the entire law of Moses retained the ability to instruct, not just the moral law. In this regard, the argument that Paul’s ongoing use of the law proves the binding validity of the moral law proves too much, since Paul cited more than just the moral law for moral instruction. The tripartite view fails to explain adequately the ease with which Paul can find support from anywhere in the law for his moral instruction.

We don’t find the Hebrew people making distinctions of various categories of law, but of the dreadful consequences one faced when breaking any of the law YHWH had given them. Doug Moo points out that the Jews saw the Law of God as a unit: “Because the point is so important and so easily obscured by the history of interpretation, we must insist again: First-century Jews viewed the law as a unity. It was the tôrâ, given by God through Moses to the people of Israel as their guide for the whole of life. Jews did not make any fundamental distinction between “moral” and “ceremonial” laws or “moral” and “redemptive” laws.” It is helpful to recognize that “torah” has a primary meaning of “instruction or precept,” and a secondary meaning of “law.” It can also refer to the five books of Moses and to idea of redemption (Strong’s concordance, H8451). For whatever reason, our English Bibles most commonly present “torah” as “law” and we have been conditioned over the past 600 years to think this usually means the Decalogue – the ten words. This has led to the tablets of stone being esteemed differently than Scripture presents them. 

No part of the Mosaic Law, including the Decalogue is referred to as “the moral law” or any similar phrase. People who insist on dividing the Mosaic Law into civil, judicial, and moral categories reveal a misguided attempt at tearing the theocracy and its law into parts to make that law suitable for another form of temporal government. In truth, the Mosaic Law is a unit (break one and you’ve broken them all). What we actually see therein are laws against felonies and misdemeanors within that theocracy. “Division into three categories of law is unmasked as a fallacy by the testimony of the Book of Deuteronomy alone. Moses’s second exposition (4:44—26:19) presented the Decalogue and then illustrated each of the Ten Commandments by means of various legal stipulations. Such an arrangement demonstrates that the so-called civil and ceremonial stipulations are inextricably interwoven with what are considered to be the moral laws. Violation of any of the stipulations is a breach of the Decalogue.”

While the Scripture does not call the Decalogue “moral law,” it does have specific language by which it describes those commands. In Exodus 34:28 they are called “the words of the covenant;” in Exodus 24:12 we see these “tablets of stone and a law, and commandments” were given to Moses; and in Deuteronomy 4:13 we read that “he declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.” These tablets are called “the Testimony” of the covenant in Exodus 25:15, 16 and 40:20. All of these witnesses declare the Decalogue to be the capstone or foundation of the Mosaic Covenant; none describe it to be a summary of God’s moral law, a thing which is not described in Scripture. Theologians come up with solid-sounding terms to describe something when they want to use that thing in a way Scripture does not teach.

Are the stone tablets sacred? We see in Scripture that temporal objects made of stone are not eternal – the hearts of stone are replaced with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26); the message of Christ is written on the hearts of His people, not on tablets of stone (2 Corinthians 3:3); the fine Jewish temple of noble stones would be torn down (never to be useful again) and replaced by a temple of Christ’s body (John 2:19 – 21).

When theologians claim the Jewish weekly Sabbath is given to all people, or any people other than the Hebrew community, they are showing a disregard for what the Bible says about that day; it was given as a sign of the covenant He made with them on the mountain (Exodus 20:12, 20; 31:13, 17). The weekly Sabbath is not discernable from nature, it had to be revealed by God. Unlike the day, month, and year, the week is hidden from nature. How could this be a sign to Israel if it were common to all people? Further, nowhere in Scripture is the weekly Sabbath moved from the last day of the week to the first day. And while Jewish practice of the weekly Sabbath developed during the intertestamental time to include elements of worship, as given to the Hebrew people that weekly day of rest specified nothing regarding worship.

In Galatians 3:15–18 Paul teaches that since the law-covenant of Moses arrived subsequent to the promises to Abraham, it did not add to or render invalid the promises. The law was not meant to bring about the inheritance, for such was given by a promise to Abraham. Positively, in Galatians 3:19–25 the law’s temporal purpose is made clear, as the number of temporal words or clauses indicates.

till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made (3:19)

before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law (3:23a)

kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. (3:23b)

the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ (3:24) 

after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. (3:25)

Similarly, Paul resumes the temporal words and clauses in 4:1–7, this time utilizing the metaphor of maturation to describe Israel under the law of Moses.

as long as he is a child (4:1)

until the time appointed by the father. (4:2)

when we were children (4:3)

when the fullness of the time had come (4:4)

Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son (4:7)

According to these texts, God planned the law of Moses to be in effect only for a time, until the time of fulfillment through the Messiah. The Sinai covenant’s legislation was never meant to be final and definitive, nor was it intended to bring about the inheritance, life, or righteousness (3:18, 21). Instead, it was meant to show Israel her need to obtain the Abrahamic promises through faith in the Messiah (3:24–29). It was meant to be in force only until the maturation of God’s people—the fullness of time—when the Messiah would arrive (4:4–7).

Lastly, those who claim the Decalogue is “the moral law” and binding on people outside the Mosaic Covenant community, are left adrift because the penalties for breaking those commands are sprinkled through the books of Moses. The theonomist is consistent in wanting the penalties carried over; those who merely want the Decalogue are left to determine by their own wisdom what penalties are appropriate for violating those commands.

The Mosaic Law, as law, was given only to national Israel. As revelation from God, it is instructive for all who desire know all He has revealed to us.

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).