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Some Thoughts on Theonomy

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  • Some Thoughts on Theonomy

    G. I. Williamson

    All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2Tim. 3:16, NASB). By "all Scripture," Paul meant the Old Testament, including the whole Law of Moses. It follows, therefore, that Old Testament laws have permanent value.

    It was for this reason that Calvin, in his commentary on the five books of Moses, showed how every "case law" taught an abiding principle. He did this by arranging all of these laws under one or another of the Ten Commandments. He showed how each of them helps us understand the intent and meaning -- and proper application -- of the ten central commandments.

    I remain convinced that the Reformer was essentially right. I don't think he was always right, or that he necessarily organized every case law under its proper heading (some could arguably be placed under a different commandment). But he has convinced me that there is an abiding principle in every Old Testament case law. In my opinion, the theonomists deserve credit here. They are trying to do in our generation what John Calvin did in his.

    It may be well, however. to make one thing quite clear at this point. With the coming of Christ, the Mosaic system was set aside once and for all. If theonomy sought to put us under that system again, I would certainly oppose it. But does it? I have seen no convincing evidence that it does. Yes, I have heard opponents of theonomy allege this, but that is not what theonomists say for themselves. So we are really faced with one basic question: shall we still "use the testimonies taken out of the law ... to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honorableness to the glory of God, according to His will" (Belgian Confession, 25, emphasis added)? I believe the answer can only be yes, and that this applies to civil rulers.

    Here is the rub. Theonomy poses for many today the specter of civil oppression. "If we go along with this," they seem to be saying, "then we'll end up persecuting -- yes, even killing -- people." And it is true that the death penalty was required for some things, under these laws, that are not so punished today. But the reader should take time to reflect on two things.

    The first is that the Law of Moses came from Jehovah. We must therefore beware of taking a negative view of these holy precepts. I may not understand why God required the punishment he did, but I have no right to set myself up as a judge of these laws. No, a thousand times no. There is nothing in these laws unworthy of the true God. If I have difficulty with them, the problem is in me -- not in these laws.

    The second is that under our present law, there is killing, too. And right here I see a problem not yet resolved in the position of those opposing theonomy. It is the basic ambiguity in their argument for a pluralistic civil order.

    One writer defends a nontheonomic view of the state with these words: "The state is necessarily 'pluralistic' in the sense that it allows its citizens freedom of conscience to worship as they believe they must." This sounds good. But now lay beside this his second principle: "The state must act when the basic and abiding moral principles (as contained in the second table of the Law) are being overridden or ignored." Here there is, for example, a reference to the state's task to execute justice against those who steal, murder, lie, etc. But I do not see how these two principles can coexist in any stable relationship. Indeed, our problem today is precisely that the first of these two principles is eating the second away. Let me illustrate.

    The law, in most Western countries, was at one time strongly antihomosexual. Our laws were once intentionally close to biblical standards. In a word, we had some theonomy in civil matters. But now, all over the Western world, this is fading. Homosexuals are "out in the open." They demand the right to express their lifestyle. And when the state is pluralistic in allowing its citizens "freedom of conscience to worship as they believe they must," this cannot be avoided.

    Some Christians have tended to say, "Well, so what? As long as they don't hurt others, what's the problem?" The problem is this: tolerance (by the state) of evil does harm other people. I give a few examples.

    (1) If homosexuals have "equal rights" -- and may not be "discriminated" against, then the law must protect their right to teach children in the schools. But does anyone think they will not influence children by their lifestyle as well as by their teaching? Clearly, neutrality is a myth.

    (2) In the general population, AIDS has been spread through blood transfusions. When "gays" donated their blood, AIDS was passed along with it. So you do not have a safe society if it is ultimately pluralistic.

    (3) The old legal order is now fading, while a new order is more and more dominant. This is clearly seen in the fact that the state now sanctions the shedding of the blood of unborn children. The older -- somewhat theonomic -- legal order protected them. Now the emerging humanistic legal order protects those who kill them.

    I am not impressed, therefore, by the "fear" argument. I refer to the fear that if the state adopted a biblical legal order, there might be a great slaughter. Admittedly, there would be killing. But there is killing now -- and plenty of it. The fact that the carnage is hidden from view does not mean that there is no such thing. There is. So the question is not Shall there be killing? but rather, Who shall be killed? Shall it be the innocent or the guilty?

    Today, it is too often the innocent. Frankly, I much prefer the older system where it was more often the guilty.

    When I grew up, John Dillinger was roaming around killing people. I felt better when news came that he had been killed. I thought, "Well, it's too bad his life had to end that way, but better that than to have more innocent people die." (In those days they still used the electric chair. True, an execution is a terrible thing. But there is something worse: to let murderers go out and murder again. This is what we often see today!) Readers of this magazine will agree with much of this. Take homosexuality, for example. We all oppose it. But that is not all. We also cite the Old Testament to prove that we are right. In 1980 we (the Reformed Ecumenical Synod) declared all homosexual practice to be sin, and quoted Moses to prove it. What strikes me, then, is this: we are all theonomists when it suits us. The real issue, then, is not theonomy or no theonomy. The issue is how consistent we are in applying these laws.

    Do I sound like I am on the theonomists' bandwagon? I am not. One thing that has forced me to be cautious is the lack of consistency on the part of theonomists. Take, for instance, their view of the Sabbath. If I understand certain theonomists, they say there is not the same kind of continuity for this law as there is for the rest. But other theonomists take a sharply different view. Or to give another example, one theonomist strongly defends Christian schools, and yet has said labor unions are wrong. I do not find these things consistent or convincing.

    What we need, then, is to get away from mere reaction to the word theonomy. Instead, we need to get down to specifics. If you say you're a theonomist, fine but tell me (as Calvin did) what this particular case law means for today. What is the principle in it, and how does it apply? If you cannot do that, then it is neither here nor there to me that you are a theonomist.

    Likewise, if you come to me and say you're not a theonomist, I will say, "Fine! But now you show me the principle here, and its application." If the best you can say is "Well, that's Old Testament, and we're New Testament Christians," then I will not be able to buy your antitheonomic position. What we need, then, is an end to knee-jerk reactions and name-calling. We need, instead, to start treating one another with respect, and to discuss our differences patiently, carefully, and -- above all -- calmly, with constant reference to the text of the Bible.
    New Horizons, April 1994

  • #2
    I found an article here, The Theonomy Debate: Analysis – Reformed Libertarian that goes a little more in-depth about the debate of this. I liked how they separated the camp of theonomy into 'obligatory theonomy' and 'practical theonomy'. People who view that the Mosaic Civil Laws are obligatory for Civil Government today. Guys like RJ Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, and Joel McDurmon would fall under the obligatory category. The practical category is basically the position that the Mosaic Civil Laws are not 'binding' but are wised to reference and apply them as often as possible. Samuel Rutherford was someone who supported practical theonomy. While I tend to fall under the practical theonomy flag, it should be noted that the epistles of Paul, Rom. 6:14; 7:1-14; Gal. 3:10-14, 24-25; 4:21; 5:1, 13; 2 Cor. 3:7-18, emphasized that Christians are no longer under the rule of the Mosaic law. Still, the Ten Commandments at least are pretty basic to follow. Don't believe in other 'gods' and worship statues and images. Don't used the Lords name in vain. Take the Sabbath day off and keep it holy. Honor your parents, you were more trouble than you know as a kid. Don't murder, don't cheat, don't steal, don't lie/bear false witness, and don't covet other people's things. You need to do most of those things to be a basic decent human being.
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    • #3
      Originally posted by LeapOfFaith89 View Post
      I found an article here, The Theonomy Debate: Analysis – Reformed Libertarian that goes a little more in-depth about the debate of this. I liked how they separated the camp of theonomy into 'obligatory theonomy' and 'practical theonomy'. People who view that the Mosaic Civil Laws are obligatory for Civil Government today. Guys like RJ Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, and Joel McDurmon would fall under the obligatory category. The practical category is basically the position that the Mosaic Civil Laws are not 'binding' but are wised to reference and apply them as often as possible. Samuel Rutherford was someone who supported practical theonomy. While I tend to fall under the practical theonomy flag, it should be noted that the epistles of Paul, Rom. 6:14; 7:1-14; Gal. 3:10-14, 24-25; 4:21; 5:1, 13; 2 Cor. 3:7-18, emphasized that Christians are no longer under the rule of the Mosaic law. Still, the Ten Commandments at least are pretty basic to follow. Don't believe in other 'gods' and worship statues and images. Don't used the Lords name in vain. Take the Sabbath day off and keep it holy. Honor your parents, you were more trouble than you know as a kid. Don't murder, don't cheat, don't steal, don't lie/bear false witness, and don't covet other people's things. You need to do most of those things to be a basic decent human being.
      While they address Salvation, they blur it with the duties of the Civil Magistrate. We may need to do those things to be a basic decent human being, but all have failed.

      God bless,
      William
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      • #4
        Ah, William, the key word.......Salvation! Theonomy doesn't truly approach salvation as much as give the tenets of it and the guidelines of sanctification does it? While the secondary effect of Theonomy is Theocracy or even a Ecclesiocracy there is no real event directed that one must be saved but merely live by the moralistic values of the Law complete with he penalties that go with it whether one is saved or not.
        Granted, a chance visit to man's autonomistic approach or living under the guidance of the Law shouldn't even be an argument but the pivital point is still free will.
        As it is with multi-denominationalism a person willfully submits to an authority of his or her choosing and with the exception of some denomination bashing there really isn't any reprocussion but merely the insistence that one must be saved by grace, through faith that the blood of Jesus Christ was spilt for him. As a sub note: God has given us free will .......which is an argument unto itself.

        The one good side that I see in a declared Theonomy is that it doesn't take over the government but instead lives within the government but at the same time it is separate. Civil government lives as it is and the Theocracy lives within that with all of it's tenets. But then, doesn't Sharia law attempt to do the same thing?

        One God, One Law. No problem. But do I wish for mankind to do the interpreting of it without the full sphere of Grace as the lead? good question.



        Comment>

        • #5
          Originally posted by Bobby Cole View Post
          Ah, William, the key word.......Salvation! Theonomy doesn't truly approach salvation as much as give the tenets of it and the guidelines of sanctification does it? While the secondary effect of Theonomy is Theocracy or even a Ecclesiocracy there is no real event directed that one must be saved but merely live by the moralistic values of the Law complete with he penalties that go with it whether one is saved or not.
          Granted, a chance visit to man's autonomistic approach or living under the guidance of the Law shouldn't even be an argument but the pivital point is still free will.
          As it is with multi-denominationalism a person willfully submits to an authority of his or her choosing and with the exception of some denomination bashing there really isn't any reprocussion but merely the insistence that one must be saved by grace, through faith that the blood of Jesus Christ was spilt for him. As a sub note: God has given us free will .......which is an argument unto itself.

          The one good side that I see in a declared Theonomy is that it doesn't take over the government but instead lives within the government but at the same time it is separate. Civil government lives as it is and the Theocracy lives within that with all of it's tenets. But then, doesn't Sharia law attempt to do the same thing?

          One God, One Law. No problem. But do I wish for mankind to do the interpreting of it without the full sphere of Grace as the lead? good question.

          Hi Bobby Cole

          One of the things that cracks me up about today's social ideology is that experience is elevated above obedience. All truth is relative to an individual and anything can be a religion, in the name of "progressiveness" and "evolution" people are all with a zero slate, free to make mistakes which in itself is merely repeating history .... so much for the ideology behind progressiveness and evolution. But clearly, it is a step backwards with each passing generation instead of a forward step to Utopia, which I do not believe will be acquired until the second coming, for every civilization has tried since Eden has been guarded with a flaming sword. What further makes me chuckle are those on that side of the fence that promote end time eschatology but the autonomous nature and lack of penalty for lack of obedience to the law in the name of progress. Literally, slaves of sin want to be free from the law! And the worse people make our society the closer they believe we are actually helping usher in the end times. Without law there is lawlessness. Go figure, that stepping back and not voicing our Christian belief is actually siding with the man of lawlessness. We are to be the salt and light in a dark world of tasteless men.

          As for the free will argument, I take that you mean free from being compelled by law to do what is right? Even unsaved people do that kinda thing, give to charity, love one another etc. I find it hard to believe that you are talking about an autonomous nature, given man is either a slave to sin or to God. One of the problems with today's society that I merely observe are those that are slaves to sin promote sin in the name of God given rights. I really haven't any thoughts on the subject at this time but acknowledge that Sharia Law does attempt to create a theocracy, so did historical Israel. I do however believe theonomy is attempting to address the duties of the civil magistrate.

          Even when I read the declaration of independence, something Obama takes out of context, I read "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". ——

          Given Obama only parrots all men are created equal, and then leaves out are endowed by their Creator ....... but continues with unalienable Rights that among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course leaving out our Creator completely disregards any theonomy or theocracy, and makes whatever one believes good or wrong in their own eyes as they see fit as a right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Read our Creator into the statement and what we are entitled falls squarely on the 1st amendment. What is right in our Creator's eyes then becomes what we have the basic rights to as a human being, rather than an autonomous approach which could be taken from the Garden of Eden when the Serpent said to Eve, (paraphrase) 'you'll be like God knowing good from evil, each able to rule over yourselves, and there will be not one God but many'.

          As servants of God our magistrates are ordained rulers to wield the sword to combat evil. When our rulers no longer submit to God or serve Him then they are no longer servants ordained by God as rulers but tyrants. Why even have a government if that's the direction ours is headed? We are not a democracy, but a Republic that protects the minority from the majority by the constitution. A constitution which as I stated above recognizes God and the pursuit of His people.

          To complicate matters I now know that there's a differentiation between Theonomy (capital T) and theonomy. I find myself of course aligning to a dumb question and statement, do I believe in theonomy or autonomy, of course I believe in theonomy. But the capital Theonomy is a completely grey area to me right now, and I am unable to find any black and white positions, other than using the OT as case laws for extracting and modernizing its application in the form of precedence. I'm not settled on that matter as of yet. But I do think thus far it is fair to say that our government is not God and has nothing to do with our salvation. What it comes down to is whether man is better off judging morality and living apart from God rather than following the precepts of Scripture. In this way, I am definitely for theonomy.

          As for grace, yes, I believe it is the right of the government to exercise mercy, but I question Grace and its limitation. Again its duty is to combat evil and "actively" seek it out. This is one way I believe God eases our suffering and limits evil. However, I can only imagine the justice of our courts if a man was murdered and his family stood before the judge and the judge said I forgive his murderer! What kinda justice is that? As you probably are well aware, this is not the duty of the civil magistrate and it goes against its design and intent.

          As far as us as believers, I think we should pretty much be transparent to any laws. If any law hinders believers then the law needs to be questioned. But I think it is in the nature of the natural man, the unrighteous, to continuously feel oppressed by the law, whether it comes from man or God. Don't get me wrong, I think in such case, yes, the government should become an obstacle to such men each step they shall take in life.

          Although Israel as a political body has expired -- and along with it its judicial law as a constitution -- the general equity of those judicial laws is still required (Westminster Confession XIX.4). Similarly, when a public library goes out of business (and your library card thus expires), the truth of what was written in its books is not abolished or changed. Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel. George Gillespie, widely regarded as the most authoritative theologian at the Westminster Assembly, wrote: "the will of God concerning civil justice and punishments is no where so fully and clearly revealed as in the judicial law of Moses.... He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still" ("Wholesome Severity Reconciled...," 1645).
          God bless,
          William
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