Before critiquing theonomy, we need a good definition. Some people today who use the word “theonomy” don’t mean anything more than “God’s law” because the etymology of the word theonomy is “theos” which means God, and “nomos” which means law. They only want to affirm that God’s law is supreme over man’s law. And they’re right about that. God’s transcendent moral law is the norm that norms all legal norms. Governmental laws should always be consistent with God’s law, and human law must never violate God’s law.
But in this post, I’ll be using the word “theonomy” in a more technical sense, which is rooted in the historic usage of the term. Theonomy, in the historic sense, teaches that all civil governments are obliged to enforce Old Covenant judicial law, together with its penalties, but civil governments are not permitted to enforce any law not prescribed in the Old Covenant judicial code. Most versions of Theonomy are also reconstructionist, teaching that Christ will realize His reign in a future millennial golden age through the faithfulness of His church, which participates with Christ in the building of His kingdom on earth. Some of the most prominent early proponents of Theonomy include Greg Bahnsen, Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North. Contemporary proponents of a modified version of Theonomy include Jeff Durbin and Doug Wilson.
[For my post discussing “general equity theonomy,” see here. For our podcast on Theonomy, which includes some arguments not in this post, listen to the Modern Marrow Men here. The London Lyceum interviewed me on Baptists and Theonomy. We also discussed the relationship between Theonomy and Westminster Presbyterianism as well as Reconstructionism. Finally, Theology in Particular, the official podcast for International Reformed Baptist Theological Seminary, interviewed me on Theonomy here.]
I’m convinced Theonomy is unbiblical for a number of reasons.
1. Theonomy does not properly embrace or apply the hermeutic of New Testament priority.
Theonomy arrives at its conclusions by teaching that particular Old Testament laws persist, unless they are specifically abrogated by the New Testament. But this reads the Bible improperly. Theonomy’s hermeneutic is consistent with paedobaptism, which says that since the New Testament does not abrogate the Old Covenant inclusion of infants, then infants must be given the sign of baptism. Theonomy is also consistent with the Old Testament priority hermeneutic of dispensationalism, which teaches that the promises God made for Israel cannot be typologically fulfilled in Christ and the church, but must be literally fulfilled in national Israel. But theonomy’s hermeneutic is not consistent with the hermeneutic of New Testament priority.
It is true that earlier revelation is vital for understanding the context of later revelation. In that sense, earlier revelation is logically prior to later revelation. But sound hermeneutical principles recognize that later revelation has interpretive priority over earlier revelation. Therefore, when later Old Testament texts explain earlier parts of the Old Testament, we should pay close attention to what the later texts say and allow them to explain and draw out implications of earlier Old Testament texts, making explicit what was only previously implicit. Similarly, when the New Testament explains Old Testament passages of Scripture, the New Testament has priority of interpretation over the Old Testament.
If the New Testament says an Old Testament passage has a particular meaning, we should assign that meaning to the Old Testament passage. The same is true of New Testament letters, which explain the earlier life and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
This is nothing other than what Augustine taught when he said, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” The light of revelation is brighter as we move toward the end of the Bible (Louis Berkhof, Principles of Interpretation, pp. 54, 133, 135, 137). Berkhof says, “The New Testament is implicit in the Old, so the Old is explicit in the new” (135). And “The more perfect revelation of the New Testament illumines the pages of the Old” (137-138).
This isn’t really any different from the way we read any book by a single author. We allow the later parts of a book to interpret the earlier parts of the book. Orthodox theology is rooted in the idea that the one true God authored the whole of the Scriptures. Thus, we should pay close attention to His intended meaning in light of His explanation of His own Word.
2. Theonomy does not properly account for the fact that Gentile nations are not and never were under the Old Covenant.
The laws peculiar to the Old Covenant do not bind Gentile nations. Gentile nations are under natural law, which is the work of the moral law written on the hearts of all human beings. Romans 2:14 says, “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.”
When God judged the Gentile nations in the Old Testament, He never judged them for violating Old Covenant judicial law. Rather, He judged them for violating His moral law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments (Jerermiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; Jonah; Nahum; Habakkuk 2 – a taunt song against the Babylonians for violating God’s moral law; Zephaniah 2).
3. Theonomy doesn’t properly account for the fact that the Old Covenant as a whole, together with all of its laws, has been abolished.
Numerous passages of Scripture teach that the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and abolished with the coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant.
- Hebrews 7:12 says, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
- Hebrews 7:18 says, “A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.”
- Hebrews 8:13 says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.”
- Hebrews 10:9 says, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.”
- Ephesians 2:14-15 says that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances.”
So as not to be misunderstood, the moral law, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments, has not been abolished. The moral law is rooted in God’s own eternal moral character and is part of the image of God in human beings. Moral aspects of Old Covenant law can never be abolished because they are rooted in nature, not merely in a covenant. But the positive laws of the Old Covenant have been abolished. Theonomy does not properly account for this fact.
Rich Barcellos correctly notes, “The New Testament clearly abrogates the whole Old Covenant, including the Decalogue, as it functioned within the Old Covenant, and yet borrows from its documents as the basis for New Covenant ethics (see for instance 1 Cor. 9:9-10; 14:34; 2 Cor 13:1; Eph 6:2-3, and many other texts)” (In Defense of the Decalogue, p. 68).
4. Theonomy doesn’t adequately acknowledge the existence of positive law in contrast to moral or natural law.
This is related to numbers 2 and 3 above. Natural law is law that people know innately.
Romans 2:14-15 is clear that God writes the work of His natural law on the hearts of all men.
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” – Rom 2:14-15
Later context in Romans 2:21-24 shows what law Paul is thinking about.
“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” – Rom 2:21-22
Paul is clearly thinking of “the law” in Romans 2 as the Ten Commandments, which is imprinted on the hearts of image bearers to convict them of sin.
Natural law, in the sense intended in Romans 2, is the reflection of God’s own moral character in human beings who are made in His image.
Positive law, on the other hand, is law that God posited by way of special revelation in a particular covenant. No one would have known that they ought to obey positive law, unless it had been revealed to them in a biblical covenant.
To give you an example of the distinction between natural/moral and positive law, consider Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam knew by nature not to worship false gods, not to steal, not to murder, etc. He knew these laws because he was made in the image of God. But Adam would never have known not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if God had not revealed and commanded that positive law to him in the covenant of works.
To give you another example, Abraham knew by nature that it was wrong to lie to Pharoah about Sarah being his wife. God never had to tell Abraham that lying was wrong because all images of God know it’s wrong to lie, even if they suppress that truth in unrighteousness. But Abraham would never have known that he had to be circumcised except for the fact that God revealed that law to him and commanded him to be circumcised in the covenant of circumicision. Natural law is known innately, but positive law would never be known apart from covenantal revelation.
Natural or moral law transcends all covenants. It’s immutably rooted in the nature and character of God and also in human nature. Fallen human beings suppress their knowledge of natural law, which is why we need Scripture to reassert and clarify it. But even fallen human beings are not completely ignorant of natural law. Positive law, on the other hand, is covenantal, must be specially revealed to be known, and serves a particular purpose within the covenant in which it is given. When covenants change, positive laws change, but moral or natural law does not.
Theonomy does not grasp this crucial distinction. The judicial laws of the Old Covenant are not transcendent moral or natural law, but positive laws, which God commanded in the Old Covenant for a particular reason.
5. Unlike Theonomy, Classical Theology acknowledged four kinds of law, viewing Israel’s judicial law as human law.
Classical theology recognized at least four kinds of law: eternal law, natural law, divine law, and human law. These categories are found in Francis Junius’s book, The Mosaic Polity, also in Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Terms. If we correlate these kinds of law to the distinction between moral and positive law mentioned above, then eternal, natural, and divine law are moral, but human law is positive. Here are summary definitions.
Eternal Law – Eternal law is timeless law, which is in God Himself. It’s God’s own righteousness and holiness. Eternal law is God. And therefore eternal law is perfect, infinite, unchangeable, incomprehensible, and so on.
Natural Law – Natural law is God’s eternal law expressed in general revelation. It’s written in creation and on the consciences of God’s personal creatures. The Bible speaks of natural law in Romans 1 and 2. Romans 1:20 says that God’s invisible attributes are clearly revealed in creation. And Romans 2:14 teaches that the work of the law is written on the hearts of men by nature.
Divine Law – Divine law is the natural law written down in Scripture, summarized by the Ten Commandments. Both natural and divine law are moral and unchangable. Natural law reveals God’s moral law. But divine law, which is inscripturated, makes moral law more explicit, clarifies it and summarizes it.
Human Law – One application of natural and divine law is called judicial law or “human law.” Human law applies God’s moral or natural law to particular human societies. These human laws are limited and bound to certain times and specific situations. In his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard Muller says that human law “defines the duty of a subject and serves the common good.”
Normally, we would expect human rulers to create human laws for societies to be enforced by the civil government. But in the Old Covenant nation of Israel, God’s judicial law was Israel’s human law. It is rightly termed “human law,” even though God Himself issued it in Scripture. Israel’s human law was certainly perfect, and it was ideally suited to do what it did. But it was nevertheless human law because it was uniquely designed for the human and historical circumstances of Old Covenant Israel. There is much we can learn from the Old Covenant human law, which is judicial law, but it is not God’s law for all nations.
The Question of Polygamy
Consider one implication that arises from understanding the category of human law in Israel. The Old Covenant regulated but did not prohibit the practice of polygamy. John Murray rightly demonstrated the sinfulness of polygamy in his excellent book on ethics, Principles of Conduct.
But God did not impose a civil penalty for polygamy under the Old Covenant. That’s because part of the purpose of human law is to regulate some systemic sins in society without attempting to eradicate them by the power of civil government. Determining when to regulate them instead of eradicating them requires wisdom. God chose not to eradicate polygamy through the power of Israel’s civil authority. But that fact does not mean He approved of polygamy.
God’s Old Covenant regulation of polygamy also impacted the state’s adultery laws. A married woman who committed adultery received the death penalty. A married man who committed adultery with a married woman also received the death penalty. But a married man who committed adultery with an unmarried woman was not to be punished. Rather, he should marry the woman. Thus Old Covenant polygamy laws are examples of human laws, which may justly be different in other nations.
A right understanding of human law explains how the sin of polygamy may be justly forbidden as it is in our nation, even though Old Covenant Israel merely regulated it. Theonomy teaches, however, that Israel’s judicial law is God’s unchanging moral standard for civil government. If Theonomy is consistent, then it will seek to prohibit any laws that ban polygamy because the civil government is not permitted to impose human regulations beyond God’s Old Covenant judicial law for Israel. For a Theonomist, such regulations are “autonomy.” The light of nature and human reflection do not generate just civil law, according to Theonomy, though Scripture and the Reformed tradition recognize that the light of nature and human reason are part of God’s general revelation and certainly can result in just human law.
6. Theonomy does not account for the fact that the judicial laws of Israel were only to be practiced in the land of Canaan.
It’s impossible to separate Israel’s judicial law from the land of Canaan. The Old Covenant law was given to the Old Covenant people, who were to keep the law in the Old Covenant land. Deuteronomy 4:14 says, “And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statues and rules that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.”
To give one example, consider the law of the parapet. Deuteronomy 22:8 says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” This judicial law, which is based on blood-guilt, only makes sense because the land of Israel is holy. According to the Old Covenant, blood-guilt defiles the land and results in the expulsion of the people. Deuteronomy 19:10 warns that if blood guilt comes upon the land, the guilt of blood shall be shed upon the people.
While there is certainly an element of perpetual moral law (general equity, “do not murder”) in the law of the parapet, the law itself could only be practiced in the land of Canaan, which is the case for all Old Covenant judicial law.
7. Theonomy misinterprets Deuteronomy 4:6-8.
Theonomists often use Deuteronomy 4:6-8 as a central proof text for their position, which says:
“Keep them [the commandments] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”
Theonomists believe this passage proves that the judicial law of Israel is for all the nations. They argue that the nations obviously wished they had the same laws that Israel had so they could be wise and understanding like Israel. God then explains that the reason for Israel’s wisdom is due to the law of Israel. Therefore, this passage teaches that the Gentile nations of the world should adopt the judicial law of Israel.
Vern Poythress, however, points out the problem with this line of interpretation in his article, “Effects of Interpretive Frameworks on the Application of OT Law” He says non-theonomists read Deuteronomy 4:6-8 to mean: “The other nations admire Israel not only for the righteousness of her laws, but also for the God who is so near Israel whenever they call on Him… The nations are pictured, not as saying, ‘We should have these same laws for ourselves, but ‘What a special God Israel has … We would certainly want to have laws just like that if we were the special chosen nation. But unfortunately we are not the special chosen nation….” Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, 114.
Thus, the Gentile nations were looking over the fence at Israel and her great God, Yahweh. They could plainly see the wisdom of Yahweh’s laws for Israel, but they also understood that they were not Yahweh’s holy treasured possession (Deut 7:6). They were not Yahweh’s chosen people, even if they wanted to be. Therefore, His covenantal law was not their law, but only the law of Old Covenant Israel.
8. Theonomy misunderstands the reason for the death penalties in Old Covenant judicial law.
Before discussing the death penalty in Old Covenant judicial law, it’s important to understand that the Noahic shared covenant of common grace and natural law establishes a universal death penalty for murder. The death penalty for murder is part of natural law. In Genesis 9:6, the Noahic covenant of common grace says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” That is a transcendent moral law: the punishment must fit the crime. It is lex talionis, which is the “law of the same,” often expressed as “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” It refers to equal weights and measures in justice. So, the death penalty for murder is moral and natural law.
But other Old Testament death penalties are tied to Old Covenant worship. The term “devoted to destruction” or “devoted to the ban” (Hebrew: cherem) involves the death penalty, and it is connected to the purity of the land, holy war, and Old Covenant worship.
Deuteronomy 13:12-16 says:
“If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again.”
This is saying that if a city comes under the influence of idolaters, there is to be a careful inquiry, and if it’s found to be true that the city is under the influence of idolaters, then the whole city is to be put to death, together with the cattle.
This law is not simply a matter of moral justice. Verse 16 says that the city becomes a “whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” It’s an offering to God. This is a law about holy war and Israel’s possession of the holy land. It’s a kind of ceremonial purification.
It also anticipates Judgment Day. The New Testament seems to teach that the death penalties of the Old Covenant are types of eternal condemnation.
Hebrews 10:28 says:
“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
In other words, under the Old Covenant, the penalty for breaking the law was physical death. But the corresponding doctrine of the New Testament is eternal condemnation for those without Christ.
So, the death penalties of the Old Testament are associated with Israel’s unique place in redemptive history. I’m convinced that scholars have shown that all of the death penalties of the Old Covenant are based on the distinctive purposes of the Old Covenant. I recommend Vern Poythress’s book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, which illustrates this very well. I don’t agree with everything in that book, but it is a good resource to have.
Due to their special character, therefore, it would be unjust to apply Old Covenant death penalties in a Gentile nation. It was perfectly just for Israel to put people to death for all sorts of reasons because God has the right to command the death of any sinner, and He commanded the death of many sinners via the Old Covenant for reasons that were unique to that covenant. But we have no right to implement such penalties in Gentile nations.
Furthermore, the death penalties of the Old Covenant are reflective of the fact that it is a “work for the right to inheritance” covenant. Leviticus 18:5 says, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” But the new covenant gives the inheritance by grace, not by works. Galatians 3:12-13 denies this works principle under the gospel, “But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘the one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'”
9. Theonomy sees the Old Covenant kingdom of Israel as nothing other than a paradaigm for all earthly kingdoms.
Theonomy does not view the Old Covenant Israelite kingdom as a type of Christ and His redemptive kingdom. Instead it sees the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel as nothing other than a paradigm for all earthly kingdoms. Theonomy, therefore, makes all nations holy, and denies a special holy status to Israel. Meredith Kline made this point in his article, “Comments on an Old-New Error,” which is a review of Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics.
Contrary to Theonomy, it’s quite clear the Old Covenant kingdom of Israel is a type of Christ’s redemptive kingdom. Consider Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt, deliverance out of the wilderness, deliverance by King David, deliverance out of Babylonian captivity, and so on.
Theonomy’s destruction of the Old Covenant type of Christ’s kingdom tends to undermine the gospel because it implies that human governments can do what only Christ’s redemptive kingdom can do. It suggests the conclusion that human governments can participate in the deliverance of a nation, if they follow God’s judicial law. But deliverance belongs to Christ and His kingdom alone.
10. Theonomists tend to view the Garden covenant of works and the Old Covenant’s “do this and live” works-inheritance principle as part of the substance the covenant of grace.
For example, Canadian Baptist Theonomist Joe Boot writes, “God’s creation covenant, or, for want of a better term, paradise covenant with Adam, was still between the Creator and Lord of all and a creature, and was thus a covenant of grace, whose terms were all established by God. To walk with God, as Adam and Eve eventually did, is to live by grace. We should remember the good news is that God is the covenant Lord and king – that fact is basic to the euangelion. …there has never been a covenant of works as such.” Gospel Culture 66
Theonomist Andrew Sandlin, says, “In theological language, the ground of eternal life in the prelapsarian era is the grace of God. What is its instrument and means? I believe that they are really no different than in the subsequent eras – faith in the Lord, accompanied by obedience” (27). Sandlin also says, “There is no fundamental distinction between gospel and law” (35). Gospel, Law, and Redemptive History
Theonomists apparently think our faithful works of obedience to Christ, under grace, build Christ’s redemptive kingdom of glory on earth. This is the necessary consequence of collapsing the common kingdom and the redemptive kingdom into one.
The Bible teaches that the common kingdom requires works of obedience to God’s natural law to build civilization (Gen 9). But the redemptive kingdom is God’s free gift of grace to believers (Lk 12:32).
In the Theonomists’s view, however, a Christian’s faithful work to build earthly civilization under God’s law is also building Christ’s redemptive kingdom because the two kingdoms are ultimately one. Christ graciously works in and through His church to construct His redemptive kingdom on earth.
Scripture, however, teaches that Christ alone works obtain His redemptive kingdom and final glory, and He gives His kingdom to His people as a gift of free grace, received by faith, not by works. Luke 12:32 says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” It’s a gift of free grace, not based on our works.
The works principle of the covenant of works and the land inheritance of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled by Christ. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” That means the righteous status conferred by the Old Covenant upon the nation for keeping the law and the promised land inheritance based upon national law keeping has reached its fulfillment in Christ and that covenantal arrangment is abrogated.
11. Theonomy does not account for the fact that the Old Covenant law was intentionally severe to preserve the line of promise.
The nation of Israel was largely an unbelieving nation. The people needed a severe legal system to chasten them and to preserve them as a nation until Christ would come from them. The severity of Old Covenant judicial law is especially evident in the liberal use of the death penalty. The death penalty was prescribed for false-worship and apostasy (Deut 13:6-11; 17:5), blasphemy (Lev 24:10-16, 23), sabbath-breaking (Num 15:31-36), rebellious sons (Deut 21:18-21), fornication (Deut 22:20-23), adultery (Lev 20:10-11), homosexuality (Lev 20:13) and many other sins. These are very heavy penalties.
Galatians 3:19 explains one of the reasons for the such laws: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” Similarly, Galatians 3:24-25 says, “So, then the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Scripture is saying that the severe Old Covenant law was given because of the sins of the people of Israel. It was given to them as a nation, to chasten them, and to act as a deterrent for outward sin, and to keep them from destroying themselves, until Christ came from them.
The Jerusalem council discussed the fact that some wanted the church to practice circumcision. Acts 15:10 says, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” The covenant of circumcision, and the Old Covenant as a whole, was a heavy legal yoke. Those who try to impose it upon Christians or Gentile nations are heaping a heavy burden upon them. Now that Christ has come, there is no reason for it. The yoke of the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and abolished with the coming of Christ.
12. In each case, when the New Testament applies one of the judicial laws of the Old Covenant, it applies the law’s general equity to the church, and never to the government of a Gentile nation.
This is important because of the hermeneutical principle of New Testament priority. The New Testament teaches us how to interpret and use the Old Testament, which means we need to pay attention to how the New Testament applies Old Covenant judicial laws. You will never find a single New Testament example of an Old Covenant judicial law being applied to a Gentile government.
For example, 1 Timothy 5:17-18 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.” “Do not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain” is a judicial law that comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. But here, Paul applies the law’s general equity (do not steal) to paying pastors properly in the church. He does not apply it to a Gentile government.
Another example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:13, where Paul is discussing church discipline, and he says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” That’s a judicial law from Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, 12, and many other places. In the Old Covenant, “purging the evil person from among you” referred to the death penalty. But in the New Covenant, that judicial law is applied to church discipline, not to the civil death penalty.
So, if we allow the New Testament to teach us how to interpret Old Covenant judicial laws, then we will think of their general equity first as applying to the church, not primarily to Gentile civil governments.
13. Theonomic postmillennialism incorrectly understands the Old Testament prophecies of a future temporal kingdom for Israel as predicting a future millennial golden age, just before the return of Christ.
But Old Testament prophecies of a future earthly and temporal kingdom are typological. The Old Testament prophets forecasted the future of the redemptive kingdom in the terms of the Old Covenant shadow. For example, the prophets speak of a future of land, gathering at Mount Zion, a great army with ancient near eastern military equipment, huge walls around the Old Covenant city of Jerusalem, people living to old age, abundant crops, widespread obedience to God’s law, and so on. All millennialists (chiliasts), both premillennialists and postmillennialists highlight such Old Testament prophetic language as proof of a future golden age prior to the final state.
Such prophetic descriptions, however, have been called “prophetic idiom.” The Old Testament prophets were describing the final glorified state of the church in the terms of the typological shadow of the kingdom of Israel. Francis Turretin said that when the Holy Spirit wished to “adumbrate” (symbolize) glory, grace, and happiness of the final state, He did so by speaking of treasures, feasts, crowns, kingdoms, a land flowing with milk and honey, the city of Jerusalem, the temple of Solomon, etc. (Turretin, Institutes, 3.613-15).
One place prophetic idiom can be clearly seen is where the Old Covenant promises that David will sit on the Israelite throne in the consummate kingdom (Jer 30:9). That’s the sort of prediction we might expect according shadow of the Israelite kingdom. But the king of the final state will not be David; rather, the Lord Jesus Christ will be the King (Acts 2:25-36). Another example of prophetic idiom can be seen in Micah 4:1-5, which says that the nations will stream to Mt. Zion, learn the law, and beat their swords into plowshares. But New Testament teaches us to understand this prophecy as fulfilled each time a Gentile comes to Christ (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22).
14. Theonomy’s version of postmillennialism virtually ignores Christ’s total present rule and triumph.
Theonomy says there will eventually be a day when Christ will rule the world and triumph over evil. He will one day put all His enemies under His feet, and we should long for that day.
But the gospel declares that Christ rose from the dead as king and ruler of the earth. Richard Gaffin points out in his article, “Theonomy and Eschatology” that Christ currently has all rule and authority. All things are under his feet now. Ephesians 1:22 says, “He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Clearly Christ is reigning now and His rule is absolute.
The New Testament also teaches, however, that when Christ returns, His rule will be fully manifested publicly, and He will consummate His kingdom in glory. His enemies will be put under his feet in a more visible sense after He returns in glory.
We must clearly affirm that Satan does not have the upper hand, even a little, and we are not waiting on Jesus to become victorious in some future golden age. Christ is totally victorious today and uses all things, including Satan, demons, and all manner of evil, to accomplish His purpose to judge the wicked and purify His church (Rev 17:16-17; 2 Thess 2:9-11).
15. The Reformed confessional tradition rejects Theonomy.
The Westminster Confession of Faith 19.4 teaches, “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
The Second London Baptist Confession 19.4 says essentially the same: “To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.”
These confessions make two points, which prohibit any confessional Baptist from being a Theonomist. First, the judicial law is expired. Thus, the judicial law itself is not moral natural law, binding all nations, but positive covenantal law only. Second, only the general equity of the judicial law is of use.
But what is “general equity?” General equity was a technical term referring to the aspect of a judicial law that is moral or natural in nature.
Theodore Beza explained general equity when he wrote, “Although we do not hold to the forms of the Mosaic polity, yet when such judicial laws prescribe equity in judgments, which is part of the decalogue, we, not being under obligation to them insofar as they were prescribed by Moses to only one people, are nevertheless bound to observe them to the extent that they embrace that general equity which should everywhere be in force” (De Haereticis a civili Magistratu puniendis Libellus, Geneva: Robert Stephanus, 1554, pp. 222-23). Note that the general equity of “the Mosaic polity” is that which is “part of the decalogue.”
According to Francis Turretin, the right use of the judicial law is to begin with the universal transcendent norms of natural and divine law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, repeated in the New Testament, and practiced among all nations by virtue of natural law, and then seek to find any of those moral principles within Israel’s judicial laws. Where such moral principles are found, they are perpetually in force.
Paul finds general equity in the judicial law of Israel when he sees, “Do not muzzle the ox while it’s threshing” (1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18) as an expression of the eighth commandment, “Do not steal,” and he applies it to the importance of paying pastors a just wage.
Theonomy’s myopic focus on biblical law to govern nations grossly neglects the category of God’s revealed natural law for the government of nations.
Both The Westminster Confession and The Second London Baptist Confession frequently affirm the importance of the light of nature to govern human societies. For example, 2LCF 1.6 says “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence.”
Theonomy, however, doesn’t rightly acknowledge the proper place of reason or natural law for the government of human societies, which makes it a kind of biblicism that displaces general revelation. Theonomy insists upon Scripture as God’s sole revelation for all human government.
16. To sum up, theonomy’s central mistake is believing that God gave the judicial law of Israel as a universal norm of societal justice for all nations.
Certainly, the transcendent moral law of God, revealed in nature, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and clarified in both the Old and New Covenants is a universal norm for all nations. And we ought to use the Old Testament to help us understand God’s moral law. But the positive laws of the Old Covenant had many different functions according to Scripture, and all of them were bound to the unique objectives of the Old Covenant.
As we have seen, the judicial law was tied to the land, to ceremonial worship, and to the preservation of Christ’s line of promise. Some of the judicial laws were simply designed to create a distinct culture for Israel that separated them from the nations. Others were about preserving family lines for the sake of property and inheritance. But all of the positive laws of the Old Covenant were related to the typological character of the Old Covenant and/or to its unique cultural situation and place in redemptive history.
In conclusion, Theonomy is not a biblical idea. Scripture itself refutes the theonomic position, such that in fact, Theonomy does not advocate God’s law at all, but adds to God’s good law the positive covenantal and human law precepts of Old Covenant Israel that were designed to expire with the coming of the Lord Jesus.
While this article has been a critique of Theonomy, and I have not outlined a positive biblical theology of civil government, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 24, provides a wonderful framework for civil government. I wrote an exposition of that chapter here: What is the role of civil government?
For a good resource on Theonomy see this article by Brandon Adams.
For an historical assessment on Theonomy and Puritanism see Puritans, Theonomy and Reconstruction by Ian Clary.
For a reflection on Theonomy’s view of judicial law, see What Theonomy Gets Wrong about the Law by Timon Cline.
Institutes of Biblical Law by Rousas Rushdoony
The Theology of Christian Resistance by Gary North
Theonomy in Christian Ethics by Bahnsen
By This Standard by Bahnsen
God and Government by Gary Demar
The Mission of God by Joe Boot
Theonomy: A Reformed Critique edited by William Barker and Robert Godfrey
From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis of the Threefold Division of the Law by Philip Ross
Meredith Kline’s work in general. But see his article “Comments on an Old-New Error” for a summary.
Politics After Christendom by David VanDrunen
The Mystery of Christ by Sam Renihan
The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress
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