Is Theonomy Scripturally Sound?
By Jay Rogers
From the outset of this round, I wanted to make it clear that the topic of this debate is: "Is theonomy scripturally sound?" The debate is not about Greg Bahnsen's writings. There are many theonomists other than Greg Bahnsen including the founder of Christian Reconstruction, R.J. Rushdoony, who mentored Bahnsen. The term "theonomy" was used prior to both Rushdoony and Bahnsen by Jewish and Christian biblical scholars. Theonomy has most recently become identified with the Christian Reconstruction movement. However, there have been many theonomists who are not Christian Reconstructionists. Many Christian activists who are not Reconstructionists hold views that approximate theonomy.
Christian Reconstruction also includes, according to its founders, Calvinism, Covenantal theology, Presuppositional Apologetics, Postmillennialism, and Dominionism. Theonomy is just one aspect of what Christian Reconstructionists believe.
There are some disagreements among theonomists, just as there are in every Christian movement. I do not speak for Bahnsen, Rushdoony, North, Chilton, DeMar, Gentry or any one particular theonomist. My opponent may quote Bahnsen and exclude quotes from other theonomists. However, I want to make certain that readers understand that theonomy is not defined solely by Bahnsen. I do not feel compelled to respond to everything that Bahnsen may have written in order to defend the soundness of theonomy. Bahnsen must be interpreted not only in the context of all his own writings, but of all of Christian Reconstructionism, and most importantly in the context of Biblical Law itself.
There are several different camps within theonomy. Personally, I am not a Bahnsenite. I have my own ideas on theonomy which would be more similar to Gary DeMar or Ken Gentry than to Greg Bahnsen.
In my opening, I gave a definition as to what theonomists as a group believe. Now I am demonstrating the viewpoint of theonomy from scripture.
WHAT IS THEONOMY? (REVISITED)
Theonomy means literally, "God's Law," and specifically that God's Law is the abiding standard for all human government: individual, family, church and civil.
My opponent has raised a question on whether "to rescind," means that the Law has passed away. According to Jesus (not Jay Rogers or Greg Bahnsen!) not "one jot or one tittle" will ever pass from the Law. Jesus said that He had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. According to Jesus, the Law is eternal. However, the New Testament is also clear that the dietary laws and ceremonial laws have been altered or changed. A more correct way to define it would be that these laws were "fulfilled" by Christ's death.
The underlying truth of these dietary and ceremonial laws still stands, but the way in which they are fulfilled has changed. The Law as a whole is eternal, but some specific aspects of the Law (such as dietary and ceremonial observances) have been fulfilled in Christ's death.
Theonomists realize that there has been a change in how the Law is fulfilled. There has been a change. Several books in the New Testament --including Acts, Galatians and Hebrews -- go into great detail in answering questions the first century Christians had with these ceremonial and dietary laws and their application to the life of the New Covenant believer.
There is no confusion here in a historic sense. The Westminster Confession divides the Old Testament Law into the civil law, the moral law and the ceremonial law. It is helpful to make these distinctions. There is no argument between a traditional Reformed view and a Reconstructionist view on whether the ceremonial law is binding today. We do not sacrifice calves or lambs as payment for our sin, because we have had a greater and more perfect sacrifice in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.
However, the Old Testament moral Law is easily applied to our time -- especially laws that apply to sexual morality. We theonomists like to point out that there is no place in the New Testament that says that bestiality is a sin. Yet there is hardly a Christian who would not say that sexual relations with an animal is perverse and a denial of God's standard of righteousness for the believer.
I make no apology for using this argument. Natural revelation (Romans 1:18-21) does not prohibit pagan societies from participating in perversion. In pagan societies, bestiality is often the norm and is even part of religious rites. Homosexuality, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, and many other perversions are considered "normal" in non-Biblically based religions.
Even the Christian needs the moral law to define sexual morality. How do we know, for instance, that marriage to a second cousin is allowed by God, but marriage to a sibling is prohibited? Only biblical Law contains the correct standard for morality pertaining to incest.
We must look to the cross -- the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ -- and bring that magnifying lens to all of the Law -- moral, ceremonial and civil -- and see the application of those things to our day. We cannot take a cafeteria style approach and start picking and choosing which parts of God's Law we apply and which parts we do not.
REGARDING JESUS "CHANGING" THE LAW
My opponent has asked for a clarification on my idea of "covenantal shift." In certain instances, the Law of God has taken a different tack under the New Covenant. There are certain instances where Christ or one of the Apostles changed (if not the Law itself) the Law's applicability and how it is to be enforced. Theonomists, from the time of the Reformation until the current movement, have made a distinction between the moral law of God and other types of law (i.e., civil, dietary, ceremonial) and have attempted to delineate exactly where the Law has "changed." When I use the word "change," I am speaking in the sense of it being "fulfilled" by the sacrifice of Christ and the new order which resulted from His atoning work. The Law was in no case abolished, but fulfilled.
To "fulfill" is to make complete what was incomplete. Thus, sacrificial laws were taken away by the Lamb of God who died "once for all" for our sins. The sacrificial law still exists, but the penalty of the Law has been paid "once for all." Sacrifice was not abolished at the death of Christ, but the manner in which it was dispensed has been changed. Christ fulfilled the Law so that the ceremonial observances outlined in the Old Covenant are no longer necessary or effectual.
There are two possible stances on this issue of the abiding authority of the Law.
1. If a law is not addressed by Jesus or one of the Apostles, then it still stands.
2. Only if a law is renewed by Jesus or one of the Apostles, then it still stands.
The view of theonomy is that only Jesus Christ or one of the Apostles had the authority to address these issues pertaining to the Law. Ceremonial observances have been fulfilled, but the moral Law stands as an unaltered, eternal decree.
My opponent claims that Paul did not use the Mosaic formulations of the moral law. Yet Paul quotes the Mosaic Law in his letters to the young churches. Sometimes his application is not what we would expect. However, Paul writing prophetically certainly had the authority to make these applications.
"Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn" (1 Cor. 9:8,9).
The Law found in the epistles of Paul is theonomy (God's Law). Paul quotes the Law of Moses as having greater authority as the Law of God, than what man would say of his own authority.
THE CEREMONIAL LAW AND THE MORAL LAW
My opponent asks a question: "If Scripture itself does not provide a sure guide for picking out the moral laws from among the 613 laws to be picked through, then by what standard do we pick them out?"
Since the beginning, biblical scholars have delineated between laws which are religious in nature, that which were specifically for Israel's worship, and those laws which are moral in nature, that which are binding on all nations. Sometimes there is a difficulty in that there are both moral and ceremonial laws in a single passage of scripture. Then we must do some serious exegetical study to discern one from another.
There is a simple way that this has been understood, both by Jewish rabbis and Christian scholars. In the Ten Commandments, there are two tables of the Law. The Jews of antiquity taught that in two tablets of the Law, the first four commandments are religious laws, while the second six commandments are societal laws.
Although the Bible does not specifically say that the first tablet ended with the fourth commandment, it is apparent that idolatry, blasphemy and Sabbath breaking are sins directly against God, while murder, adultery, theft, false oaths, and covetousness are sins against individuals in society. For instance, when Jesus and Paul quote from the Ten Commandments, they quote only the second table of the Law (Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:9).
The Ten Commandments are therefore easily discernible as two groups:
1. Laws pertaining to the worship of God.
2. Laws pertaining to moral conduct of individuals in society.
Then we have hundreds of "case laws" which are examples of the application of the Ten Commandments in case by case scenarios. In the case laws of we understand that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" applies to premeditated murder. There are cases of "killing" that are not violations of the sixth commandment.
All the case laws can be grouped under one of the Ten Commandments. This is how we know if a law is moral or ceremonial in nature.
Whenever we see a civil penalty applied, we can identify it as a civil law. All sins are not crimes. Only violations of civil laws are crimes.
Detractors of theonomy like to argue that the civil law and its sanctions were limited to Old Covenant Israel. A survey of the Law of Moses disproves this conjecture. The Old Covenant commands that "aliens and sojourners" in Israel, even those who were uncircumcised heathen, were bound to the civil law (Lev. 24:22). Yet these foreigners were not required to keep most of the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law (Ex. 12:43,44,48; 9:33; Deut. 14:21). Only the circumcised were allowed to participate in the Passover, the old covenant communion meal. Thus the two marks of the covenant -- circumcision and Passover -- separated members of the "church" from members of the "state." There was also a separation between the priests of the ceremonial law, the Levites, and the magistrates of the civil law, the tribal elders and judges (Lev. 14:35; 27:11; Deut. 1:16; 16:18; 19:12; 21:2; 25:1).
ANTINOMIANISM, LEGALISM AND THEONOMY
The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 6:14: "For you are not under the law but under grace." How to interpret exactly what this means has caused some confusion among many Christians. When many Christians speak of "grace" or "Christian liberty," they are often advocating a license to sin or an "anti-Law" view (known as "antinomianism") that is clearly condemned in Scripture. Likewise, when many Christians speak of "the law" what they are referring to is not the moral Law of God, but a system of legalism or traditions devised by men. This confusion has arisen due to a lack of basic definitions. We have the twin heresies of legalism and antinomianism which have appeared in the Church as counterfeits to true Law and true Grace.
Legalism can be defined in two ways:
1. That obedience to the Law is the means by which we are saved.
2. When rules or traditions of men are instituted as a standard of righteousness.
The idea that man is able to keep the law under his own power and please God is biblically false. Salvation is a gift of God and we are saved by God's own choosing, not our own. When we say, as Christians, that we are not "under the Law," scripturally, we can mean two things:
1. We are not under the Law as a means of obtaining salvation.
2. We are not under the condemnation (or the curse) of the Law.
Theonomy stands in opposition to legalistic and antinomian views. Theonomy refers specifically to the application of the moral laws to civil, church, family and individual self-government.
Theonomists do not separate the moral law from civil issues. If a Christian votes for pro-abortion or pro-homosexual political candidates, then he is certainly antitheonomic on these civil issues. If a Christian is antitheonomic on civil issues, then is also antinomian. However, that does not mean that his error on the issue of abortion and homosexuality extends to his personal moral conduct or his morality within his family or church.
NATURAL LAW AND BIBLICAL LAW
My opponent claims that in Romans chapters 1 through 3, Paul writes that the Gentiles are freed from biblical law through natural revelation.
First, we need to define a term: natural law. This is the idea that there is inherent in all men the sense of good and evil. We all know deep down that murder is wrong; theft is wrong; adultery is wrong. Natural law is derived not from the Bible, but from principles of reason. Natural law is further distinguished from natural revelation. Natural revelation testifies of the nature of God, His power and the nature of His creative acts. Man recognizes the existence of the power of God and His creative acts even without knowledge of the Bible.
The problem comes when people take the idea of natural revelation and try to build a system of natural law or a natural theology out of it. Although natural law theory has some strengths, it pales in comparison to a system based on biblical law. The theonomic view is to affirm clearly the idea of natural revelation and natural law. We should never deny that. In fact, that is one of the bases on which the lost will be condemned when they stand before God one day (Rom. 1:18-21). But it is precisely for that reason why we can't found a natural theology or a workable natural law theory -- because unregenerate men in their depravity suppress the truth and hold it down in unrighteousness.
Some use the vague, amorphous idea of natural law in constructing an argument against theonomy. In doing so, they fail to realize that most people will never agree with natural law no matter how much they know it. If we affirm the natural law view, we hold the idea that all people instinctively know right from wrong. But will the unconverted ever affirm that in the civil realm of life? Of course not! They will suppress the fact that they are immoral and will refuse to stand for God's Law.
In most cases, merely knowing that sin is unrighteousness will only sear the consciences of the unconverted. Such is the depravity of man. We would do well to remember that natural man is not "basically good," but he is intrinsically evil.
Natural revelation alone is not sufficient. That is why the written Word of God was given. For example, natural revelation doesn't teach us anything about salvation. We know about salvation only from the written Word of God. In the same way, the basis for civil government must be the written Word of God. Had man never sinned, the written Law of God would never have been necessary. But because man sinned, then biblical revelation, as opposed to natural revelation, becomes necessary.
Natural law theory -- when applied to society -- leaves the door open for human autonomy. Man stands up and decides that he is the one to decide what is right and wrong rather than looking at what the Word of God says. Natural law can be co-opted and pirated by corrupt humanistic worldviews. Natural law can be interpreted from many different angles. In so doing, morality becomes relativistic.
In Ten Commandments we have the explicit injunction "Thou shalt not kill," but we also have the case laws which interpret how it is to be administered in the civil realm. Biblical law is superior because it is defined revelation. It is specific and applicable. The blueprint for civil law is the written Word of God, not natural law.
WITHOUT SANCTIONS THERE IS NO LAW
It is remarkable that most of the Ten Commandments are negative. "Thou shalt not ... Thou shalt not ..." The purpose of moral law is not to mandate positive behavior. God does not say, "You're going to be good. You're going to give money to other people. You're going to help other people. Or if not, the civil government will punish you."
The moral law can only be kept through faith in Christ. But the non-believer can live under God's common grace and obey the civil laws. This is because very few violations of God's moral law are civil crimes.
Peter writes that the believer has great freedom in society because the righteousness that is by faith leads to obedience of the civil law (1 Peter 2:11-16).
Paul also alludes to the fact that the Law of God gives incredible freedom to the Christian because we fulfill the Law through our life of faith (Gal. 5:22,23).
Few moral laws are civil in nature. Only the civil magistrate has the authority to punish crimes. The authority to enforce criminal sanctions are specifically given to the civil magistrate in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. These civil sanctions are always negative in nature. Execution or restitution are the two most common civil sanctions against criminals.
Other sins are dealt with by ecclesiastical or family government. The role of the church and family in dealing with sin is far more powerful than civil authority. This is because the church and family has a positive, nurturing role in displaying God's love. The church and the family may reward those under their authority with blessings for obedience. Blessings are a far more powerful motivation for obedience than the fear of negative sanctions.
Therefore, the family and the church may play an evangelistic role when upholding the Law of God, while the civil government can only dispense God's negative sanctions.
Most sins are dealt with directly by God. Often the Bible commands us to perform or refrain from a certain behavior. But often there is no penalty prescribed. For example, tithing is commanded by God. But no penalty is prescribed for not tithing. God himself rewards tithing with blessings and He punishes disobedience with a curse (Malachi 3:8-12).
Every time there is a violation of the moral law, there is some sort of punishment. All sin is punished by God. Even when Christians are forgiven for their sins, Christ already took the punishment in our place. Substitutionary atonement is necessary in God's economy of justice. Christ took our sins to the cross even as His righteousness was imputed to us through faith. But in the final analysis, all sin is punished either directly by God, or indirectly through God-ordained civil, ecclesiastical or familial authority.
All sin results in negative sanctions. Where there is no sin, there is no law. Paul writes: "for where no law is, there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15). Likewise, without sanctions there is no law. To claim that God forgives sin without requiring restitution is antinomianism.
It is a logical fallacy to maintain that God's commandments do not always result in corresponding sanctions, just because all sin is not punished by the civil government with penal sanctions. The great error of the anti-theonomic view is to maintain that since all sins are not crimes, penal sanctions of the Old Testament should not apply in civil cases. My opponent essentially states this fallacy when he writes: "For a penal law does not define sin. A penal law merely prescribes punishments for actions that have already been defined as sin." My opponent does not recognize that all moral laws have corresponding punishments, whether they are dispensed by the civil government or not.
All civil law is moral in nature. Whether it agrees with God's moral law or not, all civil law is an enforcement of someone's idea of morality. Even automobile speed limits are moral laws. Speed limits say in effect: "It is immoral to speed because you are putting other people's lives in danger." Whether we think that speed limits are biblical or not, these laws are an application of someone's idea that innocent life is to be protected.
There can be no civil law without corresponding negative sanctions. Without a negative sanction, few people would obey speed limit laws. People would do as they please in traffic. Likewise, without negative sanctions, people would not obey God's moral law. If there were no sanctions for adultery or fornication, Christians would not be constrained to be chaste. If we are fearful of displeasing God, then that is a negative sanction. The fear of displeasing God constrains us to obey out of love.
The Bible says that "All unrighteousness is sin" (1 John 5:17). By definition, sin is that which is unrighteousness. Sin is that which harms us and leads us to death. If sin were not unrighteousness, it would not be sin. If there were no consequences for sin, there would be no sin.
The New Testament clearly gives the civil magistrate the authority to punish criminal activity. God ordains earthly rulers who are just and obedient to His covenant (Romans 13:3-5). The rulers that God ordains: (1) are not a terror to good works; (2) are ministers of good not evil; (3) bear not the sword in vain [unjustly]; (4) are servants of God; (5) are avengers of evil.
The civil government is just one of many governments that govern man. The first government is the self-government of the Christian man. The second governmental unit is the family. This means that every father and mother will be more important in the sight of God than heads of state. The third government is the church. (There may also be schools, businesses, associations, corporations, cultural etiquette, etc. which govern us.) Lastly, one among many forms of government, is the civil government.
Today, we are implicitly totalitarian. We speak of the state as "the government." That is totalitarianism. The Christian theonomic society will only come about as each man governs himself under God and governs his particular sphere. Only then will we take back civil government from pagan civil rulers and put it into the hands of Christians.
There is much more in the Bible about civil law than most Christians recognize. Much of it is in the Old Testament. It is not ours to do away the Old Testament case laws that describe civil authority. We may not always understand how to apply all of the case laws, but we have to take all of the Law of God seriously. It is not ours to pick and choose. We need to work hard on the task of exegesis, understanding how to interpret the Law of God. But when we do come to an understanding, we need to abide by it.
The question we have to ask is: Are we going to conform our ideas and practice to the Law of God? Or are we going to permit the modern culture to dictate to us our ethical values? If we are going to say that we believe the Bible, then we have to say that the system of ethics found in the Law of God must prevail in the society.Next > Round 2 By Bradley Finkbeiner
Index < Theonomy: A Debate