There are generally two types of critics of Theonomy: those who are schizophrenic, and those who just want to watch the world burn. There are some who are both simultaneously. We have certainly seen the scorched-earth variety come and go, and they go as often as they come. For today, I would like to make a few comments regarding the nobler type.
Those few critics who actually take the time to read and comprehend the teaching of God’s Law as it pertains to the civil realm today very often end up in a corner. By taking the arguments and literature seriously, they end up understanding the weight of the position. Being good Christian scholars, they do not wish to create straw men and caricatures of their brethren (at which the other variety thrives). Yet they hesitate to affirm that which they now understand to be the case: that at the very least, God’s law, including His judicial law, applies to every area of life in some way and to some degree. This understanding then demands that the scholar provide an exposition and application of the abiding aspect of the judicial law to those areas of life. This is where the great balk occurs.
So this type of critic finds himself in a tough position: he refuses to provide the exposition and application of the judicial law for fear of sounding like a theonomist (we assume?), and yet he absolutely must affirm the truth of Scripture that even though the Old Covenant administration has expired, the judicial law is nevertheless vital and relevant to today in some way.
These critics are intellectually honest about the abiding nature of certain undefined “principles” of the judicial law that are “relevant” today, yet they seem unwilling to tell us what these principles are and in what way they are relevant. They do not develop a hermeneutic to tell us how to make such distinctions. Thus their position is at best incomplete, or intellectually schizophrenic at worst.
A great example of this problem appears in the very decent commentary of Sam Waldron on the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
The Confession makes two balancing points regarding the judicial law, speaking of its ancient expiration and [emphasis added] its modern application. . . . This treatment is very relevant in the light of the idea of the abiding validity of the judicial law being espoused in our day.1
It should be clear that the last sentence of this quotation is a direct reference to the Theonomy movement in general, and Greg Bahnsen’s phrase “abiding validity” in particular. It’s what Waldron says next that is both helpful and yet a bit aggravating:
The expiration of the judicial law is suggested by the destruction of the Old Testament theocracy initially by Babylon and finally by Rome under the judgement of God. When the state expired, it is reasonable, according to the Confession, to conclude that its formal civil order expired with it. . . . Though the judicial law has expired, yet as an inspired application of the moral law to the civil circumstances of Israel it reveals many timeless principles of general equity, justice, goodness and righteousness. As such it remains relevant not only to modern states, but also to modem churches and Christians (1 Cor. 5:1; 9:8-10).2
Waldron argues thus that the judicial law is both “expired” and yet at least in part “timeless” and “relevant.” Herein lies the problem described above as “schizophrenic.” This is not a mere slight upon Waldron’s work or his person, for both aspects are in fact true. It is his neglect to develop the “timeless” aspect that leaves it wanting. But at least we have something to work with.
As a theonomist, I am quite thrilled to see the admission that the judicial law of Moses 1) is a divine revelation, 2) reveals specifically how to apply principles of the moral law to the civil realm, 3) contains principles that are “timeless,” and 4) is “relevant . . . to modern states.” This much is extremely helpful.
The aggravating part is that he stops there. He does not tell us what these timeless principles are, what parts of the law contain them, how they are relevant to modern states, how to apply them today, or by what principles of interpretation we can determine for ourselves. Where is the exegesis? Where is the hermeneutic? Where is the application? Granted, perhaps a commentary on the Confession is not the place for such further study, but at least some acknowledgment that the work needs to be done seems in order. Instead, we are left hanging. As such, these claims almost seem like mere lip service. The silence here (which is typical of this type of critic) leaves the impression that the work is secondary or unimportant.
But I’ll still take it. I’ll just run with it. This is yet another reason I was happy to write The Bounds of Love. I wanted to address the questions of “what parts of the law are ‘timeless,’ and by what principles of interpretation can we know?” I wanted to do this not only for the sake of so many within the movement, but for those who have the understanding inherent within their confessional framework—such as men like Waldron above, or the countless younger people, who read Scripture and the language of the confessions and see that there must be some continuing validity to the judicial law, yet need someone to fill in the blanks so often left open.
As we have said for a long time now, there are many people who generally understand these aspects of Scripture and are thus inherently theonomists, they just don’t know it. Worse, due to the primary type of critic—lying, reckless, crash-and-burn kamikazes—they have been wrongly taught to fear the term. But simply read your own scholars: men like Waldron above (and even A. W. Pink and Charles Spurgeon), who express the very foundations and infrastructure of theonomic thought within their writings. Then move on to fill in the gaps they leave, yet do so on the theonomic assumptions they affirm.
As I wrote in The Bounds of Love (pp. 137–138):
The label “Theonomy” is crucial because it is a biblical doctrine. I therefore maintain it, and argue that anyone who fits within a simple definition (chapter two) can bear the label. For this reason, I argue that even theologians such as A. W. Pink can be called theonomic. While I was ridiculed for making this statement in public, the mere fact that Pink demands the modern application of lex talionis makes him by definition a theonomist, even if his theology in other places is inconsistent with that. At worst we would call him an inconsistent theonomist.
What we need now is a renewed conversation of biblical law and its modern applications among those of us who are open to disagreement and discussion, yet see the abiding validity of some Mosaic principles as obligatory for modern governments. From there we can provide a platform for pulpits to teach and for Christians to engage in godly social reform, criminal justice reform, etc. We need to reengage the discussion, and to do so on the basis of what we have learned so far about Theonomy.
Let the crash-and-burn types crash and burn. Let the liars lie. Let the dead bury their dead.
Let those of us who believe the principles abide have the boldness to say what the principles are and how they abide, and then get busy applying them.
- Waldron, Samuel E. (2013–03–27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 4071–4074). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)
- Waldron, Samuel E. (2013–03–27). A Modern Exposition 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Kindle Locations 4075–4084). Evangelical Press. Kindle Edition.(↩)