The Aquila Report just ran a post by PCA pastor Dewey Roberts entitled “Theonomy, Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision” with the thesis, “Federal Vision is the natural progression of the principles of theonomy.” I am thankful for The Aquila Report for allowing the occasion for correcting the record on a few crucial points.
I was interested by the subtitle mainly because such simplistic language often indicates that reasoning of similar nature is to follow, and I feared the worst. I read the piece, and ended up about as bewildered as I could have imagined. I can’t remember the last time I read something where the author refuted himself in such a short space and didn’t appear to realize it. So, in the end, I feel somewhat good in my bewilderment.
Rev. Roberts’s article has four main sections: 1) an introductory section about the early days of Theonomy and young Greg Bahnsen, 2) a brief statement that there are two alleged strands of Theonomy, 3) a presentation showing how orthodox Greg Bahnsen really was, and 4) a condemnation of Federal Vision as not orthodox like Greg was. As we’ll see, the third section is most intriguing, for it undermines the claims made in the second, and when this works with the conclusion stated in the fourth, renders the thesis a non sequitur.
The article is beset with all kinds of difficulties, for example, the fact that Rev. Roberts seems to condemn Theonomy and Federal Vision up front without providing any definitions of what these things are, or citing any sources for proof. Since I have watched scores of critics, literally, misquote and misrepresent both of these movements for decades, I would like to see something more than just the next critic’s bare ipse dixit, especially when charging terms like “legalism,” “works salvation,” etc. An article purporting to show connections based on the logical extension of “the principles of theonomy” is somewhat obligated to give a credible representation of what those principles actually are. But Rev. Roberts’s article provides nothing but innuendo and condemnation.
More importantly however, is that the third section of the article strongly undermines Rev. Roberts’s thesis. Let’s examine this by starting with the claims first made in section two. Rev. Roberts writes,
There are two intertwined strands to theonomy. One strand is civil and involves the reconstruction of society according to the civil or judicial laws of the Old Testament. This strand is known as Christian Reconstructionism. When most people think of theonomy, they imagine this strand as representative of the whole. But there is another strand to theonomy which emphasizes the application of the law to the covenant community. This strand is not as prominent as the civil aspect of theonomy, but it is definitely outlined in Bahnsen’s book. The difference between these two strands is the difference between society and the church.
One problem with this “two strands” critique is that the application of God’s law within the covenant community is not distinctive of Theonomy. This is something the Reformed churches have always without exception embraced. Read the sections on the Law of God in the Westminster Confession. You’ll see clear demands for the moral law (at the least) to be obeyed by all within the covenant community as a “perfect rule of righteousness” (19.2) which “directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (19.6). If this idea indicts Theonomy, it indicts the whole Reformed tradition.
I think what Rev. Roberts may be thinking of here instead is the fact that some former theonomists had more of a top-down view to the reconstruction of society, and believed that instead of grassroots evangelism and obedience leading to reformation, we needed instead a “reformation of the elites,” which would start with clergy, liturgy, and a high institutional church staking out a powerful, central role in society.
This phenomenon is true, but it encounters two real problems for Rev. Roberts’s thesis. First, the majority of leaders who took that route either quit calling themselves theonomists or even repudiated the movement (to differing degrees). Names here would probably include Jordan, Leithart, and Sutton, among others. These have all gone the route of what has been, or could be, called “Federal Vision,” and have all developed a sort of elitist, clergy-driven, high churchism that has all but completely consumed their ministries; they don’t speak much anymore of applying God’s law in a judicial-ethical manner to all areas of life, but of the importance of high liturgy, priestly collars, and church membership and attendance.
Some of these men have also developed their view of a “revolution of the elites” into what I would consider a Roman view of society and power. Leithart even published a full-blown Defense of Constantine not too long ago. The problem here is great: Constantine, and the entire Constantinian tradition after him, was nothing more than baptized Roman Law, not Theonomy. This openly-Roman view was held—often in explicit opposition to biblical law—all the way up through the Reformation and beyond. (If you’d like documented proof of this, just see chapter seven of my recently published The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty.)
In fact, throughout the majority of church history, the people who have made errors in these regards have been the least close to biblical Theonomy. These errors abound in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles, among others (Anglo-Catholic). It is not surprising then, also, that some of the early leaders who left Theonomy went to the Roman or Eastern churches. But note: they repudiated Theonomy as they went. And for what they turned out actually to believe, we are glad they went and took it with them.
The irony here is, of course, that when it comes to political theory, men like Rev. Roberts and the so-called “two kingdoms, natural law” tradition have much more in common with these high church Federal Vision proponents than any biblical theonomist ever has.
The second problem with seeing these proponents as “intertwined” with Theonomy is that theonomic leaders like Gary North openly rejected their views very early on. Here’s what he wrote in Healer of the Nations (1987, p. 301):
Just as internationalism prior to international revival is extremely dangerous, so is attempting any Constitutional amendment nationally before national revival. This would be a top-down political transformation, something quite foreign to Christian social theory.26 It puts the cart before the horse. The religious transformation must precede the political transformation; the political transformation must precede the Constitutional transformation.
In the footnote, he blasted Jordan’s elitism:
On this point, I am in complete disagreement with James Jordan’s recommended program of self-conscious elitism in social and political transformation, which he calls a top-down system, despite its tendency toward “impersonal bureaucracies” and the obvious anti-evangelism attitude fostered by such an elitist outlook, which he admits has been the result historically. “Elites seldom feel any need to evangelize.” Precisely!
In short, these ecclesiocrats left the movement, dropped the label, and their particular emphasis on top-down, church-centered social action was repudiated by leading theonomists as non-Theonomic on this point. When Rev. Roberts says “many the first-generation federal visionists are theonomists,” his assessment is really not accurate. These men are not theonomists: they said so, and we say so.
In fact, one of these men once tried to steer a much-younger Joel McDurmon towards high church clericalism and away from Theonomy by saying, “Don’t carry the banner of a dead movement.” Didn’t sound like much of a theonomist to me! (And that was near fourteen years ago.)
So what Rev. Roberts is really reacting against here has nothing to do with the principles of Theonomy, but is actually a departure from them. It would be quite impossible, then, for the ails of that departure to be blamed on Theonomy, wouldn’t it?
I suspect the readers will easily note how the section on Bahnsen’s orthodoxy undermines the thesis even further. It’s a very nice section, I admit. After years of lies and misrepresentations, there is nothing like having an opponent actually cite Bahnsen over and over again in order to show that none of the caricatures of the position are actually true. He was orthodox, and quite consistently so! Thank you Rev. Roberts.
After defending Bahnsen’s orthodoxy on several foundational points of theology, Rev. Roberts begins his fourth section saying, “On every single point listed above, the proponents of the Federal Vision take the opposite position.”
Well, if that is true (and I’ll leave that argument for another time), it speaks loudly of a strong divergence between Federal Vision and Theonomy doesn’t it? If Bahnsen’s views were developed on the foundation of orthodoxy, and Federal Vision is built on the exact opposite foundation at every single point, then that suggests Federal Vision is not Theonomy. If two buildings are built on two separate, diametrically opposed foundations, they are logically two entirely different buildings, aren’t they?
In short, Rev. Roberts has done little but show that Federal Vision and Theonomy are associated with different principles, not the same. But this is exactly the opposite of what he set out to prove.
Perhaps it is Rev. Roberts’s point instead to suggest that Bahnsen was orthodox despite his Theonomy. Somehow Bahnsen held it all together, but when Theonomy at last got consistent with itself, it led to something like Federal Vision. If that were the point he was trying to make, it was not clear in the article, let alone proven.
Further, if he were going to try to prove that thesis, I would expect to see plenty of credible definitions up front, complete with documentation for each point:
- What is his working definition of “Theonomy”?
- What is his working definition of “Federal Vision”?
- How is this Theonomic position distinct in the subjects under discussion (as opposed to Reformed theological history)?
- How are these definitions representative of at least most people associated with those labels?
- How do these principles logically entail (necessitate) denials of orthodox positions on justification, etc.?
- If this entailment allegedly exists, why have Bahnsen and others (myself included) remained orthodox while holding to “the principles of Theonomy”? (I.e., where is the disconnect in our theological foundations and applications?)
- Why have those allegedly holding the allegedly unorthodox positions mostly repudiated the principles Bahnsen, North, and others have called “Theonomy”?
- Why have so-called “Federal Vision” doctrines appears in denomiations all through church history with aboslutely zero connection to Theonomy, either doctrinally or historically? And. . . .
- Where your exegesis?
Each of these questions needs to be demonstrated, not just stated. We need quotations, in context, with analysis. Merely saying something is so does not make it so and will not cut it, especially when the allegations are of such a nature as to get one, you know, excommunicated.
There is, of course, much more to be said on these issues—even within Rev. Roberts’s one little post—but I hoped only by this to set the record straight on a couple of the more outstanding points. If you wish to know more about biblical Theonomy as opposed to different variations of the old Constantinian tradition, you can see my aforementioned book. Or, just do what Rev. Roberts did: read Bahnsen’s orthodox position in Bahnsen’s own book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. For those interested in the early history of Greg L. Bahnsen that Rev. Roberts mentions, please download our FREE document package about what happened with Theonomy at RTS back then, written by Bahnsen himself.