It is unfortunate that theonomists in the past have had to spend more time saying what Theonomy is not than what it is. There are good reasons for why this has been the case, but the fact can also leave newcomers and critics alike frustrated when searching for a concise definition which is both broad enough and distinctive enough to be helpful. In this chapter, I will give my version of that definition. I will also discuss some of the reasons past theonomists so often have had to spend time saying what Theonomy is not, as well as often take a defensive posture. I will show you why some of these reasons are not only expedient, but necessary.
Before discussing the difficulties in defining a theological term like “Theonomy,” let me first offer my own simple definition up front. I will save explanation for later, but for now, let the reader know where I am going. Theonomy can be defined as follows: the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.
“Theonomy” is a much broader subject than merely civil government and social theory, but this is where it is, in my opinion, most distinct from other positions. It is also where it has been most controversial, owing to the fact that most Christians in history have allowed the civil realm to be governed by pagan and humanistic ideas and laws. Biblical direction here has always been badly needed. Thus, this is precisely where our discussion of a definition of Theonomy will focus.
Stating the definition as I have avoids certain misunderstandings. By including the word “some,” the new or hasty reader will (or should) at least not get the impression that Theonomy has no discontinuities with Old Testament law in view. Several critics have leveled this charge, absurd as it is. Let us foreclose even the possibility of such a charge up front.
My definition also avoids the common assumption that Theonomy involves salvation by law or salvation by works. I will discuss this aspect later as well.
Nevertheless, even if it avoids key misconceptions (which is not to say that some critics will not draw them anyway), my definition still leaves questions unanswered. I am willing to live with this, for this is where the difficulty in definition comes in with any theological term. You simply cannot give the thumbnail pic and the hi-res version at the same time. So, before moving on to a more detailed approach to my definition, let me review the necessity of my method here.
The problem of theological definition
First, what is a “definition,” after all? I think too often we take the word for granted, especially in theology. We generally accept that a definition is a concise statement that tells what something is or what it means. But such a statement must also necessarily tell us why that term is distinct from other terms and their meanings. The word “definition” comes from a Latin term—finis—that literally refers to limits, ends, or boundaries (we get our words “finish” and “finite” from the same term). Thus, a definition states the boundaries of meaning for a term—“this far and no more,” as in, “this, and not that.” Thus a definition not only tells us what something is, but also what it is not—by implication at least, if not directly.
Theonomy is as easy to define as any other complex theological doctrine, and that’s been part of the problem in defining Theonomy in practice: accuracy requires detail, and detail requires space, time, and patience. After all, it only took roughly three centuries to hammer out the doctrine of the Trinity, and longer for the dual nature of Christ. The fact that modern theonomists have worked for a couple of decades, and that the process has sparked considerable controversy, objection, and accusation, ought not surprise or deter us from continuing the process.
I said I will attempt to give both a concise definition and an explanation which serves as a fuller definition. Theological definitions especially require such treatments for several reasons. After all, the more that condensing a statement of a position requires excluding important details and qualifications, then the more that statement becomes generalized and less helpful in relating the distinctives of the position. On the other hand, if the definition includes only the distinctives divorced from any broader context, the result may raise so many further questions as to be unhelpful as anything other than a starting point for a longer discussion. Worse, in the hands of those who are predetermined to criticize or even engage in witch-hunts for heresy (and there is no shortage of such self-proclaimed discerners today), such incomplete definitions provide a smorgasbord for misrepresentations.
A sentiment I once heard from N. T. Wright gets to the point: “The problem with theology is that if you don’t say everything all the time, someone will accuse you of leaving something out on purpose.” In my experience, that is certainly true. In fact, the truth is even more extreme when the allegedly “left out” portions are used in some way to portray you as a heretic or nonbeliever. Some even claim that the allegedly “left out” portions—which may or may not be what you actually teach—are in fact left out in an attempt to deceive people into becoming unwitting disciples. Forcing unfounded accusations like this makes profitable discussion difficult if not impossible.
What results is usually a critic demanding a concise definition of “Theonomy.” If one simply posits the classic etymological definition—the application of “God’s law” today—the objection is immediately raised that all Christians have some view of this, so this definition is too broad. What is the distinctive that “Theonomy” brings to the table? If one then adds, for example, Greg Bahnsen’s phrase “in exhaustive detail,” an objection is immediately (and rightly) raised concerning ceremonial laws, circumcision, legalism, Judaizing, dietary laws, etc. What about these? Well, Bahnsen answered such questions and provided qualifications. “Where?” In 600 pages of his book Theonomy and Christian Ethics. Then the objection is raised: “You mean to tell me I have to read 600 pages to get a definition of Theonomy?” Why can’t you just provide a concise definition? Ugh.
The reason this is difficult is because “the law of God” is a large and complex set of doctrines which is made more complex by the change in administrations between the Old and New Covenants. Everyone—even Lutherans, classic Dispensationalists, and the faddish “New Covenant” theologians—agree that the standards for Christian ethics are the laws of God in some way and to some degree. All Christians believe to some degree that there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments. So, a broad definition would make everyone a “Theonomist”—and this is obviously not the case (yet). On the other hand, every Theonomist believes that much of the Mosaic law is discontinued in the New Covenant. No Theonomist believes in applying circumcision, sacrificial and ceremonial laws, and several of the other laws. Even if they would provisionally (for the sake of developing a thesis) adopt a view like Bahnsen’s “in exhaustive detail,” all Theonomists nevertheless believe in many important and radical discontinuities. Thus, all Christians also believe to some degree that there is discontinuity between the testaments.
The argument between Theonomists and non-Theonomists, then, is really more about which parts of the law abide, which parts do not, and why. Providing a concise definition that makes this clear without itself leaving out necessary parts or raising a myriad of questions is almost impossible.
The situation this causes for discussion of controversial theological topics works against concise definitions for the most part entirely. Whatever may be said in a sentence—let’s say 140 characters—will almost inevitably leave crucial questions to be explored, which, unfortunately, usually means assumed in the case of the undisciplined.
For example, a classic summary verse—a “concise definition,” if you will—for the Gospel in general has always been John 3:16. (Ironically, the King James Version of this verse is almost exactly 140 characters—141 if you include all its punctuation). Yet this verse alone leaves questions unanswered in regard even to the Gospel itself, let alone further theological questions. Is “believeth” exclusive here? Are works involved at all? What is “everlasting life”? Does this mean we will not die physically? What is the “world”? Does this imply unlimited atonement? Does “whosoever believeth” imply conditional election? What does “only begotten Son” mean? Does it have implications for our adoption? Is Jesus really unique after all? (I ask all of these hypothetically.) Not a single one of these questions is answered in John 3:16. So you see, a whole host of further elucidations is required even to understand properly something as simple as John 3:16. This could take thousands of words, cross references, and exegesis to demonstrate.
This does not mean, of course, that John 3:16 does not in general carry the message of salvation. Nor is it to say that no one can “get saved” by hearing or reading John 3:16 because they must first read a dozen theology books. But in the context of understanding, teaching, and debating theological distinctives with all their nuances and implications, we must take the longer path.
The same process is true for the classic creedal definitions, as I said above, for the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. A concise summary statement like “Three Persons, One Essence,” can be, and has been, misconstrued in various ways. It took about three centuries of debate and strife to arrive at the Nicene formulation, and can the result be called a “concise definition” of the Trinity? Maybe, maybe not. But does it not leave many questions about the doctrine of the Trinity unanswered? Indeed, the later addition of merely one word in Latin—filioque (“and the Son”)—by the Latin church in A.D. 589 was a key ingredient in the Great Schism between East and West in A.D. 1054. That can be the difference between unity and purity in doctrine.
The Trinity is more thoroughly defined by the later “Athanasian Creed” which certainly leaves fewer questions unanswered, but is also so detailed, long (the version we used in seminary covered three pages), and cumbersome as to relegate it to the fate of most full theology books: the shelf. In fact, its disuse is so widespread that few Christians—indeed most Protestants—even know about it.
The doctrine of the incarnation of Christ fared little better. It took until A.D. 451 to get the orthodox concise definition. It is a beautifully accurate statement of roughly 200 words. And yet even this came only after rivers of ink, and years of intense debate and church politics. Even still, subsequent theologians have found it necessary to publish thousands of pages saying what these few words mean and how they apply. Oh, and wars ensued as well.
The same could be said for dozens of key doctrines all throughout church history. Imagine a whole Reformation starting over one monk’s academic objections to the Papal doctrine of indulgences. Imagine millions of pages of definitional battle lines being drawn over justification, ordination, ecclesiology, liturgy, sacraments, and more—not to mention spilled blood, charred flesh, and asphyxiations.
If you demand theology fit only for soundbites, bumper stickers, and Twitter, you may have a problem with the whole history of Christianity. That which is concise will almost always exclude key details. That which is both accurate and thorough will almost always require time and patience on the part of the reader.
In short, do not demand only thumbnail sketches when the truth requires a full schematic; and do not complain about not having details when you only asked for a thumbnail sketch to begin with. There is a discussion to be had. Have it, learn from it, or stay out of it.
Because of the nature of theological definition just discussed, we need both a concise definition and a more detailed treatment of Theonomy. It is not enough simply to affirm, for example, “Mosaic civil laws are obligatory for civil governments today.” This is decent, but represents only part of the broader theonomic view (civil laws). It is part of the part which is most distinctive about the theonomic position, but is nevertheless not accurate enough. It does not specify, for example, “all,” “none” or “some” in regard to those Mosaic civil laws, and thus anyone taking either an affirmative and negative position could actually make a valid case depending upon how they qualified and interpreted it. For the record, no Theonomist would say that all Mosaic civil laws remain obligatory, so any critic interpreting it that way would not achieve very much. But with that particular resolution, a critic could nevertheless attempt to make such a case. They could also, however, argue that no Mosaic civil law has any abiding validity today, but hardly anyone today holds such a view. To avoid such misunderstanding, it would be more accurate to say “Some Mosaic civil laws . . . ,” but this puts us back at the original need to define where the lines are drawn.
The concise definition I have given above addresses these concerns while stating the definition very concisely:
Theonomy is the biblical teaching that Mosaic law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some civil laws, which remain obligatory for today.
This makes it clear up front that Theonomy is 1) about moral standards for living, not justification or salvation, 2) includes, but is not limited to, civil government, and 3) involves only some, not all, of Mosaic law.
This definition is clear, accurate, and distinctive. It is concise yet delineated enough that those who would derive from it that Theonomy teaches keeping the whole law, no discontinuity, works righteousness, salvation by works, Judaizing, Phariseeism, etc., are either seriously confused or obviously grinding an agenda and should not be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, any concise definition will leave further details to supply and questions to answer. So now that we have the concise version, the next few chapters will cover the qualifications and more detailed questions for a fuller definition.
Next section: Biblical Categories for Biblical Law