Westminster West professor R. Scott Clark has posted a curious piece on his Heidelblog taking a characteristic swipe at Theonomy, but I have to say this one is rather rich:
From 1980, when I first came into contact with Reformed theology, I also came into contact with theonomists. As a naïve evangelical I took Romans 13 to [be] God’s Word and as part of the New Testament authoritative for believers in a way that the Mosaic ceremonial and civil laws were no longer. The theonomists with whom I talked, however, regularly dismissed Romans 13 almost as if it was not to be regarded as canonical. They did so because it was almost impossible to reconcile it with their view of the civil magistrate and the theory of the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil laws in exhaustive detail.
So we dismiss Romans 13? Apparently Greg Bahnsen never got that memo. His Theonomy in Christian Ethics (published originally in 1976), which coined the phrase “in exhaustive detail,” begins a section called “Rulers, as God’s Appointees, Are Not to Be Resisted” on page 316 (3rd Edition) and continues for the next several chapters defending the belief that the civil magistrate is ordained of God and ought to be submitted to by the Christian. In the first three of these chapters alone, positive references to Romans 13 appear about 80 times.
Clark claims he has known theonomists since 1980. This means he’s had 37 years to get his understanding of the position right. Yet he publishes lies about us. What’s the problem? Are these his own lies? Or is he carelessly repeating the lies of others?
And it’s not just Bahnsen. The whole movement has joined in the same view. R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Gary DeMar (over and over again in God and Government), and other theonomists have all, always, upheld very traditional views on Romans 13. American Vision even republished and carries the work of an American Covenanter, James Willson, specifically on The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government: An Exposition on Romans 13:1–7. I uphold the same in The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty.
Clark emphasizes that someone on social media said, “Abolish the police.” Granted, he attributes this to some Reformed “left-leaning evangelicals,” but the implication of the article is that somehow by association this and Theonomy are two peas in a pod rebelling against and dismissing civil magistrates. While we advocate a biblical reform of all government, law enforcement, and criminal justice, we certainly do not dismiss the God-given office and order of civil rulers described in Romans 13.
Most recently, American Vision published a position paper called, “Should we abolish law enforcement?” We concluded, no, and gave attention up front to the central role of Romans 13. Did we dismiss it “almost as if it was not to be regarded as canonical”? Did we find it “almost impossible to reconcile it with their view of the civil magistrate and the theory of the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil laws in exhaustive detail”? The reader can certainly judge the absurdity of this for themselves. I will only add that they ought also to come away again wondering why Dr. Clark would stretch the truth so far to take a shot at the position.
And that is not the only head-scratcher. Dr. Clark proceeds to give an outline of submission to civil magistrates that would make a Hitler proud. I don’t exaggerate. I have written on this difficult angle in relation to Westminster West’s finest before—that Christians ought to submit to civil governments and not demonstrate against them or correct them, essentially no matter what, with the sole exception that we not explicitly disobey God (another broad undefined idea). Such a standard would lead many Christians in Nazi Germany dutifully to support the brown shirts and then the Gestapo, and obediently turn over the Jews and dissidents among them.
Even if were we to back off the Hitler angle (and there is no logical reason we should), Clark’s suggestion that the slave obedience of the first century (even under murderous Roman slavery, to name just one egregious offense) is somehow normative repeats nearly verbatim the appeals of the antebellum American theologians to maintain slavery and the slave trade. By this standard, civil magistrates are given nearly a blank check to spread tyranny, and Christians are called silently to submit.
The thought that Paul’s and Peter’s instructions to obey civil magistrates somehow preclude righteous demonstration against unjust governments is baffling, though it is consistent with Clark’s radical two kingdoms theology. It says all things political are radically divided from the demands of God’s revealed laws, and the church should sit by and remain silent on them. It also naturally admits to duplicity. This is why Clark, after hammering at theonomists as well as social justice movements, carves out exceptions for his more general Reformed and American readers. Well, you know, Calvin did uphold the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, and, you know, the rebellion known as the American Revolution was pretty ok, . . . but those theonomists? They’re crazy for saying these things!
One of the great advantages Theonomy has always held over its critics like Dr. Clark is that we don’t allow such double standards. We have only one standard. We think God’s revealed law is the standard for all people and all governments at all times. Hitler would have had a much rougher time of it had the churches of that day thrown off the radical two kingdoms dichotomy and held forth the demands of biblical law. Likewise, African chattel slavery in America would never had happened if the churches had taken their standard from biblical law rather than Roman law. Yet the churches defending their slaveholding members used “two kingdoms” and natural law to shirk their prophetic responsibility to society: “that’s politics and government—it’s not the church’s job to say anything there. Zip.”
But it was the churches’ job, and it still is. But when beaten on one front, they play the other side of the two kingdoms fence. Now they call us theonomists rebels because we call the State to repent of its tyrannies. They suggest we are lawless anarchists.
After a half decade of being virtually the only ones in the conservative Reformed world to talk about civil laws, civil government, and civil reform? That’s a good one. Rich indeed.