Once or twice a year or so, someone asks me about something a critic says about “Theonomy,” usually because they have encountered some straw man version of it. They are now confused and want clarification. “So and so has said this. . . .” “Have you seen this link? . . .” Such occasions are good for helping the honest inquirer and exposing the misinformed and the dishonest all at the same time.
In order to clear any confusion, here’s both a reiteration of a simple definition of Theonomy that no theonomist would disagree with, and the proof that this simple perspective has always been the same, and always will be.
The word “Theonomy” comes from two Greek words, theos (God) and nomos (law). Together, these words simply mean “God’s law.” Since every Christian has some view of the role of God’s standards for living, every Christian believes in “theonomy” to some degree. What has come to be called “Theonomy,” however, is a particular view of the role of God’s law that includes the application of aspects of Old Testament law to all of life including the social realm and civil government. Those who hold to this view are properly called “theonomists.” . . .
Theonomy, then, can be defined as follows: the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some judicial 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.
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, wrong as it is, at Theonomy. Let’s 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. No, we are talking here not about justification but about the moral standards of life and justice.
This is the definition I wrote and taught about in The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty. But is my definition the same general “theonomic perspective” that has always been taught?
Theonomy yesterday, today, and forever
None of what is written above surprises any theonomist. The idea that God’s judicial laws are still applicable, but not all of them in every detail, has been the standard position with Rushdoony, Bahnsen, North, DeMar, myself, and others. It was also the position of the forerunners of Theonomy such as Johannes Piscator, Thomas Edwards, John Gill, George Gillespie, and others, including some New England Puritans. Even if men have differed on important details, the basic interpretation has been the same throughout: God’s Mosaic judicial laws still apply except where the New Testament has rescinded them.
Furthermore, this very position was stated and clarified by Greg Bahnsen himself in the Preface to the second edition of Theonomy in Christian Ethics (TICE), in 1983. He covered the exact same definitional grounds: theonomy is a general concept, it is not a new concept nor a new term, and not all of the details of the law still apply:
Since “theonomy” simple means “God’s law” and has been used in connection with diverse ethical writers (e.g., Geesink, Van Til, Barth, Tillich), the title Theonomy in Christian Ethics does not tell us what specific view is taken of the place of God’s law in Christian living. Nevertheless, common parlance (if not partisan antipathy) has come to conventionally label the distinctive theses of this book (the ethical perspective of “Reconstructionism”) as the “theonomic position.” It would be beneficial if its teaching could be summarized.
Before offering an outline, we must be warned that some people have been kept from an accurate analysis of theonomic ethics—sometimes by the author’s manner of expression, sometimes because the order of discussion (especially qualifications) is not that expected by some readers, and sometimes because the book has simply not been read, or read completely, or read at a safe distance from distorting preconceptions and prejudices. For instance, a combination of such factors has misled some to maintain that Theonomy, because it often speaks of our obligation to the exhaustive details of God’s law (“every jot and tittle”), cannot allow any change or advance over the Old Testament at any point, even by God Himself, and must follow without exception every single Old Testament precept strictly, literally (even the cultural trappings necessitate verbatim application), and without qualification or modification.
These false depictions cannot be justified from a careful reading of the book. There are no fewer than seventy pages that refer to the progress of revelation and redemptive history, God’s right to change the law, exceptions to general continuity, laws which are laid aside, or advances over the Old Covenant. I mentioned “radical differences,” “legitimate and noteworthy discontinuities,” and laws which have “become obsolete.” What is championed is “the presumption” of moral continuity between the Testaments. It was clearly spelled out that “if we are to submit to God’s law, then we must submit to every bit of it (as well as its own qualifications).”
Bahnsen’s warnings against misrepresentation 35 years ago have rarely been heeded by the very types of critics of which he spoke. They still are not well heeded today, and today’s critics often seem even less scrupulous than previous ones.
While it is true that I have developed the interpretation and application of the discontinuities of the law to a point with which Bahnsen would have disagreed, two things are of note. First, he would not have disagreed with my simple definition of Theonomy (above). There is no way that he could have for it is perfectly consistent with his own.
Second, even if Bahnsen would disagree with my details, the fact remains that he did not himself provide many of them for us, so we can neither know his conclusions for sure, nor test any of his own interpretations against Scripture.
Nevertheless, the introduction to TICE makes it clear that his purpose was to argue for the applicability of the law in general, not to tease out every detail, so the analyses of details are not there by virtue of the nature of the book. It is simply an unfortunate fact that Bahnsen did not later provide detailed Scriptural commentary on the applications of those many cases.
There are some minor exceptions to this general neglect of detail from Bahnsen. He did cover even some of the more difficult passages of the law, at least in passing, in some old class lectures, but there he seems merely to state opinions and not work to prove them or to test them.
What he do have from Bahnsen regarding Theonomy and its details is this:
Our outline of the theonomic perspective indicates that it pertains to fundamental, underlying ethical principles and is not, as such, committed to distinctive interpretations and applications of the Old Testament moral directives. In the nature of the case, these principles leave plenty of room for disagreements in biblical exegesis (for prescriptive premises), observation of the world (for factual premises), and reasoning (for logically drawing an application). Thus theonomists will not necessarily agree with each other’s every interpretation and ethical conclusion. . . . Theonomy does not make the determination of our moral obligations or the elucidation of God’s commands a cut-and-dried, easy, obvious, or simplistic task. It rather advocates a basic approach to ethical questions which still requires (even if it does not always get) skilled exegesis and sensitive application. It does not automatically remove all difficulties in ethical reasoning, and theonomists certainly do not “have all the answers”! I have made such observations before. [TICE, xxviii–xxix.]
It seems perfectly fitting, then, to introduce Theonomy to audiences today with my definition: “the biblical teaching that Mosaic Law contains perpetual moral standards for living, including some judicial laws, which remain obligatory for today.” This is the Theonomy of yesterday, of today, and of forever.
So, if you find someone trying to pigeonhole “Theonomy” with a stricter or more detailed definition, usually in order promptly to dismiss it in some way, you can be absolutely certain that such a person is either misinformed, uninformed, or lying. You can then choose the appropriate course of action.