(Why publish the Epilogue first? Because it’s actually a great Preface too! I think you’ll see why. It addresses a few key issues regarding motivation, background, and what all we’ll be covering along the way. Enjoy. . . .)
I wrote this little book for two main reasons. First, I want to instruct young interested readers in the biblical foundations of Theonomy in a clear, simple way. Second, I need to address some long outstanding questions that I believe, quite frankly, have never been clarified.
For the first purpose, I think the book speaks for itself. For the second, I have waded into a sort of “no man’s land” between what, in the past, were unfortunately seen as warring factions. While the vast majority of critics of Theonomy past and present have been of a knee-jerk and even dishonest variety, a few talented, considerate, and largely sympathetic critics provided careful exegetical responses that took Mosaic law seriously, even for modern civil governments, yet saw biblical theological reasons to drop several of the death penalties and make other modifications. I see my own analysis lining up with a good portion of theirs. Some of the foundational authors of modern Theonomy took too much exception to such analysis too readily, and their intransigence, while certainly earnest, led to division rather than scholarly engagement. This hindered the textual exegesis, analysis, and application that remained. The division led some to drop the label “theonomist,” as if another’s rejection of their qualifications demanded it. This is unnecessary.
“Theonomy” means “God’s law,” not “Greg Bahnsen’s law” or “R. J. Rushdoony’s law” or “Gary North’s law” or “Joel McDurmon’s law.” We are in early stages, still, of working through detailed exegetical questions and applications. We have learned a ton already, but there is simply more to hash out. Bahnsen himself made this clear at the outset of his seminal work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics,1 acknowledging first in the original “Preface” that he had not even attempted to address specific details of God’s law, only the formal general obligation to it,2 and second, that his work left “a great deal to be explored” and “extensive room for disagreement in the area of exegeting, understanding, and applying God’s law in specific situations.”3 Even as late as his last publication on Theonomy (1991), he admitted he still had not fully worked out his views on the penalty for apostasy (Deut. 17:2–5), and that he had always been open to the fact that it no longer applied in the New Testament.4 He finished that note saying his conclusions would have to await another book— a book he never got the chance to write.
I am thankful for the places where Bahnsen, Rushdoony, and others did mention such passages, but I agree that what treatments we have of them have been incomplete. There were others, who did not accept, or who no longer accept the label Theonomy, who did give more detailed treatment to such laws, and after laboring over them myself, I found myself agreeing with them in large part. Nevertheless, 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.
So what have we learned about Theonomy in this book? We have learned that love is the summary of the law, and that God’s law is the explication and bounds of what love truly is. If we want to display Christian love, we must obey His commandments, meaning, His law. We have learned that this love-law principle is embedded in the heart of the New Covenant and the Great Commission.
We have learned that there is both continuity and discontinuity in the law. We learned that the Bible itself gives us the principles by which to categorize given laws, parts of laws, or sets of laws as such. The most important of these principles is cherem. By this we understand that all First Table death penalties and sex-related death penalties no longer apply. By this we understand that stoning was a ritualistic method of death and no longer applies. We have also learned that separation laws no longer apply. These include priestly and temple laws, holy land laws, and seed laws in general. God has removed jurisdiction over these sins from earthly civil governments and transferred it to the throne room of Christ.
We learned that the law of proportionate punishment, or lex talionis, is the basic moral principle that lies behind all the penal sanctions. The remaining ones, therefore, are abiding standards and remain obligatory for civil governments today. This includes standards for property rights, contracts, false witness, strictly limited government, and more.
When we ask what a theonomic society would look like, we study these remaining laws and answer for ourselves. It would be a society of liberty, free markets, sound money, tiny government, and with church-based and private devotion to charity, sexual purity, family, and worship. From our biblical law platform, there would be strong pushes for homeschooling, dismantling the welfare-warfare state, dismantling the military-industrial complexes, criminal justice reform, and much more in relation to the spread of peace and free markets.
Such a vision will sound like a utopian dream to many who are encultured by modern times and establishments, and for whom thinking outside of that box is fearful or encumbered by the limitations of their ideas of practicality. Certainly such a society is a long way off, but when we begin to inquire as to how it could ever come to pass, we can only derive great encouragement from Scripture. The Great Commission demands that we hold forth such a dream, and the power of the Holy Spirit demands that we dare not think it could not come to pass. In this light, therefore, we follow our mandate to disciple the nations in all of Christ’s law, and trust that the Holy Spirit will bring to pass what He will in His time. We can easily look around and find any of several places to begin Kingdom work, and then get to it.
Finally, we have learned that top-down social orders, punishments for First Table religious offenses, and top-down agendas for social change do not comport with the teachings of Theonomy. Those who wish, therefore, merely to Christianize the establishment, compromise with it for the sake of advance, establish an alleged Christian state not bound by the abiding strictures of the civil law, or who think that Christians can merely grab existing seats of power and institute change cannot be considered theonomic. While a few such people in history have appealed to Moses here or there, most have merely adapted pagan Roman law, variations of it, institutions created by it, or other pagan bases, and the results have been not only unjust but disastrously so.
Young theonomists should take from this book a helpful foundation upon which to build an agenda for study, advance, engagement in culture, and activism. The old guard has hopefully found clarification and an advance in applicational method by which to refine their endeavors along the same lines, perhaps start new ones, and perhaps rejoin old and forgotten dialogues. We badly need all of this today. Having a fairly common foundation and a common desire will help get the message of comprehensive Reformation back in our pulpits and pews, and then society and state houses, once again.