October 15, 2014

Combating the Theonomist’s Trap

By In Articles, Theology

Should the Mosaic Judicial code be the standard for civil governments today?  Theonomists answer in the affirmative.  And, especially if you are Reformed, to disagree with this conclusion, as the Reformed Libertarian does, is to provoke the Theonomist’s Presuppositionalist Trap.  The trap is as follows.  The question is asked of the non-theonomist what standard, since apparently we don’t want to use the Bible, should provide the basis for civil law.  Since the non-theonomist doesn’t want to use the Bible as his standard for law, upon what human mind should we erect a theory of government?  How can we honestly say that we are Reformed Christians if we are not willing to use the Bible as the ultimate standard? Sola Scriptura much?

That’s the trap. To provide another standard is to admit that you think less of the Bible’s authority than it actually has but to presuppose the Bible is to admit that it the model civil government is found in the Pentateuch.  How should we combat this?

First, let’s talk about the term “theonomy.”  A helpful start can be found by citing RC Sproul Jr. Here, Sproul provides a helpful quote which accurately demonstrates what is at stake here with the term “theonomy.” Without any need to comment on the specific political theory (neither a libertarian nor a Reconstructionist) of RC Sproul Jr., he writes:

“My theonomic friends want to drive us to one of two choices, “Autonomy or theonomy!” And of course they are precisely right. We will either have man’s law, or God’s law and only a fool would choose man over God. The question then rightly understood isn’t whether we ought to have law as God would have us have it. The question instead is what law would God wish us to have.”

A decent point can also be made by referring to the answer given by James White in response to an inquiry regarding his stance on theonomy. The reason I wanted to cite this statement is because I think it does a great job of revealing the fuzziness of the theonomic issue for those who do not adhere to Christian Reconstructionism as formally defined by individuals such as Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, and RJ Rushdoony. I did find the video when it was linked by the Confessing Baptist site here and the relevant quote is as follows:

“In regards to the term theonomy, that is a hot button as well for many reasons; partially because there’s so many different definitions of that term and there’s so many different kinds of theonomists; and partly because unfortunately when someone starts talking about these things, you end up getting people very quickly taking sides and building their walls and getting behind their walls and start shooting each other and you get in trouble…. It gets difficult to get folks to calm down and think about it.

[…] Theonomy simply means ‘the law of God’ and the idea that God’s law should be the standard for mankind… and I would think Biblically that would not really be an overly controversial issue but it is for a lot of folks. If… the law of God reflects His holy nature, then you’re going to have a very high view of God’s law and you’re going to basically say that man’s law will reflect God’s creative purposes most closely when it reflects the law that God has revealed to us concerning how men should behave. Obviously at that point the question becomes: ‘how do we differentiate between that which is an abiding moral principle in the law of God and that which specifically had application to the people of Israel. Can anyone in this life come up with the perfect way that would convince everybody that ‘this is how we do this…?’ I don’t know if in this life it is ever going to happen. But I can agree with Greg Bahnsen who said [White is paraphrasing here] ‘just because it is a difficult and challenging task doesn’t mean that we should not be pursuing it.'”

If this is understood properly, given that we Reformed Libertarians want to maintain our position on Biblical grounds, autonomy must be immediately rejected and the question which faces us constantly is: “what law would God wish us to have?”  In other words, if the theonomist trap intends to present us with the choice of Bible vs. non-Bible, we choose Bible.  We are not, contrary to the implication of their attempted trap, forsaking our presupposition.  We are not, in avoiding the conclusions of the Reconstructionists, sacrificing the authority of the Bible over the lives of all people, both saved and unsaved, and over governments as well.  The great assumption made the Theonomist Trapper is that in rejecting the applicability of the Mosaic Judicial Law, we are also rejecting God’s law as a whole.

Now, aside from the problem of the word “theonomy” itself, we have one more way to avoid the Theonomist Trap: we must state the fact that we presuppose the Bible, and reach different conclusions than our theonomic brothers.  In other words, our understanding of the Covenant Structure and Law/Gospel contrast simply does not allow us to apply the Mosaic Judicial Law today. So while the trap might be intended to convince us to apply the Bible to all areas of life, it is precisely in doing so that we reject their conclusions.  Mosaic Law applicability is by definition excluded if the Mosaic Law was intended in the redemptive historical setting to provide a works principle for Israel.  It is because we disagree with the nature and context and purpose of the Mosaic Law that we conclude that it is a hermeneutical impossibility for us to apply it in the New Covenant setting.  If Israel was a physical kingdom and therefore of this world (outwardly), then the Kingdom of God, which was established for the first time with Christ (having been promised and foreshadowed in the Old Testament), is spiritual and not of this world.

The problem is not that we are failing to presuppose the Bible.  Rather, our disagreement stems from the fact that in doing so, we reach the opposite conclusion as the theonomists.  The Theonomist Trap fails to consider that A) we do presuppose the Bible and desire to use it as the ultimate standard for a civil government and B) that in doing so, we realize that we cannot logically and consistently apply the Old to the New.  I say all of this because the issue is not whether we are seeking to honor God, but how we interpret the authoritative word that He has given to us.

Many non-theonomists misunderstand and misrepresent the positions of the theonomists.  But perhaps too many theonomists make faulty assumptions about we who dissent from the Theonomic vision.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • Patrick T. McWilliams

    I’d like to see some direct interaction with Bahnsen. Any plans to see that in the future?

    • reformedlibertarian

      Plans, yes. Specifically some of his introduction in By This Standard. 1689 Federalism has helped me wade through some of his mistakes and false dichotomies.

      • Patrick T. McWilliams

        Looking forward to it.

  • I thought Schwertley’s definition was helpful:

    First, every Christian who believes in God’s moral law, who is not dispensational and
    who rejects human autonomy in ethics (i.e. the idea that man simply makes up his own rules or
    laws defining what is right or wrong), is essentially a theonomist. The word “theonomy”
    comes
    from the Greek words theos (“God”) and nomos (“law”) and thus stands for the belief that God’s
    moral law, which is based on God’s nature and character, is absolute, eternal, universal, and
    binding on all men, nations and cultures. A consistent and biblical theonomist would argue that
    every moral law in both the Old and New Testament should be applied personally and socially to
    mankind.

    • Second, the core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not
      defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. All the Old Testament laws that are moral
      in content, that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics, are binding on all men (both
      Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations). Therefore, not
      only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws
      5
      that are extensions,
      explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality,
      fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). In addition, the civil
      penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to
      the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but are required as well.
      6

      The first defining feature of theonomy was essentially universally held by the Puritans and early
      Presbyterians. The second major feature on the penalties was held by many early Presbyterians
      but not all.

    • reformedlibertarian

      “The first defining feature of theonomy was essentially universally held by the Puritans and early Presbyterians. The second major feature on the penalties was held by many early Presbyterians but not all.”

      You agree with the first definition but not the second feature, correct?

      • reformedlibertarian

        That would be where I am at, as long as we clarify what it means when we say “every moral law in both the Old and New Testament should be applied personally and socially to mankind.” Clarification emphasis on “applied” and “socially.”

        • Yes, I agree that the moral law is absolute, eternal, universal, and binding on all men, nations, and cultures.

          Schwertley would simply consider me inconsistent, given his hermeneutic, because I don’t believe it should be applied “socially” as he views that term.

          I just think it’s important to make that twofold distinction because there is a lot of equivocation in discussions about theonomy. People will point to statements from classic reformed theologians that argue the civil government should enforce both tables of the law and then claim they therefore held to modern theonomy.

          This creates problems specifically over the interpretation of WCF/LBCF 19.4. Modern theonomists argue 19.4 means that some of the civil laws were “particular equity laws” and some of them were “general equity laws”. The general equity laws themselves continue to bind and were not abrogated (rather than the general principle behind the laws).

          So they’re using a modern definition of theonomy, applying it to and then misinterpreting quotes and coming up with a strange reading of 19.4.

          • reformedlibertarian

            Agreed. Also, I love that Evernote summary of Booth you did. I just went through it again. You should post some of it in the future. The name of your blog couldn’t be more perfect:)

          • I read this post when it was first published and it was very helpful… I had some questions for C. Jay on this and he pointed me back here… Thankful he did cause it confirmed I was coming to some of the same conclusions as y’all (though without as many big words) ;P

            Thankful for y’all’s work on this site. Truly am.

    • reformedlibertarian

      Also be careful, because Bahnsen categorized the judicial law as part of the moral law:) This trips people up. The Recons don’t see a threefold law, only moral and ceremonial. And I think Schwertley agrees with this. So your understanding of him may be different than his actual meaning.

  • Javier Hernandez

    Thanks for this gentlemen, very good stuff.

  • You say: “Mosaic Law applicability is by definition excluded if the Mosaic Law was intended … for Israel. [I]t is a hermeneutical impossibility for us to apply it in the New Covenant setting. If Israel was a physical kingdom and therefore of this world (outwardly), then the Kingdom of God, which was established for the first time with Christ (having been promised and foreshadowed in the Old Testament), is spiritual and not of this world.”

    Since the governments of China, Russia, and the United States are physical kingdoms (but not the physical kingdom of Israel), the “judicial” laws don’t apply to them. But there are no “judicial” laws in the New Testament, which means there are no binding judicial laws in the Bible, which means the Bible cannot be applied to judicial entities (civil governments). The only thing the New Testament says about politics is directed to those who are subject to civil governments (there are no “judicial laws” which governments are obligated to execute), and the command to subjects is to “turn the other cheek.”

    • reformedlibertarian

      “The only thing the New Testament says about politics is directed to those who are subject to civil governments (there are no “judicial laws” which governments are obligated to execute), and the command to subjects is to “turn the other cheek.””

      –I actually pretty much agree with this, as I have stated often. The goal of passages throughout the NT are to encourage Christians to turn the other cheek, not to produce a robust political theory.

      “…which means the Bible cannot be applied to judicial entities (civil governments)…”

      –The way in which I disagree with this is because I think that God’s moral standard, His moral law, are binding on all persons in all contexts. The meaning of sin is disobedience of this law. People in governments are not exempted from the moral standard law. Therefore, people in governments sin when they act immorally. But this immorality can only be defined by the Bible.

      • As you pointed out in a comment above, some Reconstructionists don’t believe in “judicial law,” just “moral” law and “ceremonial” law.

        http://KevinCraig.us/holywar.htm#judicial

        I agree: no judicial law, no laws for the State, but that’s because I believe God never commanded mankind to form “states.” It is the very essence of “governments” to “tax” (steal) in order to fund acts of vengeance. If you do not have the sins of theft and vengeance, you do not have “the government.” “The government” is therefore inescapably sinful. So the law for “the State” is: repent and stop being a State! So that makes me an “anarchist.”

        Are you an “anarchist” too?

        You say, “Therefore, people in governments sin when they act immorally.” Would you clarify this by saying, “Therefore, people in governments sin when they act like governments?”