Combating the Theonomist’s Trap

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.