March 12, 2015

Thoughts on a Recent Pro-Theonomy Piece

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

Thanks to Brandon Adams for reading this over before I published it. –C.Jay Engel

I don’t have time at the moment to respond to the whole essay, but I just read a long piece by one of the more fiery of Theonomist’s ardent defenders, Bojidar Marinov.  His point was to do away with the idea that “theonomy is like Shariah.”  I don’t really care about that debate because it misses the point; which is that theonomy either stands or falls on exegesis, not similar characteristics of something else.  Whether it is like Shariah depends on a previous discussion regarding the definitions of “theonomy,” “like,” and “Shariah.”


In any case, Marinov said some things that piqued my interest and I thought it might be helpful to my own readers to get my immediate response to some of what was said in the first part of the essay.  Like I said, I am not going through the whole thing, because I’m not interested in the main point of his essay.  His statements are italicized and in the quote box. My thoughts follow.

Theological opposition to Theonomy keeps evolving.

Except for ours. We used the exact same argument against hermeneutical theonomy that Calvin used.

First, it was the dispensationalist argument that we are in the dispensation of grace, not of the Law, and therefore the Law of God is not applicable to us today.

No. First it was Calvin, who stated that “[t]he Lord did not deliver [the judicial law] by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.”

Then the faculties of Westminster East and West decided to take Theonomy to task by the rhetorical device of the “Law v. Grace” distinction,…

“Law vs. Grace” is central to the gospel; it is not a rhetorical device and should never be categorized as such.  It is a doctrine which speaks to the essence of the difference between that which was “old” or “former” and that which is “new” or “latter.”  Law/Grace distinction is part and parcel to the unfolding of the redemptive plan of salvation.  Now, perhaps Marinov might defend himself by stating that the very next phrase of the above sentence is “…applied in an openly un-Biblical way….”  I am open to this defense. But this does not change the fact that characterizing the law/gospel distinction as a rhetorical device is plain wrong, doctrinally and historically.

Marinov has, however, touched on an extremely important point. Bahnsen wrote Theonomy in Christian Ethics as his master’s thesis under Norman Shepherd at WTS in 1973. It was discovered that Shepherd denied sola fide and had been teaching his students this error. After a long ordeal, he was forced to leave WTS. One of the sources he pointed his students to was Daniel Fuller, another man who denies sola fide. (See Samuel Waldron’s PhD dissertation written about these two men). While thankfully Bahnsen never committed that same error, his thinking was thoroughly shaped by these men. In a footnote on page 183 in By This Standard, Bahnsen says “For a modern statement of the covenantal position that the Old Testament did not teach justification by law-works (legalism), see Fuller’s fine exegetical study, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980).” This is obviously a very relevant issue.

The resulting Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (1990) was such a blatant disaster…

I know I profited from it. I wouldn’t consider it perfect, but neither would I consider it a blatant disaster.  This language is remarkably unhelpful, even if one disagrees with its contents. I return to it often to understand the reasons why WTS did not endorse the theonomic system. (I hope our upcoming critique is both profitable and even more beneficial for those who read it –but I know it won’t be perfect and I wonder in advance whether it will be characterized as a blatant disaster. In which case my reply would be that the theonomist works themselves are a blatant disaster. How’s that for a reply! Back and forth, back and forth.)

…and received such a blow by Theonomy: An Informed Response (1991), that the two seminaries are still ashamed of that book, and don’t bother to re-publish it.

Never heard that this was the reason they haven’t republished. Can someone get me some intel on this (seriously)?

Then, in the mid-90s, the Lutheran concept of “two-kingdoms” was recovered from its ashes of the 1930s when it fell in disgrace, being used by Hitler to subject the German churches to his regime.

If you hold to a two-kingdom theology, even if it is not David Van Drunen’s, it appears that you are in good company. Also, as many of the readers in these (libertarian) circles know, if you defend the idea of secession from the United States government, you, like your Southern Confederate forefathers, are probably racists.  Seriously though, why did Bo throw in Hitler? To make some point? In which case why is he mad that some have linked theonomy with Sharia?

Enough of that awkward trail of thought.

By the 1990s, to the average church-goer in the US, Nazi Germany was as distant as the Battle of Naboo, so a few Westminster West professors took it, dusted it off, warmed it up a little bit and inflated it under the name of “Two Kingdoms Theology.”

Translation: in the 1990s, Westminster West bet on the fact that the “average church-goer” would have long forgotten that “two kingdoms” was a Hitlerite tool and, in an act of sheer desperation (because the Reformed have a history of engaging in seeker-sensitive efforts), they stuck the unrelated word theology next to it, which was totally weird because such a doctrine never ever appeared in Reformed Church history. (End sarcasm).

In all seriousness, however, an important distinction can be made here. Luther’s “two governments” were not the same thing as “two kingdom theology.” Luther, like Calvin, believed the state and the visible church (and the family) were part of the earthly, temporal kingdom. He taught that the state had authority over the church, as its father (Hello Hitler), in an effort to fight against Rome’s supremacy over the state. That was the root of Germany’s problem. When we refer to Two Kingdom Theology, we are not talking about Luther and Calvin’s Two-Fold Government of Man. VanDrunen and Horton have confused this issue

Real theology it never became, for no one really wrote a systematic defense of it

That’s right. It is as artificial a theology as the artificial fiat money printed by the Federal Reserve.  What does this mean?  This means, apparently, that real theology is created only when it is systematized.

It remain [sic] only a rhetoric, a semantical device to reject Theonomy; it never rose up to the task of presenting a consistent, comprehensive worldview as an alternative to Theonomy,

Except for the fact that the phrase long preceded theonomy.  Also, the purpose of “two kingdoms theology” is not intended to present a “consistent, comprehensive worldview.”  Rather, it is one doctrine from within our very worldview.  It is like saying that justification does not present a holistic and comprehensive doctrine of salvation, therefore it is wrong.  But there is so much more in the doctrine of salvation; such as: election, sanctification, and glorification.  Yes, two kingdoms theology is a challenge to theonomy, but this does not mean it is a challenge to “worldview Calvinism” necessarily (unfortunately, Van Drunen uses his version of Two Kingdoms theology to deny worldview Calvinism –but this in itself does not render Two Kingdom Theology itself as bad).

All these proved to be inadequate to “combat” Theonomy, so they had to be dropped at some point. The “Two-Kingdoms” rhetoric is also falling in disrepute, of what I see, for it can hardly win the hearts of many by its insisting that “God doesn’t redeem the civil institutions, He only preserves them.”

This is one of those tricky statements whose validity stems from the position of the one speaking it.  For instance, I can say the opposite from my own view, and solidly agree with it: “Theonomy has proved to be inadequate to “combat” two kingdoms theonomy, so it had to be dropped at some point.”

Now what?

Further, the idea that the “Two-Kingdoms” rhetoric is falling because it can’t win minds by its insistence that “God doesn’t redeem civil institutions” is misleading by the very fact that Marinov assumes that all Two-Kingdoms advocates are Van Drunenites.  An type of assumption which, if used against the theonomist, would produce all sorts of responses decorated in high intensity and polemical ferocity. Moreover, remember the outraged response to JD Hall’s tweet that “theonomy is dead?” Why is it that Hall gets in trouble for making such statements but Marinov expects to get away with statements of the same genre?  Besides, does truth depend on whether “the hearts of many” endorse it?  Not a chance. Theonomists of all people should recognize this.  Is not theonomy a minority position in the Reformed Church?

We are nearing the end, which makes reference to the essay response that Brandon and I did (and yay, we get to claim what the theonomists do without rest: they misrepresented us!).

And in our day, as the debate between Joel McDurmon and Jordan Hall demonstrated, the opponents of Theonomy have moved so close to Theonomy that they now bicker over whether the civil laws are “obligatory” or “practical,” while the justice of the Law for today is accepted for granted.

This is a clear reference to our essay, in which we showed how the Bahnsenite theonomists were not the same as the Westminster divines, per the discussion as to the proper meaning of the WCF.  Marinov missed our point. So I will articulate in no uncertain words. Our argument was that Reconstructionist theonomy is not advocated in the WCF. So the Westminster Divines were Two Kingdoms guys? No, the Westminster Divines were theonomists (a modern word) in a different sense, but they should not be interpreted as being the same as the Reconstructionists.  What is the difference?  The difference is that the Reconstructionist theonomist believe that the Mosaic Civil Laws should not be categorized distinctly from the Moral Law.  Rather, the Civil Laws should be seen as the “case laws” of the Ten Commandments. Contra this, the Westminster understanding of things sees a difference between moral/natural law (Ten Commandments) that was eternal and the positive law which was Covenant-specific, contextual, and temporary.  The role of the moral law in determining the applicability of the Civil Laws (which, along with ceremonial laws, were positive laws), is to play a discriminating function which “filters” the civil law to remove what is temporary (positive) and what is eternal (moral).  That was the difference between Westminster hermeneutic and Reconstructionist hermeneutic.  From there, the “practical theonomists” denied that the judicial laws were “obligatory” (because they were abrogated as such), but they did believe they could teach us something about natural/moral law, which remains obligatory, and which they believed included civil sanctions, to be enforced by magistrates today.  For more, our essay is important to read in full.

Now, where Marinov goes especially wrong is in assuming that we, anti-theonomists, take up the practical application as the WCF did.  But we were very clear: we disagree with both camps on this, and advocate liberty more along the lines of the American particular baptists.  Our point was simply that WCF does not equal Reconstructionism. We reject both, but think that the practical theonomy position is more historically accurate of Reformed doctrine.

Bo Marinov continues on into anti-Sharia (and anti-James White) battle.  I have no interest going there, and applaud White for stepping up against the theonomist position in the midst of such a busy writing and speaking and debating schedule.


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
  • David

    Bojidar is being too hard on James White, IMO. Nonetheless, I don’t think James White’s understanding of theonomy is comprehesive. admittedly, neither is mine, and I understand White has more important things to do, but I nonetheless do want to point that out.

    James White recently asked whether there is a particular political model that is part of the gospel. I, like all orthodox Christians, would say no. But there is another question, and that is whether or not there is a political position that the Bible teaches. Keeping in mind that not all of the Bible is the gospel and that not everything in the Bible is essential for salvation. To this question I would answer that there is, and this political model should in fact be based on what God gave Moses. Thus, while I do not believe theonomy is part of the gospel, I do believe it to be true.

    The theonomic community needs to clear this up, and if they do so, that will move things forward.