Update! December 2001

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What is Theonomy?

From time to time in Vine & Fig Tree essays on Patriarchy and Christian culture, we will mention the "Theonomy" school of ethics. This perspective undergirds everything that will be written in these essays. We therefore need to describe this important school of thought, so that the reader is aware of our presuppositions.

What is the "Theonomic" position? "Theonomy" comes from two Greek words,

The "Theonomy" (= "God's Law") school of ethics has raised the important question of how we determine God's will for our lives, and God's Prescription for our sick society. This school of thought is best represented by the Chalcedon foundation (R.J. Rushdoony, President) and similar research groups.

Back in the 1960's, fundamentalists did not talk much about capital punishment or any other political issue, because they would have to refer to the Old Testament, and they all claimed to be "New Testament Christians." As a result of the influence of "Theonomy," the Old Testament is now quoted by fundamentalists with much less embarrassment.

Newsweek magazine was the first to identify Chalcedon as the "think tank" for the Moral Majority and other components of the "Religious Right" (Newsweek, Feb. 2, 1981.) These "Theonomists" are responsible for the Creationist movement, the Christian School movement, and the growing involvement of Conservative Christians in politics.[1] Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other Conservative Christians who have become increasingly vocal concerning the vital public issues of our day have been influenced largely by the "Theonomists" or the "Christian Reconstruction" movement, as it is also known.

While most evangelical Christians assume that a given Old Testament law is no longer obligatory unless it is specifically repeated in the New Testament, the "Theonomists" have shown that this does an injustice to the unchangeable character of God and His Word. In such books as Theonomy in Christian Ethics by Greg L. Bahnsen and Institutes of Biblical Law by R. J. Rushdoony, it has been conclusively demonstrated that we must assume that unless the Old Testament law in question has been specifically qualified by the New Testament, it remains in force. Bahnsen speaks of "the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail." Jesus did not come to abrogate the Old Testament; He came to purify it and put its intentions into force (Matthew 5, esp. vv. 17-20) by empowering His People to obediently fulfill its promises. The difference between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant is not the Standard of Righteousness, but the Spiritual ability we have to obey it (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:27; Jeremiah 31: 31-34 + Hebrews 8:8-13; Romans 8:3-5 + Ephesians 4:13).

It is obvious that some things have changed. There are no more temple sacrifices, no more Levitical priesthood (and there never will be again), and the New Testament explains why (e.g., the book of Hebrews). In some cases we don't even need the New Covenant to tell us that some Old Testament laws are no longer letter-applicable: the Old Testament itself tells us about the dramatic change of priesthood that was to occur with the coming of the Messiah; many laws would someday obligate no more. As Bahnsen puts it,

The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superseded (Heb. 7:11f.,28) . . . . The former commandment with reference to ceremonial matters was set aside . . . in order that God's people might have a better hope, for the ceremony was imperfect and kept men at a distance from God (Heb. 7:18f.). [S]uch a change in stipulation is also a confirmation of the Older Testamental law as implied in Psalm 110:1,4. (Theonomy, pp. 208-209).

Of course, in a sense, all of the Old Testament Laws are still binding upon us. For example, we are still responsible to bring before God the blood of a sacrificial lamb. But we also know that that Lamb is Christ (John 1:29). It makes sense, then, to expect, for example, that most of the Old Testament laws concerning the shedding of blood find their satisfaction in Christ.

Here is a succinct definition of Theonomy, our operating presupposition:

God's will for our lives is found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with the Old Testament Law and Prophets carrying in our day the full authority of God's written Word unless specifically qualified in the New Testament.

The Real Issue: No Neutrality

It should be pointed out that the distinctive contribution of the Christian Reconstructionists is not their view of the State and the laws it should enforce. The Reconstructionist view of the State is in fact very traditional and conservative. Some liberals feign outrage at the Reconstructionists' suggestion that sodomy and adultery be punished by the State, but in the last 1,000 years, it is the idea that these crimes should not be punished which is new.

What is really unique about the Reconstructionists is their rejection of the "pietistic" distinction between "sacred" things and "secular" things. Every area of our lives must be brought under the principles of the Word of God, according to the "Theonomists." They are surely correct (Matthew 6:24; 12:30; I Kings 18:21; Joshua 24:15,19).

Thus Reconstructionists have rightly pointed out that the Bible is indeed a textbook of science, a textbook of politics, economics, education, the vocations, indeed, of every area of life. There is no issue, action, or thought which is not governed by the Word of God.

The idea that some subjects can be governed by the autonomous word of man, unchecked by the Word of God, derives from the "neo-Platonism" of Greek and Roman traditions, which held that the material world was inferior to the non-material ("spiritual") realm. The Bible teaches that every area of life is to be governed by Biblical principles.

This affects even our definition of Salvation itself. Modern evangelists often lead us to think that "salvation" is something that applies only to individuals, and then only to their soul, and then only in the after-life (although we might cultivate "warm-fuzzies" in this life ["down in your heart"]). This is not the Biblical Gospel; it is Western, neo-platonic individualism. It is a gospel corrupted by the "Me-First" generation.

The Biblical Gospel is God-centered, not Me-centered; it concerns His Creation, His People, and considers them as a body. The Biblical Gospel is the "good news" that all nations on earth would be obedient to God's Law, that justice would flow like a river, and the whole world would experience His blessings in every area of life (begin in Galatians 3:8 to trace the Biblical Gospel). Biblical Salvation turns back the Curse; it mends the torn fabric of life. The Biblical word for Salvation can thus be translated "health," "victory," "prosperity," "wholeness," and "peace." It is very clearly concerned with this life on this earth. [2]

An example of the scholarship and application of the Bible which has been accomplished by the Reconstructionists (and the work has only begun) may be seen by looking at the Table of Contents of the massive and seminal work by R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law. Under the pattern of the Decalogue, Rushdoony surveys all the case laws, prophetic utterances, and the commands of the Lord and His Apostles. Decades of study are evident in hundreds of footnotes to "secular" sources, to which Biblical Law is applied in detail (over 3000 Biblical citations). It can be seen that no area of life is not addressed by God's Law. Most evangelicals would never think to apply the Bible's authoritative and concrete direction to such problems as these:

III. The Third Commandment
2. Swearing and Revolution
3. The Oath and Society
5. The Oath and Authority
IV. The Fourth Commandment
3. The Sabbath and Work
5. The Sabbath and Law
Appendix: The Economics of Sabbath keeping -- by Gary North
V. The Fifth Commandment
1. The Authority of the Family
3. The Economics of the Family
4. Education and the Family
5. The Family and Delinquency
VI. The Sixth Commandment
2. The Death Penalty
5. Hybridization and Law
6. Abortion
8. Restitution or Restoration
9. Military Laws and Production
10. Taxation
13. Quarantine Laws
14. Dietary Rules
20. Social Inheritance: Landmarks
VII. The Seventh Commandment
1. Marriage
5. Family Law
6. Marriage and Monogamy
7. Incest
9. Sex and Crime
11. Adultery
12. Divorce
14. Homosexuality
17. The Transvestite
18. Bestiality
VIII. The Eighth Commandment
1. Dominion
2. Theft
3. Restitution and Forgiveness
4. Liability of the Bystander
5. Money and Measure
6. Usury
9. Landmarks and Land
10. The Virgin Birth and Property
11. Fraud
12. Eminent Domain
13. Labor Laws
15. Prison
18. The Rights of Strangers, Widows, and Orphans
IX. The Ninth Commandment
5. Corroboration
6. Perjury
8. False Witness
11. Slander Within Marriage
13. Slander as Theft
16. Judges
17. The Responsibility of Judges and Rulers
18. The Court
19. The Procedure of the Court
20. The Judgment of the Court
X. The Tenth Commandment
1. Covetousness
3. Special Privilege
5. The System
XV. Notes on Law in Western Society

It is obvious that The Institutes of Biblical Law is no gushy, "pious" devotional reader. It is a pathbreaking, foundational Reconstruction of Law, Politics, Jurisprudence, and Social Morality. Every Christian Lawyer should read the book from cover to cover (849 pages). Every political scientist should do the same. It is not the last word, but it is the first word in centuries attempting to rigorously apply Biblical laws to the problems of contemporary society from a Bible-believing perspective. Not the details of his application, but the inescapable conclusion that the Bible provides all the Law we need to apply to the facts of our lives -- this is the importance of Rushdoony's Institutes and of the "Theonomic" movement in general.

Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists have completely challenged the prevailing "piety" of the Protestant and Evangelical churches. Destroying the "clergy-laity gap," and confronting ecclesiocrats with the real world, Rushdoony shows how every believer-priest must apply the Word of God to every area of his life. Since its publication (1973) the Reconstructionists have continued to apply God's Word to contemporary problems in new areas and in new ways.

We may disagree with his applications and interpretations, but we must begin where Rushdoony begins: with the recognition that the Lord claims sovereignty over all the earth, and has given us His Law in written form in the Bible. Every Christian, in whatever capacity he exercises his gifts, must bring every thought captive to the lordship of Christ. Lawyers are not excepted. Nor are judges, politicians, educators, scientists, and all others involved in "secular" matters. The Bible is not an out-dated document for the "religious," for "church-workers," and for the "ordained clergy" and other ecclesiastics. God's Law governs all men.

Moses' Law for Modern Government: The Intellectual and Sociological Origins of the Christian Reconstructionist Movement
A paper presented to the Social Science History Association Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Saturday, October 15, 1994
by J. Ligon Duncan, III, 74604.1331@compuserve.com  
Department of Systematic Theology , Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS

"There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy."

Cornelius Van Til

The issue . . . is between theonomy (God's Law) and autonomy (self law). Modern autonomous man is aided and abetted in his apostasy from God by the antinomianism of the church, which, by denying God's law, has, in theology, politics, education, industry, and all things else, surrendered the field to the law of the fallen and godless self, to autonomy.

R.J. Rushdoony

"'. . . that He may teach us about His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.'
For from Zion will go forth the Law
Even the Word of God from Jerusalem

Micah 4:2

PATRIARCHY: Theonomy and the State

Thus, every area of human thought and conduct can be analyzed or pursued in terms of God's Law. Our purpose in this series of essays is to apply Biblical principles to those areas of life most directly seen to be "political." PATRIARCHY is one application of Christian principles to the State and the questions raised by the State.

The generally-accepted view of the State advanced by the Theonomists is that the State is "a divine institution," and is responsible to enforce the "judicial laws" of the Old Testament. This would include the Biblical commands concerning the shedding of a man's blood as commanded by the relevant Biblical statutes. In many ways this view has been held by Reformation Protestants since the 16th century and catholic Christians since Constantine and Justinian.

Vine & Fig Tree rejects the traditional view.

I used to be a regular contributor to The Chalcedon Report and have written other articles for other publications of the "Christian Reconstruction" movement in which I call for the State to enforce the so-called "judicial laws" of the Old Testament. I still hold to the essential planks of the "Theonomic" position. But after much study, I am ready to conclude that it is an error to assume that adherence to the "Theonomic" perspective necessitates support for the traditional view of the State. I have also come to question the Reconstructionist view of the "judicial laws," most notably including "capital punishment."

I want to emphasize that I still hold to the basic "Theonomic" position. I believe that the Old Testament Law should be followed by Christians today, unless the New Testament informs us that a particular law (such as those pertaining to the ritual shedding of blood) has been superceded by Christ. In short, the "only" thing that I have changed is my view of the "sword," that is, of the State (taking a more Anabaptistic view) and of "capital punishment" (the requirement to shed blood.) I am going to suggest that the shedding of blood is no longer required, and that if it is required, it is not the exclusive monopoly of the "State." I will in fact be suggesting that the State is a demonic institution, not a Godly one. But these controversial positions do not constitute a denial of "Theonomy," no matter how many "Theonomists" defend capital punishment and the traditional view of the State. Bahnsen writes in his summary volume, By This Standard,

[T]hose who agree with the foundational conclusion of [Theonomy] -- that God's Law is binding today unless Scripture reveals otherwise -- may very well disagree among themselves over particular matters in interpreting what God's law demands at this or that point, or ... may disagree over how these demands should be followed today (p. 9).

The bulk of Bahnsen's lengthy treatise on Theonomy does not discuss politics, but the basic concept of the abiding validity of the Old Testament generally. Indeed, the section which does address politics is called "Application of the Thesis to the State" (p. 315). Bahnsen's particular application of Theonomy to the State is not the Theonomic thesis itself, but only an "application of the thesis."

Bahnsen's particular application, and that of Rushdoony, Gary North, and other "Reconstructionists," has disturbed many theologians. Particularly alarming is application of capital punishment to everyone whom the Bible declares "worthy of death." Some have also been alarmed at the thought of the civil magistrate enforcing the Law of God in society, calling this prospect a return to a "theocracy." In attacking this application of the Theonomic thesis, these theologians have insulted God's perfect Law, inadvertently defended homosexuals, adulterers, and incorrigible criminals, and tangled themselves up in a great knot of contradictions. They have also exposed their shameful ignorance of the basic Theonomic thesis, and even of the most popular application of the thesis; the Chalcedon scholars have more than adequately answered the attacks of the critics of Theonomy, but most critics lack the discipline to read the major Reconstructionist works.

But there are genuine problems with the generally-accepted application of the Theonomic thesis to the State. Reconstructionists have a tendency to see salvation coming from political action, and have "baptized" the political status quo with Biblical rhetoric. The way around the problems perceived by anti-Theonomists is not in abandoning the eternality and unchangeable perfection of God's Word, but by rightly understanding God's promises for the Family and His judgment of the non-Familial "secular" State. This is simply a more Scriptural application of the (Scriptural) Theonomic thesis.

Vine & Fig Tree's studies of PATRIARCHY are thus based on a "Theonomic" view of the Bible and of the importance of God's Law in our lives, but takes quite a different view of government and the State than most "Theonomists."

I am convinced the theonomic thesis cannot be refuted. I am also convinced that if opponents of a top-down "theocratic" fascist state daily wielding the death penalty wish to untie the knot that binds them, they will have to begin with Theonomy and then apply it in a more Biblical manner than do Rushdoony and Bahnsen. I agree that the Reconstructionist movement has certain tendencies which are dangerous. Every movement needs to be checked by other movements. If the picture many theologians have of a Reconstructionist theocracy is frightening, may I suggest they cease insulting God's Law in the Old Testament and begin questioning traditional applications of those laws, as well as traditional views of the State.


1. These words were first written back when conservative Christians were putting Ronald Reagan into office. Since that time, it is hoped that they are becoming more politically skeptical.  [Back to Text]

2. as well as the eternal state of the individual -- but even then, it is the Church as a whole that is seen praising and serving God!  [Back to Text]


The above essay was written in the mid 1980's. The only thing that seems to have changed is the increasing irrelevance of the "Christian Reconstruction" movement and their closet followers, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. The entrance into the political arena of formerly politically-inactive Christians was news in 1980. They may have been responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan (and thereby the funding of Osama bin Laden's "freedom fighters"), but since that time they have had little if any impact on society. The current construction of a police-state "homeland" is not being confronted by the "Religious Right."

So what is the future of "Theonomy?"

We believe it to be "Anarcho-Theocracy."

Christmas Conspiracy


Vine & Fig Tree

Paradigm Shift


End The Wall of Separation
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