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What is the "Theonomic" position? "Theonomy" comes from two Greek words, theo, meaning "God" and nomos, meaning "law." The "Theonomy" (= "God's Law") school of ethics has raised the important question of how we determine God's prescriptive will for our lives.
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's 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 dynamic New Covenant difference 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).
Of course, 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 (which express God's demands for holiness) would someday be fulfilled in a dramatically different way. As Bahnsen puts it,
The Levitical priesthood, representing the Mosaic system of ceremonial redemption, could not bring perfection and so was intended to be superceded (Heb. 7:11f.,28).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.Still, 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.
Theonomy, pp. 208-209.
The "Theonomic" position might well be summarized as follows:
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.This school of thought is best represented by the Chalcedon foundation (R.J. Rushdoony, President) and similar research groups. Newsweek magazine indentified Chalcedon as the "think tank" for the Moral Majority and other components of the "Religious Right" (Feb. 2, 1981). The Chalcedon scholars (chiefly R.J. Rushdoony) are responsible for the Creationist movement, the Christian School movement, and the growing involvement of Conservative Christians in politics. 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.
Thus Reconstructionists have rightly pointed out that the Bible is indeed a textbook of science, a textbook of politics, economics, education, the vocations, indeed, every area of life. There is no issue, action, or thought which is not covered 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 Christian 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 People, Christ's Church, 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 (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!).
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, Wid ows, 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
Rushdoony and the Reconstructionists have completely challenged the prevailing "piety" of the Protestant and Evangelical churches. Breaking assunder the hitherto impenetrable barrier between the "clergy" and 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.
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.
This series of essays 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 traditional view of the "judicial laws."
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) hs 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 criminials, 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."