While the word theonomy simply means God’s law, and in that sense any Bible-believing Christian could be called a theonomist, Theonomy as a modern theological movement is more than a simple commitment to the Moral Law of God summed up in the Ten Commandments; Theonomy, particularly Reconstructionist Theonomy, is distinguished by a commitment to see the governments of the modern world enforce the civil laws of Old Testament Israel, including the death penalty for such things sabbath breaking and childhood rebellion.
When I was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary back in the early 1970s, a classmate of mine, Greg Bahnsen, introduced many of us to the thinking of Rousas John Rushdoony. It was then that I first discovered the distinctive theology of Theonomy, a system that offers very concrete solutions, most appealing in our unstable world. But I believe that Theonomy is out of accord with the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles, who taught that the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.
Rejecting the idea that Christians should attempt to get the modern state to adopt the penalties prescribed under the civil code of Israel doesn’t mean that a person rejects those laws as if they had nothing to teach us. On the contrary, the whole of Scripture is the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and life. The case laws of Exodus through Deuteronomy are part of that Word of God, and, therefore, they, too are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” If a person ignores these laws, then he is not “adequate,” nor is he “equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17.) Furthermore, these case laws are one standard for civil authorities to consider in making laws, because they illustrate how God’s principles of justice were impartially fleshed out in the everyday lives of an agrarian people living in the ancient Near East. While they were not given as the absolute requirement for every modern state to put into effect with literal and exacting force, they do give us underlying principles about how to deal with people and crime in an even-handed and fair way. So I am willing to be called a theonomist, but only in the lower-case, general sense that I believe that the modern state is obligated to enforce the biblical morality summed up in the Ten Commandments as the foundation of its jurisprudence. But more than what these laws say to the modern state, the case laws point us to Christ and what he has done for us.
A foundational error of Theonomy is the obliteration of the threefold distinction within Old Testament law: moral, ceremonial and civil. As the Westminster Confession of Faith put it in Chapter XIX, “Of the Law of God:”
“Beside this law, commonly called moral,
God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age,
ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship,
prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and
partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which
ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.” (iii)
Some Theonomists have tried to argue that the phrase general equity commits the Confession to the Theonomic position. (This has been challenged by Sherman Isbell.) However, R. J. Rushdoony honestly recognized the incompatibility of Theonomy with the Westminster Standards at this point and commented: “The Reformation restated clearly the doctrine of justification, but it failed to clarify the doctrine of sanctification. The confusion is apparent in the Westminster Confession of Faith . . . We have previously seen how impossible it is to separate any law of Scripture as the Westminster divines suggested . . . At this point, the Confession is guilty of nonsense.” [R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), pp. 550, 551.] In writing this, I am not saying that Mr. Rushdoony and other Reconstructionist Theonomists reject the Reformed Faith, nor that they could not in good conscience affirm the teachings of the Westminster Standards as a whole. But I am saying that Reconstructionist Theonomy is out of accord with the Confession’s teaching at this point, because the judicial laws given to Israel are no longer binding on the modern State according to the Confession.
Fundamentally because of this failure, Reconstructionist Theonomy has been condemned by some within the Presbyterian and Reformed world. For example, the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland condemned Theonomy in 1998. And Reconstructionist Theonomy is out of accord with the political philosophy of John Calvin. He discusses these matters in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xx, 14-21, “Public law and judicial procedures, as related to Christian duty.”
As one reads through Calvin, he is not surprised to find that the father of modern Theonomy, R. J. Rushdoony, rejected Reformed theology at this point. Reflecting on Calvin's words above, Rushdoony said, “Such ideas, common in Calvinist and Lutheran circles, and in virtually all churches, are still heretical nonsense.” [Rushdoony, Op. Cit., p. 9]
Samuel Rutherford, one of the more influential authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith had this to say about the imposition of Old Testament civil law.
For further reading: Theonomy
: A Reformed Critique
For on-line reading: