by | Dec 17, 2023

Theonomic Critics of Theonomy

Setting the Stage

Events over the past several years have conspired to expose that much of the “conservative” evangelical pastorate has been asleep at the switch when it comes to the intersection of faith and civil government. These can be touchy subjects, and Pastors have been more concerned with avoiding church splits than sharpening as iron sharpens iron. So they say spiritual sounding things like “let’s not bicker over divisive issues, lets unite over the gospel and keep the main thing the main thing.” Meanwhile congregants are being cajoled by the bio-fascists in civil government into injecting themselves and their children with Big-pharma juice in order to be functioning members of public society.  These are policies that some people in their own church support.

All this abdicating pastoral avoidance tactic does in practice is kick the can down the road where the fallout will seep out in other ways. Congregants have been rightly seeking answers from their pastors who have historically avoided “politics” and have neglected the application of scripture to the civil realm.  The response they receive typically tends towards either pietism or antinomianism. In either case, it’s become clear that on these issues, the emperor wears no clothes. Meanwhile, the theonomists have been teaching extensively on these issues for decades. They have answers. They have biblical exegesis. They have convictions. Congregants are flocking to theonomy in droves. This of course sets off alarm bells for the abdicating pastorate.

In response, the gatekeepers of conservative evangelical Christianity have attempted to come to the rescue by penning a seemingly never-ending stream of “theonomy take downs”. Pretty good for doctrine that is supposed to have died long ago. Turns out theonomy is only mostly dead. Or said differently, it refuses to die. Truth has a way of doing that. (Twitter Account “Theonomy Tweets” issued helpful time stamped responses to several of these theonomy critiques here here here and here.)

Most of the “critiques” coming down the assembly line have been pretty lame. In fact, most of them have been so lame that they only preach to the converted, and to those seeking answers, actually work to further expose the vacuousness of the anti-theonomy arguments.  Occasionally you have theonomy critiques that are earnest, fair, and attempt to be exegetically rigorous. And while these attempts ultimately fail to refute theonomy they are at least admirable for those reasons.

That brings us to the latest entry which is a video podcast entitled “What Theonomy Gets Wrong: Biblical Justice” from the “Defend and Confirm Podcast” by Russell Berger and Sean Demars.

This attempt was a little different in approach in that they set themselves up as men who are going to refute theonomy but they actually accept the fundamental theonomic hermeneutic in their attempt to refute theonomy. What’s really going on here is that the best they could muster was to argue for a kind of soft theonomy. The way they do this is through redefinition.

If one defines theonomy according to what specific civil penalties one advocates, than almost no one is a theonomist. Bahsen, Rushdoony, and North all had slightly different formulations and conclusions about what civil penalties continue to apply to nations today outside of Old Covenant Israel. When Bahnsen responded to Vern Poythress’ critique of his own work, Bahnsen still regarded Poythress as “fundamentally” a theonomist, and not an antinomian, though Bahnsen differed with Poythress on civil penalties.

What unites theonomists is their hermeneutical approach to civil government. Theonomy is the biblical teaching that scripture contains perpetual moral standards, including some civil laws given under Moses which are obligatory for all institutions, whether family, church, or civil government. The “including some civil laws” is the distinctive crux of theonomy. It means that civil government has God as it’s source of authority, and that Godly civil magistrates are not free to disregard the aspects of Mosaic civil law that are transcendent and not particular to Old Covenant Israel.

In this podcast, these men repeatedly (though somewhat inconsistently) reaffirm their commitment to theonomy’s fundamental hermeneutic. Although they disagree on the authorization for first table enforcement by the civil magistrate, they affirm that all power of civil governance comes from God and that civil magistrates are authorized and obligated to administer the second table. In the process of making their arguments, they engage in a litany of other half-truths and inaccurate statements about theonomy. They do not effectively (to my mind) prove their case about the exclusion of authorization for civil magistrates to administer penalties for first table offenses.

What follows is a timestamped response to their podcast.

Podcast Review

3:00 – They begin the discussion around Romans 13 and claim that theonomists argue from this text that since civil magistrates are commanded to punish evil that therefore the civil magistrate must punish all sins including blasphemy.

This is a misrepresentation. They do not properly distinguish that theonomists do not call for all sins to be civilly punished (like covetousness for example) but rather look to the general equity of the civil law to determine which sins are governed by the civil jurisdiction.

4:00 – They claim theonomy is defined as believing that elements of the civil law are applied to the state today and that an example of theonomy is holding that idolatry should be civilly punished.

This is inaccurate. Not all theonomists hold that idolatry is civilly punishable. The majority do. Of those that do, virtually all would uphold freedom of the liberty of conscience and only regard only public blasphemy (and not heresy) and seditious attempts at overthrowing a Christian government as punishable. This would be similar in some respects to Luther, Calvin, Kuyper etc. Finally, theonomists do not believe on foisting biblical law by force or coup d’état upon an unbelieving populous. It is only after the jurisdiction has largely been converted out of idolatry that such provisions would be in place. Absent these distinctions, theonomy can be made to look like a system where the civil government massacres everyone who doesn’t affirm the gospel. This perception that is created is far from the truth and creates a distorted picture of what theonomy advocates.

6:30 – They claim that theonomy (as they allege being the “broad view” of civil justice) holds that all 10 commandments are to be civilly enforced. This is sloppy and inaccurate.

In distinction from some covenanter groups, Genevan Calvinists, and neo-puritans, theonomists tend to adhere to the regulative principle of civil government and advocate far less civil involvement in the daily life of citizens. Almost none (possibly with Bahnsen as a possible exception) affirm that there is a death penalty for sabbath breaking (for example). Prominent theonomists theologians hold that there is no civil penalty for Sabbath breaking and some hold that the Sabbath is done away with in the New Covenant in place of the Lord’s day. Additionally, no theonomist has any civil punishment for sins that do not extend past the heart like covetousness, lust, hatred etc.

8:00 – They claim that the correct position (in alleged distinction from theonomy) is the “narrow view” which is that only the second table of the law is to be civilly enforced.

This is a reframe attempt. They are actually behaving as second table theonomists. This entire section reveals that they have a poor grasp of the issues and create a false dichotomy.  Firstly, they don’t here provide any support for claiming that no laws in the first table are civilly punishable (they get to that later), they just sort of assert it. But even if their assertion were to be correct, they are still “doing theonomy” if they are holding that the civil magistrate is obligated to enforce biblical law, whether it be the first table, the second table or both. There is disagreement within the theonomy camp about which laws are of general equity and which were particular to Israel. But this is still an intramural debate within theonomy. Even according to their own definitional standard, a second table only “narrow view” would still be wrong since covetousness is part of the second table and is not civilly punishable.

Finally, if they are in favor of acknowledging that all civil authority proceeds from the authority of the Godhead, then are they not in favor of some form of Christian establishmentarianism that acknowledges this? This would see aspects of first table theonomy (the alleged “broad view”) seep into their civil law paradigm, even if the civil penalty is not affirmed.

9:45 – When they do get to the justification for their second table theonomy, the claim is that Old Covenant, two-table theonomy was to purify and make holy God’s chosen people Israel and that therefore the first table is no longer civilly enforceable. Here is their argument in a nutshell, my paraphrase:

“Civil magistrates should not enforce first table offenses because unlike Israel, they are not authorized. Why not? Because Israel was to perfect justice and nations today are only meant to preserve justice. How do we know this? Because we are not under the Mosaic covenant but the Noahic covenant which only seeks to uphold second table justice and not first table justice.”

The problems here are many-fold.

First of all, theonomists do not maintain that the general equity of the civil law itself has as its purpose to “perfect” the nation or to “purify” it. A “perfecting” approach would be to pro-actively go around rounding up anyone who doesn’t submit to the Christian gospel and have them put to the sword. Of course, theonomy does not advocate this approach, so the discussion is moot. But it doesn’t follow that Christian nations should therefore permit public blasphemy and sedition to go unpunished. This more passive first table theonomy that responds to public blasphemy and sedition is a “preserving” approach to justice to the Christian nation that exists.

One could argue that Israel under the Mosaic Covenant had the responsibility to purge evil doers from their midst (a “perfecting” approach) in a way that was particular to them and not applicable to nations today, but the way these critics draw the fault lines between “perfecting” and “preserving” justice proves too much. In Deuteronomy 19:11-13 and 24:7, punishing murderer with death and a kidnapper and man-stealer with the death is said to constitute “purging”.  So these men actually affirm “perfecting” penalties in these cases. They cannot remain consistent.

I doubt anyone in this discussion would argue that civil magistrates today are therefore prohibited from punishing murderers and kidnappers in this manner due to the fact that this penalty was part of the “perfecting” purpose of Israel’s unique calling.

This is going to seem like an overly obvious statement, but theonomists are aware that pagan nations did not worship Yahweh and thus did not have civil laws that prohibited blaspheming Yahweh. Of course we don’t expect pagan nations to have these laws, they are pagan! But that isn’t the issue at hand. Theonomists don’t want blasphemy laws in a pagan nation either. But once a people have repented and have acknowledged Christ as Lord, the question is, where does the scripture teach that the Christian civil magistrate is absolved from punishing public blasphemy and sedition? The fact that Israel had a unique purpose doesn’t make obvious to me that blasphemy and sedition are now back on the table as civilly permissible for *Christian* nations.

Secondly, theonomists do not base their views on some notion that we are still under the Mosaic covenant, but on the fact that transcendent civil law which was not particular to Israel maps back to creational law, that is, the moral law which was summarized in the ten commandments. Romans tells us the work of this law is written on all men’s hearts.  The general equity of the civil law were those civil laws which were not particular to Israel, but which were the moral law applied to the civil realm.

Let’s take an example: Leviticus 24:17-22 lays out how civil penalties for civil crimes are to be proportionate. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

The civil magistrate can’t decide to cut off someone’s hand for stealing a load of bread. That would be immoral and would just mean more theft by the magistrate. The magistrate can’t decide to make the thief pay back 1,000 loads of bread. Again more violations of the 8th commandment. The magistrate can’t kill an entire household for sins of one son (as wicked nations routinely did). That would just be more violations of the 6th commandment.

These judicial laws do not expire because they are of general equity (exemplify righteous civil ethics for all civil rulers at all times – not just Israel) and they are of moral use (they are transcendent moral principles applied to civil realm).

Now, who is to say that Christian civil magistrates in nations that have established Christianity and are filled with Christians can disobey the command to penalize open blasphemy and sedition? Arguably, those also map back to the moral law, the first and second commandments namely. You may have other arguments to say that civil penalties for those infractions were particular to Israel (theonomist Joel McDurmon lays out one such argument for this based on what he sees as a “devoted to destruction” principle which he alleges was particular to Israel for life in Canaan) but it’s not immediately clear that such penalties cannot map back to the moral law.

I can hear the objection now, “but you’re mixing the moral law with the civil law and denying the threefold distinction of the law”. Of course, this critique would an equivocation. There are indeed three categories of law (moral, civil, ceremonial). But when we look at what laws Christians are obligated to observe today in our period of redemptive history, laws are either applicable or they are obsolete. It is a binary decision in this different sense. Transcendent law vs. Obsolete law. The moral law and ceremonial law helps us to inform which part of the civil is transcendent and which was particular to Israel. So they are distinct, but they are interrelated.

Thirdly, and finally, to base all civil law permissions for civil magistrates today on the Noahic covenant is a disaster. The Noahic covenant only basically repeats the be fruitful and multiply command and prohibits eating meat with blood still in it. Beyond that, the only measure it allows for civil magistrates is the authorization to punish murderers with capital punishment. It does not even authorize the magistrate to penalize theft. So how is it that they affirm that the penalization of theft continues? Without going back to the ten commandments and the general equity of the civil law given to Moses, they have nowhere else to go.

Fourthly, they do not seem to give due weight to the evangelistic qualities of the law, which included the civil statutes and were to be emulated and admired by the nations around Israel.

Deuteronomy 4:5-8 makes this explicitly clear:

“See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?”

Beyond this, the result of the success of the Gospel meant that the entire world would one day embrace God’s law.

Isaiah 42:4

“He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.”

How is it that other nations would admire and one day, accept this law, but not be authorized to administer the non-ceremonial judicial elements within it?

14:03 – They discuss natural revelation and special revelation and claim that natural revelation reveals the “Noahic covenant aspect” of God’s law and claim that special revelation is required to be held accountable for breaking the first table of God’s law.

This is mixed up. According to natural revelation, all know God clearly through creation and reject him in rebellion (Romans 1). This is due to the work of the law (the moral law) being written on all men’s hearts so they are without excuse. The other guy then sort of corrects the first guy but then draws a false distinction between “classical reformed” guys and theonomists. Both camps agree that natural revelation means the work of the moral law is written on the heart of man. He rightly says that theonomists tend to doubt the sufficiency of natural revelation alone to rightly inform civil government principles contra some of the classically reformed guys. He says he actually tends to agree more with the theonomists here. With that said, he says it really doesn’t matter since he can’t agree with the theonomists on what constitutes law to guide the civil magistrate anyways.

16:03 – They claim the “tip of the spear” argument is that just because people are accountable for sin doesn’t mean civil magistrates are authorized to enforce laws against them. He then forcefully claim that Bahnsen “misses” this.

This is just utterly false.  Theonomists (Bahnsen included) do not regard every sin that humans are accountable for as sins which the magistrate also has authorization to penalize. Theonomists continually and explicitly teach the opposite of this. In fact, theonomists often chastise other Christians for advocating civil penalties that go beyond what scripture allows.

“Not all sins are crimes, and thus the civil magistrate is not obligated to enforce the entire law of God. Rulers should enforce only those laws for which God revealed social sanctions to be imposed (not matters of private conscience or personal piety).”

– Bahnsen, By This Standard

Similar quotes could easily be found from Rushdoony or North or most any other theonomist. They spend a lot of time going on from this error and wasting a lot of breath.

18:48 – They cite a law allowing sojourners to eat animals that died naturally where Israel is prohibited from eating it. The point is to highlight that Israel is unique and different. They do this again around 25:00.

So what? Theonomists understand that Israel had unique provisions related to the ceremonial law and the way that God resided among them that were different from other nations.  They have this habit of trying to pit theonomy against doctrines that theonomists already agree with and acknowledge.

20:00 – They cite Genesis 9 again talking about the authorization for the civil magistrate to punish murderers. They try to again found their basis for civil authority here.

This has already been addressed above, but sorry you don’t get a working model for all of civil governance out of an authorization for civil magistrates to punish murder with the death penalty. That’s only one crime, and one principle. Murder and proportionality. Possibly uniformity as well.

What about false witness? Due process? Theft? Kidnapping? Rape? Assault? Bribery? Currency debasement? Example could be multiplied.

And on what basis would they say a civil magistrate would be wrong to command that as a punishment for rape, the rapist should be raped by the civil magistrate? If you’re using only Genesis 9 as a model and you’re making huge leaps of speculation to apply this to other crimes, what stops you? Should a kidnapper have their children be kidnapped? This is the absurdity of trying to base a civil model on Genesis 9.

26:00 – They claim that theonomists miss that the Church now has jurisdiction over certain sins committed under the Mosaic Covenant (first table offenses).

Some theonomists (minority) agree broadly that most or all first table offenses are now penalized by the church. Most theonomists (along with Calvin / Luther / Kuyper etc.) argue that some of the first table offenses are also civilly penalized.

But this doesn’t refute theonomy. To the contrary, as stated earlier these critics are acting like second table theonomists again. They affirm that civil magistrates are obligated to enforce biblical law (second table) but just differ on which laws. Once again, this is a debate *within theonomy*. Almost no theonomists argue that the death penalty to for sabbath breaking remains. They see Israelite particularity here as well.

Theonomists acknowledge that the civil magistrate and the church have differing jurisdictions with some overlap. An unrepentant thief might be both civilly punished and excommunicated from the church.  Some sins would not be addressed at all by the civil magistrate but only by the Church.

27:30 – Again they make the mistake of implying that anytime someone is “purged” in the Old Covenant it must signify an offense that is now handled by the church. The problem is, executing murderers is said to be a “purge” in the Old Covenant too. And yet they are not in favor of only excommunicating murderers, they also advocate that they receive capital punishment by the civil magistrate. So they cannot be consistent in their own arguments. It doesn’t follow that if someone is purged from the church in the new covenant that therefore earthly civil punishment is removed.

33:00 – They claim that at the end of Romans 13, after Paul instructs the church to be subject to civil authority and he then instructs them to also fulfill their second table obligations that this means that civil magistrates are not obligated to enforce the first table.

I am not even going to comment here. It is an obviously non-sensical, non-sequitur, argument from silence.

40:00 – END These are not attempts to refute theonomy (that differ from attempts they’ve already made in this program) but attempts to respond to theonomist critiques of their own views. Nothing really notable hear worth responding to.

At one point they seem to affirm that God judges nation today for iniquity like abortion and our failure to punish it appropriately, but they then argue that God would not do the same for a failure to punish things like blasphemy. They offer no real reason for this other than to restate that blasphemy is a first table offense which they claim the civil magistrate has no authority to uphold. It begs the question and unfortunately, they didn’t sufficiently (for me) establish this earlier on.

They also seem to criticize national covenanting saying that God initiates covenants with nations, not man. But theonomy does not depend on pretending that nations can decide to enter into mutually binding covenants with God. Nations should declare their submission to Christ as the source of all authority. They should declare their intentions to be faithful to the law of God in the administration of civil polity. They should declare that whatever law system they adhere to, they do so to the glory of God. We are, after all, commanded to do all things to glory of God. That includes constitutions.

So the critique of theonomy here falls short.

Conclusion

Lots to disagree with here. I don’t think they successfully refuted theonomy. I didn’t hear anything I regarded as new.

Fundamentally, whether they mean to or not these guys are trying to reframe the debate. They affirm that the civil magistrate is obligated to administer transcendent aspects of the civil law.  This makes them second table theonomists even though they are not willing to admit it. So much of their discussion is an intramural discussion disguised as a critique of theonomy.

I found their reasons for their rejection of whole table (or most of the table) theonomists are self-defeating and inconsistent.

And finally, they’re building their model for civil governance on very weak branch with their appeals to the Noahic covenant. Their formulations in this area I found to be the weakest area of their critique. They have very little to offer in the way of a positive foundation.

 

 

 

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Jordan Wilson
Jordan Wilson is a Christian Reconstructionist pursuing the Great Commission with his wife and children with a focus on intergenerational dominion. You can find his writings here at The Recon Tavern, New City Times, and scattered across the nether regions of the interwebs. Jordan admins a number of social media forums dedicated to the advancement of Christian reconstruction, theonomy, and postmillennialism.

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