Theonomy is a dirty word. For the uninitiated the term is the combination of two Greek terms: Theos (God) and nomos (law). “So then,” you might be wondering, “how is it a dirty word?” How indeed!
Sometimes I’m a bit naive and I make assumptions of others that I learn later were in error. Over a decade ago I did this in two different settings. The first was in a secular setting on a job I was running in Columbus, OH. The second was in a local church where I served as pastor. My subject matter was different in each situation, but I assumed too much on a commonality that I believed was sufficient grounds for civil conversation.
Let me share with you what happened in the secular setting first and then move onto the ecclesiastical one. Afterwards I will tie in the subject of Theonomy. I believe you’ll understand the connection without much effort.
As I mentioned earlier I was running a job in Columbus, OH. It was on a new construction project, a rather large L-shaped building, that was to be an assisted living facility. My position was the HVAC foreman, and I was responsible for ordering, installing, and managing my team in the process. This type of job required that I become acquainted with all the other trades (e.g., electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, painters, etc.) as we were all expected to work together in a somewhat coordinated effort; so that, all steps of the building/finishing of the project were according to the schedule laid out for us by the general contractor.
The project was about two-thirds of the way done when my encounter with a window caulker occurred. I had returned from lunch and was heading from the rear parking lot towards one of the main entrances when I heard the man on his step ladder humming the melody of a well-known hymn. I thought, “Here is a kindred spirit that shares my faith,” and so, I attempted to start a conversation with him.
Now the day was warm and sunny, therefore my attire matched the elements. I had some worn jeans on and a sleeveless black shirt. About the age of 26 I began to enter into that stage of life that some men experience (male pattern baldness), and so, having been gifted with a nice dome from my Lord I began the ritual of cleanly shaving my head. My arms are tatted and my ears are pierced. So, I suppose outwardly I look anything but a Christian, least of all a pastor, nevertheless, I am both. Unfortunately, the man I struck up a conversation with. That fellow humming a familiar hymn. As soon as I spoke he looked me up and down arriving at the conclusion that the person speaking to hymn was a wolf pretending to be a sheep. He was anything but polite. Judgmental would be a better word. A very unpleasant encounter to say the least.
My second encounter around the same time period happened after a lesson I’d given during a service. It was an election year and I used another dirty word (unknown to me): politics. What I had proclaimed from the pulpit is the universal nature of God’s Word. How it is intended to shape our thinking and acting in every area of life. No subject was forbidden. No matter is off limits as far as God is concerned, and this included politics. In particular, the way we ought to vote for a candidate. If the candidate is firmly planted on a platform that calls for the execution of the newly conceived, then any Christian worth his or her weight should not cast a vote for that individual. How could they in good conscience?
The individual in question, as soon as I was finished speaking, stood up with a Bible firmly gripped in one hand and a pointing finger on the other. On the verge of shouting, he explained to me that I was dead wrong. You would have thought I’d just finished blaspheming from the pulpit. His frustration was pouring from every facet of his being. His face was contorted with what I do not doubt was a righteous indignation on his part. Trying to reason with him went no where. Eventually, he stormed out of the sanctuary. His wife apologized for the spectacle. She told me that she doubted that he’d return. I kept my composure until after they left and then I hit my knees before the Lord praying for the man.
(Sidenote: Later that evening I received a call from the individual who attacked me, apologizing for his behavior. The following week he apologized to the church. The man is a solid believer. I believed this when he attacked me, and so I prayed for him. I told his wife as much when she left that service embarrassed. The Lord heard my prayer, and the believer repented. He became one of my strongest supporters before I resigned from the Nazarene denomination for issues pertaining to doctrine. I plan on seeing him and his wife in heaven one day.)
The Dirty Word called Theonomy
We have now come full circle. My point in sharing those experiences was illustrative. We sometimes make assumptions about people or teachings that are in error. Presuppositions are strong deterrents. This can be a good thing, if the presuppositions that we hold are correct. The first individual I spoke about made a judgment call about me because of how I appeared to him outwardly. He couldn’t reconcile what he believed a Christian should look like, with what actually makes one a Christian (the atoning life of Christ put upon those that trust in Him). The second individual struggled with seeing how his voting was an extension of His faith in Christ. The first individual never spoke to me again, even though I saw him for the a few more months before the job was finished. The second person did, and through consistent biblical teaching eventually laid aside his former convictions, adopting new ones.
I first encountered the word “Theonomy” in the writings of Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen. I had found a paperback copy of his book, By This Standard, while working on my Master of Divinity degree (2011-2015). After reading through it, I was convinced by the biblically based cogent arguments provided by Bahnsen that saturate every page. Here is the general synopsis that Bahnsen proves in this work:
“Fundamental to the position taken herein is the conviction that God’s special revelation—His written word—is necessary as the objective standard of morality for God’s people. Over against the autonomous ethical philosophies of men, where good and evil are defined by sinful speculation, the Christian ethic gains its character and direction from the revealed word of God, a revelation which harmonizes with the general revelation made of God’s standards through the created order and man’s conscience…by this standard, 2
“Indeed, the Bible teaches that we should presume continuity between ethical standards of New Testament and those of the Old, rather than abbreviating the validity of God’s law according to some preconceived artificial limit…by this standard, 2
“The methodological point, then, is that we presume our obligation to obey any Old Testament commandment unless the New Testament indicates otherwise. We must assume continuity with the Old Testament rather than discontinuity.”1by this standard, 3
In other words, God has revealed to His people and through them to the world, the manner in which He intends for His creatures to live righteous lives. This ethic applies to all, including even the civil government over us, who are in reality, according to the testimony of the apostle Paul, God’s ordained ministers for good (Rom 13.1-5). A little later, Bahnsen continues,
“Christ said that the attitude which is genuinely godly recognizes the moral authority of God alone, does not question the wisdom of His dictates, and observes every last detail of his word. This is man’s proper path to God-likeness…[Moreover,] those who are not striving to become rivals to God by replacing His commands according to their own wisdom will rather endeavor to reflect His moral perfection by obeying all of His commands.”By This standard, 47, 48
To be an image bearer means to reflect the One in whose image you’ve been created to mirror. According to Christ, says Bahnsen, God is concerned that our mode of operation is to submit to His divine word as an ethical standard that cannot be deviated from. So far so good?
One would think that all Christians would find commonality in this standard of ethics revealed in Scripture and proclaimed by Bahnsen (among others of his ilk). Yet, that is not the case. In fact, much to my own astonishment (initially at least) there are many who, bearing the name of Christ, kick at every jot and tittle laid before them from God’s Law-Word. Much of the angst seems to be based on misunderstandings as to what has changed between the Old and New covenants. A direct equivalency is not what Bahnsen or other theonomists (like Gary North, David Chilton, or Gary DeMar) argue for.2 Bahnsen even notes this in the beginning of his work:
“The aim of those studies is to set forth a case in favor of the continuing validity of the Old Testament law, including its sociopolitical standards of justice. It is advocated that we should presume the abiding authority of any Old Testament commandment until and unless the New Testament reveals otherwise, and this presumption holds just as much for laws pertaining to the state as for laws pertaining to the individual. As already noted, such a presumption does not deny the reality of some discontinuities with the Old Testament today; it simply insists that such changes be warranted by Biblical teaching, not untrustworthy personal feeling or opinion.”3By This Standard, 7
That being said “Theonomy” is still a dirty word in many Christian circles. Bahnsen had his critics. He wrote an entire book answering them in the follow up to this work entitled, No Other Standard. I have encountered the same sort of criticism since adopting this theological branch of study into my own Christian worldview. Regardless, I have found that when investigated at a foundational level the critics are the one’s standing on shifting sand. Not the other way around.
As of yet, I have hardly begun to answer the question, “Why is Theonomy viewed in such a negative light?” This will be a topic returned to at some future date. Until then….
For those interested I would recommend the following works:4
Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics. 1985.
_____________. No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics. 1991.
North, Gary, ed. Theonomy An Informed Response. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics. 1991.
____________. Was Calvin a Theonomist? Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics. 1990.
1Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), PDF e-book. All emphasis in these quotes (throughout) are what Bahnsen stressed, not the particular whims of the current writer.
2An easy example for the reader to consider is found in Deuteronomy 22:8, which reads, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” (ESV).
A couple of things may be said about this verse. First, taking it as stated and trying to apply it exactly as written is not what a good theonomist would do. The reader would need to consider what a parapet is (a boundary marker or “fence” or “rail”) and what the historical setting entailed (flat-roofed homes were commonplace in the Middle East [and still are], first before attempting to apply it. The concern is to discern the direction and purpose of God’s Law-Word here. The Law-Word of God is meant to demonstrate the love of the image bearer; primarily for the Creator, secondarily for the neighbor (i.e., fellow image bearer). Secondly, the underlying principle would need to then be applied to the current cultural setting. An example today would entail building a rail around one’s deck. This would be set as a guard for the guests life. Notice that the law does not say that the railing or fence needs to be impassible, for it invites the conclusion that one might still fall and die, but it does state that if the individual in question does this kindness in submission to what God has revealed, then, if something undesirable does happen (like injury or death) the individual in question is innocent before the eyes of the Lord.
3The emphasis in this section is of my own doing.