Ethics & Public Policy Center

American Culture Is Broken. Is Theonomy the Answer?

Published in The Gospel Coalition on March 31, 2021


Have you noticed this vision of Christianity in the public square that seems muscular, confident, even brashly triumphalist? It is tired of Christianity’s never-ending losses in the culture war. It rightly criticizes the decadence, perversion, and irrational norms of secularism and understands that under the guise of “neutrality,” secularism has become the functional god of this age. The only way for cultural sanity to be restored is for Christians to truly grasp the lordship of Jesus Christ and unapologetically assert his authority over every part of life, even government.

This vision may seem new if you’re younger than 40, but it is not. What we’re seeing is the rebirth of Christian Reconstruction or its more applied form, Theonomy.

Christian Reconstruction or Theonomy?

As T. David Gordon notes in a 1994 essay, Christian Reconstruction and Theonomy overlap considerably yet bear distinction. Christian Reconstruction refers to the broader theological and cultural program of uniting culture more explicitly to Christian moral foundations. Theonomy, on the other hand, seeks to apply the civil law of the Mosaic covenant to contemporary civil government. Theonomists wish for civil government not only to take its directions from Christianity, but also to craft specific law in the shadow of Old Testament Israel.

Reconstructionism refers to a broadly cultural movement; Theonomy refers to a particular hermeneutical approach. Because all Theonomists are implicitly Reconstructionist, critiques of both Christian Reconstruction and also Theonomy will go hand in hand under the category of Theonomy.

Predominantly a movement within 1970s–’80s Presbyterianism, Theonomy significantly influenced broader conservative evangelicalism on such matters as political engagement and the rise of homeschooling. It championed strict biblical orthodoxy, limited government, close family relations, and free-market economics.

Several figures are associated with Theonomy, among them Rousas John Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen. Books such as Rushdoony’s three-volume The Institutes of Biblical Law and Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics are just a few examples of the literature that birthed the movement. David Chilton and Gary North are also key proponents. Though organizations exist to promote it, Theonomy today is less a concrete movement than a mood and mode of engagement.

Theonomy, which simply means “God’s Law,” is not necessarily one thing. Various strands and arguments comprise it, and proponents disagree on some matters. And to be clear, anyone who believes in Christianity ought to believe God’s law is the greatest law against which everything else is measured. Moreover, everybody—Christian or not—is living according to some ultimate authority. Theonomists are right to point out the inescapability of authority and to criticize the “myth of neutrality” that smuggles secular assumptions into government and law. There can be common cause with many of Theonomy’s protests.

Theonomy as a theological program believes that civil law should follow the example of Israel’s civil and judicial laws under the Mosaic covenant. The refrain “By This Standard”—commonly echoed in Theonomic circles—is meant to demonstrate the necessity of looking to God’s Word alone as our highest authority for structuring all aspects of social life. Again, there’s much to appreciate in the criticism that jettisoning scriptural authority will cause society to degenerate into moral anarchy. When man rejects God’s Word, man will put himself in God’s place.

General Equity Theonomy believes all persons and institutions are subject to God’s law generallyRushdoonian Theonomy desires all civil legal systems to adhere to the Mosaic covenant’s judicial laws specifically.

The use of Scripture is inseparable from Theonomy’s understanding of eschatology and the relationship between the church and civil order. Under a (typically) postmillennial account of history, the kingdom of Christ is said to take gradual dominion over the kingdoms of the world as Jesus’s disciples bring his lordship to bear over every sphere of life. Scripture measures all standards of righteousness. Rulers should seek to apply not just the principles of natural law but also the particularities of Israel’s civil law.

“The Abiding Validity of the Law in Exhaustive Detail” is a chapter title in Bahnsen’s book that captures Theonomy’s use of the law. As he writes in the preface to the second edition of Theonomy in Christian Ethics, “The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing ‘judicial’ laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals.”

Though the jurisdictions of church and government remain separate in Theonomy, both are under God’s authority for civil righteousness, which is enclosed in the Old Testament. Thus, Old Testament penology remains especially relevant to solve moral and criminal wrongdoings today.

The hermeneutic used to make such an application assumes the abiding authority of the Mosaic law and would lead to executing people for a multitude of sins and crimes in our contemporary context.

Theonomy Is Not the Solution

There are serious criticisms of the movement—criticisms so severe that Theonomy should be repudiated as an evangelical framework for understanding the mission of the church and the relationship between civil and sacred, eternal authority and spiritual authority.

In sum, the error of Theonomy is that its hermeneutic stretches beyond the Bible’s understanding of its own authority. From this mistaken hermeneutic comes serious distortions, with drastic consequences for the church’s role in fallen political orders.

Theonomy is a facile hermeneutic that channels an eschatology of triumph. Historically undesirable, it instrumentalizes religion, blurs church-state relationships, and jeopardizes religious dissent. And it proves unnecessary because of how other covenants showcase the benefits of common grace and natural law.

Rather than become mired in interpretive problems amply demonstrated by many conservative scholars elsewhere, the simplest observation to make about Theonomy as a hermeneutic is that it misunderstands the relationship between the old covenant and the new covenant—which leads to misapplications today.

It correctly stresses a continuity in the original moral force behind Israel’s civil law. It overlooks, however, the covenantal discontinuity in applying and enforcing the particulars of Israel’s civil law, especially since theocratic Israel’s expiration. God’s purposes with Israel were unique in design compared to his relationship with other nations.

The laws God laid down with Israel were meant to enforce and protect the exclusivity of that relationship. Israel thus played a singular role that other nations aren’t called to replicate down to the level of their judicial laws.

Believing that Israel’s civil law serves as a model for contemporary civil government, Theonomy tends to downplay the moral law’s existence predating Israel and Ten Commandments. But murder, for instance, wasn’t permissible until the sixth commandment prohibited it. It was wrong from the beginning (Gen. 1; 4; 9) because it destroys an image-bearer of God. It is rooted in who God is and his purposes for creation, as revealed from the very beginning.

The eternal law, evident in the natural law, comes to be expressed in divine law. While the Decalogue is, I believe, a timeless representation of natural law, its contents existed before they were formally codified. Theonomy gets hung up on the form and practice of the commandments as they functioned in the Israelite theocracy and how they apply today. But this approach mistakenly places the onus of the law on a particular time and place, rather than the law’s moral substance, which predates Israel.

The Ten Commandments remain relevant today, especially considering that the New Testament affirms nine of them. Moreover, Theonomy is notorious for wanting to apply civil penalties today. This isn’t to say that Israel’s penal system was wrong (of course it wasn’t), but that Theonomy wrongly tries to apply what was unique to the Israelite theocracy. The hermeneutic is thus static, wishing to copy for today what Scripture considers, in the full sweep of redemptive history, to be temporary.

Wrong Theological Posture

Other problems relate to theological posture. Martin Luther expounded on the differences between a “theology of glory” and a “theology of the cross.” The former is a theology of enthronement and triumph; the latter a theology of suffering and loss. Theonomy is, fundamentally, a theology of glory.

Whether explicit or not, Theonomy implies that the church’s faithfulness is measured by the culture’s adoption of Christian norms. It may make temporary peace with being on the margins, but on the whole it isn’t a theology that speaks to the church on the margins.

What does Theonomy have to say right now to the church in China or Iran? It is an over-realized eschatology with a static view of culture that will disappoint its supporters and make them grow ever strident in their resentment toward culture. A more accurate assessment of history understands culture as buffeted by times of both victory and defeat. To pick either victory or defeat as the litmus test for the church’s mission in society is to subject oneself to either utopia or despair.

A Christian’s posture toward the world must simultaneously embrace both glory and the cross. Inhabiting this paradox is understandably complex, but it gives us a proper perspective to see that the church’s mission throughout various societies can look very different depending on the societal context.

It’s debatable whether Theonomy desires a formal unity of church and state. Doubtless, though, church and state work in unison to promote each other’s interests. With intention, they mutually reinforce and consolidate one another’s authority. This can be both good and bad. It is bad when religion becomes the government’s handmaiden, or vice versa; good when the government enables the gospel to be proclaimed freely (1 Tim. 2:1–2).

Though medieval Europe was not strictly Theonomic, the first thing to learn about strong unity between church and state is how undesirable it is. A nostalgia that looks with longing on “Christendom” erases the bloodiness that resulted from church and state working in tandem. Absent from history is a tradition of church-state unity that was good for the church’s purity or religious dissent.

The allure of moral, religious, and cultural uniformity cannot come at the expense of religious freedom. A baseline of religious liberty is essential. Unless all religions receive equal recognition under the law, one religious group will set whatever exacting standards it desires as the basis of membership and participation in society.

Whether Catholic versus Protestant or Protestant versus other Protestant, one group is always tempted to exclude based on some religious criteria. As a Protestant, I shudder thinking about many of John Calvin and Martin Luther’s attitudes toward the state’s involvement in religion. Baptists did not fare well as religious minorities under the reign of church-state union, and I have no longing to return.

Theonomy is right to criticize our society’s lawlessness. But the alternative it proposes presupposes a Christian society that does not exist and, where it once did, did not contain the theological coherence to perpetuate itself.

And if Theonomy is right and history is working toward the telos of a Christianized society, why does precisely the opposite seem to be the case? Is Christ’s church less faithful because Western culture is increasingly pagan? What if the Lord uses difficult moments to prune? What results from a reciprocating relationship between church and state, however, is the husk of civil religion and the kernel of saving faith instrumentalized for cultural cohesion.

Theonomy Cannot Build a Just Society

But what about standards of morality for society? How can society continue unless God’s Word receives the respect it is due?

On the one hand, no society can obtain this level of regeneracy, since all societies are penultimate and face judgment. Aside from the kingdom of God, no culture lives up to the standards of God’s Word. Does this mean we’re left with autonomy and human reason alone to guide our lawmaking? No. Every sound principle emanating from just human law participates, unwittingly, in both the natural law and also the eternal law. Rejecting Theonomy does not discount the fact that rightly ordered secular law can overlap with divine law.

As J. Budziszewski writes, “Government enforces those parts of the divine law that are also included in the natural law, such as the prohibition of murder.” The argument for overcoming moral lawlessness is not Theonomy, but arrangements that better accord with the creation pattern God has ordered and continues to uphold in the Noahic covenant, natural law, and Scripture (2 Tim. 3:15–17).

God’s Word is indeed supreme—every person and culture owes it ultimate allegiance. To make that declaration, though, we must understand how God’s Word functions in the civil sphere outside the church’s direct jurisdiction. Rather than the Mosaic covenant, a better starting ground for political reflection is the covenant of creation and the Noahic covenant as upheld in the full witness of Scripture. And given what these covenants offer, Scripture highlights the intelligibility of nature and reason as self-attesting witnesses to God’s authority in the structure and design of his world. This necessarily includes the moral law (Ps. 19:1–3Rom. 1:32; 2:15).

Fallen reason, however, obscures our understanding of the moral law and obscures God’s creation ordinances—which is why revelation is required for true moral righteousness to surface in society. What’s necessary is special revelation in the form of understanding creation ordinances, not the application of the Mosaic covenant.

While revelation is indeed supreme, the arena where those norms are proclaimed and the method for how they’re proclaimed needs careful attention. Expecting leaders to mediate divine commands sounds nice where there is cultural homogeneity, but that is not the world in which we live. Theonomy rests on the assumption of religious minorities being made second-class citizens. Nowhere in the New Testament are the governing authorities tasked with expounding God’s Word as the source of judicial standards.

No state can long persist in moral rebellion; nor does the New Testament’s pattern for the state rely on special revelation for its legitimacy. Christians must inhabit this uncomfortable tension. Government is a legitimate enterprise that can yield justice even apart from its leaders submitting to special revelation. Paul suggests this is attainable in Romans 13—and he does so without relying on the Mosaic covenant. Speaking biblically and even historically, it is possible for pagan rulers to rule justly (even if their understanding of justice lacks full coherence). Where this occurs, we should be grateful and see this as evidence of God’s common grace in the world.

Within natural law, then, Theonomy ends up being unnecessary. Why? No biblical evidence suggests society can only obtain just conditions if a religious consensus is secured. Of course it’s desirable for religious consensus to exist, but to make that the standard of justice means that justice will always be elusive (and in fallen, penultimate societies, it is).

This is why God has given a natural law, which predates the Mosaic covenant and offers a better foundation for morality without that covenant’s specificity. We don’t need Israel’s civil law to inform us that such things as murder or bestiality are wrong. The covenant of creation mediated through natural revelation tells us this.

Again, Theonomy insists on applying the Old Testament’s penal code to today. But a better use of the biblical storyline grasps that modern nation-states are to pursue a just order and prudentially wise criminal sanctions—which is why, for example, it’s fine to imprison for offenses that Scripture prohibits without executing the offenders. We can look to other covenants in Scripture, such as the creation and the Noahic covenants, to arrive at a system of morality required for society—without believing that societies are just only insofar as they mimic Israel.

As David VanDrunen’s work on the Noahic covenant has demonstrated, God promises to uphold the structures of creation “while the earth remains” (Gen. 8:22); and he will do so through natural law and common grace, even if obscured. If this provides us no assurance of cultural domination, so be it. We’re called to be the church of Christ, not the chaplain to Christendom.

Discord, pain, and cultural strife will result from nations casting off religious constraints. Still, God didn’t determine the legitimacy of nations based on whether they enjoyed a shared religious consensus. Again, while it would be great for society to be united around Christian ideals and for government to reflect those commitments, nowhere in the New Testament is a government’s legitimacy tied to its acknowledgment of true religion.

Proclaiming the Gospel’s Power

In a well-intentioned effort to protect biblical sufficiency, Theonomy stretches the concept beyond biblical recognition. It yields a grasp of Scripture more focused on casuistry than redemptive drama.

It would be right for a Theonomist to read this essay and ask, “But what if the nation, on the whole, experiences another awakening that produces a predominantly Christian nation? What then?”

The answer is not to enact a theonomic agenda. The answer, to quote my denomination’s confession, is that “a free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.”

We are not discipling nations for the sake of political hegemony. Satan would be content with a moral nation animated by the values of civil religion if those values eclipse the scandal of the cross. We are discipling nations to glorify Christ and to see obedience in every domain of life. Yes, that includes those who occupy government. But just government is not the object of our mission; it is a byproduct of transformed consciences adhering to the natural law, not submitting to the Mosaic law.

American culture seems irreparably broken and perverse. We are a nation in moral rebellion against God’s creation and Word. No wonder Theonomy is tempting and attractive right now—it provides an easy adhesive to fix America’s problems. Let me suggest, though, that turning toward a just society doesn’t begin with installing parapets on our roofs (Deut. 22:8). We look not for culture to be redeemed, but for the redeemed to speak prophetically to the culture as only the church can: through the power of the gospel.

The irony of Theonomy is that its proponents, in theory, promote strict free-market capitalism as the logical result of its tenets. In practice, however, Theonomy relies on a subsidy of the state’s backing. It practices a form of welfare assistance by looking to the state for the legitimacy of its enactments. A theological system that seems incapable of existing apart from state sanction is not a system confident in the church’s structure or mission as laid out in the New Testament. It might demand free-market economics, but what results is statist theology.

If we reject the Theonomic approach to Scripture and culture, does that mean we have less reverence for Scripture’s inspiration, authority, and sufficiency? By no means. The dispute is over how those concepts are applied in this redemptive-historical era—an era marked by unbelief. God’s Word is indeed all-sufficient and the final authority against all counterfeits. The question we have to contend with, though, is how to understand the task of cultural apologetics when the Bible itself is rejected.

Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is author of the forthcoming volume Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age (Brazos Press, 2021). You can connect with him on Twitter.

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