Article of the Month
Rev. R. Aasman
Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 43, No. 5, 6 and 7 (1994). Rev. Aasman was at that time (1999), the minister of the Providence Canadian Reformed Church, of Edmonton, Alberta.
In recent years, terms like theonomy and Christian reconstructionism are being used and discussed in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Although many identify theonomy and Christian reconstructionism as being the same thing, there are distinctions. Let us define our terms. Literally, theonomy means the law of God; and the implication of this is that one is bound to God’s law. For instance Herman Ridderbos in The Coming of the Kingdom speaks about the theonomy of the gospel: within the kingdom of God there is the demand to keep the law of God.1 Who of us would not call ourselves theonomists in the sense that we are under the law of God in Jesus Christ as Paul speaks about it in I Cor. 9, and as we confess it in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 32-44 and that therefore our ethics are based on God’s law?
Nevertheless, more recently, the term theonomy has been coined by people with the basic methodology or hermeneutical approach to Scripture which advocates a continued normativity of the moral and judicial laws of the Old Testament, along with the penal sanctions of the Old Testament for today; and in their opinion, these are not only for the Church but for society as a whole.
What is the relationship between this theonomy and Christian reconstructionism? Christian reconstructionism takes the basic hermeneutical approach of theonomy to Scripture and starts to apply it in a concrete way in order to transform or reconstruct every area of life in this world to conform to the law of God. Reconstructionism also is postmillennial in that it optimistically believes in a world-wide dominion of Christ where the kingdom of Christ penetrates every section of life. This will happen as every aspect of life bows in obedience before the law of God. In fact, the civil government is to enforce the Old Testament laws and sanctions so that society is to be reconstructed as a Christian society. We should understand that every reconstructionist is a theonomist, but not every theonomist necessarily has all the distinctives of reconstructionism.
There have been many bitter attacks against theonomy in the press in recent years, especially because of statements by theonomists which advocate, for instance, that the civil government should execute homosexuals. To be fair, it must be pointed out that theonomists do not advocate forcing their reconstruction program on society. Rather, this has to be taught and preached to society till almost all accept it. Then there will hardly be any homosexuals and other similar problems which would require execution. This program could take hundreds of thousands of years.
The reason for theonomy’s popularity rests squarely on the religious wasteland created by liberal theology and on general social deterioration. Many people in the USA, for instance, are really upset by the lawlessness throughout society and are looking for a blueprint to rebuild morals and values and thus save American civilization. It is attracting American evangelicals, fundamentalists and some charismatics - people who are interested in seeing their faith take control of every aspect of life, including social and political spheres.
The proponents of theonomy are varied. The father of American reconstructionism is Rousas J. Rushdoony who wrote The Institutes of Biblical Law. He is unique among theonomists in that he wants to maintain Old Testament dietary laws. Another theonomist is Gary North, who is well known for his economic policies and also his acerbic way of writing. He wrote the introduction to Greg L. Bahnsen’s book, By This Standard, in which he disdainfully warns that theonomy is where the action is, and anyone who does not go along with it will be out of the ecclesiastical limelight.2 Then there is James Jordan who is such a moderate that it may be asked whether he is a true reconstructionist. But the real dogmatician of the group appears to be Greg L. Bahnsen. Because of his clear and articulate way of presenting the basic tenets of theonomy, his works deserve the focus of our attention.
There are some very obvious attractions to theonomy. It emphasizes the infallibility of Scripture; it also emphasizes the sovereign grace of God and man’s utter dependence on God for every gift; and there is the very clear directive to be a living and practising Christian in every aspect of life. There is much to be appreciated here. The question is: do theonomy and Christian reconstructionism present a correct interpretation and understanding of Scripture? This article will attempt to answer that question.
II BASIC TEACHING OF THEONOMY
1. Relationship of Old and New Covenants
At the immediate outset of his book, By This Standard, Greg Bahnsen states his basic methodology: 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.3 Bahnsen warns against those who would stress discontinuity between the two covenants such as the dispensationalists, as well as those who are squeamish about applying the strict laws of the Old Testament to today’s society. A key word for Bahnsen is “exhaustively”- Old Testament laws must be kept exhaustively, in minute detail. The key passage for Bahnsen and all theonomists is Mt. 5:17-20 where Christ says during his Sermon on the Mount: Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. He offers an exegetical study of this passage in his Theonomy in Christian Ethics. (p.39ff). Bahnsen translates and exegetes verse 17 to mean that Christ came to confirm, establish or ratify the Old Testament law. That means: show the Old Testament law’s continuing authority and validity not one jot or tittle shall pass away from the law until heaven and earth pass away. Based on this translation and exegesis of Mt.5, Bahnsen speaks of the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail and the continuity of the covenant. Here is the key to his methodology for interpreting Scripture. He immediately adds that not everything in the Old Testament is to be literally observed - he recognizes the progress of redemptive history and the factor of Old Testament shadows. What is not to be observed is localized imperatives, cultural details, administrative details for Israel, and ceremonial laws. He speaks of the ceremonial law as the redemptive rituals which have been rendered outwardly inoperative or out of gear because of the coming of Jesus Christ. His understanding of Gal. 3 and 4 which speaks of the law as the tutor till Christ, is that it applies only to this ceremonial law. In other words, what is to be exhaustively kept in the modern day is Old Testament moral and civil law, including Old Testament penology.
On what basis does Bahnsen presume such continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament? Bahnsen, together with Gary North in his book Unconditional Surrender, and other theonomists, stress the immutability of God. Bahnsen explains this in chapter 5 of By This Standard. God does not change: He does not change His justice, His standards, His person - God does not change! Thus He is not a God of double standards, operating from a different standard in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. God has one moral code, one law, that is the same for all of history. Theonomists say: as soon as people recognize that today and start keeping the Old Testament laws exhaustively, then America can be rebuilt as a Christian nation, enjoying her peace and freedom. It is the institutional churches of the last few decades that have sabotaged this continuity and they are to blame for much of society’s ills.
In chapters 11, 12 and 13 of Bahnsen’s book, By This Standard, he attempts to show how the New Testament supports Old Testament law. The New Testament really does not contain much in the way of law because it relies on the Old Testament for that and presumes that we will turn to the Old Testament for directives of God’s revealed will. Naturally, the famous passage of 2 Tim. 3:16,17 - all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching - is used to show why the New Testament does not need to contain many laws. Here are a few of Bahnsen’s examples which show how the New Testament supports the Old Testament. The rule of two or three witnesses in Deut. 17:6 is supported by Jesus Christ in Mt. 18:16 which speaks of two or three witnesses in discipline matters. The condemnation of homosexuality and bestiality in Lev. 18:22 and 20:16 is supported by Paul in Rom. 1. The rule of Deut. 25:4 which speaks about not muzzling an ox when it treads the grain is supported by Paul in 1 Cor. 9:8-14 where he applies this law to ministers who live from the gospel. It is through such examples not too many of them at that - that Bahnsen makes the conclusion that New Testament clearly relies on Old Testament laws and their application for today.
As far as the categories of law are concerned, Bahnsen countenances two: moral and ceremonial .4 He is adamant that judicial or civil law is part of the moral law. In fact, he teaches that the judicial or civil law is merely the moral law illustrated in concrete applications. (in order to make clear what we are talking about, he uses this example: the moral law says you must love your neighbour; this moral law is applied in a concrete way in a judicial or civil law such as Deut. 22:8 where God’s covenant people are commanded to put a parapet on the roof of their house for the protection of their neighbour). Bahnsen is doing two things with this teaching. In the first place he wants to avoid placing the judicial law on the same level in redemptive history as the ceremonial which would abrogate its use in the New Testament. In the second place he wants to stay in line with the confessions of his Church. The Westminister Confession states in XIX. 4: To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may remain.
Most would conclude from the Westminster Confession that general equity is the moral law, and the general moral precepts which underlie the specifics of Israel’s judicial law remain, but those judicial laws themselves are no longer in use. But Greg Bahnsen says that judicial laws are simply illustrative precepts which apply the moral law - for instance, prohibiting incest, homosexuality, etc. He admits the outward forms of these judicial laws are no longer binding - in agreement with the Westminster Confession. But their general equity, that is their underlying principles, are abiding. Now those underlying principles of the judicial case laws are to be applied in an equitable way cross-culturally, from Israel to today’s society.
Thus the law of putting a parapet or fence around your roof in Israel is applied cross-culturally to today by putting a fence around your swimming pool. In this way Bahnsen stresses the continuity of Old Testament laws exhaustively - only adapt them from Israel’s culture to our culture today. Clearly, for Bahnsen, the underlying principles of the judicial law means maintaining the entire substance of the law with only a minor outward cultural adaptation.
Now the major point for theonomy is the purpose of this law. This is explained in chapter 21 of By This Standard. Besides the very obvious purpose of the law which is to define sin, drive the sinner to Christ and be the pattern for sanctification (I might add that this is beautifully explained by G.B.), there is also the political use of the law which is to restrain the evil of unregenerate men. A key passage for Bahnsen is I Tim. 1:9 and 10, the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient. In his opinion, he is firmly in the line of Calvin and Luther as to this political use of the law. This use of the law is not meant to save anybody but simply restrain ungodly men and be a deterrent. It is the civil magistrate who will have to fulfil this use of the law by using the laws of the Old Testament. This brings us naturally to the second part of the basic and distinctive teaching of theonomy: separation of Church and state.
2. Separation of Church and State
Theonomists such as Bahnsen and North have biting criticism for anyone who dares to suggest that Old Testament law and politics are fulfilled in Christ and no longer have literal application for governments today. To understand Bahnsen it is important to follow his line of logic. You can see it worked out, for instance, in chapters 24-26 of By This Standard. He says: God’s moral law is for all men. This is seen in Rom. 1 where Paul speaks of men knowing God from His creation which leaves them without excuse, and in Rom. 2 where he speaks of Gentiles who show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. Now that moral law for all man which was present among men from the very beginning of the world was standardized in the laws for Israel. Therefore it is only logical that all men who know and are bound to the moral law should, still today, turn to the moral law standardized for Israel and make full use of this great blessing of God. The key text for Bahnsen is Deut. 4:5-8 where Moses speaks of the surrounding nations marvelling at Israel’s God and at the law given by God to His covenant people. From this Bahnsen draws his very basic conclusion that God gave Israel the law so that it could eventually become the law for the world. To substantiate this he points out how God used secular rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus, calling them his servants. This is upheld by Paul in Rom. 13 where secular rulers are to be obeyed as men who have authority from God -they are called God’s ministers. The logical conclusion is that if the secular ruler is God’s servant, then he must use God’s law as laid down in the Old Testament.
This includes Old Testament penology, such as the laws of restitution and the death penalty for a variety of serious sins. Strikingly, Bahnsen says penal sanctions of God’s law are not culturally variable. How do you change the outward form of the death penalty? A person who commits bestiality is to be put to death. Period! And it is the state that must do this. There is no way that capital punishment in Israel is fulfilled in the excommunication of the Christian Church. Church discipline is another matter altogether and it is something which does not address the ills of society.
This last point of distinguishing between what the New Testament Church does and what the state does becomes a tricky matter for Christian reconstructionism. Bahnsen works that out in the following manner in chapter 27 of By This Standard. In the Old Testament there is a clear distinction between Church and state, typified by the clear distinction between Aaron and Moses. Basically it is the task of the Church to be the agency of redemption. As for the state it has no redemptive purposes and its civil laws have no redemptive effect. Bahnsen uses as example the laws for the stranger and sojourner in the Old Testament. God was concerned with social and political issues independent of religious issues. This relation of Church and state in the Old Testament is to be reflected in the relation of Church and state today. Bahnsen does not draw an exact parallel between Church-state relations in the Old Testament and New Testament, but his point is that the law revealed to Israel as a state is still valid for our present day society.5
A key passage for Bahnsen is Mt. 28:1820: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. Jesus Christ is the King of kings who will judge magistrates for the way they rule. He therefore commissions the Church to do something for society in that it is to teach the nations about socio-political morality and the validity of the Old Testament law.6 Christianity has to be a salt and a light to the world also in the socio-political sphere of life. in this connection we should also note what Gary North writes in Unconditional Surrender where he makes a clear distinction between Church and kingdom, emphasizing the Church is not the kingdom - but it is the agency of the later.7 The kingdom of God is as, broad as the world and it is the goal of God’s dominion assignment. God is not just the God of his Church, but He is the living God over all creation. As Christ made clear in Mt. 28, Christians must take the law of God into every section of the world in order that there may be a Christian society and a world-wide dominion of God. This brings us to the final basic and distinctive teaching of theonomy: postmillennialism.
Bahnsen teaches that postmillennialism is not integral to theonomy, though it is to Christian reconstructionism.8 We should take note of his cautionary remarks. However my reading suggests that theonomy naturally leads one to postmillennialism, that is to say, a certain kind of postmillennialism. Combining that with the fact that we are also examining Christian reconstructionism, it is necessary for us to look at postmillennialism. Gary North writes about it more extensively in Unconditional Surrender.
Strictly speaking, the postmillennialism of the theonomic movement envisions a future glorious age for the Church here on earth, where there will be widespread worship of God. This is not to say there will be no sin, or a utopia. Naturally this fits in with the distinctive teaching of Christian reconstructionism. It is a very robust movement which envisions a restructuring of society along the lines mentioned above, which will culminate in a glorious age where almost all men will serve Christ. There will be peace, law and order, and prosperity. Gary North’s interpretation of Mt. 24 for instance, sees the wars and rumors thereof as a time that will pass in history, and then will come the golden age of peace, prosperity and of Christ’s world-wide dominion as the devil is bound.9 It is up to men to subdue the world for the glory of God, and then there will be the increased possibility of Christ’s return -for his enemies will be made a stool for his feet. The Church is to be on the attack, and in the end it will only remain for the angels to do the mopping up. The Church is to be confident and muscular - get rid of that defeatist attitude so typical of dispensationalism which allows the world to descend into its spiritual morass and decay. This is dominion theology. Its tool is the law. In keeping with Mt. 28 the world is to be put under the discipline of the law, in order to inaugurate the millennial rule of the Christ, and then the end can come.
1. Relationship of Old and New Covenant
Greg Bahnsen makes the relationship between the Old and New Covenants seem simple: presume continuity, keep the Old Testament laws exhaustively except for certain parts such as the ceremonial law, and see to it that the civil government exercises the Old Testament law along with its penal sanctions. Granted, he admits this will take a lot of work, especially with a view to cross-cultural differences for the judicial law. He also admits there is not a law for each and every situation in life. Furthermore, there will have to be massive evangelization to convince the world of adopting the law. But in reality, this simple approach does not work and what it does is deprive us of some of the real depth and meaning of the Old Covenant in relation to the New.
One of the problems in theonomy, specifically in Bahnsen, is the infeasibility of his own methodology: presume continuity except in cases where the New Testament specifically informs us there is no continuity. He repeatedly warns against methodologies and theologies which presume discontinuity because the Old Testament is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Now Bahnsen recognizes the redemptive-historical development in Scripture, and he recognizes certain discontinuities. He sees, for instance, that according to Scripture, the ceremonial law is inoperative in the New Testament era. He also points out that the judicial laws must be cross-culturally applied, and many other parts of Old Testament law which deal specifically with Israel’s physical presence in Palestine, such as cities of refuge and the matter of levirate, are no longer applicable. The problem is, if one takes such a methodology then he has to stick to it. For instance, when we read Deut. 17:2-17 that a man or woman who worships other gods is to be put to death, then based on theonomy’s methodoloy, the state today must execute idolaters. There are some theonomists who will say this is so. But others start to make qualifications why certain judicial laws do not need to be kept any more. It has been said by a number of critics of theonomy: it dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Either theonomy sticks to its methodology or it begins to presume discontinuity on the basis of another methodology, namely, that with the coming of Christ there is a significant redemptive historical change! I think that some theonomists who are recognizing the non workability of their own methodoloy are moving more in the direction of recognizing the discontinuity or the fulfillment brought about by Jesus Christ.
It should be pointed out, at least briefly, that Bahnsen’s use of general equity is different from the way that John Calvin and the Westminster Confession use it. Calvin and the Westminster Confession maintain that both the ceremonial and judicial law have been abrogated in use because they are shadows fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For Calvin, even the punishments of the Old Testament law belonged to the shadows fulfilled in Christ, and therefore they do not require strict adherence by civil governments today (Institutes, [V xx 16). Basically what is meant by general equity is wonderfully summarized by our Belgic Confession, article 25 (which contains the thoughts of Calvin and is critical to our whole understanding of the relationship of the Old Testament and New Testament): the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and ... all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians. Yet their truth and substance remain for us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have been fulfilled. We should be cautious of being drawn in by Bahnsen’s explanation where he makes it sound as if he is in complete agreement with the confessions and Calvin, when in actual fact he is maintaining the use of Old Testament laws which have been fulfilled in Christ. Neither the Belgic Confession nor the Westminster Confession are speaking of a simple cross-cultural change. At the same time we must appreciate that the truth and substance of the Old Testament law do remain for us today: seen Christologically they teach us about how-to love God and our neighbour, how to remain separate and holy from an unbelieving world, etc. Bahnsen is certainly not completely off tract with his emphasis of the Old Testament laws, even though we have some concerns about his methodology.
As we have seen, Bahnsen’s classic text is Mt. 5:17-20. He has no argument from us as to his assertion that in this passage Jesus Christ is not aborting the law. However Bahnsen’s exegesis and translation is unsound when he affirms that Christ is saying that he is confirming or ratifying the Old Testament law for New Testament use and that therefore not one part of the Old Testament is abrogated till the end of the world. Instead what Christ is saying is that not one part of the Old Testament is abrogated or rendered useless because it all finds its perfect fulfillment and validity in Him. In this passage the Lord Jesus anticipates the charge of being a revolutionary who is overthrowing the law and prophets because of the beatitudes which he has just delivered. He says: I did not come to abolish them but to fulfil. To fulfil means to fill something to the fullest, to the very brim. It means to bring something to its complete realization. Think of this in the light of what Christ is saying: I have come to fulfil the law and prophets. That means: I have come with the specific messianic purpose to complete what was incomplete, to realize what was unrealized, in short, to bring all that was promised, predicted and foreshadowed in the whole Old Testament to its intended purpose. Therefore the entire Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It must be read Christologically or it just does not make any sense. What our Lord Jesus Christ is doing here is explaining that Scripture must be read and understood redemptive-historically.10
The Gospel according to Matthew often uses the word “fulfil” in the way we have just interpreted it. Think of Mt. 2:1315 where we read that Joseph and Mary had to flee with their baby Jesus to Egypt for fear of Herod. Matthew concludes: This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”. What this reference to Hosea 11 :1 shows is that Israel’s stay and deliverance from Egypt is unrealized and remains in shadow until Christ himself goes into the exile, the Egypt, of his people, taking their sins, condemnation and punishment on himself, and so bringing about the true and eternal deliverance from sin and death for them. There are more examples like this in Matthew. Think also of what Jesus Christ taught the two men on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection in Lk. 24:27: And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Absolutely everything in the Old Testament is a prophecy of Christ and his work. The Old Testament is Christological, finding its fulfillment in Christ.
Obviously there is continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament: one cannot even read or understand the New Testament apart from the Old Testament. But at the same time there is also discontinuity. There is a significant change with the life and work of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament was a time of types, shadows and ceremonies which did a wonderful job of keeping Israel on the right tract- equipping Israel to prepare and wait for the coming of the Messiah. Paul elaborates on this in Gal. 3 and 4 where he speaks about the law restraining Israel and being a custodian until Christ came. He also distinguishes the church in the Old Testament as a child in comparison to the church of the New Testament which is an adult. In other words, the child Israel was held in custody by the law, he was corralled by the law along with all its types, shadows and ceremonies to stay focused on the coming Christ and so be led to Christ. Bahnsen says that Paul is only speaking about the ceremonial law here, but Paul does not say that: he refers to the entire law. The purpose of the Old Testament law was to hold and lead the church to Christ, also showing the church the salvation which would be accomplished by the Christ. it did that admirably.
However it is also clear that the law given through Moses was a temporary arrangement, something to be set aside when its divine purpose was accomplished. As Paul writes in Gal. 3:24,25: So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian. When Jesus Christ fulfilled the law and the prophets, the church came of age, reaching adulthood. Therefore as an adult in Christ, the church does not need the custodianship of those things which temporarily kept the church in his infancy to stay focused on Christ. In fact the New Testament church is not allowed to return to a time of pedagogical tutelary bondage as if Christ has not come yet.11 Rather the church is to read and understand the Old Testament Christologically. Bahnsen says you are changing God’s Word when you do this. But it must be understood that this change is integral to God’s plan and progress in the history of redemption. John Calvin, John Murray, Herman Ridderbos and Klaas Schilder all emphasized the continuity between the old and new covenants, but at the same time they also emphasized a change, a discontinuity. Schilder speaks of God revealing, His never changing will, but in the light of changing economies or dispensations.12 Ridderbos13 and Murray14 speak of the validity of the Old Testament law placed under the condition of its fulfiliment in Jesus Christ. The law is Christological, finding its permanent and final embodiment of truth in Jesus Christ. He is the end of the law as Paul writes in Rom. 10:4. To act as if the law is continued in the same way it was upheld in the Old Testament is to make it independent of its redemptive historical character in pointing to Christ, and thus undermine the work of Christ. In fact, the law has no meaning or efficacy apart from Christ. its value rests in working for the day that it would be fulfilled in Christ. Therefore to insist that the Old Testament law continues in use in the New Testament as Theonomists desire is to introduce a fundamental and dangerous change to God’s whole purpose in regards to the law and his plan of redemption.
Perhaps you might feel that we are headed for antinomianism if we speak about this difference in the old and new covenants. But that completely misses the point. We are not now in the New Testament without the law. On the contrary as Paul writes in 1 Cor. 9:21: not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ. We may also think of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount where he was concerned with the minute points of the law and showed the law in glorious depth. Think also of Jer. 31:34 and Heb 8:10 which speak of the law written on the heart. Someone who has embraced Jesus Christ as Saviour will not externalize the law but internalize it so that it is daily his delight and he applies it concretely from the heart in thought, word and deed. He will daily meditate on God’s Old Testament law, in the light of its fulfillment in Christ, and he will apply it assiduously to his life. Moreover, contrary to what Bahnsen writes, the teaching of Jesus Christ and the apostles contains many directives for righteous living in the kingdom of heaven. In fact the ten words of the covenant are found back in the New Testament. Generally speaking, as far as Old Testament law is concerned - and here is the hermeneutical approach to the relationship of the Old Testament and New Testament as described by Herman Ridderbos only that part is to be suspended in literal, everyday usage whose contents are no longer compatible with the meaning of the administration of salvation inaugurated by Christ’s coming.15 That is to say, the shadows which obscured the heavenly realities, and that which was designed to hold people until Christ came are no longer in use today. This is not mobility in revelation as Bahnsen would charge but it is a right understanding of the history of redemption, in which the validity of the Old Testament law is placed under the condition of its fulfiliment in Christ.
What should be clear is that with the greater blessing of the new covenant also comes greater responsibility to keep God’s law. In so far we are to be true theonomists. It should also be clear, as Bahnsen points out as well, that God’s Word is not a legal code book which has a law for each and every situation in life. Thus He has granted us the Spirit of Christ who writes the law on our hearts and He has made us sons - not slaves - who from the heart will carefully discern God’s will and apply it in every aspect of life. We also naturally turn to the Old Testament which has truth and validity still for today. That is true theonomy.
2. Church and State
Bahnsen’s thesis that Old Testament law is not only for Israel but also for the surrounding nations and thus for civil government today is seriously flawed. His use of Deut. 4 to prove this holds no water, because the point is not that the nations would be impressed with Israel’s political economy and want to take that over, but that they would be impressed with Israel’s God and want to worship Him by joining the covenant people. Moreover it is clear that the law is specifically given to God’s covenant people and defines the nature of God’s covenant relations with His people. Note that in the opening words of the decalogue the lord says: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The law is specifically given to those whom God has delivered. Bahnsen misses the purpose of the law which is designed to make the covenant community a kingdom of priests and kings to God.
As for Bahnsen’s important distinction of Israel as church and state, that is artificial. It is untenable. In the Old Testament, church and state were one, as the lord Himself states in Ex. 19:6: you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Even a sojourner or stranger in the land could witness and experience God’s blessings for His covenant people. Even secular rulers were employed as servants of God for the benefit of His covenant people. What God did for the sojourner or how He used a secular ruler does not demonstrate a separation of church and state in Israel which existed independently of each other, but shows how He is fulfilling His one plan of salvation. Also the distinction which Bahnsen makes between Moses and Aaron as a support for the distinction between church and state is artificial. These two men worked side by side for the same goals within the one covenant community of God! And is it not true that on the one hand Moses had to intercede for Aaron and on the other hand the Levites had to act as judges at times? Does this not undermine the thesis of a separation of religious and political lines in Israel?
We understand of course that Old Testament Israel in its combination of church and state was not an ideal situation. This too is a part of the Old Testament shadows which point to a heavenly reality. It was but an ectype of the archetype. It finds its fulfilment through Christ - in the church of the New Testament. As Peter writes: you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. There is no parallel between Israel as a state in the Old Testament and the civil government today. There is no support for that in Scripture. Such an idea is based on a non-christological approach to the Old Testament.
Therefore to transfer the penal sanctions from Old Testament Israel to the hands of the state today also does not follow. The discipline in Old Testament Israel is now fulfilled in the discipline of the New Testament Church. Whereas the punishment for a number of sins in the Old Testament is the death penalty, in the New Testament it is excommunication from the church and so from the kingdom of God. What should be done to homosexuals, adulterers, incestuous people? Paul says you preach to them and admonish them, and if they remain unrepentant then they are to be excommunicated. Think of the incestuous young man in 1 Cor. 5. In fact, the wrath of God expressed against such persons in Rom. 1 does not culminate in the death penalty but in everlasting condemnation. This does not make God’s law less effective and disciplinary as Bahnsen charges, but it does the very opposite. Only read the letter to the Hebrews, especially the latter part of chapter 10. Here we see that Mosaic penology is fulfilled and heightened in the increased responsibility and condemnation of the new covenant. How terrible is the wrath of God against those who have come to know Jesus Christ and yet deliberately sin. Heb, 10 makes it clear that the capital punishment of the Mosaic law is fulfilled in the consuming wrath of God. This wrath of God is displayed today in the excommunication from the Christian church, for then God locks a person outside His everlasting kingdom.
Bahnsen is very careful to distinguish between church and state. However by taking the laws for Israel, including the punishments, and placing that in the hands of the civil authority, there is a danger of confusing the work of the church and the state. There is a danger of placing more emphasis on the state restructuring a Christian society, than on the church proclaiming the gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ. There is a danger that the discipline of the civil authority gets greater emphasis than the church. It also leads to confusion: in the case of idolatry, is it the task of the state to punish idolaters? Moreover, should someone who is not a member of the covenant community be punished, even executed, for worshipping other gods? Are Biblical punishments not based on one’s covenant relationship with God and one’s answerability for that? Even some theonomists realize that there is confusion in their own line of reasoning.
Clearly there is also a misunderstanding of Mt. 28 and an improper distinction between church and kingdom, especially in the teachings of Gary North. This leads to an impoverishment of both church and kingdom. The church is not the agency which enables Christians to go out and do kingdom work, namely the restructuring of society. Dr. J. Faber speaks about the dangers of making too much of a distinction between church and kingdom in Essays in Reformed Doctrine.16 There is no sharp distinction between the two: the church is the assembly of obedient citizens of the kingdom. The kingdom is spread through the proclamation and the institution of localized churches throughout the world. Therefore Mt. 28 should not be understood as Christ’s program for a Christian reconstruction of society, but as the proclamation of the gospel and the institution of the church where obedient citizens of the kingdom are gathered. Then those redeemed and renewed in Christ may also cultivate the earth to the glory of their King!
For a proper understanding of church and state today, we should study article 36 of the Belgic Confession, which goes back to Calvin’s Institutes. In keeping with Rom. 13 and 1 Tim. 2, it is the task of the state to preserve the true religion and create conditions in which the church can flourish. Bahnsen likes Calvin because Calvin says the civil government should base its laws on the polity of Moses. But a careful reading of Calvin in his Institutes, IV xx 1416, shows that he understands the Mosaic law is unique for Israel but now we can take the substance and truth of such laws to make good laws for today. Calvin makes clear that every government today will have to make laws which are expedient for its particular situation. Therefore to say, as some theonomists do, that Calvin advocates a reinstatement of Mosaic laws and penal sanctions is misinterpretation. It is true that Calvin advocated the death penalty for adultery and blasphemy (think of Servetus) but not because Moses said so, rather because the moral law demands it. As Christians we will naturally approach society and government from the perspective of what God has taught us in His Word. But we will not simply hand the ten words of the covenant to them. We must show that the basic underlying principles (Westminster Confession: general equity) which God has revealed to us in His Word also makes sense for the world: not blaspheming the name of our God, granting a day of rest, honouring authority, forbidding every form of sexual immorality, etc. Even an unbelieving government and an unbelieving society can be made to recognize the benefit of such order in society, as history has shown us.
Reconstructionists typically are postmillennial. Their emphasis is on the final victory and triumph of Jesus Christ which will be brought about by worldwide evangelization and by the establishment of the kingdom of God in all areas of life. But the victory of Christ is exactly what they are undermining. The point is, right now the church is victorious - this is the golden age for the church where Satan is bound and Christ is the Head over all things for the church as Paul writes in Eph. 1. We are already in the last days, where nothing can supersede the present except the return of Jesus Christ.
The exegesis of Mt. 24 and Revelation by theonomists is faulty. To see the gloom and suffering of these passages in the light of the fall of Jerusalem is not correct. The fall of Jerusalem is but the aftermath of Good Friday and the great shakeup that Christ’s death and victory brought about. In the New Testament, quite frankly, the fall of Jerusalem is no big deal. Instead, what Christ is speaking about in Mt. 24, in 2 Thess. 2 and in Revelation refers to the history of the New Testament church before His second coming. To be realistic, the last days of the church will not be a time of mass conversion and of a Christian restructuring of society on earth. It will be a time of persecution and suffering, a time when most men’s love will grow cold, where we can expect the very type of ungodliness in our society which theonomists say should not be there. The New Testament speaks over and over again about the tribulations for Christians. And yet the church is victorious and the kingdom of God is thriving because the gospel is proclaimed and people believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Even when society becomes progressively more godless and Christians are terribly persecuted, Jesus Christ gathers, defends and preserves the obedient citizens of His kingdom - and not one will be missing when He gathers them on Zion.
One great danger of postmillennialism is that the idea of a future golden age becomes a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross. The emphasis is on what we can and must do. We have to reconstruct the world as the kingdom of Christ, making His enemies His footstool and then He can return. It’s almost as if we have to do what Christ unfortunately did not do. What this overlooks is that Christ is victorious, He has liberated us from the power of Satan, sin and death, and as soon as all the elect are gathered, He will return in His perfect victory.
The other great danger of postmillennialism is that it undermines the church’s watchfulness. There must be an expectation of Christ’s imminent return. We cannot count on an extended period of time where our lives can be better prepared for Christ’s return. The church has to be ready now - Christ could come at any moment. Moreover we must realize that we are a wilderness congregation. Like Abraham, we are not looking for an earthly city. Ultimately our commonwealth is not in this world but it is above. In the midst of a broken and ungodly world we look with eager expectation to the world to come on Christ’s great day.
IV CONCLUSION: LAW AND THE CHRISTIAN
In conclusion, we should observe that among some critics of theonomy there is the impression that theonomy has a wrong hermeneutic but at least it is on the right track and it gets us thinking. Let us be clear: theonomy or Christian reconstructionism has a wrong hermeneutic, wrong exegesis on essential passages and it is a wrong theology. Note that this is not saying that anyone who holds some of the tenets of theonomy is a heretic and unreformed. However, let the differences be clear and let us stand on guard lest we unwittingly go along with it.
One explanatory note may be in order here. I have focused on what I would call “first generation” theonomists. Some of the “second generation” theonomists may be pushing the basic tenets of theonomy to more radical extremes.
I have refrained from dealing with the more extreme varieties of theonomy. However we should be aware of the fact that a new generation of theonomists can be more radical than what has been described in this article.
Having said this, it should be pointed out that there are good elements among theonomists, in particular, Greg Bahnsen. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the infallibility of the Scriptures, the continuity between the two covenants, the importance of living holy and obedient lives of thankfulness to God - this is great. Also of value is their emphasis on the fact that we should not have a quietistic or escapist attitude to life, in the way that many dispensationalists and premillennialists do, who desperately wish to escape the problems of an ungodly world. We need to be a salt and a light to the world. As articles 25 and 36 of our Belgic Confession show, we can and should take the truth and substance of the laws of Scripture and use them for guidelines in our society. Even the substance and truth of Old Testament penology can help us deal with the matter of problems in our prisons and restitution for victims. There must be a greater awareness in our society that murder is terrible and it is not justified even in the case of unwanted unborn children or in the case of women who murder oppressive husbands or other men. Homosexuality and all kinds of sexual immorality must be condemned for instance, in the light of Rom. 1. In every way the church should work for morality and peace in society so that in this way there will be a good atmosphere for the preaching of Jesus Christ to flourish, and in this way the kingdom will come. Clearly a lot of thought and study has to go into these matters. Theonomy does not have the answers, indeed it has some dangerous ideas. However to go to the opposite extreme and say that the church has nothing to do for the world or the state is equally untenable. A lot more study has to go into this matter by Reformed people.
And of course, there should be a deep respect in our personal lives for the law of God. We who have been redeemed by Christ and have the law written on our hearts by His Spirit, will daily meditate on this law, Old Testament and New Testament, seeing its deepest and widest applications to everyday life, and by the grace of God we will keep that law in thanksgiving to Him, the King of kings and Lord of lords, to whom is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever!
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