Why Theonomy Is Biblically-Theologically Wrong

I am going to post a few things on why I think theonomy does not do justice to the biblical theology of Scripture. Included will be several exegetical posts on various passages as well as more general biblical-theological directions.

First, let’s be clear about our terms. Theonomy may be defined as a theological viewpoint which sees the Old Testament civil laws as applicable in today’s government. It is NOT a viewpoint which sees the Old Testament ceremonial laws or the sacrificial system as still in force. This is often confused in people’s minds. The word itself comes from two Greek words: theos, which means “God,” and nomos, which means “law.” Theonomists utterly oppose any attempt for man to make up law for himself. As such, it is opposed to autonomy (self-law). It is also opposed to the two kingdoms approach of many Reformed folk today.

Now, I have to lay down a qualification first. The qualification is that I do agree with theonomists on many points. For instance, I do not believe that the general structure of human law should be autonomous. I believe that God has given the moral law in nature, not only in Scripture. This is proven in Scripture in Romans 2:12-16. Now, it is important to exegete this passage properly. The phrase “without the law” does not mean “destitute of law” but rather it means that the Gentiles did not have the law delivered to them on Sinai. Verse 14 clarifies what Paul means: Gentiles have a law unto themselves. This does NOT mean autonomy, but rather the moral law written on their hearts, as verse 15 explicitly says. The Westminster Confession of Faith gets at this when it says that the moral law was given to Adam as a covenant of works. If it was given to Adam, then it was given to all humanity. This is the concept of natural law. It is plain, then, that if a Gentile nation, having not the law as delivered on Sinai, yet rules itself according to many of the same principles as the Ten Commandments, then we can be sure that they are governing themselves according to the moral law as imprinted on the human heart, or natural law.

With that qualification out of the way, we can now look at the trajectory of biblical-theological development from Old Testament to New Testament, and we may come to this very important conclusion: the trajectory of Old Testament Israel does not direct us to modern day governments, but to the church. Now, presumably, many theonomists would claim that the trajectory goes from Old Testament Israel to the church and to modern-day government, whereas critics would say that modern-day governments are not included. Let’s look at a few passages to test this.

First up is the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is rather clear (at least most scholars today have noted this feature) that Jesus relives Israel’s story. As Israel went down to Egypt, so Jesus went down to Egypt. As Israel was brought out of Egypt, so Jesus was called out of Egypt (see Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1. Now the context of Hosea makes it quite clear that God is speaking about Israel. And yet Matthew uses the verse to refer to Jesus. How can this be on any other theory than that Jesus is the new Israel? Furthermore, as Israel was tempted 40 years in the wilderness, so Jesus was tempted 40 days in the wilderness (Matthew 4). As Israel came into the Promised Land led by Joshua (the Old Testament form of the name Jesus), so also Jesus leads the church into the new heavens and the new earth. In other words, Jesus is the way in which anyone has to be part of Israel. It is not outside of Jesus, but inside Jesus that we are now the faithful children of Abraham (as Galatians 3:9 makes clear).

Second up is Galatians 6:16. Now, much ink has been spilled over the question of how the word “and” is to be interpreted. If the word means “in addition to,” then the passage supports dispensationalism, as the Israel of God is a separate group from the “them” earlier in the verse. However, the word here almost certainly is epexegetical, which would be translated like this: “them, that is, upon the Israel of God.” In other words, on this interpretation, the Israel of God is the same group as the “them” earlier in the verse. Given the added testimony of 3:7 and 3:29, as well as the way in which he has been speaking about the “Jerusalem above” in 4:26-27, it seems clear that Paul does not have two groups in mind, but rather one. The people of faith are the true children of Abraham.

In other words, Jesus Christ is the apex of the trajectory of Old Testament Israel, and the church is in Christ. Therefore, it does not make sense to say that modern-day governments should run themselves according to principles that were given to Old Testament Israel as Old Testament Israel. Now, the theonomist will probably reply that the civil law of Old Testament Israel is of a piece with and is the outworking of the moral law given in the Ten Commandments. True, it is. But it is an outworking of the Ten Commandments for a particular place and people. The same principles apply in different ways in the church today. After all, as the result of the biblical-theological argumentation provided above, the principles of Old Testament Israel’s civil law ought to apply to the church today (by the arguments of theonomy) just as much as to the government. And I would agree, as long as we are talking about general equity. And yet the principles in the New Testament for church government say nothing of the sword. Instead, the weapons are spiritual, for we fight not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual enemies. Ephesians 6, by the way, is one reason why I believe the application of Old Testament Israel’s holy wars draws a straight line to spiritual warfare today in the church.

Lastly, there is nothing in Romans 13 that cannot be explained on the basis of natural law as explained above. The civil magistrate is there to punish evil. He is ordained by God to do that. The moral law has been implanted on his heart. Therefore, he should be a terror to those who do evil. However, it is not the civil magistrate’s job to execute a boy for cursing his parents (as was true in the Old Testament civil laws). It is the church’s job to instruct and to exercise church discipline. Nowhere in the New Testament does any writer say that the civil government is to rule itself according to Old Testament Israel’s civil law. Rather, every time the civil government is mentioned, it is in connection to the natural moral law.

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