by Lee Irons©
This brief paper examines four commonly-used arguments to defend theonomy. They are employed frequently in the literature of the Christian Reconstructionist movement, as well as by individuals in personal discussion. Although I have made no effort to document these arguments, those familiar with theonomy should recognize that I have attempted to represent them fairly. It is hoped that the brief responses given here will enable the non-theonomist to hold his own in future discussions and debates when he or she encounters those of the theonomic persuasion.
(1) The No other standard argument
Where else can we find God’s standards for socio-political justice, except in Scripture, particularly, the Mosaic civil legislation? If we reject the divinely-revealed civil law, we are left with no other standard, condemned to wander in a fog of personal bias and subjective relativism.
One way to respond to this argument is to question the assumption that Scripture is a sufficient source of guidance for societal and political questions. No doubt the Bible contains many general principles that are to be observed, but why should it be regarded as a detailed blueprint for society? After all, we don’t go to the Bible to find specific directions for other equally important human endeavors, such as art and architecture, literature, the culinary arts, medicine, technology, etc. The Westminster Confession acknowledges that there are areas of life “which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF I.6).
The No other standard argument assumes that special revelation in Scripture is the only divinely-approved standard for questions pertaining to civil government and legislation. Any other standard would of necessity involve a reliance on mere human ideas instead of God’s, and that is nothing less than autonomy. The difficulty with this assumption is that it proves too much. If autonomy is narrowly defined as the use in any sphere of ideas not specifically revealed in Scripture, then we will be paralyzed by inaction, since the Scripture simply contains very little information about vast areas of human thought and action. Scripture is not sufficient for the art of cologne and perfume manufacture, although one particular recipe is given in the Mosaic law (Exod. 30:23-25). Does that mean we should only make the Levitical perfume? Are all other non-Biblical scents autonomous and sinful? What about the proper treatment of leprosy? Are all attempts of modern medicine to find a cure to be rejected in favor of the specific guidelines laid down in the Mosaic case law (Lev. 13-14)? Examples such as these could be multiplied.
It seems too obvious to point out, but the Bible was never intended to provide specific information and guidance regarding the vast majority of human spheres of thought and action. These common grace spheres belong to the natural order and are pretty much up to us to figure out on our own using the common sense, reason, and scientific abilities that God has given to mankind. It is not denied that the Bible contains general principles that apply to all areas of life — the most important being, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). But the Scripture is not sufficient to provide practical, detailed guidance for the sphere of common grace; that sphere is to be guided by “the light of nature.” Properly defined, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture states that the Bible is “the only rule of faith and obedience,” (WLC # 3), directing us “how we may glorify and enjoy” God (WSC # 2). The Scriptures “principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC # 3).
(2) The argument from Matt. 5:17-19
Jesus says that he came not to destroy but to confirm the law — down to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and least stroke of a scribe’s pen. Our Lord also declared that anyone who taught that the least commandment has been abrogated will be called least in the kingdom. Dare we assert that any of the Old Testament laws, including the civil laws, have become obsolete unless we have an express declaration from God himself?
First, we have an exegetical objection to this argument. The Greek word pleroo (v. 17) almost never means “to confirm” but “to fulfill.” This is borne out by the fact that the next verse (v. 18) uses the synonymous expression, “when all comes to pass,” which fits in very well with Matthew’s theme of the coming of the kingdom as an eschatological fulfillment rather than a merely legislative reinforcement. Recall the recurring refrain of the first gospel: “Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled (pleroo) which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying ...” (Matt. 1:22; cp. 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 24:34; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35).
Second, even if the theonomic interpretation of Matt. 5:17-19 were proven to be correct, it does not prove the specific thesis that the Old Testament civil law should be enforced by civil government today. Theonomy rests on the assumption that the civil law was given to Israel to be a model for all other civil governments. But is this so? Was Israel’s existence as a national and political entity intended to function as a standard for all the national and political entities of the world, past, present and future? The answer is readily available: Israel was told that if the demands of the covenant were faithfully met, then Israel would be God’s “own possession among all the peoples, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6). But if Israel was set apart from the nations of the earth by a special covenant relationship that made her “a peculiar people,” then Israel’s theocratic political organization did not function as a model for the nations to imitate but as a typological foreshadowing of the coming kingdom of Christ: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9), and “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Rev. 1:6).
Third, we do not necessarily need an explicit declaration from God telling us whether each Old Testament law is still in effect or abrogated in the New Covenant. Do we have a clear statement anywhere in the NT to the effect that we are no longer commanded to offer incense in worship? Are we still forbidden to wear garments containing mixed fabrics (Lev. 19:19)? Are all Christian couples in sin today if they enjoy sexual relations during the wife’s menstrual period (Lev. 18:19)? If your brother dies are you still required to raise up seed for him by taking his wife? Since God has never revoked or modified the boundaries of the land promised to Israel, should we encourage Israel to take back the West Bank by military force? Not even theonomy would answer yes to these questions. There are no explicit proof-texts in Scripture stating that these specific case laws have changed. Yet we know they are no longer binding because the entire Mosaic system has been fulfilled in Christ in such a way that it need not be literally observed by Christians today. Such an argument is based on a general consideration of the overall progression of redemptive history: now that the shadows of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and replaced by the arrival of the Word made flesh, they are no longer definitive of the church’s practice (John 1:14-18; 2:19-22; 4:20-26; Acts 15:13-21; Gal. 3:19; 4:1-11; Col. 2:16-23; Heb. 7:12; 8:13; 9:8-10; 10:1).
(3) The bestiality argument
If you reject the validity of the Mosaic case law, then you have no basis for asserting that bestiality is contrary to God’s will. The only way we know that God abhors bestiality is because He has revealed this in Exodus 22:19.
This argument is called a reductio ad absurdum. It attempts to make the opposition look foolish by showing that the rejection of the proposed thesis leads to absurdity if taken to its logical conclusion. The idea is that if you reject the civil law, then you will of necessity be forced to conclude that one of those civil laws, Exodus 22:19, is no longer binding today. But if you throw out this verse, then you are left without any proof-text anywhere in the Bible in which God prohibits bestiality.
The reply here is to turn the tables on the theonomist: “On what basis can you say that pornography is sinful?” If he answers, “By good and necessary consequence from the seventh commandment,” you gently suggest that this is also your basis for knowing that bestiality is sinful. One of the many problems with theonomy is that it has a positivistic view of law: only that which is specifically stated to be unacceptable to God is sinful. But that just isn’t the way the moral law works. The Bible never says that cheating on your income tax is sin. But we know it is, because cheating on your income tax is a form of stealing. And stealing is not an act of love, for love does no harm to its neighbor (Rom. 13:10), not to mention that stealing violates the eighth commandment. We don’t have to have a specific verse for each and every imaginable sin to know it is sin.
(4) The Romans 13 argument
Paul says that the civil magistrate has been authorized by God to punish the wrongdoer and to reward those who do good. Where does the civil magistrate find divinely-approved, just standards for determining who is a wrongdoer, and what his punishment should be, if not in the Mosaic civil law?
First, the civil magistrate has access to the same moral law as all men. Paul teaches that the Gentiles, though they did not historically have access to the specific details of the Mosaic legislation, are nevertheless without excuse before God, since they have the law written on their heart (Rom. 2:12-15). Apart from special revelation the unregenerate know the basic content of the moral law, even if they claim to deny it at certain points or distort it to excuse their own sin. By common grace — God’s merciful bridle preventing man from expressing the full potential of his total depravity — pagans display much true ethical knowledge, as well as ethical behavior (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 5:1). Total depravity will exert its force to twist and suppress that knowledge, to be sure, but it will not totally eliminate it as long as men are still made in the image of God (James 3:9). Thus, the civil magistrate, whether Christian or non-Christian, has sufficient resources for distinguishing between good and evil, at least in principle, in order to discharge his God-given responsibility of punishing criminals without needing to appeal directly to the covenantal revelation of the law given to Israel.
Second, not only does the civil magistrate have sufficient ethical resources apart from the Mosaic civil law, Biblical teaching actually prohibits the civil magistrate from enforcing the covenantally-specific legislation God revealed to Israel. This follows from the fact that the civil law given to Israel was theocratic in nature. In the Israelite theocracy certain sins were defined as covenant-breaking (like idolatry and sorcery) and were punishable by capital excommunication — being cut off from the people. But it is apparent that this theocratic intolerance of covenant-breaking is inappropriate for implementation by the nations of the world, none of which can rightly claim to have been covenantally set apart by a special, redemptive act of divine providence as was Israel.
Furthermore, if the theocratic ideal were applied in such non-holy, non-covenanted nations, it would necessitate the destruction of all its population except for those fortunate enough to be members of those Christian denominations sanctioned by the state as legitimate. Not only does the state lack the competence to make such determinations, but Scripture never grants the state such authority in the first place (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7). In fact, it just when the state begins to assume theocratic pretensions that it becomes, inevitably, a persecuting state properly identified in Scripture not as the kingdom of Christ but Babylon, in whom is found the blood of the prophets and the saints (Rev. 18:24; 17:6).
Finally, for Christians today to desire the state to wield the sword on behalf of the church is not only imprudent but singularly incompatible with our Lord’s commission to the church to proclaim the gospel of eternal life to the nations and to bring honor to that gospel by good deeds of mercy and love. “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Our message is that “the kindness of God our Savior and his philanthropy for mankind has appeared” (Titus 3:4). To be sure, we warn all men of the impending wrath that awaits all who do not turn from their sin and put their faith in Christ. But that wrath is presently on hold, because God’s patience is intended to lead men to salvation (2 Pet. 3:9, 15). Thus, the theocratic nature of Israel’s civil law makes its implementation by the civil magistrate today inappropriate, for such a program would be at cross-purposes with the church’s present evangelistic mission in the world. Indeed, it would be at cross-purposes with God’s own attitude of patience toward the unbelieving world as expressed in the fact that he has thus far chosen to delay the day of judgment.
AuthorLee Irons was pastor of Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel, Van Nuys, California. he is married and a 1996 graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. He completed a B.A. degree in Greek at UCLA (1992).
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