Theonomy's Dispensational Hermeneutic

by Lee Irons©


Greg Bahnsen’s interpretation of Matt. 5:17-19, as formulated in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, lays a foundation for the ostensible exegetical basis of the theonomic thesis. Bahnsen takes this passage as a proof-text the abiding validity of the Mosaic law “in exhaustive detail,” for Christ affirms that “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law” (v. 18). Naturally, since the civil law is part of that Mosaic law, it remains today as a normative standard even after the coming of Christ.

However sound that exegesis may be, it is not sufficient to establish the theonomic thesis. For theonomy rests on a further assumption that is not quite as ostensible. That assumption is that the civil law was given to Israel for the purpose of governing the societal and political dimensions of Israel’s life, and that as such it was to function as a universal standard for socio-political ethics. It was not given to Israel for Israel’s sake alone but to Israel for the sake of the nations, that they too might be governed by the same socio-political standards.

Only if this assumption is valid will the exegetical argument from Matt. 5:17-19 yield a theonomic conclusion. On the other hand, if it can be shown that Israel did not receive the civil law as part of a socio-political paradigm but rather as a theocratic, typological kingdom, then it would appear that the civil laws of Israel are not necessarily binding on today’s common-grace civil governments. In making this argument, we are simply following an accepted hermeneutical principle: in order to determine the meaning and present application of any piece of legislation, one must first seek to understand its original purpose and function. Theonomy’s proposal regarding the present normativity and application of the civil law today stands or falls with its presuppositions regarding the purpose and function of the civil law in its original Israelite context. If those presuppositions can be shown to be out of accord with the overarching typological purpose of the Mosaic covenant in redemptive history, then the theonomic thesis will be exposed as an arbitrary misappropriation of theocratic, covenant legislation to the non-theocratic, common-grace institution of the modern state.

Non-theonomists who are Reformed accept and rejoice in the covenantal hermeneutic that finds enormous continuity between the testaments. Furthermore, they can agree that every jot and tittle of the law retains its force in the New Covenant in some way. However, if the civil law was never given with the intent of framing a standard of pre-consummation socio-political ethics, then, though Christ did not come to destroy the law, he has fulfilled it in a manner that yields a vastly different conclusion. If by his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand, the theocratic kingdom of Israel now finds fulfillment in Christ’s heavenly, eschatological kingdom, the jots and tittles of the law retain their validity today but without providing a mandated blueprint for the reformation of contemporary society. What if the law-giver’s intention in giving the civil law to Israel was to foreshadow this heavenly kingdom?

One piece of evidence that the civil laws of Israel were typological of the eternal kingdom is that they are inextricably bound up with the land. For example, the law of the parapet gives as its rationale the concern to avoid bringing blood-guilt upon one’s house (Deut. 22:8). This concern only makes sense on the assumption that the land itself is holy and must be carefully protected from blood-guilt which would defile it and result in the expulsion of its inhabitants (Nus. 35:33; Deut. 19:10). Even theonomists would acknowledge that the land was a type of the eternal kingdom — the eternal inheritance we have in Christ and ultimately in the new heavens and new earth. But if the civil laws can all be shown to have this inextricable connection with the land, then it follows that they are likewise typological of the eternal kingdom and cannot be isolated arbitrarily from that typological function and applied to the non-typological nations of today, none of which are in redemptive covenant with Jehovah.

Now this leads to an interesting observation. If theonomy recognizes the typological nature of the land promise but insists that the civil law retains a non-typological validity, then theonomy and dispensationalism begin to display a surprising convergence — at least on the hermeneutical level.

In many ways, theonomy takes a dispensational approach to the civil law. As long as theonomy retains its distinctive hermeneutic of presuming the continuing validity of the jots and tittles of the Mosaic law unless further revelation gives explicit notification of their nullification, it is unable to resist the dispensational-sounding conclusion that Israel’s land promise still awaits literal fulfillment. Just as dispensationalists argue that the silence of the NT reinforces the validity of the land promise, so theonomy argues that the silence of the NT reinforces the validity of the civil law. And if the NT never states that the literal land promise has been abrogated by fulfillment in Christ, then, according to the theonomic hermeneutic, the land promise, including its very specific boundaries, must still remain in effect — as with the civil law. The church (the New Israel) will inherit Palestine sometime in the future.

Interestingly, theonomy cannot critique this argument without abandoning its whole position. We can well imagine that theonomy’s anti-dispensational, covenantal sympathies will encourage it to find some way of avoiding the dispensational position that the jots and tittles delineating the boundaries of the land promise continue to be literally normative. But theonomy’s jot-and-tittle hermeneutic hampers the free development of its covenantal sympathies. In fact, it could very well undermine and ultimately negate them, logically forcing theonomy to embrace the dispensational conclusion that specific boundaries of Israel’s land promise remain unfulfilled.

The non-dispensational hermeneutic of theonomy wants to argue that the NT clearly applies the land promise to Christ (Heb. 3-4) and even expands it to the new heavens and new earth (Rom. 4:13). Thus, the land promise finds present fulfillment as we by faith rest in Christ.

On the other hand, the dispensational hermeneutic of theonomy, if allowed to assert itself, will admit that our spiritual inheritance in Christ is likened to Israel’s inheritance of the land, but will want to argue that this in no way rules out a genuine literal fulfillment of the jots and tittles that map out the land of Palestine as Israel’s inheritance. Since the NT never explicitly states that the boundaries of the land promise have been modified or expanded or abrogated, we have no right to assume that such modification has occurred without the express revelation of the law-giver. Even if it be admitted that the apostles apply the land promise to our spiritual inheritance in Christ, we cannot necessarily infer an abrogation of the literal jot and tittle description of the boundaries of the earthly inheritance (see Gen. 15:18).

Theonomy could make this dispensational argument and still remain postmillennial in its eschatology by pointing out that the church is the new Israel. And since the jots and tittles of the OT are not abrogated but confirmed by Christ, the church can expect to inherit the land of Palestine sometime in the future, perhaps in the fervently expected Golden Age of “Zion’s glad morning.” Presumably, theonomy would want to distance itself from such a conclusion. But ironically, it will be forced to use a non-theonomic hermeneutic to do so. It would have to appeal to the typological system of which the land of Palestine was an integral part. It would then argue that the land had an exclusively typological purpose that finds total fulfillment in Christ.

However eager to make such arguments with respect to the land, theonomy then inconsistently reverts to a dispensational hermeneutic with respect to the civil law: “God’s law was not given exclusively as a foreshadow of the consummation (remember, no explicit statement of Scripture speaks of the law in this way); it also rendered impartial justice in pre-consummation situations” (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, p. 120). Remember that theonomy recognizes that the civil law may to a certain extent be subject to some Christological, typological fulfillment, just as dispensationalism allows that some promises originally given to Israel may have secondary application to the church (e.g., Jer. 31:31ff). Thus, theonomy could just as easily argue that “Israel’s earthly land was not given exclusively as a foreshadow of the heavenly inheritance (remember, no explicit statement of Scripture speaks of the land promise in this way); it also provided God’s people with a geo-political existence on earth, and it must continue to fulfill this function in our preconsummation situation.” Highlighting the inconsistency and arbitrariness of theonomy’s hermeneutical procedure is the fact that the civil law and the land are integrally connected. The penal sanctions of the Mosaic law were given in order to keep the land pure from the defilement of heinous sins — idolatry, sorcery, pagan sexual perversions, adultery, murder, etc. — so as not to pollute God’s heritage and thus to secure Israel’s retention of the inheritance (Nus. 35:33-34; Lev. 18:24-30; Jer. 3:1).

Only a non-theonomic hermeneutic — i.e., a Christocentric hermeneutic that bases itself on the general pattern of the apostles’ interpretation of the OT — can provide an adequate response to this kind of reasoning. We must argue that the NT application of the land promise to our inheritance of justification and eternal rest in Christ is constitutive and absolute. It is not merely one application among several. It is not merely a possible application based on similarities or analogies. Rather, the land promise has been exhaustively fulfilled in Christ and his eternal kingdom.

But if theonomy employs a Christocentric hermeneutic at this point, why not at other points as well? If the broad pattern of apostolic interpretation of the OT leads one to conclude that the land promise is fulfilled in Christ, then it also leads one to conclude that the civil law is likewise fulfilled in Christ. We have the same kind of data in both cases. With regard to the land promise, we cannot adduce a single NT text that explicitly transfers the land promise to an exclusively spiritual inheritance. What we do have is scattered instances where the NT writers apply OT passages concerning Israel’s land inheritance to the church’s spiritual inheritance in Christ (Rom. 4:13; Eph. 6:3; Heb. 3-4; I Pet. 3:9-10). Similarly, with regard to the civil law, we cannot adduce any explicit NT passages which state that the civil law is not a binding standard of socio-political ethics for the nations of the world. But we do find several instances where the Mosaic civil punishments are applied to the spiritual sanction of eternal punishment (Heb. 2:1-3; 10:28-29).

I would argue that the pattern is the same for both cases: the apostolic interpretation is constitutive. The silence of the NT regarding other possible applications (whether of the land promise to a literal millennium, or of the civil law to a theonomic blueprint for socio-political ethics) is loaded with significance. Of course, arguments from silence are notoriously liable to be fallacious, but not necessarily. If one can establish a broad hermeneutical approach to the relationship between the testaments, then the silences of the NT can be interpreted with greater objectivity.

Bahnsen himself uses this approach. Bahnsen first establishes, on the basis of the Lord’s statements in Matt. 5:17-19, that the jots and tittles of the OT are still binding even in the New Covenant era unless the Lord himself tells us otherwise. Then, he notices that the NT is silent regarding the applicability of the OT judicial law as a standard of socio-political justice. Thus, he concludes, Christ has not suspended the judicial law (thus conceived); and, if not, then he has validated it as a blueprint for civil society today. Setting aside the question of whether his premises are correct, Bahnsen’s argument from silence is logically valid.

I too want to make an argument from silence. In order to do so in a manner that is logically valid, I must first establish the hermeneutical presumption that the entire OT is fulfilled in Christ and his eternal kingdom. It is not merely that there are parallels between the law and Christ, or that the law finds expression in some sense or in some degree in Christ. Rather, “Christ is the telos of the law” (Rom. 10:4). He fulfills it all. In fact, a careful exegesis of the very text Bahnsen uses to establish his hermeneutic (Matt. 5:17-19) turns out to establish a hermeutical presumption that is the very antithesis of theonomy. “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law, until all is accomplished” (v. 18). The jots and tittles of the law are not “validated” or “confirmed” in Christ but “accomplished.” Matthew’s use of the term “accomplished” in v. 18 interprets and explains his use of “fulfilled” in v. 17. (Besides, scholars have shown that the term pleroo simply does not bear the meaning “confirm” in Greek. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, Appendix C.) Thus, Matt. 5:17 affirms the very opposite of theonomy: everything in the law (even down to the smallest letter and least stroke of the pen) has been realized in the eschatological kingdom that has dawned with the advent of the Messianic king.

With this broad hermeneutical premise in hand, we are in a good position to make proper deductions from the silences of the NT. The fact that the NT never once applies the civil law to the common-grace state (e.g., the Roman empire) is significant. As Dan McCartney says, “The way the New Testament applies the Old Testament to the state is the way we ought to do it. That is, it does not, so we should not” (Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, p. 148). The silence of the NT regarding any socio-political application of the law to contemporary society is powerful evidence of the civil law’s original intent and function as a typological structure that points to eschatological realities. The kingdoms of this world will have to look elsewhere if they desire a model for earthly, pre-consummation statecraft. That which functioned as a type of the eschaton cannot serve as a model for a temporary structure destined to pass away with the arrival of the eschaton.

A corollary of this is that the only way the law can be “applied” or “observed” is by faith in Christ and by virtue of union with Christ. If the primary “application” of the law is its Christocentric meaning and eschatological fulfillment, then the New Covenant people of God after the fullness of the time has come will “observe” the civil law by whole-hearted trust in Christ, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).

Both theonomy and dispensationalism have become so enamored of the earthly, shadowy dimensions of the law that they seek to soft-pedal the apostolic conviction that Christ is its final, complete, and absolute fulfillment. They both acknowledge (though in varying degrees) that elements of the Mosaic economy may be applied to Christ by way of analogy. But they still want to cling to some literal, jot-and-tittle interpretation that gives renewed life to the shadow even after the reality has come. They both reveal the smallness of their faith — a lack of wholehearted trust in Christ which “observes” the law by virtue of union with him who fulfilled it. If they embraced Christ and Christ alone as the center and circumference, the sum and substance of all that the law pointed to, dispensationalism and theonomy would be able to see that neither the millennial reign of Christ on earth, nor the application of the civil law to today’s societies, is necessary in order to do justice to the literal, jot-and-tittle significance of the Old Covenant. Yet, not holding fast to the Head, they cling to the passing types, “which are all shadows of what is to come,” and thus dismiss him who is “the substance” (Col. 2:17) and “the truth” (John 1:17) as a mere “secondary application” of the law but not its reality Incarnate.

To summarize:

First, the typological nature of Israel’s theocratic form and function in the history of redemption is the root issue dividing non-theonomists and theonomists. Since we differ on this point, we differ on the proper application of the civil law in the New Covenant, not to speak of the function and significance of the civil law in the Old Covenant itself.

Second, the fact that the NT consistently and exclusively applies it to the church and is totally silent about any further application to the state would suggest that the civil law was typological of the eternal kingdom. If it had been given to provide a divine standard of justice for pre-consummation civil governments, then the NT’s silence on this point is puzzling. But once we understand the thoroughly Christocentric nature of the apostolic hermeneutic, such silence is only what we would expect.

And finally, the theonomic-postmillennial hermeneutic has been shown to show a startling convergence with that of dispensationalism. Although theonomy and dispensationalism obviously come to radically different conclusions on a whole range of theological issues, yet they display a chilling congruity in their respective conceptions of Christ’s fulfillment of the shadows of the law: for both, the person and work of Christ may embody some levels of its significance, but not all. In fact, it is the literal, jot-and-tittle, earthly significance which for both constitutes the real meaning of the former economy. While dispensationalism reverts to the Judaistic error with respect to Israel’s total theocratic status, including the geographical inheritance in the land, theonomy does so selectively, with respect to the theocratic form of Israel’s socio-political organization.


Is there any sense in which the unbeliever must observe the civil law? Yes. To the extent that the civil law and the law written on the heart overlap, to that extent the unbeliever is under the civil law, both in its positive precepts and in its threatening sanctions (Rom. 2:14-15; 1:32). Historically this overlap has been called the general equity of the civil law (WCF XIX.4). Since many of the various civil laws contain an underlying moral principle reflected in the moral law as summarized in the ten commandments, we must recognize that unbelievers are subject to the ethical obligation represented by that underlying principle, since all men, whether believers or not, are bound by the eternal normativity of the moral law. Significantly, however, this general equity is a product of God’s general revelation — what the Confession calls “the light of nature” (WCF I.1, 6; X.4). It is not strictly speaking a part of the original purpose of the civil law as it functioned within the total typological system of the Mosaic covenant. Therefore, to be precise, the unbeliever is bound directly to the moral law itself rather than the covenantal sanctions of the Mosaic civil law. It is for this reason that Paul can say categorically, “As many as have sinned without the [Mosaic] law shall perish without the [Mosaic] law” (Rom. 2:12), “for where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15; cp. 5:13).1 Although the Gentiles sinned apart from the covenantally-specific Mosaic law, and so cannot be held accountable to its covenantally-specific sanctions, they did transgress the law written on their conscience (which identical in content to the moral law), and so will be punished accordingly.


1. Most scholars now recognize that in Pauline usage, and that of the NT generally, “the law” (nomos) almost uniformly denotes the institutionally-specific corpus of legislation comprising that particular historical administration of the kingdom of God known as the Mosaic covenant.


Lee 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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