A Critique of Theonomy

Barker, William S., and W. Robert Godfrey, eds. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990.

Theonomy is a theological position that emphasizes the continuing validity of Old Testament laws, particularly the civil punishments described in the Pentateuch. Theonomy's roots are in Calvinism, covenant theology, and the Westminster Confession. It is therefore no surprise that dispensational theologians reject theonomy from its very roots.1 They have some valid points to offer. It is also helpful for us to see theonomy critiqued from within Reformed circles, for they are better positioned to see where theonomy deviates from its claimed continuity with Calvinism and Puritanism, as well as from Scripture. In this book, 15 professors at Westminster Theological Seminary analyze different aspects of theonomic teachings, particularly those espoused by Greg Bahnsen.2

Survey of chapters

In chapter 1, Robert Knudsen discusses "May We Use the Term Theonomy...?" He begins by noting that with the coming of Christ, "the age introduced by the giving of the law at Sinai was coming to an end; a new age was at hand.... The New Testament clearly sets the new over against the old.... Anyone who wants to be true to the biblical message of salvation must give full weight to this sharp distinction" (p. 17-8).3 He concludes on a similar note: "We may not assume that every law in the Old Testament age without exception continues to apply until it has been revoked. The sharp disjunction between the old and the new ages will not allow us to assume this" (p. 36). Knudsen gives a good analysis, but I wish that he had interacted more directly with theonomists' writings.4

In chapter 2, Tremper Longman III discusses "God's Law and Mosaic Punishments Today." He points out the exegetical difficulties of trying to apply penal laws today: "The Old Testament does not always provide a set penalty, but requires the human judges to decide the severity of the punishment.... A closer look at the Old Testament exposes flexibility in the application of penalties.... It appears that ransoms were a possibility for many other crimes" (pp. 50-3).5 He points out the unique place that Israel had in redemptive history, and that Jesus "does indeed introduce adaptations of the Old Testament law for a new redemptive situation" (p. 53).

In chapter 3, Bruce Waltke discusses "Theonomy in Relation to Dispensational and Covenant Theologies." Waltke, who has taught at a dispensational seminary and at a Reformed seminary, discusses strengths and weaknesses of each theology as it pertains to the law. In general, dispensationalists overemphasize discontinuity and Calvinists tend to emphasize continuity. Waltke identifies the weakness in Bahnsen's use of Matt. 5:17: "He fails to realize that his concessions undermine his thesis. Jesus cannot be establishing every jot and tittle of the law...and at the same time abrogate some of the laws" (p. 81).6

In chapter 4, John M. Frame discusses "The One, the Many, and Theonomy." He points out that theonomists overestimate the simplicity of their position, for it must still be debated which laws are ceremonial and/or cultural. He chides the theonomists for the arrogance of thinking that they have the complex problem all figured out.

Vern Sheridan Poythress writes chapter 5, "Effects of Interpretive Frameworks on the Application of Old Testament Law." He begins with the example of "Do not plant your field with two kinds of seeds." "Leviticus 19:19 is never explicitly altered in the New Testament, and so by [theonomic] reasoning we must assume that it remains in force" (105-6). Yet Bahnsen does not consider it in force, showing an inconsistency between his practice and his hermeneutical statements. Poythress points out that Mosaic laws often combine both ceremonial and civil purposes, and are not easily separable.7

In chapter 6, Dan G. McCartney addresses "The New Testament Use of the Pentateuch: Implications for the Theonomic Movement." He observes that the "Torah, as much as the Old Testament as a whole, is understood not as a collection of rules but as a covenantal constitution, material that functions as an instrument of establishing relationship" (p. 138). He also notes that "not once in the New Testament is the civil aspect of the Old Testament law applied to the civil authority as an ideal" (p. 145).

In chapter 7, Moisés Silva asks, "Is the Law Against the Promises? The Significance of Galatians 3:21 for Covenant Continuity." This chapter did not critique theonomy at all — it merely affirmed that the law was given for sanctification, not justification. Nor did this chapter deal with other verses in Galatians 3 that suggest discontinuity.

Dennis E. Johnson then comments on "The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Mosaic Penal Sanctions." He begins by observing that there is a change in the law (Heb. 7;12), and he then asks, "How sweeping is this change in the law?" (p. 185). I found his answer inconsistent and unconvincing. I believe that the book of Hebrews addresses the question much more directly than he allows.8

In chapter 9, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. comments on "Theonomy and Eschatology: Reflections on Postmillennialism." Theonomists are also postmillennialists, with an optimistic outlook for the success of the gospel as well as the re-institution of biblical laws.9 Gaffin criticizes them for ignoring the eschatological nature of the present age, but his more important critique is that theonomists minimize the role of suffering. If cross-bearing is essential to following Jesus, how can it be done in a golden age where everything is blessed? (pp. 210-218). "No success of the Gospel, however great, will bring the church into a position of earthly prosperity and dominion such that the wilderness [cf. Heb. 11:13] with its persecutions and temptations will be eliminated or even marginalized" (pl. 223).

William S. Barker addresses "Theonomy, Pluralism, and the Bible" in chapter 10. His argument is that theonomy would be counterproductive in today's pluralistic world: "To have the state in any way coerce belief or worship could only compromise the free nature of the Gospel and contaminate the purity of the church" (p. 238).

In chapter 11, John R. Muether discusses "The Theonomic Attraction." He points out the sociological attractiveness of law and order, of having America as a prosperous nation, of having law and prosperity under divine assurance. He faults theonomy for being more a political movement than an ecclesiastical one: "Christians must avoid a civil religion that confuses the kingdom of God with the American way of life" (p. 258).10

Timothy J. Keller writes chapter 12: "Theonomy and the Poor: Some Reflections." He observes the theonomic tendency to blame the poor instead of helping them. This stems from their assumption that right laws automatically lead to prosperity. Like Gaffin, Keller critiques the theonomists for having an underdeveloped theology of suffering.11

Chapter 13, 14, and 15 discuss the history. W. Robert Godfrey discusses "Calvin and Theonomy," Sinclair B. Ferguson writes "An Assembly of Theonomists? The Teaching of the Westminster Divines on the Law of God," and Samuel T. Logan, Jr. addresses "New England Puritans and the State."

Godfrey notes that Rushdoony admits "significant discontinuities between his own thought and that of Calvin" (p. 300). Calvin wrote that enforcing the judicial laws of Moses would be "false and foolish" (p. 302, citing Institutes IV,xx,14). Calvin notes that "different nations need different penalties" (p. 304). Although Calvin sometimes advocated the death penalty for certain matters, he reached his conclusion not by theonomic assumptions, but through natural law and reason.

Ferguson discusses the history behind the Westminster Confession, noting that some Puritans had a much stronger view of law than others did. Their lengthy deliberations concerning law suggest that "they themselves were not all of one mind on some of the implications of the continuity and discontinuity of God's covenant and his law" (p. 320). The resulting statement in the Confession was worded to allow several views, not to require a theonomic view.12

Logan reviewed the history of Massachusetts Bay Colony, particularly the writing of their judicial law. The fact that it took them 18 years to write it indicates that they were not all of one mind regarding the applicability of biblical law to contemporary society. Although John Cotton and Nathaniel Ward both published laws that sounded like they were authoritative, the court of the colony actually rejected them. Cotton's view was a theonomic one, but the colony did not adopt it. Even in Puritan New England, the theonomic view was a minority view.

In the last chapter, D. Clair Davis writes "A Challenge to Theonomy," inviting them to dialogue. He praises them for addressing an important issue, but notes that they write with such stridence that it is difficult to discuss the issue with them. Those who write as if all opponents are heretics are divisive.


In a composite work like this, it is inevitable that some chapters will be better than others. I found the historical analyses (chapter 13-15) particularly good, demonstrating that theonomy is a novelty, not a traditional view. Chapters 9-12, on social topics, were also insightful concerning theonomy's triumphalist tendencies and its deficiences in the theology of suffering. Chapters 1-5 had helpful insights about biblical theology and the internal inconsistencies of theonomy.

I was especially disappointed at chapters 6-9. Although these three chapters comprise a section called "Theonomy and Covenant Continuity: New Testament Evidence," they do not present an explanation of continuity or discontinuity between the old and the new. Silva chose to exegete a verse that is not in dispute here, and it fails to critique theonomy. Johnson, instead of focusing on Heb. 7:12, might have done better to address 7:11b, 8:13 or 10:9b, which are also relevant to covenant discontinuity. These exegetical chapters had an unfortunate omission: they did not address the "golden verse" of theonomy, Matt. 5:17-19. Perhaps the problem is that, in this debate with theonomists, they need to address discontinuity, which is not their strength. They have given an inadequate exegetical response, which may play into the theonomists' argument.


1 Dispensational critiques include a book by H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice: Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? Portland, OR.: Multnomah, 1988, and a series of articles by Robert P. Lightner in vol. 143 (1986) of Bibliotheca Sacra: "Theonomy and Dispensationalism" pp. 26-36, "Nondispensational Responses to Theonomy" pp. 134-145, and "A Dispensational Response to Theonomy" pp. 228-245.

Other critiques include:

John W. Frame, "The Institutes of Biblical Law," Westminster Theological Journal 28 (1976): 201.

R. Laird Harris, "Theonomy in Christian Ethics: A Review of Greg L. Bahnsen's Book," Presbyterion 5 (1979): 4-5.

Meredith G. Kline, "Comments on an Old-New Error," Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1978): 172-89.

G. Aiken Taylor, "Theonomy Revisited," Presbyterian Journal 37 (Dec. 6, 1978), p. 13.

See also the responses to Bahnsen's chapter in Wayne G. Strickland, ed., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 144-173.

2 Greg Bahnsen has responded to this critique with his book Theonomy: An Informed Response. The title is clever, but it betrays a somewhat snotty approach to the argument. As John Frame comments, "These authors find their position to be so plain and obvious that only a stupid, trifling, or heretical person would take issue with them.... He tends to regard anyone who disagrees as antinomian" (p. 90).

3 Knudsen notes that Paul made a contrast between the two ages in 2 Cor. 3, but that "the age of the Spirit is not opposed to law in any and every sense.... Obedience is of the Spirit" (pp. 28-9). He then uses the example of marriage to illustrate: "A marriage relationship should be nurtured according to sound biblical principles. These will not have a legal cast, however. Of course, there is always a legal side to the relationship...but in a healthy marriage relationship the legal will not be `up front'" (p. 33).

4 Knudsen correctly notes that the word "law" should always be clarified (p. 35). But I must fault him for at least one statement: "It is inconceivable that there will be any changes in the meaning of God's law as expressed in the Ten Commandments" (p. 35). Since the Ten Commandments clearly specify that the seventh day is the Sabbath, I doubt that Knudsen believes the statement he wrote. It illustrates the hazards of making categorical statements that inadvertently contradict one's own position. Waltke is more careful: "The fourth commandment calls into question the equation of the Ten Commandments with the eternal moral law. That command is mutable, for if the Reformers are right, it has been changed" (p. 73).

5 Thus there are disagreements among theonomists as to whether there should be a death penalty for adultery and sabbath breaking. Theonomy is not as simple and clear-cut as proponents pretend it is. Longman points out another difficulty: "A thief must restore four sheep...but five oxen for an ox. Why the difference? The Bible never says.... If a thief steals my car, do I get four cars in return, or five? (p. 51).

6 Waltke points out another error in theonomic assumptions: "The law explicitly states that capital punishment for various offenses is not part of the eternal law. Cain's blood was not shed in lex talionis for Abel's blood, which cried out for justice, but in fact was protected" (p. 84).

7 Poythress points out a weakness in Bahnsen's claims about Deut. 4:6-8: "The other nations admire Israel not only for the righteousness of her laws (4:8) but also for the God...and for the land that God gave Israel as a gift (4:5).... The nations do not notice the commandments merely as rules standing by themselves but as an expression of God's special communion with Israel.... The nations are pictured, not as saying, `We should have these same laws for ourselves,' but `What a special God Israel has, what a special grace God has shown Israel, and what wise statutes God has given them for their special situation'" (p. 115).

8 Despite his insistence that we must not argue from silence (pp. 175, 190), Johnson argues that "the question whether the penal sanctions should also instruct the state...is not explicitly addressed in the New Testament" (p. 191). He also refers to "the New Testament's divinely purposed silence regarding the specifics of civil jurisprudence" (p. 192).

9 After an interesting but irrelevant discussion of the origin of the word amillennial, Gaffin faults the theonomists for their preterist views: "It is a fundamental misreading to see the eschatological discourses of Jesus and the Book of Revelation as fulfilled almost exclusively or even largely in the events of A.D. 70, as if those events were of major eschatological importance" (p. 205).

10 Godfrey concisely states part of the attraction: "The appeal of theonomy, like that of many comtemporary Christian movements, is its simplicity and apparently biblical character. The great complexities and frustrations of the secular, modern world lead many to look for easy solutions. But in a fallen world solutions to great political problems are not always easy" (p. 312).

11 Keller also points out an interesting argument, if theonomists want to be consistent: African-Americans were generally robbed of all their belongings when they were brought to this country. Doesn't the Bible mandate double (or more) restitution for them? The debt has never been paid...

12 A diversity of views is shown on George Gillespie's comment that "I know some divines hold that the judicial law of Moses...ought to be a rule..." (cited on p. 342). The diversity is also shown by Puritan writings after the Confession — they still exhibit a diverse approach to the civil laws. Even some of the strongest proponents of capital punishment do not reason in the same was as theonomists do, nor do they always come to the same conclusions. David Dickson, the earliest commentator on the Confession, regarded laws as no longer binding if they are neither commanded in the New Testament nor in natural law (pp. 347-8).