A Reformed Alternative to Theonomic Ethics | Sam Waldron

by | Oct 13, 2022 | Theonomy?


*This series is a republication of lectures written by Dr. Waldron near the end of the 1980s. This is Part 7 of a series titled “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment.”

For Part 1, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/theonomy-a-reformed-baptist-assessment-sam-waldron/

For Part 2, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-sources-of-theonomic-development-sam-waldron/

For Part 3, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-challenges-of-critiquing-theonomy-sam-waldron/

For Part 4, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/understanding-the-supposed-theocratic-kingdom-sam-waldron/

For Part 5, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/the-historical-background-of-theonomic-ethics-sam-waldron/

For Part 6, you can click here: https://cbtseminary.org/a-biblical-refutation-of-theonomic-ethics-sam-waldron/


I.) A Reformed Defense of Religious Liberty

1.) The Theonomic view of the Separation of Church and State Refuted

It is a misconception to think that Theonomists reject the separation of the church and state.  They do, however, to say the least, define the separation of church and state differently than it is normally defined in our day either by secularists or Christians.  In fairness to Bahnsen his view of the separation of church and state is not novel, but may claim to be typical of Calvin, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the earlier Reformed tradition.  Bahnsen argues

Therefore, an investigation of the Older and New Testaments reveals that they both separate the functions of the state from those of the church; however, they both maintain also the authority of God over church as well as state.  In the era of the New Testament this means that the sword of the state is under moral responsibility to the law of God without being confused with the sword of the church.  The state has recourse to capital punishment as a penal sanction, but the church’s severest punishment is that of excommunication. . . The state does not operate in the name of the Redeemer or as an organized expression of the redeemed community.  However, this does not mean that the state is not morally responsible to God and His justice. . .  The point, then, is that church and state can be separated with respect to function, instrument, and scope and yet both be responsible to God. . . the law does not grant the state to enforce matters of conscience (thus granting “freedom of religion”), but it does have the obligation to prohibit and restrain public unrighteousness (thus punishing crimes from rape to public blasphemy).  The state is not an agent of evangelism and does not use its force to that end; it is an agent of God, avenging His wrath against social violations of God’s law.  If one’s outward behavior is within the bounds of the law he has nothing to fear from the civil magistrate-even if one is an idolater, murderer, or whatever in his heart.”[1]

Let there be no misunderstanding of Bahnsen’s position.  In his ideal state “public” blasphemy, idolatry, sabbath-breaking, apostasy, witchcraft, sorcery, and false pretension to prophecy would be subject to civil penalties up to and including the death penalty.

Bahnsen’s views at this point are characteristic of the views of Christian Reconstructionism as a whole.  It would be easy to multiply quotations which would evince this with reference to both North and Rush­doony.  One practical illustration of this view is North’s remark that Christians should work to get the tax exemptions of “liberal” churches lifted (denied). [2]

It is obvious that in any theonomically organized state religious liberty would be constantly threatened by the civil government.  If a civil government feels itself responsible to judicially penalize, public sabbath-breaking, apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy, then religious liberty is in real jeopardy.


2.) The Biblical View of the Separation of Church and State Defended

a.) The Presumption of Such a Separation

We begin again here by reminding ourselves of the redemptive history of the Theocratic Kingdom.  With the expiration of the partially restored Theocratic order in A. D. 70, all civil authority ceased to be Theocratic in the sense in which we have defined that word in these lectures.  God is no longer the unique king of any civil entity.  No nation is now mandated to adhere to a divinely revealed civil order.  While the moral principles enshrined in the laws of the Old covenant remain authoritative, no nation is bound to the detailed, civil order of Old Testament Israel.  Add to all of this the destruction of the Temple as the earthly throne of Yahweh and one must also conclude that no longer are church and state a united entity.  The redeemed community no longer has a civil structure.  Thus, the divine establishment of the Gentile civil authorities means that the separation of the civil and ecclesiastical institutions in human society is now God’s preceptive will.  The alteration of this order will be signaled only by the return of Christ.  Thus, the separation of church and state is assumed and commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ when he directed that we should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).

b.) The Arguments for Such a Separation

Many arguments could be brought forward in defense of religious freedom or soul liberty.  I will only mention two:

(1) Dictating religious belief and worship is not the task or function of the state.  It is outside the sphere of the civil authorities.

The state is to preserve civil justice and peace and protect men from violence to their bodies or property.  This is the teaching of the Bible (Rom. 13:3, 4; Mt. 22:21; I Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:14; Ps. 82:1-4, 58:2, Deut. 4:27; Gen 6:11, 12, 9:5, 6; Ps. 72:14, Ezek. 7:23, 45:9; Prov. 21:15, 24:11, 12, 29:14, 26, 31:5).

Men may and do differ as to religious belief without disrupting the peace or offering violence to others.  The weapon of the civil authority is the sword.  Swords are not good weapons, they are not even the right weapons, with which to mold or rule men’s con­sciences.  Civil authority rules mens’ bodies, not their souls (Neh. 9:37).

(2) For a state to dictate religious belief or worship inevitably requires the State to rule the church or the church to rule the state.  Since the Bible teaches the sphere-sovereignty of both the state and the church under God, to require the state to restrain violations of the first table of the law necessarily violates the teaching of Scripture.

The Westminster Confession of Faith in its original form is the best illustration of this.  In chapter 23 and paragraph 3 it states:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.  For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

In Chapter 21 and paragraph 4 of this original edition of the Westminster Confession provided similarly that

…for their publishing such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.

How can the state do such things without seriously compromising the church’s sovereignty under God?  Without making the church a slave of men?  It can’t!


3.) The Objection to Such Separation

A serious objection must now be addressed.  Isn’t the civil authority to rule according to the Word of God?  If so, how can it allow religious freedom?  Must it not, therefore, enforce the first table of the law?  If God forbids idolatry, for instance, must not the state also forbid and penalize idolatry and, therefore, proscribe Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, and, indeed, any religion which does not profess to worship the Christian Trinity?

Here a crucial distinction must be enunciated.  It is certainly true that civil authority is subject to the Word of God, but this does not mean that it is the duty of the civil authority to enforce every part of God’s Word with his own authority.  Several illustrations will make this clear.

Eph. 6:4 requires,  “And you fathers bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”  Is the civil magistrate required to enforce this.  No!  Why?  Because the Word is not his authority?  No!  But because He is not a Father.  Note also the exhortations to pastors in I Pet. 5:2.  Should the civil magistrate enforce this?  No, because he is not a pastor.  John Murray well says,

Since the civil magistrate is invested with this authority by God and is obliged by divine ordinance to discharge these functions, he is responsible to God, the one living and true God who alone has ordained him.  The magistrate is, therefore, under obligation to discharge the office devolving upon him in accordance with the revealed will of God.  The Bible is the supreme and infallible revelation of God’s will and it is, therefore, the supreme and infallible rule in all departments of life.  The civil magistrate is under obligation to recognize it as the infallible rule for the exercise of civil magistracy.

It must be recognized, however, that it is only within his own restricted sphere of authority that the civil magistrate, in his capacity as civil magistrate, is to apply the revelation of God’s will as provided in Scripture.  It is only to the extent to which the revelation of Scripture bears upon the functions discharged by the state and upon the performance of the office of the civil magistrate, that he, in the discharge of these functions, is bound to fulfil the demands of Scripture.  If the civil magistrate should attempt, in his capacity as magistrate, to carry into effect the demands of Scripture which bear upon him in other capacities, or the demands of Scripture upon other institu­tions, he would immediately be guilty of violating his prerogatives and of contravening the requirements of Scripture.

The sphere of the church is distinct from that of the civil magistrate….What needs to be appreciated now is that its sphere is co-ordinate with that of the state.  The church is not subordinate to the state, nor is the state subordinate to the church.  They are both subordinate to God, and to Christ in his mediatorial dominion as head over all things to his body the church.  Both church and state are under obligation to recognize this subordination, and the correspond­ing co-ordination of their respective spheres of operation in the divine institution.  Each must maintain and assert its autonomy in reference to the other and preserve its freedom from intrusion on the part of the other.[3]

Why is the civil magistrate not to enforce the “first Table of the Law”?  Because he is somehow not subject to the Word of God?  No!  Because it’s not his job!


4.) The Limits of Such Separation

Are there limits to religious freedom?  When anyone’s religion disrupts civil justice or peace and threatens violence to others, then it exposes itself to the legitimate action of the state and must be restrained.  Moloch Worship, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal of blood trans­fusions for their children, and abortion are several examples of religiously held “rights” which should not be permitted.


II.) A Reformed Hermeneutic of Mosaic Law

How are we to tell which laws in the Old Covenant we must obey as Christians and which we need not obey?

This is the pressing question.  In rejecting the alternative of Theonomy we have not settled this serious and practical issue.  It is incumbent upon a treatment like this to provide some direction on this question.  This is, however, a massive matter. The following is offered only as a general outline of the proper approach to this question.

1.) General Premises

a.) The Old Covenant is the most concentrated Biblical revelation of law and the central Biblical revelation of moral law.

The NT does not reveal, but rather assumes a system of ethics (Matt. 7:12; Luke 18:18-20; Rom. 13:8, 9; 1 Cor. 14:34, 35; James 1:25; 2:8-12; Jn. 1:17.)

b.) We must distinguish between the Old Covenant law as a temporary covenant and a permanent revelation.

Compare Heb. 8:13 with Eph. 6:1f; Gal. 3:19f.  While the Old Covenant as a temporary covenant no longer binds us, as a permanent revela­tion of God and His moral law it does bind us.

Thus, we cannot answer the question with either of the two, extreme, (and super­ficial) answers.  There is the answer of Dispen­sationalism.  This is that nothing in the Old Covenant per se binds the Christian. There is the opposite answer, that to which Theonomy tends.  This is that everything in the Old Covenant binds the Christian.  According to the New Testament both of these answers are too facile.  Some ­things do and some things do not bind us. We must be able to tell the difference.

c.) The moral law revealed in the Old Covenant has already been revealed to every man because its demands are written in his heart by creation.  Man, therefore, by nature has certain ideas about right and wrong.

Cf. the following passages Rom. 2:14, 15 (The law mentioned in this passage is clearly according to the context the law given at Sinai.); 1 Cor. 11:13-15.

This natural revelation–granted–is suppressed by man’s depravity.  Thus, a written revelation is necessary to make God’s demands clear to sinners.  Yet, this means that no man app­roaches the question of his ethical duty as a blank slate.  He ap­proaches the question with a basic knowledge of that duty which barring his sin should guide him in sorting of the Old Covenant laws!  Only his sin prevents this!

d.) Anything not abolished in Christ remains as the Christian’s duty.

Compare the exposition Matt. 5:17, 18.  The Old Covenant was temporary because it was preparatory and pointed forward to Christ.  Anything that was not at least in principle abolished by Christ was obviously not part of its temporary character.  Examples of such temporary aspects of the Old Covenant are multiplied in the New Testament.

–The priestly and sacrificial laws (Hebrews 7-10).

–The dietary laws (Acts 10, 11 with Mk. 7:19).

–The judicial laws as part of the civil state of Israel (Luke 21:20-24; Acts 6:13-15; Heb. 8:13; 9:18-22; 10:1)

Obviously anything re-affirmed in the New Covenant by Christ or the Apostles is law for the Christian, but it is not necessary for a law to be explicitly reiterated.  As long as it is not abolished by Christ, it remains in force.

Problems remain, of course, even after stating this premise.  This is epitomized by the phrase used above, “at least in principle.”  There are still gray areas.  Hence other rules of thumb are necessary.  This brings us to certain more specific guidelines.


2.) Specific Guidelines

a.) Any ordinance present from creation has abiding relevance for the Christian.

Any point at which the Mosaic regulations deviate from a creation mandate they obviously are part of the temporary aspects of the Old Covenant.  Note Matt. 19:1-10.  What originated at creation must endure as long as creation itself is not altered (Matt. 5:17, 19, Luke 20:34-36).

b.) Any law which is part of the Ten Commandments is permanent.

It is common in our day to raise an objection against the distinction between the moral and ceremonial dimensions of Old Covenant.  It is argued that the Old Covenant was a unit and did not distinguish between one law and another.  The Jews, it is said, could not have guessed which laws were moral and which ceremonial.  We believe, however, that this distinction was made very plainly for the Jews.  Who made the distinc­tion?  God did!  God clearly distinguished the Ten from the rest.  How?

–By speaking the Ten Commandments alone with his own voice

–By writing them alone with his own finger

–By writing them alone in stone, rather than a book

–By putting them alone in the ark of the covenant

In these ways at least God clearly distinguished one part of the Old Covenant law from the rest.

c.) Any law which the Gentiles as well as the Jews were obliged to obey is thereby revealed to be part of the natural law written on the heart of all men.

The obligation of the Gentiles to obey God presupposes a revela­tion informing them of their obligation.  Since the Gentiles did not have special revelation, such laws must have been part of the general revelation of God’s law written on their hearts by creation.  This perspective enables us to answer the question, Are the laws of Leviticus 18 for us?  Cf. Lev. 18:6-23 and note particularly Lev. 18:1-5, 24-30.  Clearly these laws do bind Christians.  This is confirmed by the assumption of Paul in 1 Cor. 5:1f. that these laws obliged and should have been plainly understood by all the Corinthians.


3.) Test Cases

Two test cases will serve to show the relevance of the premises and guidelines mentioned above in discerning the abiding relevance of Old Testament laws to ourselves.  The first case will be a positive example, the second a negative.  Again, it is necessary to remind the reader that this treatment is intended only as simple sketch, showing the main lines of thought to be followed in discerning Old Covenant laws

a.) The Positive Example:  The Sabbath

The weekly sabbath is a well-known crux of scriptural ethics.  But the things mentioned above provide a straightforward answer as to its relevance for the Christian.  It is a creation ordinance.  It is part of the Ten Commandments.  It obliged Gentiles dwelling among the Jews, at least, (Exod. 20:8-11).  Thus, in terms of each of the three specific guidelines mentioned above the sabbath qualifies as abidingly relevant for the Christian.

Question is, of course, raised by many with reference to certain of the premises mentioned earlier.  Some argue that the sabbath was abolished by Christ on the basis of passages like Col. 2, Gal. 4, and Rom. 14.  Others argue that the Sabbath was not part of the law of nature.  Each of these arguments has only partial validity.

It is true that the precise day of the week and even the length of the week is not part of the content of the law of nature.  The most that can be said is that natural reason might anticipate that the appointed day of worship would not be much more or much less than one in seven.  However, that God must be worshiped, worshiped corporately, and, thus, that a specified time must necessarily be appointed for that worship and appointed by God himself–all these things seem clearly a part of the law of nature to this writer.  The true case seems to be that the law of the Sabbath is a mixed commandment; part natural and part positive.  The implication of this must be noted.  The positive part of the commandment could be changed, while the natural law underlying it embodied in a new institution.  As a matter of fact, this is precisely what the biblical data indicates did happen.  This brings us to the second issue raised above.

It is not necessary to deny that the seventh day sabbath was abolished by Christ or that this is the reference of, for instance, Col. 2:16, 17, though many fine exegetes have done so.  It is simply necessary to distinguish the sabbath as a dictate of natural law from the sabbath as a positive law.  That is to say, we must distinguish between the sabbath as a moral principle and the sabbath as a positive institution.  As a positive institution, it is abolished.  As a moral principle, it is re-incarnated in the Lord’s Day.  It re-emerges in the Christian observance of the first day of the week.  It is simply fallacious and hopelessly superficial to make Col. 2:16, 17 the first, last, and only statement of the Bible on the subject of the sabbath.  It is downright wrong to ignore all those considerations mentioned above which lead directly to the conclusion that the sabbath is a moral principle abidingly relevant in all ages.  It is impermissible to ignore and isolate all that the New Testament teaches regarding the first day of the week (Rev. 1:10, 1 Cor. 16:1, 2, Acts 20:7, 2:1, Jn. 20:1, 26).

b.) The Negative Example:  the Year of Jubilee

In contrast to the sabbath day the sabbath year is on the basis of the principles enunciated above clearly not abidingly relevant for the Christian.  It is not a creation ordinance, not a part of the Ten Commandments, not obligatory for Gentiles, (Lev. 25:39-55), and fulfilled and abolished by Christ (Lev. 4:16-19, 21:20-24.) both because it points to Christ’s work and because it was a civil law of Israel.



Are there not still gray areas?  Yes and we must seek for greater light to discern and do God’s law of liberty.  In the meantime such obscurities make us thankful for the fact and remind us that we are saved by grace and not the works of the law!


    [1]Ibid, pp. 426, 427

    [2]Gary North, The Theology of Christian Resistance, A Symposium, ed. by Gary North, (Tyler, TX, Geneva Divinity School, 1983), p. 64.

    [3]Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 1, pp. 253, 254.

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