The Challenges of Critiquing Theonomy | Sam Waldron

by | Sep 15, 2022 | Systematic Theology, Theology Matters, Theonomy?


*This series is a republication of lectures written by Dr. Waldron near the end of the 1980s. This is Part 3 of a series titled “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment.”

For Part 1, you can click here:

For Part 2, you can click here:


Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment. Pt.3

The Challenges of Critiquing Theonomy


I. The Necessity of Honesty

There is peculiar danger in caricaturing Christian Reconstruc­tionism.  This is aptly illustrated by the recent article in “Chris­tianity Today” by Rodney Clapp and the rebuttal written by Gary North.  They have entitled “Democracy as Heresy” and “Honest Reporting as Heresy: My Response to Christianity Today.”[1]

Several misconceptions of the teaching of Christian Recon­struc­tionism do exist, and the Theonomic perspective seems unusually susceptible to misunderstand­ing.  Some of these misconceptions are:

—   Theonomists do not believe in the separation of church and state.

—   Theonomists want to impose Christian government on the U. S. by force and revolution.

—   Theonomists are seeking a one-world Christian government.

—   Theonomists believe that the Mosaic Law should be the constitu­tion of every nation.

—   Theonomists believe that we are saved by the law.

—   Theonomists believe that a terrible crisis will usher in the millen­nial period in the next few years.


Compare for other misconceptions Bahnsen’s Preface to the Second Edition of Theo­nomy.[2]  Some of these beliefs may be held in some form by an occasional Theonomists.  Yet even in those cases, none of these ideas is better than a half-truth.  None are warranted as general characterizations of Theonomy by a fair assessment of their literature.

Why is Theonomy so susceptible to misunderstanding?  Two reasons may be given. First, the Theonomists themselves are frequently guilty of violent or extreme rhetoric in their writings which gives unnecessary occasion for misunderstanding. Father Rushdoony set the course in this regard by charging Calvin with “heretical nonsense,”[3]  the Westminster Confession with “confusion” and “nonsense,”[4] and those tainted with Pietism with being “nothing people, pious poops.”[5]  North also illustrates this tendency by calling Meredith C. Kline and millions of other Christians “full-time Christian antinomians.”[6]  He also offends by such descrip­tions as these of the Third World when he writes,

He is correct when he cites me as saying that the poverty of the Third World stems from its commitment to socialism and outright demonism.  I have said that these societies are cursed.  I would now add that the depopulation of central Africa from AIDS is a direct judgment of God on the universal promiscuity of these nations.  God will not be mocked.[7]

James B. Jordan is known as a Theonomist, but in a letter to me, he states,  “I do not consider myself a Theonomist.”  Later he describes himself as a “borderline C[hristian] R[econstructionists].”  Jordan states in the same letter,  “I agree with you regarding the extreme rhetoric of many Christian Reconstructionists, and I have criticized it in print.”[8]

The second reason which may be given for the frequent mis­representat­ion of Theonomy is that the position they are advocat­ing runs completely against the grain of 20th century American thinking. Though it is no doubt true that they throw around the charge of “antinomianism” with undue frequency, the fact is that most American and evangelical thinking in our day is grossly sub-Biblical in its view of the law. Frequently one’s reaction to those seeking to refute Theonomy is to feel more sympathy for the Theonomists than those attempting to refute their supposed heresies. Even at those points where one is disposed to disagree with them, for instance, in their advocacy of civil punishment for public blasphemy or idolatry, the fact is that revered fathers in the Reformed faith agree with them, not the modern consensus. Further, the modern consensus against such things–no matter how much we may agree with it in practice–is often defended or based on ways of thinking that undermine basic truths of Christianity.


II. The Problem of Diversity

One major difficulty in critiquing Theonomy is the diver­sity of thought within the ranks of Christian Reconstructionists. One must be careful not to treat some particular application of the Mosaic Law, for instance, as standard among all Theonomists.  There is substantial difference of opinion among “Theonomists” as to the specific application of Old Testament laws.  Bahnsen makes this point in the Preface to the Second Edition of his Theonomy.

Our outline of the Theonomic perspective indicates that it pertains to fundamental, underlying ethical principles and is not, as such, com­mitted to distinc­tive interpretations and applications of the Old Testament moral directives.  In the nature of the case, these principles leave plenty of room for disagreements in Biblical exegesis (for prescrip­tive premises), observation of the world (for factual premises), and reasoning (for logically drawing an applica­tion).  Thus Theonomists will not necessarily agree with each other’s every interpretation and ethical conclusion.  For instance, many (like myself) do not affirm R. J. Rushdoony’s view of the dietary laws, Gary North’s view of home mortgages, James Jordan’s stance on automatic infant communion (without sessional examination), or David Chilton’s attitudes toward bribery and “ripping off” the unbeliever.  Neverthe­less, all share the basic perspective reflected in the above ten propositions.[9]

North distances himself from certain of Rushdoony’s peculiari­ties:

So far as I know, all of the younger Reconstructionists reject Mr. Rushdoony’s Armenian (note not Arminian) view of the patriarchal family (p. 19).  This is a major area of disagreement within the Reconstructionist camp.  The “Tyler Group,” as well as Greg Bahnsen, holds to the biblical nuclear family, where the departure of sons and daughters to set up new covenantal family units (Gen. 2:24) estab­lishes a clear covenantal break with parents.  No man will tolerate living in his father’s household with his wife and children unless forced to by custom or economics.  Another Armenian church practice that the article refers to is the practice of sacrificing animals at the door of the church, which Rushdoony discusses in The Institutes of Biblical Law, pp. 782-3.  Unquestionably, we in Tyler would utterly reject such a practice as heretical throwback to Old Testa­ment “shadows” that were com­pletely fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Christ.  It is our rejection of what Mr. Clapp correctly identifies as Rushdoony’s “Armenian Connection” that ultimately led to the split in the Reconstructionist camp: Tyler vs. Val­lecito.[10]

It is also well-known that Bahnsen as a believer in the Christian Sabbath[11] disagrees with North’s vitriolic attack on this doctrine­.[12]  In fairness, there­fore, to Theonomy one must distinguish their basic perspectives and their necessary applications from the par­ticular applications or aberrations of individual writers.


III. The Difficulty of Volume

One cannot but be impressed by the enormous volume of literature that Christian Reconstructionism is spawning and much of it is composed of technical theological writings. To make concrete the monumental size of the task, let it be noted that simply reading Rushdoony’s Institutes and Bahnsen’s Theonomy would mean reading well in excess of 2000 pages of technical theology. The sheer volume of literature is another difficulty standing in the way of accurate assessment.


IV. The Urgency of the Study

One cannot, however, ignore the Christian Reconstructionists in the hope that they will go away because of these difficulties. There is every indication that they are command­ing more and more support and allegiance, or at least are having a formative impact on many prominent Christian leaders. Two prominent leaders who have felt their impact are, in fact, Pat Robertson and D. James Kennedy. In most, if not all, of the conserva­tive Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, Theonomy is a very live issue. Bahnsen elaborately documents the debate stirred by his book alone in his Preface to the Second Edition of Theonomy.[13]

House and Ice summarize the necessity of their critique of Christian Reconstruction by the following statements. They apply with intensified propriety to those who, unlike House and Ice, identify themselves with historic, Reformed theology.

The Reconstructionists cannot be dismissed as a passing, therefore irrelevant, side-current on the course of evangelical thought.  As will be discussed later, the Reconstructionists have garnered support from such disparate groups as old-time fundamentalists, charismatics, and some members of the evangelical intelligentsia….

The Christian Reconstruction movement deserves analysis because of its thoughtful, startling, and thorough challenge to contemporary evangelicalism and American life generally.  Its views must be considered with care by what Thomas Jefferson called a “candid world.”[14]


V. The Danger of Overreaction

The clear and present danger of overreacting to Theonomy has already been clearly illustrated in Calvinistic Baptist circles. Carl W. Bogue writing in the “Covenanter Witness,” reminds us of this danger:

At the 1980 Council of Baptist Theology, Ronald McKinney, Jon Zens, and others known as Reformed Baptists charted a new course, denying their previously held commitment to covenant theology.  McKinney and Zens told me privately what McKinney repeated in his opening address, namely, their conviction that covenant theology would of necessity lead to the doctrines of infant baptism and Theonomy.  Since they were convinced these were wrong, they repudi­ated covenant theology.[15]

One must face the issue of Theonomy now before it is faced in the crucible of the pastorate or other forms of church leadership. When one sees it creating division and disaster in the church or danger for the individual sheep, as it has in many cases, it is easy under the pressure of the pastorate to overreact theologically.  If, however, we overreact to Theonomy, we may well throw out several babies with the bath water.


VI. The Expression of Appreciation

It would be imbalanced and out of due perspective, if it were not noted that at a number of points those who embrace a “Theonomic” perspective are to be commended. As the previous delineation of the major tenets of Theonomy make clear, there is much with which one can find agreement in their writings.  We whole­heartedly embrace both the Reformed doctrine of predestination and the consistently Reformed apologetic known as presuppositional­ism. Furthermore, one cannot but appreciate the high supernatural­ist, inerrancy view of Scripture so straightforwardly embraced and exemplified in their writings, especially when it is contrasted with that found in Neo-orthodox and Neo-evangelical writings. Further, no one with a Reformed bone in their body can fail to appreciate the consistent emphasis on the sovereign prerogatives of God and His Word over every area of human life, whether it be civil, economic, or some other area.

Other areas of appreciation and agreement will be enunciated later. Though these points of agreement do not alleviate our deep concern over the points with which we differ, they do put into perspective the critique we are about to engage.


VII. The Areas of Criticism

Having warned the student of the various pitfalls surrounding an evaluation of Theonomy and placed the present critique into perspective, it is now necessary to articulate two areas that are to be addressed critically in this assessment of Theonomy. Four tenets of Christian Reconstruction were delineated above. Only two of those tenets are distinctive of the movement. Only those two will come up for particular criticism in this assessment. Speaking generally those areas are their distinctive postmil­lennialism and their distinctive view of biblical law.  We shall describe those two areas as Theonomic Ethics and Theonomic Postmillenialism.


VIII.The Method of Approach

Both of the two areas just mentioned are intimately related to the subject of the Theocratic Kingdom of Israel.  It is clearly the perpetuity of the social ethics of the Theocratic Kingdom which form the distinctive heart of Theonomic Ethics. A cursory knowledge of the debate over Theonomy makes clear that it centers upon the subject of the judicial law of Israel. Theonomy has focused its attention on the cultural, economic, and, therefore, political applications of the law of Israel.  This, however, specifically confronts us with the subject of the Theocratic Kingdom of Israel and its place in redemptive history.

Furthermore, it is the renewed glory of the Theocratic Kingdom which forms the grand goal and focus of Theonomic Postmillennialism.  Yet further, as we shall see, Theonomic Ethics and Theonomic Postmillennialism are connected for Christian Reconstructionists.  By way of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 obedience to Theonomic Ethics is by Theonomists made the cause of which Theonomic Postmillennialism is the effect. For these reasons, there is no more foundational issue for the right assessment of Christian Reconstruction than the subject of the Theocratic Kingdom in redemptive history.

Any more than superficial acquaintance with the Bible vindicates the assertion that the Bible is the chronicle of and commentary upon God’s redemptive activity in history.  The Bible is not first of all a systematic theology, catechism, or an ethical code.  It is redemptive history.  This is very significant for our purposes because by asking about the place of the Theocratic Kingdom in redemptive history we inquire about that which is at the heart of the Bible.  Does the redemptive history revealed to us in the Bible permit the idea that the law of the theocratic Kingdom of Israel and in particular its judicial law remains abidingly valid in exhaustive detail in the present phase of redemptive history?  Does the redemptive history revealed in the Bible allow for the possibility that millennial blessings of the Theocratic type expected by Theonomy await the church before the return of Christ?  When the questions are put this way, it becomes clear that nothing is more important in weighing Theonomy than a penetrating understanding of redemptive history as it is presented and structured in the Bible.

This assessment will, therefore, commence by endeavoring to lay the foundation of a proper understanding of the Theocratic Kingdom in redemptive history.  This foundation will then be applied and elaborated in a consideration of Theonomic Ethics and Theonomic Postmillennialism.  This positive method of approach will be characteristic of this assessment as a whole.  We will endeavor to set forth the positive teaching of the Bible about these matters and allow that teaching to call into question the peculiarities of Christian Reconstruction.


    [1]Rodney Clapp, “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today,(Feb. 20, 1987), pp. 17-23; Gary North, “Honest Reporting as Heresy…”

    [2]Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian Reformed Publishing Company, 1984), pp. xx-xxi

    [3]Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Craig Press, 1976), p. 9

    [4]  Ibid, p. 551

    [5]Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Meaning of Postmillennialism:  God’s Plan for Victory, (Fairfax, Virginia, Thoburn Press, 1977), p. 37

    [6]North, Op. Cit., p. 6

    [7]Ibid, p. 5

    [8]He is referring to his article in The Geneva Review, January, 1986, “Tough Talk,” James B. Jordan, pp. 1, 2.

    [9]Bahnsen, Op. Cit., p. xix

    [10]North, Op. Cit., p. 6

    [11]Bahnsen, Op. Cit., p. 228, 229

    [12]Rushdoony, Institutes, pp. 824-836

    [13]Bahnsen, Op. Cit., pp. xi-xxvii

    [14]House and Ice, loc. cit., pp. 16, 24.

    [15]Carl W. Bogue, “What does the Decalogue Summarize?” Covenanter Witness, (May 1987), p. 4

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Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

Are all sins the same? | Tom Hicks

“Is it true that all people are equally sinful? If someone has sinful anger in his heart, but never acts on it, is that person really the same as someone who has sinful anger in his heart and then murders his whole family?”

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