The Historical Background of Theonomic Ethics | Sam Waldron

by | Sep 29, 2022 | Theonomy?

*This series is a republication of lectures written by Dr. Waldron near the end of the 1980s. This is Part 5 of a series titled “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment.”

For Part 1, you can click here:

For Part 2, you can click here:

For Part 3, you can click here:

For Part 4, you can click here:


The Historical Background of Theonomic Ethics

Two major questions need to be asked here.  They are …

  1. Is the Theonomic view of the Mosaic “Judicial Law” consis­tent with the Reformed tradition?
  2. Is the Theonomic viewpoint the legitimate offspring of Reformed paedobaptism?


1.) Is the Theonomic view of the Mosaic “Judicial Law” consis­tent with the Reformed tradition?

A.) The Reformed Tradition

This is a pressing question for Theonomists.  On the one hand, in asserting “the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail” they appear to teach the binding obligation of the “judicial law” of Moses on society today.[1]   On the other hand, the divines of the Westminster Assembly and Calvin, their mentor, clearly teach the “expiration” of the judicial law of Moses and deny that it is as such binding on nations today.  The critical statement in the Westminster Confession of Faith is found in 19:4.  Having clearly distinguished the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law, the Confession states, “To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”[2]  Calvin elaborates on this very point in his Institutes.  His statements are so similar to that of the Confession that it is probable that here as in so many other places he had a formative impact on the Confession.

I will briefly remark, however, by the way, what laws it may piously use before God, and be rightly governed by among men.  And even this I would have preferred passing over in silence, if I did not know that it is a point on which many persons run into dangerous errors.  For some deny that a state is well constituted, which neglects the polity of Moses, and is governed by the common laws of the nations.  the dangerous and seditious nature of this opinion I leave to the examination of others;  it will be sufficient for me to have evinced it to be false and foolish.  Now, it is necessary to observe that common distinction, which distributes all the laws of God promulgated by Moses into moral, ceremonial, and judicial; and these different kinds of laws are to be distinctly examined, that we may ascertain what belongs to us, and what does not ….

What I have said will be more clearly understood, if in all laws we properly consider these two things-the constitution of the law and its equity, on the reason of which the constitution itself is founded and rests.  Equity, being natural, is the same to all mankind; and consequently all laws, on every subject ought to have the same equity for their end. Particular enactments and regulations being connected with circumstances, and partly dependent upon them, may be different in different cases without any impropriety, provided they are all equally directed to the same object of equity ….  Whatever laws shall be framed according to that rule, directed to that object, and limited to that end, there is no reason why we should censure them, however, they may differ from the Jewish law or from each other.  The law of God forbids theft.  What punishment was enacted for thieves, among the Jews, may be seen in the book of Exodus.  The most ancient laws of other nations punished theft by requiring a compensation of double the value.  Subsequent laws made a distinction between open and secret theft.  Some proceeded to banishment, some to flagellation, and some to the punishment of death.  False witness was punished, among the Jews, with the same punishment as such testimony would have caused to be inflicted on the person against whom it was given; in some countries it was punished with infamy, in others with hanging, in others with crucifixion.  All laws agree in punishing murder with death, though in several different forms.  The punishment of adulterers in different countries have been attended with different degrees of severity.  Yet we see how,  amidst this diversity, they are all directed to the same end.  For they all agree in denouncing punishment  against those crimes which are condemned by the eternal law of God;  such as murderers, thefts, adulteries, false testimonies, though there is not a uniformity in the mode of punishment; and, indeed, this is neither necessary, nor even expedient. . . . For the objection made by some, that it is an insult to the law of God given by Moses, when it is abrogated, and other laws preferred to it, is without any foundation;  for neither are other laws preferred to it, when they are more approved, not on a simple comparison, but on account of the circumstances of time, place, and nation; nor do we abrogate that which was never given to us.  For the Lord gave not that law by the hand of Moses to be promulgated among all nations, and to be universally binding; but after having taken the Jewish nation into his special charge, patronage, and protection, he was pleased to become, in peculiar manner, their legislator, and, as became a wise legislator, in all the laws which he gave them, he had a special regard to their peculiar circumstances.”[3]

If we are permitted to exegete the Westminster Confession by means of its admitted historical precedents, there need be no doubt that it is not a Theonomic document.  How anyone in the sixteenth century could have stated more clearly theoretical disagreement with modern, Theonomic perspectives than Calvin has in the above quotation, it is impossible to imagine.[4]  Research into the views of the Puritans themselves only serves to confirm this exegesis.[5]


B.) The Theonomist Response

Theonomists respond to this apparent conflict with the recognized standards of the Reformed tradition in various and contradictory ways.

Rushdoony’s response is perhaps the most honest and certainly the most straightforward.  At the same time, however, it is also the most arrogant.  He unflinchingly admits the contradiction and then accuses the Confession of “con­fusion” and “nonsense” and charges Calvin with uttering “heretical nonsense.”[6]

Other Theonomists have not been so eager to take on the Reformed tradition and have manifested more reverence for its perspectives.  At the same time, they appear to have infringed historical honesty and literary clarity.

Bahnsen at the opposite extreme from Rushdoony in this matter argues that his thesis is in accord with the Confession.  (As an Orthodox Presbyterian Church minister, we would expect Bahnsen either to do this or to exit the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, since that denomination holds the Westminster Confession of Faith.)  What Bahnsen gains by this in proper veneration for the Reformed tradition, he loses in literary clarity.  It is vexingly difficult to penetrate his thinking at this point.  The confession asserts the “expira­tion” and “non-obligation” of the judicial laws with the qualification “further than the general equity thereof may require.”  Bahnsen in his appendix dealing with the Westminster Confession seeks to view the distinction implicit here as a distinction between “the particular cultural expression of a judicial law” and the law itself in its cross-cultural general equity.[7]

Fowler’s assessment appears to be accurate.

What Dr. Bahnsen is actually saying is that the connotations of Israel’s ancient culture are no longer binding in today’s culture.  But the case laws are illustrations to be applied equitably to today’s culture.

There is no doubt, therefore, that for Dr. Bahnsen, “general equity” does not refer to general moral principles underlying the case laws (i. e. the scope of the Ten Commandments).  He is not saying that the case laws are no longer binding.  Instead, “general equity” refers to the case laws, minus their cultural expressions, which are to be applied in an equitable manner cross-culturally in today’s society.

Dr. Bahnsen’s view of general equity stands in contrast to Reformed thought.  This is one of the distinctives of Dr. Bahnsen’s view of the judicial law.(pp. 24, 25).[8]

As Fowler says, this view of the expiration of the judicial law does not satisfy the language of the Confession.  To put it plainly, where the Confes­sion speaks of the expiration of the judicial law as given to Israel as a body politic, Bahnsen speaks merely of the passing of its “particular cultural expression.”

James Jordan, writing in the Journal of Christian Reconstruc­tion,[9] takes yet another approach to this problem.  Jordan argues that the Westminster Confession is ambiguous with reference to the distinctive position of Theonomy.[10]  Two salient features of Jordan’s article may be noted.

First, Jordan regards the very classification, “judicial law” as ambiguous.[11]  Richard Flinn writing in the same issue of this journal seconds this opinion when he asserts (p. 55).

There is a perplexing problem of historical interpretation here, which in our day is causing some worthy men to engage in rather vain polemics.  In the face of the political, economic, and social theory enunciated from the Scriptures by the Chalcedon Foundation, some in the neo-Puritan movement have argued that the doctrine of the continuity of the case law and its relevance for the church, state, family, and society was never part of Calvinistic and Puritan tradition.  The dispute arises partly because of the ambiguity of the Puritans on this matter.  There was some discussion amongst them on exactly how far the judicial law of Moses was to be carried over.  The doctrine of the continuity of the case law was not articulated, to my knowledge, in a fully self-consistent, self-conscious form.  But the case law did form the bedrock of the Puritans’ outlook on society, as we will demonstrate below from Rutherford.  To declare that the doctrine of the continuing relevance of the case law was never part of Puritan theology is errant nonsense, but I readily grant that it had not been developed as consistently by them as it has been in our day by men like Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and others of the Chalcedon Foundation.[12]

This is a most significant point.  For since the Westminster Confes­sion presents its whole treatment of the law in terms of the moral, ceremonial, judicial distinction,[13] these comments amount to a conces­sion of a distinct departure from the concep­tual framework of the Confession.

The second salient feature of Jordan’s argument is to

stress the multi-faceted practical agreement between Theonomy and Calvin and Westminster as to the application of the Mosaic Judicial Law to society.  Undoubtedly, such agreement exists.  The Confession and Calvin did agree with Theonomy with reference to such issues as the relation of church and state.  Calvin seems as well to have argued in favor of the death penalty for adultery later in his life.[14]

Such argumentation has, however, a fatal flaw.  Practical agreement is not the same as theoretical agreement.  Jordan virtually admits this when he concedes that Calvin did not “advocate the Mosaic judicials.”[15]  Fowler is right, then, when he argues:

It is one thing to say that certain crimes or offenses against the law of God still deserve the death penalty meted out in the Old Testament, it is another thing to say that the Old Testament judicial law is binding in exhaustive detail! . . . In their incidental applications of particular laws, they may be alike therefore, but in the foundation of their respective systems, they are completely different!  It is the foundation, not the incidentals that matters.[16]


C.) The Proper Conclusions

It is clear that major spokesmen for Theonomy are in profound disagreement on the subject of the relation of modern Theonomy to the historical Reformed touchstone of the Westminster Confession.  Rushdoony admits the contradiction.  Bahnsen attempts to eliminate but loses clarity of presentation in doing so.  Jordan and Flinn find the Westminster Confession ambiguous in terms of the thought of modern Theonomy.  This state of confusion among Theonomists in itself eloquently and poignantly suggests their deviation from the Reformed tradition.

Three things at least distinguish Theonomy from the Reformed tradition.  First, Theonomists challenge as errant or ambiguous the moral/judicial dis­tinction.  Second, Theonomists proceed from a new (or novel) case law view of the judicial law.  Third, Theonomists emphasize that the judicial law is abidingly valid, whereas the Confession sees it as “expired.”


2.) Is the Theonomic viewpoint the legitimate offspring of Reformed paedobaptism?

If Theonomy departs from the Reformed view of the “judicial law” the question is raised, From what in the Reformed tradition does it originate?  Clearly, Theonomy has arisen from within the general confines of the Reformed tradition.  What, then, is its historical antecedent in that theological tradition.  Though in the nature of the case absolute proof may not be offered for his conviction, this writer is convinced that the logical starting-point for Theonomic thought in the Reformed tradition is to be found in paedobaptism and the logic by which it was and is supported in the Reformed tradition.  In other words, Theonomy is simply the hermeneutic of paedobaptism consistently applied to the relation of Israel and the Church, the Old Testament and the New Testament.  A number of considera­tions may be brought forward which commend this diagnosis of the Theonomic symptoms.

First, paedobaptist logic is committed to restricting the discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant to a very superficial level and at the same time emphasizing the con­tinuity between them to the point of practical identity.  In order to facilitate the introduction of paedobaptism, baptism and circumcision are equated as closely as possible.  This tendency to discount the discontinuity of and the diversity between baptism and circumcision is precisely the tendency of Theonomy in regard to the “judicial law” of Israel as it applies it to the modern state.

Second, even more cogently it may be argued that Reformed Paedobaptist thought treats Old Testament Israel as the paradigm for the New Testament Church and its baptism.  Theocratic Israel is the model for the Church.  Clearly, it seems to this writer, that is precisely the methodology of Theonomy in economic and political theology.  Theonomy, if it is anything, is the erecting of the theocracy into a model for modern economics and politics.  This is in fact precisely what Bahnsen says.

The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing “judicial” laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. . . “All of the statutes” revealed by Moses for the covenant nation were a model to be emulated by the non-covenantal nations as well . . .[17]

Third, Baptists in the Reformed tradition have long argued that Reformed Paedobaptists are (happily) inconsistent in their general refusal to practice paedocommunion.  Paedobaptists, they have argued, use the theocratic model for baptism, but not for communion.  Theonomists, however, are among the leading advocates in the recent Reformed movement for paedocommunion.  Rushdoony,[18] North,[19] Jordan,[20] though not Bahnsen,[21] vehemently argue for paedocommunion.  In so doing they are simply being consistent in their paedobaptist logic.

The consistency, however, must be extended further.  In bringing the Reformed tradition into strict conformity to the paedobaptist logic and the theocratic model, one must not only practice paedocommunion, but also adopt the judicial law as normative for the modern state.  By doing this the “ambiguity” in the Westminster Confession is eliminated.  For, it seems to this writer, the Confession and the Reformed tradition have been ambiguous in their adoption of the theocratic model at some points and not at others.  To make the Reformed tradition “consistently Pres­byterian,” the Theonomists eliminate those aspects of that tradition which have, in fact, been implicitly Baptist.

Fourth, in further confirmation of our suspicion-thesis that Theonomy is ultimately paedobaptist in its origins is the choice of the Tyler Theonomists as to their first volume in the Christian­ity and Civilization symposiums.  Its title tells us all we need to know.  It is entitled The Failure of the American Baptist Culture.[22]

Fifthly, one further similarity between Paedobaptismand Theonomy may be mentioned.  Paedobaptist apologetes are unable to generate a unified perspective in defense of paedobaptism.  Rather considerable diversity is the result of the attempt to provide a biblical justification of paedobaptism.  Similarly, Theonomy as documented previously results in tremendous disagreement and debate in its practical application.  We are convinced that the reason for this divisive tendency in both cases is the inherent inadequacies of the Theocratic model as a paradigm for either the Church or the State in the present age.

It is, then, the contention of this assessment that Theonomists have seen a very clear problem in the Reformed tradition, its ambiguity regarding theocratic Israel as a model for modern society, church, and state.  They have, however, chosen the wrong direction in removing that ambiguity.  Instead of attempting to make Reformed Theology con­sistently Paedobaptist, they should have argued for making it con­sistently Baptist.  In refusing this alternative and opting for the theocratic model, we are convinced that they are on a theological road which can–consistently taken –lead by way of paedocommunion only to externalism and formalism.  The frightening thing is that Theonomy has manifested a dogmatic commitment to following its premises to their logical conclusions–no matter how awful!


    [1]Bahnsen, op. cit., p xxix

    [2]Westminster Confession of Faith, (The Publications Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland,1970), p. 81

    [3]John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Vol II, ed. John Allen, (Philadelphia, Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, n.d), pp. 787, 788, 789-791 (4:20: 14, 16)

    [4]Cf. the article by Robert Godfrey entitled “Calvin and Theonomy” (pp. 299f.) in Theonomy:  A Reformed Critique, ed. by W. Robert Godfrey and William S. Barker, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990).

    [5]Sinclair B. Ferguson in an excellent and detailed article in Theonomy:  A Reformed Critique, ed. by W. Robert Godfrey and William S. Barker, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1990) entitled, “An Assembly of Theonomists?  The Teaching of the Westminster Divines on the Law of God” (pp. 315ff.) has shown with precise and exhaustive Puritan scholarship the contradiction between 19:4 of the Westminster Confession and modern Theonomy.

    [6]Rushdoony, Institutes, pp. 9, 550, 551

    [7]Bahnsen, op. cit., pp. 540, 541

    [8] Paul B. Fowler, God’s Law Free From Legalism, pp. 24, 25      (Privately Distributed)

    [9]James Jordan, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, “Calvinism and the “Judicial Law of Moses” an Historical Survey,” (Winter, 1978-79; vol. v, no. 2) p. 175.

    [10]Ibid., p. 43

    [11]Ibid., p. 21

    [12]Richard Flinn, The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, “Rutherford and Puritan Political Theory,” (Winter, 1978-79; vol. v, no. 2) p. 55

    [13]Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 79f.

    [14]Jordan, op. cit., pp. xvii, xviii

    [15]Ibid, p. 25

    [16]Fowler, op. cit., p. 46

    [17]Bahnsen, op. cit., pp. xvii, xviii




    [21]James Jordan, “Theses on Paedocommunion,” The Geneva Papers, special edition (from Geneva Divinity School, 1982)

    [22]The Failure of the American Baptist Culture, ed. James B. Jordan (The Geneva Divinity School, 1982)

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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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