Before critiquing theonomy, we need a good definition. Some people today who use the word “theonomy” don’t mean anything more than “God’s law” because the etimology of the word theonomy is “theos” which means God, and “nomos” which means law. They only want to affirm that God’s law is supreme over man’s law. And they’re right about that. God’s transcendent moral law is the norm that norms all norms. Governmental laws should always be consistent with God’s law and human law must never violate God’s law.
But in this post, I’ll be using the word “theonomy” in a more technical sense, which is rooted in the historic usage of the term. Theonomy, in the technical sense, teaches that Old Covenant judicial laws are the universal moral standard of civil law for all Gentile nations. The basic presupposition of theonomy is that God gave the judicial law to the nation of Israel as a universal law of perfect justice for all nations because it is a perfect reflection of God’s own moral character. Some of the most prominent early proponents of this kind of theonomy include Greg Bahnsen, Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North. For a discussion of “general equity theonomy,” see here.
I’m convinced that theonomy is unbiblical for a number of reasons.
1. Theonomy has a flawed hermeneutic of Old Testament priority.
Theonomy arrives at its conclusions by insisting that particular Old Testament laws persist, unless they are specifically abrogated by the New Testament. But this reads the Bible improperly. Theonomy’s hermeneutic is consistent with paedobaptism, which says that since the New Testament does not abrogate the Old Testament inclusion of infants, then infants must be given the sign of baptism. Theonomy is also consistent with the Old Testament priority hermeneutic of dispensationalism, which teaches that the promises God made for Israel cannot be typologically fulfilled in Christ and the church, but must be literally fulfilled in national Israel. But theonomy’s hermeneutic isn’t consistent with the hermeneutic of New Testament priority.
It is true that earlier revelation is vital for understanding the context of later revelation. In that sense, earlier revelation is logically prior to later revelation. But sound hermeneutical principles recognize that later revelation has interpretive priority over earlier revelation. Therefore, when later Old Testament texts explain earlier parts of the Old Testament, we should pay close attention to what the later texts say and allow them to explain and draw out implications of earlier Old Testament texts, making explicit what was only previously implicit. Similarly, when the New Testament explains Old Testament passages of Scripture, the New Testament has priority of interpretation over the Old Testament.
If the New Testament says an Old Testament passage has a particular meaning, we should assign that meaning to the Old Testament passage. The same is true of New Testament letters, which explain the earlier life and work of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
This is nothing other than what Augustine taught when he said, “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” The light of revelation is brighter as we move toward the end of the Bible (Louis Berkhof, Principles of Interpretation, pp. 54, 133, 135, 137). Berkhof says, “The New Testament is implicit in the Old, so the Old is explicit in the new” (135). And “The more perfect revelation of the New Testament illumines the pages of the Old” (137-138).
This isn’t really any different from the way we read any book by a single author. We allow the later parts of a book to interpret the earlier parts of the book. Orthodox theology is rooted in the idea that the one true God authored the whole of the Scriptures. Thus, we should pay close attention to His intended meaning in light of His explanation of His own Word.
2. Theonomy does not account for the fact that Gentile nations are not and never were under the Old Covenant.
The laws peculiar to the Old Covenant do not bind Gentile nations. Gentile nations are under natural law, which is the work of the moral law written on the hearts of all human beings. Romans 2:14 says, “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.”
When God judged the Gentile nations in the Old Testament, He never judged them for violating Old Covenant judicial law. Rather, He judged them for violating His moral law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments (Jerermiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; Jonah; Nahum; Habakkuk 2 – a taunt song against the Babylonians for violating God’s moral law; Zephaniah 2).
3. Theonomy doesn’t properly account for the fact that the Old Covenant as a whole, together with all of its laws, has been abolished.
Numerous passages of Scripture teach that the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and abolished with the coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant.
- Hebrews 7:12 says, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
- Hebrews 7:18 says, “A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.”
- Hebrews 8:13 says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.”
- Hebrews 10:9 says, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.”
- Ephesians 2:14-15 says that Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances.”
To be clear, the moral law, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments, has not been abolished. The moral law is rooted in God’s own eternal moral character and is part of the image of God in human beings. Moral aspects of Old Covenant law can never be abolished because they are rooted in nature, not merely in a covenant. But the positive laws of the Old Covenant have been abolished. Theonomy does not properly account for this fact.
Rich Barcellos correctly notes, “The New Testament clearly abrogates the whole Old Covenant, including the Decalogue, as it functioned within the Old Covenant, and yet borrows from its documents as the basis for New Covenant ethics (see for instance 1 Cor. 9:9-10; 14:34; 2 Cor 13:1; Eph 6:2-3, and many other texts)” (In Defense of the Decalogue, p. 68).
4. Theonomy doesn’t acknowledge the existence of positive law in contrast to moral or natural law.
This is related to numbers 2 and 3 above. Natural law is law that people know innately. Romans 2:14-15 is clear that God writes the work of His natural law on the hearts of all men, and Romans 2:21-24 shows that natural law is summarized in the Ten Commandments. Natural law is nothing other than the reflection of God’s moral character in human beings who are made in His image.
Positive law, on the other hand, is law that God posited by way of special revelation in a particular covenant. No one would have known that they ought to obey positive law, unless it had been revealed to them in a biblical covenant.
To give you an example of the distinction between natural/moral and positive law, consider Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam knew by nature not to worship false gods, not to steal, not to murder, etc. He knew these laws because he was made in the image of God. But Adam would never have known not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if God had not revealed and commanded that positive law to him in the covenant of works.
To give you another example, Abraham knew by nature that it was wrong to lie to Pharoah about Sarah being his wife. God never had to tell Abraham that lying was wrong because all images of God know it’s wrong to lie, even if they suppress that truth in unrighteousness. But Abraham would never have known that he had to be circumcised except for the fact that God revealed that law to him and commanded him to be circumcised in the covenant of circumcision. Natural law is known innately, but positive law would never be known apart from covenantal revelation.
Natural or moral law transcends all covenants. It’s immutably rooted in the nature and character of God and also in human nature. Fallen human beings suppress their knowledge of natural law, which is why we need Scripture to reassert and clarify it. But even fallen human beings are not completely ignorant of natural law. Positive law, on the other hand, is covenantal, must be specially revealed to be known, and serves a particular purpose within the covenant in which it is given. When covenants change, positive laws change, but moral or natural law does not.
Theonomy does not grasp this crucial distinction. The judicial laws of the Old Covenant are not transcendent moral or natural law, but positive laws, which God commanded in the Old Covenant for a particular reason.
5. Theonomy does not account for the fact that the judicial laws of Israel were only to be practiced in the land of Canaan.
It’s impossible to separate Israel’s judicial law from the land of Canaan. The Old Covenant law was given to the Old Covenant people, who were to keep the law in the Old Covenant land. Deuteronomy 4:14 says, “And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statues and rules that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.”
To give one example, consider the law of the parapet. Deuteronomy 22:8 says, “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” This judicial law, which is based on blood-guilt, only makes sense because the land of Israel is holy. According to the Old Covenant, blood-guilt defiles the land and results in the expulsion of the people. Deuteronomy 19:10 warns that if blood guilt comes upon the land, the guilt of blood shall be shed upon the people.
While there is certainly an element of perpetual moral law (general equity, “do not murder”) in the law of the parapet, the law itself could only be practiced in the land of Canaan, which is the case for all Old Covenant judicial law.
6. Theonomy misunderstands the reason for the death penalties in Old Covenant judicial law.
Before discussing the death penalty in Old Covenant judicial law, it’s important to understand that the covenant of common grace establishes the death penalty for murder. The death penalty for murder is part of universal moral law. In Genesis 9:6, the Noahic covenant of common grace says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” That is a transcendent moral principle: the punishment must fit the crime. It is lex talionis, which is the “law of the same,” often expressed as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It refers to equal weights and measures in justice. So, the death penalty for murder is moral law.
But other Old Testament death penalties are tied to Old Covenant worship. The term “devoted to destruction” or “devoted to the ban” (Hebrew: cherem) involves the death penalty, and it is connected to the purity of the land, holy war, and Old Covenant worship.
Deuteronomy 13:12-16 says:
“If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again.”
This is saying that if a city comes under the influence of idolaters, there is to be a careful inquiry, and if it’s found to be true that the city is under the influence of idolaters, then the whole city is to be put to death, together with the cattle.
This law is not simply a matter of moral justice. Verse 16 says that the city becomes a “whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” It’s an offering to God. This is a law about holy war and Israel’s possession of the holy land. It’s a kind of ceremonial purification.
It also anticipates Judgment Day. The New Testament seems to teach that the death penalties of the Old Covenant are types of eternal condemnation.
Hebrews 10:28 says:
“Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”
In other words, under the Old Covenant, the penalty for breaking the law was physical death. But the corresponding doctrine of the New Testament is eternal condemnation for those without Christ.
So, the death penalties of the Old Testament are associated with Israel’s unique place in redemptive history. I’m convinced that scholars have shown that all of the death penalties of the Old Covenant are based on the distinctive purposes of the Old Covenant. I recommend Vern Poythress’s book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, which illustrates this very well. I don’t agree with everything in that book, but it is a good resource to have.
Due to their special character, therefore, it would be unjust to apply Old Covenant death penalties in a Gentile nation. It was perfectly just for Israel to put people to death for all sorts of reasons because God has the right to command the death of any sinner, and He commanded the death of many sinners via the Old Covenant for reasons that were unique to that covenant. But we have no right to implement such penalties in Gentile nations.
Furthermore, the death penalties of the Old Covenant are reflective of the fact that it is a “work for the right to inheritance” covenant. Leviticus 18:5 says, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” But the new covenant gives the inheritance by grace, not by works. Galatians 3:12-13 denies this works principle under the gospel, “But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘the one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
7. Theonomy does not account for the fact that the Old Covenant law was intentionally severe to preserve the line of promise.
The nation of Israel was largely an unbelieving nation. The people needed a severe legal system to chasten them and to preserve them as a nation until Christ would come from them. The severity of Old Covenant judicial law is especially evident in the liberal use of the death penalty. The death penalty was prescribed for false-worship and apostasy (Deut 13:6-11; 17:5), blasphemy (Lev 24:10-16, 23), sabbath-breaking (Num 15:31-36), rebellious sons (Deut 21:18-21), fornication (Deut 22:20-23), adultery (Lev 20:10-11), homosexuality (Lev 20:13) and many other sins. These are very heavy penalties.
Galatians 3:19 explains one of the reasons for such laws: “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” Similarly, Galatians 3:24-25 says, “So, then the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.”
Scripture is saying that the severe Old Covenant law was given because of the sins of the people of Israel. It was given to them as a nation, to chasten them, and to act as a deterrent for outward sin, and to keep them from destroying themselves, until Christ came from them.
The Jerusalem council discussed the fact that some wanted the church to practice circumcision. Acts 15:10 says, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” The covenant of circumcision, and the Old Covenant as a whole, was a heavy legal yoke. Those who try to impose it upon Christians or Gentile nations are heaping a heavy burden upon them. Now that Christ has come, there is no reason for it. The yoke of the Old Covenant has been fulfilled and abolished with the coming of Christ.
8. In each case, when the New Testament applies one of the judicial laws of the Old Covenant, it applies the law’s general equity to the church, and never to the government of a Gentile nation.
This is important because of the hermeneutical principle of New Testament priority. The New Testament teaches us how to interpret and use the Old Testament, which means we need to pay attention to how the New Testament applies Old Covenant judicial laws. You will never find a single New Testament example of an Old Covenant judicial law being applied to a Gentile government.
For example, 1 Timothy 5:17-18 says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and ‘the laborer deserves his wages.” “Do not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain” is a judicial law that comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. But here, Paul applies the law’s general equity (do not steal) to paying pastors properly in the church. He does not apply it to a Gentile government.
Another example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:13, where Paul is discussing church discipline, and he says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” That’s a judicial law from Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, 12, and many other places. In the Old Covenant, “purging the evil person from among you” referred to the death penalty. But in the New Covenant, that judicial law is applied to church discipline, not to the civil death penalty.
So, if we allow the New Testament to teach us how to interpret Old Covenant judicial laws, then we will think of their general equity first as applying to the church, not primarily to Gentile civil governments.
9. To sum up, theonomy’s central mistake is believing that God gave the judicial law of Israel as a universal norm of societal justice for all nations.
Certainly, the moral law of the Old Covenant is a universal norm for all nations. And we ought to use the Old Testament to help us understand God’s moral law. But the positive laws of the Old Covenant had many different functions according to Scripture, and all of them were bound to the unique objectives of the Old Covenant.
As we have seen, the judicial law was tied to the land, to ceremonial worship, and to the preservation of Christ’s line of promise. Some of the judicial laws were simply designed to create a distinct culture for Israel that separated them from the nations. Others were about preserving family lines for the sake of property and inheritance. But all of the positive laws of the Old Covenant were related to the typological character of the Old Covenant and/or to its unique cultural situation and place in redemptive history.
In conclusion, theonomy, in the technical sense of the term is not a biblical idea. Scripture itself refutes the theonomic position, such that in fact, theonomy is not in favor of God’s law at all, but adds to the good law of God positive covenantal precepts that were designed to expire with the coming of the Lord Jesus.
While this article has been a critique of Theonomy, and I have not outlined a positive biblical theology of civil government, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, chapter 24, provides a wonderful framework for civil government. I wrote an exposition of that chapter here: What is the role of civil government?
For another good resource on Theonomy see this article by Brandon Adams.