EDIT AND CORRECTION: Prof Clark linked David Bahnsen’s post where his father, Greg, supported Norman Shepherd.
A few blogs ago, I did a series called “The Theonomy Files.” I have since updated my own thinking more in line with Reformed Scholasticism since I wrote that. Here is the gist of it. Part of this will be a number of problems in theonomy. These aren’t “gotcha” but they are difficulties to which I never saw a satisfactory answer. I do plan on offering more substantial criticisms later.
Let’s briefly define our terms: theonomy is the position that all of the old testament laws are binding for the new covenant Christian, unless rescinded by command (or presumably practice), and are to be applied in their new covenant context.
It is hard to debate with theonomists. Part of the reason is they respond to every criticism with “Oh, but you are simply an antinomian/statist/relativist.”
The following points of criticism do not necessary serve as any one refutation of theonomy. Taken together, however, the place a burden of epistemological proof upon theonomists that I deem is impossible for them to bear.
- Where were you all this time? Theonomists like to point out that older, medieval Christian societies were theocratic and would be opposed to the secularism of today’s politics. Yes, they were theocratic, but they were not theonomic. And to the degree that the early Western medieval church was Augustinian, they were most certainly not theonomic (Oliver O’Donovan’s reading of Augustinian ethics shows how difficult the Augustine = theonomist case really is). Further, almost ALL of these societies were explicitly monarchist, a position theonomists vehemently reject. Obviously, you can’t simultaneously say you affirm (King) Alfred the Great’s social ethic while denying the form of Alfred the Great’s politics (and by implication, social ethic).
- Bird’s Nests and God’s Law. Deuteronomy 22:6 tells you what to do when you come across a bird’s nest. Is that considered civil case law, moral law, or ceremonial law? While I admit at times the law can be delineated along such lines, more often than not it cannot. It is not always clear whether a law is civil, moral, or ceremonial. Or maybe it’s all three. If it’s all three, and we obey the moral part, do we not also obey the ceremonial part? But isn’t that heresy on the standard reading of the law (by both sides)?
- Moses isn’t the same as John Locke. Similar to (1); theonomists have a tendency to read 18th century American (and 17th century British) political concepts back into the law of God. Ultimately, this means they reject Christian Monarchy, but they reject Christian Monarchy along American revolutionary lines. They conclude their rejection of monarchy (which would entail a rejection of most of Christian historical ethical reasoning–a point theonomists often fail to grasp) by an appeal to 1 Samuel 8. Presumably, 1 Samuel 8 is binding on all Christians all the time (though 1 Samuel gives no evidence to that claim). Notwithstanding, theonomists cannot give us a clear answer to the question: does Torah teach monarchy or theocratic republicanism? (Read Deuteronomy 17 and Genesis 49). Further, is 1 Samuel 8 civil law or moral law? Is it even law? If it isn’t a law, should we be bound by it?
Torah isn’t the Congressional Register
Of course, by Torah we mean after Christ, apart from works of Torah. I am saying that seeing the “Law” as Torah and not theonomy provides a better model for understanding Scripture. A quick perusal of the Pentateuch will show that it was not written with late Western modernity in mind. In fact, seen in our categories, much of it is quite bizarre.
That’s not to deny its importance. If anything, the strange ways in which Torah is organized should invite the reader to reflect even deeper about reality and the way that God’s world works. Let’s consider a few and ask how these can possibly work on the theonomic thesis:
- While there are covenantal-sequential patterns and typological motifs (riffing off of the days of creation–Ex. 25-40), many of the laws are apparently haphazardly organized together. This should alert us to the fact that maybe God didn’t intend for these laws to be understood in a post-common law framework.
- Torah is also story. In Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans Torah is not functioning as a list of dos and don’ts, but as story. How do you put story into a law code?
Women Breaking up fights
Here is another difficulty with theonomy. Maybe it’s not with theonomy the idea, but it does invite young theonomists to reflect more deeply on what they are actually saying. Here is Deuteronomy 25:11
“When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, 12then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.
There are several problems here if we take it at face value and apply it to a modern Western law code:
- Just think about it: how likely is something like this ever going to happen? I am a school teacher and I break up fights all the time. It’s not that easy to get between two people in a fight (and I’ve been hit before, though I was so pumped up with adrenaline I didn’t feel it).
- If two guys are moving rapidly and throwing punches, how likely is it that a woman is going to go low and grab the private parts of the other guy?
- And would you really apply this? If a bad guy broke into your home and the wife was able to help out by “disabling” him (and for the sake of argument, save your life), are you really going to reward her by cutting off her hand? Really?
Someone could say, “Well, that applies to the Mosaic covenant when it was important to provide an heir.” Maybe. The text doesn’t say anything about that, so it’s just ad hoc and speculation. There is still the justice of the matter, covenant heir or no.
And then there is the equity of the matter. Well before that: is this law moral or civil/judicial? It’s obviously judicial since there is a penalty attached to it. So what’s the equity for today for theonomists? Remember, on the theonomic gloss the “judicial law abides in exhaustive detail.” The Reformed Confessionalist does not have this problem. The Confession only says “allows” the equity and no more. Which is a nice way of saying that this law would never be applied. The theonomist has to apply the law.
The After-Calvin Source Failure
One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all.
That raises another problem: reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms. Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas. Here is an experiment for you: pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms. Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE . Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accepted natural law). The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist). The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).
If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that
1) they don’t contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein;
2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it].
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak.
The Steroid Effect
One of the dangers in taking steroids while lifting weights is that despite all the gains, the level you reach is likely the highest you will ever reach. Once you get off steroids, and even the biggest “user” won’t take them perpetually (No one does steroids, or even creatine, during the regular season for risk of dehydration), it is unlikely you will ever reach those levels naturally again.
We see something similar in theological studies. Deciding which area to major in will determine how deep one’s theological knowledge can get. Here was my (and many others; and for what it’s worth, throughout this post substitute any Federal Vision term in place of a theonomy term and the point is largely the same) problem in institutional learning: I immediately jumped on how important apologetics was for the Christian life to the extent that I made apologetical concerns overwhelm theological concerns. I essentially made theology proper (and soteriology and ecclesiology) subsets of apologetics/ethics, instead of the other way around.
I won’t deny: I became very good at apologetics and ethics, but I didn’t know anything about theology outside of a basic outline of Berkhof. Studying Reformed theology among sources, and worse, movements, who are only barely Reformed, limited how deep I could go in Reformed theology.
I’ll say it another way: when I was taking covenant theology we had to read sections of Gisbertus Voetius and Cocceius in class. I got frustrated thinking, “These guys are tying in the covenant of works with natural law. Don’t they know how un-reformed natural law is?” Problem was, I was wrong. But if you read the standard theonomic (or FV; by the way, the FV fully adopts the Barthian, and now historically falsified, Calvin vs. Calvinist paradigm) historiography, there is no way to avoid such misreadings. Even worse, said historiography fully prevents one from learning at the feet of these high Reformed masters.
The Collapse of First Generation Reconstructionism
I’m not going to touch on the infamous “whitewall” sermon.
I suppose the inevitable question, one loaded with irony, is that given Christian Reconstruction’s commitment to postmillennialism, how come the movement fractured immediately and society is not reconstructed? Before we get into the individual faults of the men and camps, it is important to first note perhaps why they were prone to fracturing.
Many CR leaders knew they wouldn’t be welcomed in the presbyteries. So they reasoned: too bad for the presbyteries! For all the problems and limitations in local presbyteries, they tend to keep individuals from going off the deep end. We will soon see why.
- Rushdoony: On one hand it’s a good thing that Rushdoony’s errors are so easy to see. Being egregious errors and out in the open, they are fairly easy to avoid. His main errors are the dietary laws, ecclesiology, and shallow readings of some Reformed sources. I won’t bother refuting his interpretation dietary laws. I suspect his personal experiences drove his ecclesiology. I don’t know the whole story, though Gary North has documented it here. Evidently he got angry at the OPC and separated himself from church bodies for the greater part of a decade. A bit more minor issue but one more prevalent is that many young CRs began their study of theology by beginning with Rushdoony. As a result, many simply parroted his slogans without really understanding all the theology and philosophy behind it. Their grasp of Reformed theology was very tenuous beyond the basics. Once they came across sharp Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologists, they were toast. They didn’t have the strong foundation in Turretin, Hodge, and Owen that older men had. Had they begun with the latter and had a decent foundation, then they could have approached Rushdoony Finally, people who really follow Rushdoony have a hard time accepting any criticism of the man.
- Was the home-church movement an inevitable spin off from Rushdoony? That he endorsed something like it is clear, but most Reformed people understand he is wrong on that point. I think one of the dangers of the home church movement is that apart from any presbyterial oversight, there is nothing stopping the members from embodying outrageous positions.
- Gary North: His Y2K debacle lost him his credibility. Others have pointed out his refusal to condemn the Federal Vision, though truth be told, would it have mattered? Most people stopped listening to him in 2,000. Would his condemning FV in 2003 have changed anything? Another of his problems would be the Tyler connection. Tyler had the bizarre mixture of independent congregationalism and quasi-sacerdotal episcopalianism.
- Was Federal Vision inevitable? If you read Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics carefully, it doesn’t seem like it. He is citing standard P&R and evangelical textbooks on hermeneutics and the Sermon on the Mount. All of this is wildly at odds with the later Federal Visionists. That’s the problem: other theonomists either became Federal Visionists or they ran interference for them.
Gary North notes that CR split into two camps: Tyler Ecclesiasticalism and Rushdoony’s Home Church Patriarchalism. Neither seems like a good choice.