The Essence of Theonomy

Theonomy boils down to this statement, made by an old friend:

If Christ is God, and if Christ is Lord, then His Lordship extends to all areas of inquiry: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. And so, the assumption, if one affirms ethical absolutes, is necessarily one of “theonomy” broadly construed in opposition to autonomy, as Cornelius Van Til indicated. Therefore, the question is whether one is a “consistent” theonomist or an “inconsistent” theonomist.

…one better presuppose a theonomic ethic (in a broad sense not necessarily ala Bahnsen), or otherwise, one is left without ethics, and therefore, without Lordship. The details of a theonomic ethic need to be determined through careful exegesis. But, what we cannot do is say that God has no claim on how we are to live – whether privately or publicly; he does have a claim, and that claim is a theonomic (God’s law) claim.

And, given Romans 13 and other passages, the notion of justice is never abstracted from God and His character, even if public justice is in view. Consequently, public justice exhibits a theonomic dimension.

6 thoughts on “The Essence of Theonomy”

  1. This is most interesting. I’m studying Christian Theological Ethics as part of my B.Theol this semester (at a Catholic university); this is the point we’re drilling down to (though it is spoken of in the terms of the Reign of God – at once both Now and Not yet) and the fact one cannot but be informed by their faith impacting upon all of life

    Read Freedom and Conscience by Dr. Robert Gascoin – would this be more in line with an Anglican style of Theonomy rather than the styles advocated by the late R J Rushdoony, Gary North or even Doug Phillips?

    I am curious; or would it be more akin to C S Lewis’s speculations on what a genuine Christian society would look like. (i find Lewis’s perhaps the most apealing of all)…


    Especially for one who lives in a nation colonized originally as a prison, not a Faith haven, where the first church building didn’t go up till nearly 50 years after the first pub!! …a nation where only 10-15% of people identify as having any involvement or interest in Christianity through its most visible face – the body of Christ, Community of Believers or Church.

    Blessings from Australia.

  2. Joel,

    There’s a gap in your argument:

    One can agree that [a] “one better presuppose a theonomic ethic (in a broad sense not necessarily ala Bahnsen), or otherwise, one is left without ethics, and therefore, without Lordship” while not agreeing that it entails the conclusion that [b] “the details of a theonomic ethic need to be determined through careful exegesis.”

    Claim [a] would be consistent with major forms of “natural-law” reasoning. Not naturalistic law, but reasoning from a revealed teleology or anthropology.

    The problem in my mind with the major forms of self-proclaimed theonomy is that they first read the Bible as an ethnics manual rather than reading the Bible first as Christology. The whole Bible, including the law of Moses, is first about Jesus Christ. It’s just a non-starter to ask what the law of Moses teaches us about ethics today without first asking what the law of Moses reveals to us about Jesus. Jesus mediates.

    1. Theonomists have rejected natural law for many reasons.You can read Leithart on the subject here:

      James Jordan, who has rejected “theonomy” in the Bahnsen/Rushdoony sense and calls himself a post-reconstructionist, agrees with you re: Jesus as central.He writes:

      “…we need to see how [any particular law] is fulfilled in Christ, for every jot and tittle was fulfilled by and in Him. Third, we need to reflect on how this law is to be fulfilled in Christ’s sacramental body, the “institutional” Church…Finally, we should reflect on this law’s possible meanings for society today, in the New Covenant, and in terms of our present socio-political situation.”

      He illustrates his point by reflecting on the Old Covenant death penalties and writes:

      The first question is what a given penalty actually means in terms of the Mosaic system, a question not always easy to answer…Secondly, we need to ask how this particular penalty finds its realization at the crucifixion: that is, what particular slant on the atonement is provided by it.Third, we need to reflect on its meaning for the life of the church, that is, for discipline and excommunication. Only with all this in mind will we be in a position, fourth, to suggest its possible relevance for public society, in terms, e.g., of Romans 13.”

  3. Yeah, I’ve interacted with Peter and Jim at some length, and I like them both.

    On “natural law,” please note that what Peter denies is that “unregenerate sinners can derive from creation a true code of morality.”

    Uh, o.k. Peter has no the pretence in the paper that he’s dealing will all forms of natural law.

    The question for you is why the affirmation that “Jesus is Lord” necessarily entails that only “careful exegesis” can generate true ethical principles. What about Christians who do not engage in “careful exegesis”? What about before there were given texts to exegete (whether carefully or not)? Before Moses? Before Jesus? Are God’s ethnical principles fully revealed in the text of Genesis, and so no further clarity is required? (Both Peter and Jim argue that the law changes across covenants. So “careful exegesis” would generate one set of moral principles at one point of time, and another at another point.)

    Regarding Jordan: First, he hasn’t claimed to be a theonomist for years now, perhaps even decades. Secondly, old habits die hard; scratch the surface and the law of Moses is all about ethics and politics and not about revealing Jesus. (Note also that saying that Jesus transforms the law does not entail that the law is Christological. It only means that the way the “principles” of the law apply today changes.)

    The appeal of thenomy, IMHO, is that it promises to provide simple answers. But it hasn’t delivered.

  4. Theonomy “promises to provide simple answers” – I haven’t seen that promise Jim. And I would say that the history of western law is a history of theonomy – see Justinian and Theodosius.

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