Is Natural Law "Theocratic"?

Lee Irons raises this question in relation to the discussion that has been occurring here relative to natural law and homosexual marriage. Lee argues, “My problem with this is that, if logically carried through, this will lead to a view of civil government that is just as theocratic as that desired by the theonomists.” If the question is whether natural law is theocratic, the answer depends upon how one defines “theocratic.” If it means civil enforcement of religion, the answer is no. If it means, however, “there is a divinely revealed moral standard or law in creation and known to all image bearers that can and must be applied by the magistrate within his proper sphere of authority” then yes, it’s theocratic with a lower case “t.” 

As John Muether notes in his recent terrific biography of Van Til, This is all CVT meant by “theonomy or autonomy.” In that sense, we’re all “theonomists.” Either there is a divinely revealed standard or there is not. Historic Reformed theology has always held that there was a law given in creation which corresponds in substance to the law that was promulgated at Sinai. The Sinaitic expression of the natural law was considered a “republication” of the natural or creational or moral law. It was one of the principal justifications for the doctrine of the covenant of works.

The older Reformed theologians generally recognized that the republication of the moral law at Sinai introduced some formal, not material, changes to the law. It was cast in terms of the temporary, typological, national covenant but the substance of the law: Love God, love neighbor was constant. There was a sabbath in creation and the Sinaitic law appealed to that creational sabbath as the basis for the Israelite sabbath and yet there were real differences. The precision with which the old Sabbath enforced was part of the Mosaic, Old Covenant, typological administration and not of the essence of the Sabbath institution. The land promise was attached to the law and that was intentionally temporary and typological (Gal 3). As part of the national covenant, the theocratic administration of the civil and ceremonial laws was attached to the moral law like a kernel to a husk. In classical terms, these were “accidental” to the law. They were not essential to the law as such. There can be no question that the Mosaic or Old Covenant was Theocratic with a capital T. The magistrate had an obligation as a civil ruler to enforce a particular outward religious devotion and to punish violations of the cultus (religion). 

Is the moral law so identified with national Israel and the Old Covenant that it is necessarily Theocratic with a capital T, that it necessarily requires the magistrate to enforce the first table? Is it arbitrary for one to say, as I do, that, after the Old Covenant, the magistrate has no business attempting to enforce the first table? Not at all.

Paul makes clear in Galatians 3 and 4 and in 2 Cor 3 as does Hebrews chapters 7-10 that the Old, Mosaic Covenant was temporary and typological. It was intended to point to heaven, to the reality promised, namely Christ, and to the New Covenant. When Christ fulfilled the typological covenant by becoming the Israel of God (Matt 2), by obeying as the Second/Last Adam (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15) the Old Covenant expired and with it the civil enforcement of the first table. As a matter of nature or creation, the magistrate has no proper or natural interest in the religious practice of the people. Israel was a “one off.” No magistrate before the national covenant, no magistrate contemporary to the National Covenant, and no magistrate after the National Covenant has any interest of business in enforcing religious sanctions. 

This was the argument not only the anonymous “Disciple” (Mathetes) in the Epistle to Diognetus but was the argument of Justin Martyr in his First Apology. Formally, the Edict of Toleration prior to 313 and then the Edict of Milan simply called for toleration of Christianity after about two centuries of sporadic and sometimes violent suppression of Christianity. It called for return of (stolen) property to Christians and the free practice of the faith without persecution. As we know, however, gradually the, under the Constantinian settlement, the life of the church became increasingly entwined with the the state. It started very early! Constantine called the Council of Nicea and emperors convoked the succeeding ecumenical councils. 

Even the Reformation was practically Constantinian. By the 16th century it was virtually impossible for most Christians to think outside the Constantinian box. The Protestants did, however, begin (I quite realize they mostly spoke in Theocratic terms) to theorize a way of relating to the state that opened the possibility of returning the magistrate to his proper sphere of influence. The potential of that theory, however, was not realized until the 18th century.

By the 18th century just as we had to re-think our use of Scripture as a “science” book so also we gave up our Theocratic politics. That abandonment of Theocracy was not inconsistent with the Reformed doctrine of natural law but more consistent with it. Paul’s language in Rom 13 is instructive here. Paul calls the magistrate a “minister” which is potentially cultic language. The word is used elsewhere in the NT to describe cultic (religious) functions but here Paul uses it in a purely civil or “secular” (i.e., non-religious, non-ecclesiastical) context.  The minister serves God by doing what? By restraining crimes against persons, property, society, and nature. This is the natural function of the magistrate. Just as the New Covenant restored marriage to it’s natural/creational state by shedding polygamy, so too the in the New Covenant the Theocracy is shed as a necessary evil. The state is restored to its natural, creational function. The most basic function, one which magistrates who confuse the covenant of works with the covenant of grace (which is done by both the left and the right) often refuse to perform today, is to shed blood in defense of legally innocent human life. By creation the state is constituted to perform a very short list of functions. 

This is the approach that one finds in Johannes Althusius’ Politica, where he begins with the most basic social unit, the family, and works outward from there. The authority and responsibility of each social sphere (association) is determined by its proximity to the family. Each social sphere is responsible to fulfill its God-given function. The magistrate has an interest in seeing that different religious groups are not killing each other or stealing from one another but he has no natural interest in what religion they practice so long as it doesn’t issue in violence or the destruction of basic social units, chaos or the like. What can be known about God from nature? Paul says that every human can know that God is and that he has eternal power (Rom 1). Paul says (Rom 2) that we all know the law. It’s inscribed on our consciences. A law assumes a law-giver. A law assumes a judge. These things a magistrate can know from nature, but the magistrate cannot tell from nature whether God is a Trinity or whether “there was when the Son was not.” I understand why they didn’t but, as a matter of principle, the Constantinian church should have said, “Honored King, kill us you think you must, but the Donatist Controversy, the Easter Controversy (when it should be observed), and the Arian Controversy not proper to your sphere of authority. When it comes to these things, you’re just a member of the congregation. These are religious questions that belong to Synods.” The magistrate can tell from nature who really loves a child, who stole from whom, who murdered whom, who committed adultery with whom, and the like. These questions are matters of law and natural knowledge. Just as we don’t need special revelation to build cars or bridges so we don’t need it to adjudicate such questions. 

Is this revised, post-Constantinian version, of natural law inherently Theocratic? No. As a matter of creation (nature) the magistrate has not been charged and has no natural competence or authority in religious matters. The American arrangement is correct. This is not to say that religious people should have no voice in civil matters but it does mean that we should frame our arguments in a way that is appropriate to second-order, penultimate questions. We cannot inconsistently be Theocrats (appealing to special revelation or the first table) when it suits us or when it seems to be to our advantage. If we act like religion is question of power the pagans will fear us, not out of fear of God, but out of fear of power politics. 

“Mathetes” and Justin (and most of the rest of the pre-Constantinian fathers) had it right. Our message should be: we’re not here to hurt you. We don’t want to control you. We want to live in peace (1 Tim 2). We don’t want the levers of power to impose our religion. We have creational duties in this world/kingdom but our ultimate allegiance is to a kingdom that quite transcends this one and to a King who did not create his kingdom with the point of sword but with the power of his death, his Spirit, and his Gospel.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. As part of the national covenant, the theocratic administration of the civil and ceremonial laws was attached to the moral law like a kernel to a husk. In classical terms, these were “accidental” to the law. They were not essential to the law as such.

    Much like the distinction between “element” and “circumstance” in the RPW. I’ve always thought that Theonomy boils down to RPW inappropriately extended beyond the church.

  2. What is it “National Beat Up On Theonomy” Week?

    Trying to set a Guinness World-Record for how many blogs and posters can speak ill of Theonomists at once?

  3. Theonomists as victims? Really?

    More seriously, Benjamin, theonomy has done a lot of damage to the Reformed churches. I really believe that it’s the ethical twin to the FV. The same rationalist/moralist quest for certainty that gives one gives us the other.

    Unfortunately it is often the first movement that non-Reformed folks encounter. I’ve assisted in the deprogramming of more than one ex-theonomist. I’ve seen a lot of pastoral damage done by the movement. I’ve seen personal damage done by the movement. It controls or seems to control entire presbyteries in the NAPARC world and those presbyteries are possessed either of fundamentalist spirit or a moralist soteriology or both.

    I’m not trying “beat up” theonomists (are we reading the same Gary North, RJR, and GB et co? I’m having a hard time thinking of the verb “to beat up” and the noun “theonomy” in the same sentence) but I do hope to try to encourage people in the Reformed churches and people outside the Reformed churches to see that there is an orthodox alternative to theonomy, that the theonomic/reconstructionist movements aren’t very representative of historic Reformed theology and ethics and that one doesn’t have to be theonomic/reconstructionist to be Reformed.

  4. Funny you say that “FV is the twin of theonomy”. If this be true why have all the former theonomists who are now FV men repudiated theonomy almost immediately upon their conversion to FV?

    By the way I have heard the same thing said concerning the attempt to intertwine in any manner the Covenant of Works into the Mosaic administration of the Covenant of Grace (which is certainly contra-confessional Ch. 7 of the WCF).

  5. There’s no connection between theonomy and FV? Who are the Federal visionists who’ve repudiated their theonomy?

    As to republication, you’re barking against much of the tradition.

  6. James Jordan for one.

    By the way have you read John Ball’s “Treatise of the Covenant of Grace” Dr. Clark?

  7. By the way I never said there was no link between the two, but about as much as between Calvinism and FV.

  8. There’s no connection between the FV and the Definition of Chalcedon? Who are the Federal visionists who’ve repudiated that christology?

  9. Do seriously doubt James Jordan has repudiated his former Theonomist writings? Go to his own website where he denies Bahnsen among others.

    Go here:

    His group makes the following statement:

    “We are not committed to the particular theoretical approach to the Mosaic law advocated by Bahnsenian “theonomy”…”

  10. Benjamin,

    I doubt seriously ANYTHING to do with Mr Jordan! The sentence you quote isn’t exactly a disavowal of theonomy per se as much as it is a disavowal “Bahnsenian” theonomy. He may have repudiated some versions of theonomy but he’s one of the godfathers of the movement and one of the godfathers of the FV. He’s at the root of both wings of 1/2 of what ails contemporary Reformed Christianity.

  11. I would agree that Mr. Jordan is not to be trusted Dr. Clark.

    However I still do not see any connection between theonomy (especially since FV’ers disavow theonomy) and FV directly other than former Theonomists are FV’ers. You might as well say those who hold to Limited Atonement become FV’ers therefore there must be something wrong with Limited Atonement. There are better ways to argue against something than just to link it by association with heresy.

    By the way I would not say there are enough consistent and dogmatic theonomists around “Reformed Christianity” to “ail it” in any real measure. However there are many people who claim to be theonomists but do not have any quality grasp as to what theonomy teaches.

  12. Absolutely Jason. No less than Willem VanGemeren in “Five Views on Law and Gospel” believes Bahnsen has the correlation of Law and Gospel correct.

  13. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for this post. It confirms what I have been trying to say here, namely, that the chasm that exists between church and state today is an 18th century novelty. It is a product of the so-called Enlightenment.

    I’ve asked this before, so I don’t expect an answer, per se. But if one has the time to jot an opinion down, what about Calvin appealing to Natural Law to support civil enforcement of religion?

    The duty of magistrates, its nature, as described by the word of God, and the things in which it consists, I will here indicate in passing. That it extends to both tables of the law, did Scripture not teach, we might learn from profane writers, for no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship. (Institutes 4:20:9)

    So, according to Calvin, scripture teaches that the duty of magistrates extends to *both tables* of the Law. But even if it didn’t, he appeals to natural law to prove the case, asserting that the beginning of civil discourse has historically been religion and divine worship.

  14. Ron,

    If you had been paying attention in class you would have known that I’ve said many times that the Reformation erred by continuing the Constantinian settlement. If you paid attention to what I actually wrote above, instead of seeing only what you wanted to see, you would realize that what happened in the 18th century was just as much a return to the status quo ante, as it was a product of the Enlightenment.

    The process of the disintegration of the Constantinian settlement began before the Enlightenment. There was discontent with it in the 16th-century and, as I wrote above, the Reformation provided the theoretical basis for what occurred by its own two-kingdom theory. The fallacy you make is called post hoc ergo propter hoc (after that, therefore because of that). The Enlightenment wasn’t the “cause” of the two kingdoms theory but during the 18th century people did begin to look for a way out of the cul-de-sac of religious wars that had been occurring since the mid-16th century.

    Yes, the 16th-century Reformers were generally theocrats, but if you read the literature of the theories of resistance, beginning in the 1540s with Lutherans and continuing with Calvin, Beza and the rest, certain assumptions about the nature of civil authority were fundamentally challenged. If you read the bit of Althusius that is in English you’ll see, well before the Enlightenment, the beginnings of a distinction between church and state.

    Yes, Calvin was a theocrat, but he also theorized about two kingdoms. There was, as I’ve said many times, real tension in his thought. That tension had to be resolved. It was resolved, in the New World, in a very happy way. In the French Revolution, things went in a radically different direction, in part because the French Reformed were mostly wiped out (under a theocratic state!). Before you get too exited about a church-state reunion you should look at the history of modern Europe. It’s not very encouraging. The American “secularization” of the state has worked out much better for the church. Even if American church attendance isn’t what Gallup has been saying for 40 years (and it probably isn’t) it’s still much higher than in Europe, where there are still nominal state churches.

    As for “chasm” between church and state, do I not recall theonomists arguing that there was a “church-state distinction” under the Mosaic covenant? So you do want a church-state reunion?

  15. There’s no connection between theonomy and FV?

    The fulfillment of the Great
    Commission therefore requires the establishment of a global Christendom
    . Sounds pretty fundamentally theonomic to me. Look at Doug Wilson, poster boy for both Theonomy and FV.

    There’s no connection between the FV and the Definition of Chalcedon? Who are the Federal visionists who’ve repudiated that christology?

    I don’t get your joke, but this reminds me of something I read once, and I’d appreciate it if somebody could help me find it again. It was an online article by Carl Trueman (I’m pretty sure) where he characterized the FV (or maybe NPP) view of Christ as a “Jason Bourne” Christology, very alien to the concept of Chalcedon.

    (This comes from attempts to back up the assertion that Christ was, just like us, justified by faith, not works — and the faith that was required of Christ was to believe in his own divinity — reminds me also of Last Temptation of Christ, as well as Life of Brian)

  16. Rube,

    There is a difference between theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism.

    …and by the way Doug Wilson is not a theonomist.

  17. Also worth noting that FV-Fighter Bob Mattes in comenting #50 on Green Baggins has repudiated this silly FV-theonomy link…

    “Although some theonomists have strayed into Federal Vision, Federal Visionists do not represent theonomy as a whole. Mainstream theonomists have repudiated the Federal Vision, just as 7 Reformed denominations have. I’ve made that clear on my blog and repeat here in the hopes that all will make that accurate distinction.”

  18. Dr. Clark,

    I wish I had the mental stamina I need to do night school and go to seminary! But alas, little by little is God’s plan for me.

    Anyway, thank you for this post. I think it is clear and covers a good amount of your reasoning. I think that there is plenty that you’ve written here that I finally have my next topic for a post of my own. I’ll take time on it and respond with questions and with some of the things I see in your reasoning that, at least to me, look like they don’t follow.

    I will ask one question here, for the sake of the discussion. I honestly am not sure what you would answer, and to the best of my memory, without going through every discourse I’ve had with you, I don’t think I’ve ever asked it.

    Regarding Greg Bahnsen only, do you hold that he was not truly Reformed? Do you recognize that even in the capital “R” Reformed world, there are those that don’t hold to the same views you do and yet are still “Reformed?”

    I am just wondering if I could hold to ALL the beliefs that Bahnsen did, knowing that you think I would be wrong, and have you consider me “Reformed.”



    (Rube: Blessed are the Cheese Makers!)

  19. To piggy back on Kazoo’s question: As I understand your position, Dr. Clark, the Reformed Confessions define what’s historically Reformed. That is, if one’s going to call himself Reformed, he should do so in view of the Confession, not some other canon of Reformedness. I quite agree (supposing that’s your position). My questions are similar, but run different directions: 1) In what areas can one go beyond the Confession and still be Reformed? 2) In what areas can one take exception to the Confession and still be Reformed? Maybe it’s easier to think of those in the oppose way: What areas can one NOT go beyond the Confession and in what areas can one NOT take exception and still be Reformed, that is, confessional?

  20. Dr. Clark, you said,

    If you had been paying attention in class you would have known that I’ve said many times that the Reformation erred by continuing the Constantinian settlement.

    I read the post. I have been paying attention. I know you have *asserted* that the Reformed position on this point was in error (but then accuse those who agree with the Reformation on this point of being outside the Reformation). But I was hoping you would interact with Calvin’s argument rather than just dismiss his position. Why was it an error in your view? What makes the humanistic NL arguments of the Enlightenment better than Calvin’s own appeal to the nature of things? And why do w2k folks continue to appeal to Calvin when it is clear that he did not have enlightenment presuppositions in his head when he discoursed on natural law. In order to get Calvin, it would seem that we would have to presuppose with him that “no man has discoursed of the duty of magistrates, the enacting of laws, and the common weal, without beginning with religion and divine worship.”

    Yes, Calvin was a theocrat, but he also theorized about two kingdoms.

    Asserting that there was a distinction between Church and State before the Enlightenment does nothing to prove your point. Of course there was. So was there under the Old Covenant which is why King Uzziah got leprosy. Augustine spoke of two kingdoms. The issue at hand is the nature of that distinction. Are Church and State to be totally divorced from one another, unable to even speak to one another, or are Church and State to be in a marriage of sorts, and as such have a relationship, but with differing roles? The Enlightenment moved western thought on the subject from the latter to the former. Before the Enlightenment, for instance, the Church thought it nothing ill to be called by the State to form confessions of faith, as you know. But notice, the Church was the one forming the confessions. So there was a distinction in roles to be sure, but also a relationship.

    Before you get too exited about a church-state reunion you should look at the history of modern Europe. It’s not very encouraging. The American “secularization” of the state has worked out much better for the church. Even if American church attendance isn’t what Gallup has been saying for 40 years (and it probably isn’t) it’s still much higher than in Europe, where there are still nominal state churches.

    Talk about post hoc ergo propter hoc… One could just as easily point to hyper secularized nations like France, and come to a competing conclusion. The problem isn’t with so-called “state churches” which, as you said, are nominal. The problem is that the Church has retreated from public matters entirely. The Church has believed the Enlightenment assessment of her place in the world, namely that the Church only has authority over inward or personal matters, and has nothing to do with public life. But Jesus is the King heaven and earth, not just our hearts.

  21. And the time before the church was called upon to write confessions, the church wrote them and creeds nonetheless while the state, or empire, more appropriately, ambivalently received another cult to join the others. The point being that history is contingent and the church must be able to adapt to changes in its surroundings.

    I think of Kevin Vanhoozer and Michael Horton as two theologians who have done so with, unfortunately, exceptional success (it’s unfortunate because not many share their rank). They’ve carried Reformed theology, Horton more so perhaps, forward into a new age in discourse with all the relevant figures. In his four-volume project, Horton has especially proven that covenant theology is able to account for all the Christian claims while significantly contributing to current discussions while at the same time appreciating certain (post)modern developments.

    It is a good thing to carry forward the work that Calvin started in his theory of the two kingdoms, even as we have to point out where we believe he was in error and why he, at the same time that he planted the seeds for a fuller Reformed account of the two cities, maintained those views that run against it.

    We are now in an age in which there is no relationship and we believe that there shouldn’t be. This is coherently explained by a robust covenant theology. One thing that should be kept in mind is that the medieval model is not normative, and apart from old Israel, there isn’t any other model. It was contingent. The church was once illegal. Then tolerated. Then the only socially cohesive force to keep an empire’s structure together after a grueling invasion. St. Augustine was indeed Bishop of Hippo. Before him, though, it wasn’t uncommon for a saint to take on the name “martyr”. History is contingent.

    After millennia, the church has been through seemingly all that could be historically imagined. Today, in North America, we need remember that theology doesn’t take place in a vacuum, that their are external forces that shape it, or at least force theologians to rethink certain tenants, such as that aspect of theology that most pertains to the Christian’s life in the world. The two-kingdom theory allows Christians the freedom to participate in the world without the burden of having to change it into some form that has seen its historical time long ago. The 20th century saw plenty of efforts at revolution anyway.

    It seems like a good time for the church to retreat from making demands of government and to start making demands of its own ministers. The best way to prepare Christians for the week is to feed them word and sacrament on Sunday. Because Jesus is king of heaven and earth we ought to feed on these. There’s power in these to equip believers to reenter their worlds with love for their neighbors. Far too many churches equate the gospel with doing something active in their communities. As one in a very urban city in the mid-Atlantic, I can tell you that even those “confessional” denominations in NAPARC that have congregations out here exercise a Christless Christianity in practice (I’ll let the redundant word choice stay for emphasis). (I have to put confessional in quotation marks to denote that this applies only in name.) The ironic thing is that they think their work in Christ’s name is socially effective. One minister dropped the local paper down on to the pulpit to say that the lowered murder rate was really the result of the fervent prayer of a group of Christian leaders in the city. Forget the numerous questions this raises, he didn’t mention Christ at all. The minister in a NAPARC denom.! One more thing, the believer is often placed in a kind of mystical relation with God in which we “seek the kiss of God.” This is a real quote. And there is no further context. This was put forward as the Christian’s goal in prayer. The point here is that churches need to be corrected and to focus on doing what they’re called to.

    Besides, who can actually believe that the Church’s authority over personal matters doesn’t have an impact in believers’ lives. No matter how much evangelicalism is disparaged for its individualism, evangelicalism’s very personal soteriology has had a profound affect on American society. Any one who wants to argue that a deeply personal and individualist soteriology shifts one’s focus away from work in the here-and-now has an extremely heavy burden to prove it. A covenantal theology of sanctification has a profound impact on the believer’s life too, though a very simple one. In this frame, coupled with a 2k view, allows believers to freely engage in various vocations without undue burdens and with the motivation to excel based upon one’s talents. Christians who consciously live covenantly are free to participate in creation on many levels and enjoy it for what it is. For too long churches have been too busy trying to redeem culture while misleading those under their care.

    Also, I can tell readers here that those who actually participate in politics, public policy, and law would tell you that there is no one-for-one way of executing love of neighbor. Law is especially grayer and fuzzier than most people think. Lawyers are trained to “get to maybe” than to find some clear line from general equity to black-and-white law. I bring this up because it sounds to me like some here think that it’d be easy to legislate God’s law. A stroll down the aisles of the legal section in the local university library should dispel that idea. Seeking some way to implement an absolute, clear-cut, black-and-white theory is the perfect plan to get one’s self fired. How does a lawyer in the national security div. of the DOJ put God’s law in the books? God’s law says exactly what about 21st c. terrorism?

  22. Dr. Clark, I’ve printed this article of yours and started “studying” it by marking what I can find as your main points, etc. Instead of just reacting to what I’ve read, I am spending some time with it so I can make sure I am fully understanding your arguments. I plan to interact with this article officially once I’m done. It may be just with questions though, we’ll see after I have an even better understanding of your position.

    Also, I don’t know if you missed my question above, or ignored it. If the former, would you please respond? Thanks.

  23. K,

    If the question is whether Greg Bahnsen was Reformed it has to be answered in a variety of ways. I do discuss this a bit in Recovering. Theonomy represents a significant departure from the Reformed tradition. Judged by the tradition and the confessions, the expression “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail” is not a Reformed way of speaking. With regard to soteriology, the evidence is that he was strong supporter of Norman Shepherd. To the degree these things are true there are ways in which his theology should be judged sub-Reformed.

    As to studying, get hold of VanDrunen’s work and give it some serious attention.

  24. Clark asserts,

    Theonomy represents a significant departure from the Reformed tradition. Judged by the tradition and the confessions, the expression “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail” is not a Reformed way of speaking.

    But the WCF says that our obligations under the law of God are not in any way dissolved by Christ in the gospel, but greatly strengthened (WCF XIX.V), and that the law of God and the grace of the gospel do “sweetly comply” with one another (XIX.VII). Sounds like abiding validity to me. And if Theonomy is such a departure from the Reformed tradition, why was the WCF later modified to remove some of the more theonomic elements regarding the duty of the Civil Magistrate to not tolerate false religion? Further, you have already admitted that the 18th century Endarkenment was a departure from the Reformed tradition, but you don’t seem to mind that particular departure. In the words of Bahnsen, that sounds very arbitrary.

  25. Ron,

    You’re equivocating on the Confession’s use of the word “law.” No Reformed person doubts that the moral law abides etc. The attempt to rescue the civil law or civil penalties, in exhaustive detail, is what is in doubt.

    Further, you’re not observing the very careful way in which the Confession is using the word “law” in the places you cite.

    I’ve always conceded that the older Reformed were theocratic, which was a mistake, but they weren’t theonomic.

  26. Ron,

    No, I don’t concede that the death of theocracy was necessarily the result of the Enlightenment. They coincided chronologically but the death of theocracy began before the Enlightenment, as I’ve argued in other posts.

    Why do you persist in playing tag rather than engaging in honest dialogue?

    You complain that I don’t engage you but this level of discourse is tedious and amateur.

  27. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for answering my question. I will check with our church library to see if we have your book yet to see what you wrote wrt the question.

    I know you disagree with Bahnsen regarding theonomy and that you believe it is definitely different than what you say is “theocratic” when talking of the early reformers. That is an assertion I am still researching, expecting to find support for or against once I can get through the sources. The material you’ve suggested is a huge mound (maybe I should get a degree after going all the way through it!).

    However, just a humble comment regarding your statement:

    the expression “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail” is not a Reformed way of speaking.

    I am sure you’re well aware of this, since it is fair to assume you’ve read Bahnen’s book from which you quote, but there are some facts about that “expression,” that when taken into account probably shed a little bit of a different light. That “expression” was the title of his 2nd chapter and was his thesis. In that chapter he contended for his thesis and exegeted a particular passage. There were 23 more chapters that dealt with apparent conflicts and applications. Only 7 of these 25 chapters were related to the state, or “civil law,” and how it applied. In one of the chapters he even affirmed the Active Obedience of Christ and so forth. I think that the title of that chapter was to capture one’s attention since it sounded “different” than what was common speach.

    I guess the question more to the point about the name of that chapter is “what did he mean by that odd statement? And I’ll grant you that you’ve read his book, that you know what he meant and yet you still conclude that it wasn’t “reformed.”

    So, I’m concluding that there is more you could say, but doing so will create too much of the “tedious” discourse that you (understandably) don’t want to get tangled in. And, I think it is fair to conclude from your answer that you are saying that holding Bahnsen’s “theonomic” views, as well as what you assume are his soteriological views, would put a person outside of the “truly reformed” camp. I very much appreciate your answer. These discussions, at least for me personally, truly are helping me to understand this intellectual conflict much better, and to think more clearly about them.

    Thanks again and blessings to you,


  28. K,

    I’m not simply assuming Bahnen’s soteriology.

    I first read Bahnsen’s TCC quite throughly and engaged his exegetical arguments in seminary ’84-’87.

    Your proposed method for approaching the sources is the sort of amateurism about which I’ve been complaining. All texts have to be read in context, according to the intent of the authors. Your presumption that there just must be evidence of theonomy in the Reformed sources is just the problem. The method you’re proposing is anachronism. It’s serious methodological error. This is why I keep saying that you fellows are not ready to engage in this discussion. This isn’t arrogance on my part. It’s the result of years of disciplined historical research.

    My sincere advice is for you stop writing, start reading, carefully, slowly, contextually for a few years, perhaps for many years.

  29. Dr. Clark,

    With regard to soteriology, the evidence is that he was strong supporter of Norman Shepherd. To the degree these things are true there are ways in which his theology should be judged sub-Reformed.

    I was just trying not to put words into your mouth. That was not meant in any way to be offensive or mis-representative, just careful. The way I read your statement I quote here made me feel like you weren’t 100% sure. I didn’t want to wrongly represent you and wasn’t thinking that using the word “assume” in that context could be taken in a negative light.

    I also “assumed” you’ve read it and worked through it because you refer to it and disagree with it. I wasn’t trying to make it sound like you haven’t, but since you haven’t explicitly told me that you did, and it would be “out of my place” to ask you, I thought the best thing to do was give you the benefit of any doubt.

    Your presumption that there just must be evidence of theonomy in the Reformed sources is just the problem.

    I think, thanks to you, I actually DO understand the problem. I wrote about it here: . You prompted me to write that post. Please don’t question or doubt my motives. They are true. I understand the anachronistic problem. I understand the “reading in context” problem. Some of what I write on my own blog is to be adversarial and thought provoking. But you should also note that there are also posts asking sincere questions.

    My sincere advice is for you stop writing, start reading, carefully, slowly, contextually for a few years, perhaps for many years.

    Other than enrolling in seminary and becoming a student (which isn’t an option at this time being the sole income provider for my family, and needing to give much of that time to the family), how else am I (or anyone else) supposed to get through this material without asking questions and discussing the issue? I would hope by now you’ve noticed a change of inflection with my comments and questions. You say that “theocratic reformed theology” is not the same as “Bahnsen’s theonomy.” Then you give me primary sources to read on this issue. But then, you tell me I’m an amateur which seems to imply that even if I do the reading I really can’t do it correctly since I haven’t been trained. I would be fine with that if someone who is trained would just do the modern day professional research and write the book. But that just doesn’t exist, and I can’t just “take your word for it” since you’re the pro. I’ve got to be the Berean here. There are plenty of other PhD’s out there that don’t agree with you either. So, I’m doing the work, but part of that I think necessarily includes discourse and asking questions, which is why I’m going to respectfully not take your advice to stop writing. I’ve taken your advice to ‘start’ reading, carefully, slowly, & contextually, so I’m not just ignoring you and picking a fight.


  30. K,

    The internet world is an “add water and heat” world. Real scholarship takes a long time. You might not understand primary texts properly the first time.

    Just because one has a keyboard doesn’t mean that one is qualified to pronounce on the meaning of texts. I know that’s anti-democratic, but real scholarship isn’t democratic. It’s elitist. Not everyone can do it and no one can do it ad hoc or quickly.

  31. Thanks Dr. Clark !

    Some of my family members have jumped on the theonomy train, and they brought their keyboards with them.

    Have you written anything more I can read on this type of subject matter (theonomy/FV)?


  32. Hi Bryan,

    Keyboard playing theonomists? I’ll never understand anti-sabbatarian theonomists and I don’t understand theonomists who ignore the 2nd commandment either. Bizarre. Seems like if one is all about the law one ought to begin with the decalogue before one gets to the 613 Mitzvoth (commandments) and the theonomic rabbis. I guess nothing ever changes. The law applies to thee but not to me.

    There’s some discussion of theonomy in RRC but it’s not extensive. The point there was not to refute theonomy but to challenge its legitmacy as a boundary marker for Reformed theology especially given the clarify of the Westminster Confession ch. 19.

    Honestly that’s one of the very strongest responses I know:

    II. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, His graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the New Testament.

    IV. To them also, as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

    V. The moral law does forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither does Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

    1. The WCF teaches the threefold distinction in the law, which it inherited from the Reformers, which they inherited from the medieval theologians.

    2. The WCF says that the judicial laws have EXPIRED. Dead. Pushing up daisies. Joined the choir invisible. Done. Finito. Finished. Ended. Abrogated. No more in force. It couldn’t be clearer.

    Whatever else theonomy is, it is a denial of WCF 19.4 and a denial of basic Reformed theology, of fundamental principle in the Reformed reading of redemptive history, that Israel’s civil polity was unique. It served a unique function. That function was fulfilled by Christ. That function and the the civil laws that were part of that function, are abrogated.

    Yes, virtually all the 16th- and 17th-century theologians were theocrats. They were wrong, but they weren’t theonomists.

    If you want to see more about the history of theonomy, which is very instructive, you can see my entry in the IVP Dictionary of Apologetics. There are some bibliographic leads there. Some of the chapters in the Godfrey ed. volume on theonomy are helpful, others are less so.

    Ligon Duncan has a response to theonomy online and in book form.

  33. Thanks Dr. Clark !

    I appreciate the time you spent answering my question. Since it is kind of a tricky subject, I am glad you are willing to help me sift through some of the information.


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