Dickson: Theonomy Is An Error

Quest. IV. Did the Lord by Moses give to the Jews, as a Body Politick, sundry Judicial Laws, which expired together with their state?

Yes.

Do they oblige any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

No. Exod. 21. from the first to the last ver. Exod. 22. 1. to verse 29. Gen. 49. 10. 1 Cor. 9. 8, 9, 10. 1 Peter 2. 13. 14. Matth. 5. 17. 38. 39.

Well then, do not some err, though otherwise Orthodox, who maintain, that the whole Judicial Law of the Jews is yet alive, and binding all of us, who are Christian Gentiles?

Yes.

By what reasons are they confuted?

(1) Because, the Judicial Law, was delivered by Moses to the Israelites to be observed, as to a Body Politick; Exod. 21 chapter.

(2) Because, this Law, in many things, which are of particular right, was accommodated, to the Common-wealth of the Jews, and not to other Nations also; Exod. 22. 3. Exod. 21. 2. Lev. 25. 2, 3. Deut: 24. 1, 2, 3. Deut. 25. 5, 6, 7.

(3) Because, in other things, which are not of particular right, it is neither from the Law of Nature, obliging by Reason; neither is it pressed upon Believers under the Gospel, to be observed.

(4) Because, Believers are appointed under the Gospel to obey the civil Laws, and commands of those under whose Government they live, providing they be just, and that for Conscience sake. Rom. 13. 1. 1 Peter 2. 13, 14. Titus 3. 1.

David Dickson, Truth’s Victory Over Error (Edinburgh, 1684), 144–45.

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  • 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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9 comments

  1. Really, appreciate the quotes that you are posting on theonomy–Dickson, Gillespie, Rollock, Polanus, Turretin, etc. Thank you.

    When I observe modern theonomist, they lean heavily on many of these authors desire that the government enforce New Testament law–pastors, congregations, compulsory church attendance, music, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and so forth. Could you address how men like Gillespie’s support of the national covenant, national churches, government enforcement of church law was not theonomy?

    • Shane,

      As I say, here, just about everyone prior the 18th century was a theocrat. So, most all believed in state-enforced orthodoxy. That’s theocracy.

      There were a small number of writers, notably Cartwright (an early Presbyterian) who believed in the state application of the Mosaic judicial laws. He and Whitgift argued about this.

      Otherwise, the testimony is overwhelmingly on the side of “the orthodox” (as more than one writer but notably Turretin) said, who taught that the judicial laws expired with the death of Christ.

      The general equity of those laws is the natural law.

      What the theonomists (which is essentially a modern movement) teach, the “abiding validity” of the judicial laws “in exhaustive detail” is a novelty. Their appeal to the tradition is, as these quotations show, ill-founded.

      The National Covenant was a theocratic, but not exactly a theonomic movement. The distinction is important but the theonomist case rests on the equation of the two.

      Theonomy, strictly defined, regards the Mosaic judicial laws. The state-enforcement of religious orthodoxy is theocracy, which is quite mistaken (I’m with Abraham Kuyper here) but quite ancient.

  2. Thank you. Very helpful. My sense from reading historical supporters of theocracy is that they can tend to be practical theonomist, even if they are holding to orthodox statements about the abrogation of the Mosaic judicial law. The more rabid supporters of the National Covenant, especially.

    • Scott, I think your correspondent is thinking of the Cameronian sect of the 1680s. It is true that the present day RP Synods in Scotland and NI have their origin in the refusal of the Cameronians to accept the Revolution Settlement because it did not represent a ‘Covenanted State’, but that body is not Theonomic today to my knowledge. There were some attempts to stir up Theonomy in the FCoS in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were largely ‘sound and fury’ and resulted only in the GA passing legislation to declare the system unconfessional. Those who professed it left in 2000 on another issue.

  3. Obviously though, Dickson would have also considered it a serious error to disregard the perpetual obligation of the general equity of the judicial law, which he would have understood to require civil enforcement of the first table. 🙂

    • David,

      As I’ve acknowledged repeatedly, most recently here, they were all theocrats.

      The TheoRecons, however, don’t seem to understand

      1) the traditional Reformed denial of the abiding validity of the judicial laws;
      2) the traditional definition of general equity as natural law.

      Since the 18th century most the Reformed have concluded, as Abraham Kuyper concluded, that, in fact, the natural law does not entail the enforcement of the 1st table. As Kuyper noted, the civil enforcement of the 1st table has usually gone badly for the orthodox.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks. The view that “the natural law does not entail the enforcement of the 1st table” seems to run afoul of Larger Catechism Q&A 128 and 129, which requires of superiors their “discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill” and forbids their “careless exposing, or leaving [their inferiors] to wrong, temptation, and danger.” Could you explain how this isn’t the case? (It seems to me that you would have to make the dubious claim that “ill” here does not include ill toward God and that “danger” doesn’t include things that endanger their souls.)

    • David,

      In 1788 the American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Confession. Here is a brief account of those revisions. Here is a more complete account.

      Insofar as the Larger Catechism is meant to express the teaching of the Confession, the American revisions of the confession norm the sense of the catechism.

      I have subscribed the 1788 American revisions of the confession.

      Even in its original 1640s context, however, your reading of the catechism is not at all obvious. These questions & answers exposit the 5th commandment. Q/A 128 addresses the duties of the citizen to submit to authority. Further, even though the divines assumed the righteousness of theocracy, there’s nothing in 129 that requires theocracy, i.e., the state enforcement of religious orthodoxy.

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