When the theonomy movement initially began to gain steam, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist who had campaigned as a “born again” Christian, was part way through his first and only term in the White House. Three years before that, the Supreme Court of the United States had fabricated out of whole cloth a virtually limitless right to end the life of a baby in the womb. “Born again” was a new expression to a lot of Americans but in the year he took the White House (1976) over a doomed Gerald Ford—no Republican was going to win the White House that year—Newsweek magazine had Carter on the cover with the words “Born Again” on October 2 and an October 25 cover devoted to the “born again” phenomenon.1 It was the era of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority.
This was the context in which the theonomy movement coalesced around a single volume by Greg Bahnsen (1948–95), Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Craig Press, Nutley, N. J., 1977). The broader Christian Reconstruction movement, led by R. J. Rushdoony (1916–2001) had been around for a couple of decades and had exercised a fair bit of influence in conservative religious and political circles. Rushdoony was a tireless advocate for homeschooling and he gained a hearing in some surprising places in the 1970s and 80s. Still, Bahnsen’s book, which advocated the (future) reimposition of the Mosaic judicial laws, went off like a bombshell, provoking reviews and responses in Christianity Today and a volume of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary.
His argument was shocking to the consciences of many American evangelical Christians for a variety of reasons. First, many American evangelicals had been reared in Dispensational fundamentalism. As strict as they might have been in their piety and personal morality, theologically and practically they were antinomian. The Old Testament was thought generally to belong to previous “dispensations” in history and thus not even the Ten Commandments were thought to be “for today,” let alone the Mosaic judicial laws.
Second, among confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, the ancient Christian distinction between the moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments), the ceremonial laws (e.g., the religious laws specific to the Israelites), and the judicial laws (criminal and civil codes specific to the Israelites) in the 613 commandments (as the rabbis counted them) was a given. It had been held for most of two millennia and endorsed and taught explicitly by all the magisterial Protestant Reformers. To reject this distinction was a sign of Judaizing, i.e., going backward in redemptive history.2 The Westminster Divines endorsed the distinction and its implication in Westminster Confession 19.4:
To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
Nevertheless, Bahnsen argued for the “abiding validity of the law of God in exhaustive detail.” Specifically, what was at issue was the abiding validity of the Mosaic judicial laws. This is what he intended by “theonomy.” The term itself was made famous by the Bohemian process theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965). Used generically, it signified the superiority of the law of God over merely human laws. In this sense theonomy was not in question among the confessional Protestants. The Westminster Seminary theologian/apologist Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) had also used it in the generic sense but always disavowed the sense in which Bahnsen used it. He was, after all, Dutch Reformed and raised with the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort.3
The theonomy debate raged through the mid-1980s at least. While I was in seminary in Escondido (1984–87), it was either in the background or foreground of most debates. By the mid-90s, with Bahnen’s death, the momentum of the movement (as much as anyone can judge these things) seemed to ebb.
In 2022, however, Roe v. Wade (along with Doe and Casey) has been overturned but we have a nominally Roman Catholic president, the Supreme Court has imposed same-sex marriage on all fifty states thereby repeating the mistakes of Roe, Doe, and Casey, and it is all but illegal to say publicly that males are one sex and females are another. We are emerging from a series of Covid lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine mandates. Agenda items that the Obama administration only hoped to push, the Biden administration has ridden to low poll numbers and fears for mid-term prospects. Amidst the chaos of the Trump-Biden years (riots, not one but two impeachments of the same president), 1970s-style spending and inflation, the ramped-up sexual revolution and fear of political correctness and government repression of liberties, theonomy is back—if it ever went away.
Major mainstream media outlets are paying attention to the new locus of the theonomy movement, to Moscow, Idaho, and to the plans of theonomic-reconstructionist church to Christianize Moscow and, from there, the rest of the world. Last year Crawford Gribben published a full-length survey of this movement, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). On the ground, the political arm of the movement has not had much success with their candidates losing two local elections, but more broadly the publishing house seems to be doing gang-buster business as are their videos and school curricula. Fundamentalist American Christians are frightened and they have latched on to the religious equivalent of Donald Trump, i.e., a fellow who “fights” against the the bad guys out there.
The most basic claim of the theonomic ethic is that the judicial laws have not “expired with the state of that people.” Further, apparently ignorant of the classical and traditional Christian usage of the term “general equity” (natural law), Bahnsen et al., redefined it to mean whatever Rushdoony, Gary North, Gary DeMar, or Bahnsen say it means.
History has not been a strong suit of the theonomists and neither has biblical theology (progressive revelation and redemption) and biblical exegesis. After all, this argument is really about the progress of revelation and redemption. Were the specifically Israelite laws temporary or not? With the church universal, the confessional Protestant traditions have said that they are. The first theonomist of any note was a former Lutheran theologian turned Anabaptist, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541). Several of the Anabaptists postulated a future glory age on the earth when Christians shall have conquered their enemies. Karlstadt theorized that in such a glory age the Mosaic judicial laws would be reimposed. He was denounced as a Judaizer and his views repudiated in the Augsburg Confession (1530; art. 17) and in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566; art. 11).
The Reformed biblical theologians recognized that the Mosaic theocratic-state was intentionally temporary. They recognized that it was intended to point to the New Covenant and to Christ. They recognized and repeatedly said that the judicial and ceremonial laws were part and parcel of the types and shadows which have been fulfilled by Christ.
Thus, it is no surprise that Bahnsen’s biblical exegesis in Theonomy is spectacularly unpersuasive. His interpretation of Matthew 5:17–20 has been dismantled more than once. Another passage that both he and his Dispensationalist cousins—the hermeneutical similarities between the two movements is striking and perhaps helps to explain the ease with which premillennial Dispensationalists become theonomists—cannot explain plausibly is Hebrews 7:11–14. In the next installmentnext installment, we will turn to it.
1. Arguably the “born again” movement “jumped the shark” with the 1979 Billy Preston and Syreeta Wright duet, “With You I’m Born Again.” Preston was an amazing musician and Wright has a beautiful, soaring voice but it was a sappy song that sentimentalized and corrupted the biblical doctrine of being “born again” or “born from above.” If that song did mark the end of the pop culture phenomenon, then it did not even last the entire Carter Administration.
2. This category “Judaizing” is broader than soteriology. E.g., for Thomas, to restore musical instruments to public worship is Judaizing. Any retrograde movement back to the types and shadow is Judaizing. To reinstitute the ceremonial (religious) laws would also be Judaizing.
3. The best introduction to Van Til is John R. Meuther, Cornelius Van Til : Reformed Apologist and Churchman. American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub, 2007). See also Heidelcast 33: Muether On Van Til.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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