Some reasons why I left the theonomic position

I might have done some posts on this topic in the past, but I wanted to clarify the reasons in a single post.  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terms:   theonomy is the position that all of the old testament laws are binding for the new covenant Christian, unless rescinded by command (or presumably practice), and are to be applied in their new covenant context.   The best book on this is Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics.  (Despite my disagreement with the theonomic thesis, this book demands to be taken seriously and some chapters are quite fine in their ethical analysis.)

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.”   While many of the critics were precisely these things (think Dispensational Evangelicals, Republican-voting Reformed seminary professors, and Westminster Seminary in California), theonomists were unable to see serious criticisms with their position.

There are only two quasi-official criticisms of theonomy that are halfway decent.   James Jordan makes a number of interesting criticisms of theonomy, but Jordan’s own approach to the Bible is so bizarre and outside anything offered in the Christian reading of the Bible for the past 2000 years it makes it hard to commend it.  On a more sane level is Peter Leithart’s critique of theonomy.  (yes, I am aware that Leithart follows in Jordan’s footsteps on hermeneutics, but Leithart at least stays on ground level).

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.

  1. 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 violently deny and associate with theological apostasy.  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).
  2. 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?   How do you know?  One of the more lame criticisms of theonomy was that it didn’t realize today’s Christians were only supposed to affirm the moral law, and not to be bound by civil or ceremonial laws.  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)?
  3. 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?


Other books have been written critiquing theonomy, but their reasoning is even worse than the theonomic reasoning and represents a sad low-point in Reformed scholarship.

That’s not to say many of the theonomist goals are wrong-headed, or that theonomists haven’t done useful work.  They have.


16 comments on “Some reasons why I left the theonomic position

  1. von says:

    The difficulty with debating non-theonomistists is that:
    a) They tend not to debate and
    b) Their position is so flexible it is almost non-existant.

    I was once ‘debating’ a non-theonomist who was trying to defend their position that, basically, the law was ‘dead’ and no longer to be obeyed. When asked if, then, it was now OK to murder their response was, “Oh, don’t be silly”.

    Their is, basically, no Christian position except for theonomy, however much non-theonomists like to pretend elsewhere. The summary question is always which laws, and in what way, and for what reasons, are we still to obey. Pretty much everyone agrees that we should not murder (even atheists), people get squishy about the time we get to sexual ethics, and the audience drops almost completely out by the time we get to the land laws, levirate marriage, and cities of refuge.

    A consistent and well-defined non-theonomic position is difficult to even imagine,let alone articulate; perhaps why there are so few 😉

    • tesla1389 says:

      If what you are saying is true, then most of the church in her history has been in deep, antinomian error (for most of the church did not have the Bahnsenian theonomic thesis). But yet most theonomists and reconstructionists are caught in a quandary here. For Rushdoony, Morecraft, and sometimes Bahnsen want to reconstruct the current order, often finding inspiration from previous Christian social orders. yet, if what you say is true, then there was no alternative to theonomy. Yet these orders were clearly not theonomic (if we are defining theonomy as Bahnsenian theonomy).

      The problem with Gary North and others is that they tried to reduce all alternative positions to some variant of dispensationalism. But for those of us who seek teh ancient wisdom of the church, and don’t seek to reinvent the wheel, we can affirm that the church did fine (parts of it, anyway) without theonmy.

      • von says:

        You didn’t quite understand my point; which was that the debate is really between varieties of theonomy, not theonomy vs non-theonomy… regardless of what name people call things. No part of the church has ever been truly, completely, non-theonomic. Indeed no society has ever succeeded at being truly, completely, non-theonomic… no matter how hard they tried.

        I agree with Bahnsen et al that the modern church is deeply in error… but since when is that new? Church history writ large is a history of devolution vs reformation. Nothing new there.

        Regardless of what they call themselves, practically every Christian agrees that certain legal positions are still valid (such as thou shalt not murder) and others are, in one way or another, done away with, fulfilled, etc.

    • tesla1389 says:

      I also noticed you didn’t address my points. Truth be told, if the guys at are any indicator, today’s leading theonomists *can’t* debate. They don’t read Bahnsen thoroughly and take his ethical perspectives seriously; they don’t even understand the basics of ethical reasoning (in contrast, see Bahnsen’s chapter “Failure of Autonomous Ethics” in Theonomy in Christian Ethics..

      • von says:

        Well, I found that part of the post to be mostly adhominem. Theonomy is not true because it’s proponents can debate, nor is it false if they can’t. It is simply, as far as I can see, a non-sequitor.

        You are welcome to debate me, if you wish, and you can judge, in six months or so, how well I, in particular, debate. But that conclusion will not alter by one whit the truth or falsity of the theonomic thesis.

      • tesla1389 says:

        Fair enough, though that is not how I intended it. It’s not so much theonomy is not true, but that it is not workable, especially if it is tied with sola scriptura.

        Secondly, we are using the terms differently. You are, it seems, using theonomy as any normative source of law representing a religious commitment, which means that all systems are theonomous (and to a point, I agree).

        I, however, am using the term in the Bahnsenian sense per TiCE (and also formulated by Ken Gentry). I’ve actually published in Reconstructionist journals on what theonomy means (though I regret having my name int here now).

  2. von says:

    It’s not so much theonomy is not true, but that it is not workable, especially if it is tied with sola scriptura.

    Well, that’s an interesting perceptive… so, true but not workable?? I’m not sure what to do with that. I would certainly argue that it is both true and workable… as workable as anything can be when carried out by sinful humans. It is certainly infinitely more workable than any of the alternatives.

    The Wikipedia defines taxonomy as “the belief that the God revealed in the Bible is the sole source of human ethics.” I was using it slightly more broadly to mean ‘God’s Law’… and thus pointing to every use of God’s Law in human ethics and law as being a example (however attenuated). I certainly am not using it in the sense you suggest, “any normative source of law representing a religious commitment,”

    I am saying that any society which forbids murder or theft has, to that extent, taken a ‘theonomic’ position… bowing, however slightly, to God’s Law… even while they might reject it elsewhere.

    • tesla1389 says:

      again, you are equivocating on the definition of theonomy. I think Bahnsen’s definition given in his thesis is more substantial and representative of the position than some nameless wikipedia article (and for what it’s worth, I agree in substance with the wikipedia article, but that’s not the same as what Bahnsen taught).

      For example, if you are going in front of a Presbytery committee and have to explicate the meaning of WCF 19.4, the wikipedia definition will not suffice, for the issue under contention, per theonomy, is Bahnsen’s position. Therefore, as I made clear in my post, it is the Bahnsenian definition which I take odds with, and not the issue of normative ethics in general.

  3. von says:

    Well, perhaps you should post that then. But it kind of negates your overal thesis, because a)Bahnsen was a good debater and b) Bahnsen is dead, so you can hardly blame him for not being able to debate now 🙂

    And I don’t think you really mean ‘equivocating’ here. I don’t really see how you can accuse me of slipping one definition of a word in while pretending I am using another. I stated, and state, that every society is theonomic, and by that I mean, and stated, that they have God’s law (however much they may deny it) as the basis for much of their human laws.

    Your statement: 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. ” is one I would, basically, defend and includes my statement; in that my statement recognizes that this binding nature of God’s law is even recognized by civil society in its practice, where it is vehemently denied in it’s theory.

    And the rebuttal that you take issue with also recognizes this: recognizing and classifying all law making as either theonomic or autonomic; and contrasting both with a-nomia (which is how I assume you end up feeling they accuse you of being “antinomian/statist/relativist”. I would instead ‘accuse’ all lawmaking as either being theonomic (God’s Law) autonomic (Man’s Law) or, in the end, as a-nomic (no real law).

  4. Theonomy and Reconstructionism always seemed to founder on an inconsistency between their stated position and sola scriptura. If you are going to implement Theonomy, you are going to have to have a supreme court of sorts that rules with the force of law on what the bible in fact teaches. With that, the right of private judgment goes out the window and with it sola scriptura.

    • tesla1389 says:

      Right. For example, theonomy is fairly clear-cut on how to punish murder, but when we bring up things like invitro fertilization, it becomes very subjective. I am not espousing relativism here, and the theonomist will pull the line from WCF about “necessary inference,” but necessary inference usually means “my necessary inference,” but how can my necessary inference be binding on the whole church?

  5. von says:

    You are leveling a criticism that is common to all law systems, not unique to theonomy. At some point all law systems, regardless of their foundation, must depend on their interpretation of or application of a given general or case law.

    If we say that all law comes from the great Maha Al Rushdi even then, in some lower tribunal, one must depend on some judges interpretation of Rushdi’s pronouncements.

    Theonomy is the position that all morality, and thus all law, can properly come only *from* God’s Law… not that every judge is God. All law syestems must necessarily depend; and God’s Law statement says that it depends, on the actions and interpretations of individual judges/magistrates/etc.

  6. tesla1389 says:

    You are still not getting it. We are not critiquing the fact that all normative ethics reflect a theos. That is a given. We are saying that the Bahnsenian ethic, when applied to social law, is incompatible with sola scriptura.(and by the way, given the thousands of hours from listening to Bahnsen tapes, I can say that Bahnsen wanted serious reflection and criticism of his thesis).

    That is a different proposition that all normative ethics and law reflect someone’s religious commitment. And a vague theonomy is meaningless in this context. The theonomy under discussion in Presbytery circles and used most of the time is Bahnsen’s thesis.

  7. Von says:

    >>We are not critiquing the fact that all normative ethics reflect a theos. That is a given. We are saying that the Bahnsenian ethic, when applied to social law, is incompatible with sola scriptura.

    Not ‘a’ theos, ‘the’ theos: God. All law must, if it is to be just, reflect God’s law. That is theonomy, and that is what I teach and defend.

    • tesla1389 says:

      Ok, “the theos.” My point remains unchanged. Anyway, I was quoting (or alluding) to Rushdoony when I said “a theos.” I’ve heard Rush and Morecraft say as much in lectures.

  8. […] [ii] Greg Bahnsen pointed out the same thing, something that I repeatedly point out to theonomists and constitutionalists when they use 1 Samuel 8 against the idea of monarchy. […]

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