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terms: theonomy is the position that all of the old testament laws are binding for the new covenant Christian, unless rescinded by command (or presumably practice), and are to be applied in their new covenant context.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.
- 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).
- 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)?
- 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.