Theonomy Files, no. 5: The After-Calvin Source Failure

One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all.  This is not entirely theonomy’s fault.  Reformed publishers have tone a woefully terrible job at making these (life-and-death important) sources available (yes, Baker Academic, I am talking about you!).

Nevertheless, some sources are available and Theonomists should have availed themselves of that.   That raises another problem:  reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms.  Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas.  Here is an experiment for you:  pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms.  Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE (though to be fair to Bahnsen, he never really opposed natural law).   Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accept natural law).   The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist).   The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).

If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that 1) they don’t necessarily contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein; as to what kind of theory they employed for which judicials were to be used is anybody’s guess], 2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it], and modern advocates of natural law theory even concede that theonomists were correct to raise a lot of these issues.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak.  For all of my previous criticisms of van Drunen and RS Clark, which I have now retracted, it is interesting to note that these guys adamantly insisted on the Protestant Scholastic teaching on natural law as thoroughly as said teaching on covenant theology.   The two seemed to go together (I don’t think there is a 1:1 correlation, but a lot of people have speculated on the Federal implications of both Covenant Theology and federal politics ala Althusius).

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6 comments on “Theonomy Files, no. 5: The After-Calvin Source Failure

  1. Justin says:

    I’ve recently started reading Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Hopefully Muller’s work will help me in this area. I’ll look specifically for treatments of natural law as I go through them.

    At any rate, I have to be suspicious of -if not outright reject- any form of definition or “natural law” that seems to stand in opposition to revelation. I do not think that there can be any tension between the two, and I cannot understand why a Christian would want to cling to natural law when we have completed revelation. Thoughts?

    • I am more and more seeing the two (natural law and special revelation) as complementing each other. Natural law theory has a rich and robust legal heritage that can help us apply special revelation to unique moments in Western history. Christian Reconstructionists really don’t have a coherent legal methodology. Bahnsen’s thesis is fine in Biblical studies, but it doesn’t say anything about day-to-day activities.

      I think the OT even pointed to this: equity as a concept exists in the Scriptures. That means we have to apply Scripture to areas it doesn’t really address; this is where natural law helps.

      And for what it’s worth, the Reformed natural law theorists were theocrats to a man.

  2. >(yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis >to Christian plumbing).

    That is an interesting observation; do you think a lot of Neo-Calvinist talk on this sort of thing over-complicates matters which are really just common sense?

    • Precisely! Which is why I groan when I hear well-meaning homeschoolers talk about “Christian math.” A parabola doesn’t change simply because you insert the term “Jesus'” in front of it. Doing something to the glory of God, on the other hand, entails other ethical categories: motive, goal, etc.

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