Rev. Todd S. Bordow
I am often asked my view of the growing movement among Reformed and evangelical churches known as theonomy, or reconstruction. It is difficult to find one statement that could adequately define these terms. Rather I wish to state the errors I see common among the writings of those who advocate theonomy or reconstructionism.
I am not suggesting that all who consider themselves theonomists hold all of the following errors; only that these errors are common among those who subscribe to the movement, and I consider these errors dangerous to the health of the church and her gospel. I have noted three basic errors: the first concerning the nature of the Bible, the second concerning the nature of the church, and the third concerning the nature of the gospel.
The nature of the Bible
Theonomy argues that the laws of the Bible, both Old Testament and New, are God’s laws not only for the believer, but also for all of society, including the state. Theonomists especially stress that the moral and civil laws of Moses are in force today for all societies.
Now that statement must be qualified. Theonomists would see that many of the laws of Moses were typological and fulfilled in Christ, such as the food laws. And while they do argue that the civil laws governing Israel are God’s timeless laws for every society, they do realize that most of those laws will not always be applied the same way based upon the culture we are in. Thus while the specific applications of the laws of Moses change, the principle behind those civil laws remain in force for the individual and the state.
This understanding of Scripture is usually stated as a worldview. Theonomists (but not only theonomists) believe Scripture gives us a worldview of society, entertainment, politics, etc…. Specifically, that through the laws of the Old and New Testament we can know God’s view of these matters. Thus the governing of the state is not left to man’s opinion, but God’s prescribed laws and principles for her conduct. Often this is stated as a choice between God’s laws or man’s law – theonomy or autonomy.
I believe this view misunderstands the sufficiency of Scripture, and that the choice between God’s laws and man’s is a false dichotomy. For one, the Mosaic Law itself never suggests that its laws do not have to be obeyed in their particular form; that we are free to only obey the principle, but ignore the specifics (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Gal. 3:10; 5:3; James 2:10). The Law was the Law. Never was Israel allowed to change the Law as they saw fit depending on the circumstances of the culture they were in. While it is true there were certain underlying ethics (love for God and neighbor) that superseded the specifics, the law was given to Israel in detail, to be obeyed in detail.
Thus the worldview idea ends up not really obeying the Mosaic Law, but the arbitrary opinions on how certain men think the Law applies to our culture and government. This was the reason Jesus rebuked the Pharisees. The Pharisees developed their oral law, which was their application of the Mosaic Law to their culture and times. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for lifting the commandments of men over the Word of God.
For example, it is common to read among theonomists that it is wrong for Christians to send their children to public schools. This of course is not in the Bible, but theonomists tend to argue that the principles of God’s law forbid this. Thus a new and unwarranted burden is placed upon Christian parents, especially Christian mothers who are pressured into homeschooling when they are not so gifted, or they cannot afford Christian schools. This does not bode well for Christians in cultures where there are no Christian schools.
I fear that proponents of theonomy are introducing a legalism into the church; binding the consciences in many areas where the Scriptures are silent. I do not believe it is the purpose of the Bible to speak with authority on political and cultural issues of the secular state and culture. It is left to the individual conscience led by the Spirit to decide on his political views, what he uses for entertainment, how he schools his children, etc….
Of course where the Scriptures speak clearly on matters, and where they are understood in their proper context, we speak God’s Word. And when the Scripture only provides general principles, we cannot go beyond these and prescribe how we think those principles must be applied by other Christians. Theonomy tries to prove too much from the Mosaic Law, thus giving the clergy unwarranted authority to speak on matters the Scriptures leave silent.
Once we assume that the laws of the Old Testament speak to all areas of life, for the secular state as well as to Israel, and that they apply to the New Covenant believers as they did the Old, then the clergy can use the so-called “principles” of the specific Mosaic laws to place burdens over God’s people that I do not believe Christ places over us.
I believe the dichotomy that forces the choice between God’s law’s or man’s law is a false dilemma, for the Scriptures simply do not provide the laws by which man must govern society. Even if we were to agree with the theonomists, there would be an abundance of situations where the Scriptures do not address the details of our political life; therefore we still would need to look to common sense and practicality to govern the state. Thus theonomy still does not provide the answer to the world around us in terms of laws for the political or cultural realm.
And the Bible is clear: We are not under the Mosaic Law anymore.
Behold, the days are coming declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant I made with their forefathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (Jer 31:31&32).
The Law and the Prophets were until John (Luke 16:16).
…through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses (Acts 13:39).
Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:14).
Likewise my brothers, you also have died to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to Him that has been raised from the dead, in order that you may bear fruit for God (Rom 7:4)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:23-25).
In speaking of the New Covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 813).
We cannot arbitrarily pick and choose which Laws of Moses we must obey today. In the Law those who picked up sticks on the Sabbath were put to death. We have no right to water this down to some general principle, or to ignore this law, but not other laws we like better. Either we are under the Law or we are not.
As J. Gresham Machen has written in his book, The Origin of Paul’s Religion, “the Old Testament Law, according to Paul, was truly authoritative and divine. But it was temporary; it was authoritative only until the fulfillment of the promise should come.”
Thus we affirm that the Bible is sufficient to reveal everything we need to know about God, and how His people are to serve Him. We affirm that the New Testament interprets the Old for us, and while there is a relationship between the commands of Christ and the Old Testament Law (see below), the Law as it was given to Moses is over.
Thus we cannot use the Old Testament to find a worldview that determines how we should vote, or what music we can listen to, or how our children may learn math and English. The Law’s purpose was to bring us to Christ, and to prefigure the ethics of the kingdom of Christ.
Paul declared that “all things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” Thus it is left up to the individual led by the Spirit, guided by the truths of the Word, to decide how he may serve God in the common grace world, and what in his own conscience is profitable. Of course where the Word speaks clearly, so does the church.
Errors concerning the nature of the Church
This naturally leads to our second error, concerning the nature and purpose of the church. If we grant with the theonomists that the Bible provides us with a worldview that speaks to the political and cultural issues of the day, then the church by necessity must call on the state and society to obey God’s laws and principles, as well as Christians.
But the calling of the church is not political, but spiritual. Theonomists commonly argue that the church of Jesus Christ is under two mandates; the mandate of evangelism and the mandate of dominion; of subduing and Christianizing culture. This is a mistake.
Adam was given a cultural mandate before the fall. He and his posterity were to subdue the earth; through their labors they were to build the kingdom of God. Under this covenant of works man’s labors would have resulted in success – the subdued earth would have been transformed into the eternal, heavenly kingdom of God.
But Adam fell. This world was placed under a curse. Man would return to dust and his labors in this world ultimately would also. This is the point of the book of Ecclesiastes.
But Jesus comes as the second or last Adam to fulfill what Adam failed to do. So how does the New Testament describe the subduing ministry of the Greater Adam? In what sense will Christ subdue the earth? How will the work He accomplished be translated into heavenly, eternal glory? The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Eph 1:22 the Apostle uses language for Christ reminiscent of the first Adam:
And he put all things under His feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
As the gospel is born in people’s hearts, and they are added to the church, Christ as head of the church is subduing the earth. This work of Christ will last forever. This doesn’t mean that what Christians do for Christ in this culture has no eternal significance, “for whether we eat or drink or whatever we do we do to the glory of God” (I Cor 10:31). “And yet food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, and God will destroy both one and the other” (I Cor 6:13).
Thus the kingdoms of this world will perish one day – and so will those things of our culture that we for now consecrate to God. But it is not the church’s role to speak with authority on these temporary matters that the Word does not specifically address. If we grant the church this authority, there is nothing to stop the church from placing undue and unscriptural burdens on God’s people.
The church only has one mandate – and that is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and to baptize and teach believers how to serve Christ using the imperatives of the New Covenant. To add a second mandate (the cultural mandate) is to deter the church from her only true calling. The desperate need for the gospel is so all-important that the church is to promote all her energies behind this task – heaven and hell are at stake. As J. Gresham Machen has written:
“You cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force…The function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious appeal of the gospel of Christ.”
The kingdom the church is to advance is the spiritual kingdom of Christ. John Calvin has written:
There are two governments to which mankind is subject… The first of these, which rules over the soul or the inner man, and concerns itself with eternal life…the second, whose province is the establishment of merely civil or external justice, a justice in conduct…Anyone who knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present transitory life and the eternal life to come, will not find it difficult to understand that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things far removed from one another. It is a Judaic folly to look for the kingdom of Christ among the things that make up this world….
I agree with our forefathers who in 1787 amended the Westminster Confession to a more consistent non-theonomic position, taking away from the civil ruler the power to prosecute people for violating the third commandment, i.e., blasphemy.
Theonomy fails to grasp the church’s place in the history of redemption. We are no longer Israel in Canaan, seeking to subdue the Canaanites. America, or any nation for that matter, is not God’s redemptive land, as if we have the right to rule it and make the decisions. Israel and her conquest was a picture of what Christ will do to his enemies at the Last Day, when he brings his people into the new heavens and earth.
But for now we live in the age of the spread of the gospel, not Israel in the Land. We are as the Patriarchs, aliens and strangers, serving our fellow man and seeking to love them and plead with them to trust in Christ. We should not expect better treatment than our Savior received, who was rejected by this world; yet his mission was a success. A theology of dominion is opposed to Paul’s theology of suffering and servanthood, which is our calling until our Savior returns.
Now most theonomists will say that the world will be Christianized, not by forcing unbelievers into an outward obedience to the law, but by a willful obedience because so many have believed the gospel. I commend them for this. But considering the gospel as a means to an earthly end is to ignore the great irony of Christ’s kingdom taught us in the parables; that the kingdom does not show itself through strength and power as the world judges these things.
Theonomists’ excessive bashing of the church in our day, their blaming the church for societies’ sins, reveal a tendency to downplay the work of the cross now, and to rob the church of her joy in what Christ is doing in us. Though theonomists say the gospel will bring about their dreams of a Christianized world, I wish so much of their writings were not devoted to political and social issues and how they imagine the Bible addresses those, but to the task of preaching the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thus the church is not a social or political institution, nor called to Christianize the state and the culture. We are a spiritual institution concerned with promoting the redemptive kingdom of Christ; the only kingdom that will not pass away at the consummation of all things.
The Nature of the Gospel
This leads me to the third error common among theonomists, and that is their errors relating to the gospel and covenant theology.
The Mosaic Law was a covenant of works that charged Israel to obey to receive life – known as the principle of “do this and live.” Paul calls the Law the “ministry of death” (II Cor 3:7) because it could only condemn sinners; it could not bring them life. Thus in the Bible the Mosaic Law and the gospel are distinguished from each other. Many theonomists err by not distinguishing between the Law and the gospel, leading to confusion in understanding the unconditional nature of the gospel of grace.
This error is seen most clearly in their common confusion in recognizing the clear difference between the covenant of works and covenant of grace. Again not all theonomists I have read are confused in this area, but a good deal are. In the Reformed Faith we hold to covenant theology, which means that the Bible is a succession of covenants (binding relationships between God and man) culminating in the New Covenant.
The first covenant was a covenant of works between God and Adam, by which Adam would merit by his obedience eternal life for him and his posterity. Upon Adam’s fall, God then made a second covenant, a covenant of grace, by which He promised to send a better Adam, a better covenant representative to accomplish what Adam failed to do.
This One, unlike Adam, would walk perfectly before God, and thus merit for His people He represented in this covenant everlasting life. This deliverer would also lay down His life to take upon himself the curse that we inherited from our first Adam.
Thus ultimately there are only two covenants, works and grace, and two covenant heads, Adam and Christ. As the Apostle stated, “For in Adam all die, but in Christ all shall be made alive” (I Cor 15:22). The covenant of works is given to man to fulfill by his obedience; the covenant of grace comes freely, because Christ fulfilled the Law for us.
What then was the purpose of the Mosaic Law? God gave the Law to Israel to shut Israel up under sin. The Law commanded, but gave no grace to obey. The Law would show them their need for a perfect obedience, found only in Christ.
Theonomists (and others) err when they take the principle of the Old Covenant with Israel and apply it to the New Covenant. They often speak of a believer’s need to “keep covenant” by their faith and obedience.
But the New Testament nowhere speaks of believers “keeping covenant.” It is Christ the covenant head who kept the covenant for His people. We only receive the benefits of the fulfilled covenant. Our blessings come from being in Christ, and we are in Christ through faith alone, not in any sense through our obedience. Our obedience is a fruit of Christ keeping the covenant for us. When we first believe, the Spirit of Christ fills us and begins to mature us in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5). Thus all true believers produce good works.
This is very different, however, from the Mosaic principle of performing the deeds of the Law in order to stay in right relation with God. Hypocrites in the church, or false believers, will be judged most severely, not because they have not kept enough of the Law, but because they never did trust in Christ for salvation, thus ultimately proving themselves illegitimate members of the covenant of grace.
In failing to distinguish between keeping the covenant in the Old Testament sense, and continuing in the Gospel covenant by faith, theonomy too often brings believers back under the slavery of the Law from which Christ has freed us. If we speak of continuing in the covenant, we must make it clear that we do so only by trusting in our covenant head who fulfilled the Law for us. The faith that justifies in the covenant of grace is a faith apart from works, works only being the result of the Spirit poured into us after we believe. Even the Old Testament saints under the Mosaic Law were not truly made right with God by doing the works of that Law, but by faith in Christ who was to come, though as a nation their earthly blessings would come based upon their obedience to the Law.
This also means that in terms of the covenant, there are no other covenant heads but Christ. Often theonomists speak of the husband as the federal or covenant head of the home. This is bad theology. The husband in no way represents the wife before God. The husband is responsible to lead, and the wife to submit, but in no sense is the husband a representative of the wife, as if he must pay for her sins as a covenant head would.
In the same way nations cannot make or keep covenants with God. This was only true of Israel as it prefigured the church in the old covenant. The idea that nations or national leaders can make and keep covenant with God is a category foreign to the New Testament. These departures from the classic covenant theology of Adam and Christ, Law and gospel, too easily confuse the sheep.
The clear message of covenant theology is: Christ has taken our covenant curse, and won for us all the blessings of fulfilling the covenant in our place. “Christ did not come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17).
So what about the OT law? Is not the OT Law our guide anymore? There is (contra dispensationalism) a relationship between the Mosaic Law and the ethic for the New Covenant Christian. The imperatives of the New Covenant are the fulfillment of the Laws of the Old. In a sense the Laws of the Old Testament are relevant as our standard in the new covenant, but since the church is the fulfillment of Israel, the ethics of the Law are first transformed by the cross, and then lived out in the redemptive kingdom of Christ.
The imperatives of the new covenant do not come with the command to do this to live (like the Law), but we obey the Lord because Christ has already given us eternal life. And the New Testament explains how the OT Law is fulfilled in Christ and lived out in His church.
I realize that each paragraph above could be broken down into full-length papers, and not all has been said on the subject, but nevertheless I believe the above summarizes the errors coming out of the theonomist camp; errors concerning the nature of the Bible, the church, and the gospel.
These errors lead away from the proclamation of the true Gospel of Christ, to self-righteousness and judgmentalism in the body of Christ. By applying man-determined “principles” of the Mosaic law to our culture in the New Covenant, the theonomist introduces a legalism into the church, binding the consciences in areas where the Scriptures are actually silent.
The calling of the church is not political, but spiritual, and a political calling actually weakens the gospel of Christ by deterring her from her true calling–preaching the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ.
And the New Testament nowhere speaks of believers “keeping covenant,” or that we are in a works relationship with God where we receive earthly blessings for our obedience to the covenant. It is Christ who kept the covenant for his people, and we as believers receive the benefits of the fulfilled covenant. Our blessings come from being in Christ, and we are in Christ through faith alone, not our obedience. Obedience is the fruit of Christ keeping the covenant for us.
The Rev. Todd S. Bordow