Thomas Schreiner on Theonomy

Posted on September 25, 2014


The last article on the subject of God’s Law served to be an introductory article to the series, providing a list of resources examining the manifestation of God’s Law under the Old and New Covenants. The primary purpose of this series is to study the definition and application of God’s Law for the Christian under the New Covenant. An important and controversial issue when addressing this topic is the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. A subtopic of that issue is the discussion of theonomy, which suggests Gentile nations are required to pattern their governments after the civil aspects of the Mosaic law.

Obviously, this is a monster of a subject to be tackled in one or two articles, much less through endless and oftentimes futile discussions on social media. Massive volumes of books have been written on the subject. But as time allows, I will share my thoughts on what I’m studying so to help Christians think and work through the issues.

The Context of this Discussion

Before I continue, I’d like to try to lay a foundation from which we should be having this discussion. This, I hope, will help us be focused and avoid rabbit trails and a plethora of nonsensical questions.

The context of this discussion is within the reformed, evangelical community. I will largely be avoiding other forms of theonomy/dominionism such as kingdom-now theology taught by charismatics like Pat Robertson, Rick Joyner, Mike Bickle, and the rest of the “super apostles”. I readily acknowledge the difference between “reformed theonomy/dominionism” and its postmillennial cousin from charismania.

As this is a discussion within the reformed community, we are all Calvinists who love the doctrines of grace.

Those of us who oppose theonomy are not antinomian. We love God’s Law and submit to it under the Law of Christ in the New Covenant (more on this later).

I acknowledge that my theonomist brothers do not believe in justification by works of the law. As my brothers, they believe that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

As Calvinists, we also share a high view of Scripture, a high view of the sovereignty of God, a right view of man, and a proper understanding of Christ’s preeminent purposes in the local church.

I hope the above establishes us on some common ground, and should serve as a reminder as we continue our discussion.

Now, let’s get on with our topic.

Schreiner on Theonomy

Over the last few weeks I’ve learned that there is significant variance in defining theonomy even among theonomists. For the purposes of our discussion, I want to be clear as to what I am arguing against. Theonomy as I understand it and oppose it is the view that nations are obligated to pattern their governments after the Mosaic Law, and this would include applying the civil penalties for breaking the law (though I recognize there is variance in applying civil penalties among theonomists). In his book, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, Dr. Thomas Schreiner defines theonomy in “Question 39: What is Theonomy, or Christian Reconstructionism, and How Should It Be Evaluated?” as follows:

Theonomy, or what is sometimes called Christian reconstructionism, is a movement that argues that nations or states should be ruled by the standards of Old Testament civil law. The name theonomy fits with such a viewpoint, for theonomy means “God’s law.”

On this point, I want to note that I recognize theonomy is not a synonym for Christian Reconstructionism (CR). As I understand it, CR is the broader movement to reform the culture. Proponents argue that every area of life must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, whether government, education, social issues, family, etc. The means by which the culture will be reformed, they argue, is by patterning society after the Mosaic law, or establishing a theonomical state – one that is governed by “God’s Law”, namely the moral and civil elements of the Mosaic law. Granted, theonomists assert the only way society will be brought under the rule of Christ is by regenerated hearts, and when enough hearts are changed, society will be changed for the better as Christians influence all aspects of the culture.

As postmillennialists, these theonomists believe positive change will necessarily occur, as they believe Christ is ruling and reigning now thus bringing all things under subjection. Once Christ brings all things under His feet, or once society is transformed by the Gospel and becomes Christian, Christ will return. So, Christian Reconstructionists, like all postmillennialists, consider themselves to have an “optimistic” eschatology, and believe it is their duty as Christians to reform society by preaching the Gospel and patterning societal infrastructure after the moral and civil aspects of the Mosaic Law. They desire to “reconstruct” society, and theonomy is the way to do it.

Schreiner continues to unpack theonomy:

The theonomist argues that all of life belongs to God. There is no realm where he does not reign as Lord. Therefore, God’s standards and norms should be authoritative for states and nations. They reject categorically the idea that human laws should function as the norm for nations and states, maintaining that there is no justification for the notion that secular states are independent of God’s rules…If God’s law does not function as the norm, then on what basis are laws established for nations? Are the laws of the state an arbitrary imposition of the will of human beings? Theonomists have clear and definite answers to such questions, pointing to God’s law as the standard for nations.

Sound familiar? Indeed, theonomists champion Cornelius Van Til when he said:

There is no alternative but that of theonomy and autonomy.

Interestingly enough, Van Til was not a theonomist in the sense of CR. His statement had much broader implications, that humans are either governed by self-rule or God’s rule, which I would agree. In any case, one often hears the theonomist parroting Van Til as if non-theonomists reject God’s Law or are not being consistent in their theological system. Too many times I have observed theonomists’ incessant questioning of their opponents about God’s Law, asserting the non-theonomist has no objective standard if he does not assume the Mosaic law as the standard. This, then, carries over into the political realm, that if governments are not established under the moral and civil laws of the Old Testament, then the standard of rule is arbitrary. I observed one theonomist last week asserting non-theonomist Christians are indeed humanistic for rejecting the Mosaic law as the standard. It’s truly absurd and uncharitable to say such a thing, and sadly, such comments only reveal the ignorance of the one espousing this kind of vitriolic rhetoric.

So what about the standard of nations for governance? Is there an objective, biblical standard? Yes, but not as theonomists would argue. We will need to unpack this in a future article, but suffice it to say, no nation is obligated to govern its nation by the Mosaic law that God covenanted with His people, Israel. Not only did God establish the Old Covenant (Mosaic covenant) with Israel alone, but the Mosaic law that governed them was their constitution for that society. It was for that theocracy.  The Mosaic law constitution of Israel began with Israel on Mt. Sinai, and this constitution ended when the nation of Israel ended. The Old Covenant itself passed away when Christ inaugurated the New Covenant by His blood on the cross. Thus, the Old Covenant no longer applies to believers, and no nation is governed by the Mosaic law as the theocratic nation of Israel no longer exists. Schreiner is helpful when he writes:

I would argue that it is clear from Romans 10:4, 2 Corinthians 3:4-18, Galatians 3:15-4:7, and other texts as well that believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant and law. The entire law has ceased to be an authority for believers. Hence, the notion that the civil laws for Israel should continue to function as the rules for nation-states today represents a fundamental misreading of the Scriptures. Believers are no longer under the law, for the law was given to Israel, which functioned as both a political and an ecclesiastical community. No nation today occupies the place of Israel, for no nation can claim to be God’s chosen nation.

But getting back to the question “by what standard” are the Gentile nations to govern, reformed theologians would refer, historically, to “natural law.” Natural law would be that law that is written to the heart of every human being – those laws that reflect the character of God. Obviously, these laws show up in 9 out of the 10 Commandments in the Mosaic law, and these nine laws are also repeated in the New Testament. These laws also existed before the 10 Commandments were given to Israel. Therefore, we would consider these as “moral norms” that reflect the character of God. In other words, murder, stealing, idolatry, sexual immorality, and lying were wrong before Mt. Sinai. But under the Mosaic law, a few of these transgressions of the law were punishable by death. Consider Schreiner again:

All of this is not to say that the Old Testament law should be ignored in modern nation-states. The moral norms of the law – those laws that reflect the character of God – naturally play a role in determining the laws of a nation. The vital question here, however, is whether believers are under the Old Testament law. If they are, then adulterers and homosexuals (Lev. 20:10, 13), Sabbath breakers (Exod. 31:14; Num. 15:32-36), and rebellious children (Deut. 21:18-21) should be put to death by governing authorities, for that is what the Old Testament law commanded Israel to do. But if the Scriptures teach that the Mosaic covenant and Mosaic law have passed away and thus do not function as the standard of ethics for believers today, then there is no necessary mandate to follow the Old Testament when it teaches that adulterers and homosexuals should be put to death.

Indeed, we can probably discern the reason why such a penalty was inflicted in the Old Testament. Israel was to be a holy people to the Lord. Such blatant sins were not to characterize the people of God, who were specially consecrated to Him and were to serve as a kingdom of priests in the world. But no nation today fills the role of Israel. No nation is specially holy to the Lord. Indeed, in most nations today the majority of the citizens are unbelievers, and so we are not astonished if blatant sins are committed in such countries. The modern state is not necessarily called upon to appropriate the penalties contained in the Old Testament law, for there is the recognition that the state is not holy to the Lord. The people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, is to be holy – not the nation-state….This is not to say that the Old Testament law teaches us nothing about what laws and penalties should apply today. For instance, I think there are solid grounds for saying that premeditated murder deserves the death penalty (cf. Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:4).

Therefore, nations should pattern their governments and the rule of law according to the law that is written to the heart of every man (the moral norms that reflect the character of God). There is wisdom and principles in both the Old and New Testament Scriptures that Gentile governments would do well to apply to their societies, that justice would be carried out for the sake of order and peace. Like I said earlier, we’ll unpack this idea of natural law in more detail in the future, but theonomists not only have it wrong to demand Gentile governments must pattern their governments after the Mosaic law, but they do indeed turn back the clock regarding salvation-history to the old covenant era. One theonomist made the claim centuries ago,

He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still (source).

If this was true, then Paul totally got it wrong when he changed the punishment for adultery from execution to excommunication (see Deuteronomy 22:2 and 1 Corinthians 5:5, 13). Comically, one Presbyterian critic of theonomy suggested

there would be this weird situation where the missionaries are in a race with the civil magistrate to see who could first get to the unbeliever.

In conclusion, how nations are established is a matter of Providence. It is God who raises up kings and nations to do His will on earth. This will need to be properly treated in the future article dealing with natural law. Some nations will be more moral and just than others, while some nations will be nearly absent of God entirely and we know the implications of that from history. Even so, God uses both morally upright nations (as morally upright as a nation can be) and wicked nations to bring about His purposes in redemptive history. Governments and their rulers are accountable before God in how they rule. They are His servants to do His will, but that does not mean they are regenerate. While governments can and should pattern their rule after the moral norms and general principles of justice, it is wrong to demand, as theonomists do, that governments are obligated to rule by the Mosaic law, to include the civil penalties for breaking the Mosaic law. I’ll close with this final paragraph from Dr. Schreiner:

Let me say again that this does not mean that the Old Testament law is excluded from the process when a nation passes laws and enacts penalties. Of course, many nations are almost completely non-Christian and will not pay any heed to the Old Testament at all. But if a nation has a number of influential believers involved in the political process, the norms of Scripture will naturally play an important role in determining laws and penalties for breaking such laws. In many instances the laws given to Israel are illustrative of justice and function as a pattern for nations today. As I argued earlier in question 28, the Old Testament mandate that the punishment should fit the crime is the principle for all justice. Indeed, the notion that some crimes deserve physical punishment whereas others demand financial compensation, which we find in the Old Testament, is still reflected in our justice system today. Nevertheless, the laws and penalties of an ancient agricultural society, where the church and state were one, should not necessarily be ours today. How we apply the moral norms of Scripture to political life is a matter of wisdom and prudence and cannot be resolved simply by pointing to Old Testament Israel.

Additional Resources

I’ve listened to four assessments of theonomy in the last week, and wanted to share here. I’ve also updated the first article under audio resources. I recommend these in the following order:

History and Theology of Calvinism #21: The Theonomy Movement by Dr. Curt Daniel (reformed theologian)

A Critique of Theonomy by Dr. David Coffin (Presbyterian)

An Assessment of Theonomy by Pastor Jim Savastio (Reformed Baptist)

Theonomy and the Westminster Assembly by Rev. David Silversides (Presbyterian)

p.s. I have made every effort to fairly represent theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism, and will continue to do so. My desire is to have profitable discussion and avoid straw man arguments from both sides of the debate. Please keep this in mind when interacting with these posts, and if you feel something has not been accurately represented, please offer a charitable correction or ask for clarification if I haven’t been clear on a matter. Let’s submit to 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as our guide in these debates.