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Another Perspective on the “Failure” of Theonomy

The reader should note that the two approaches (Foreman’s and my own) are not mutually exclusive, but simply cast light on the question from different angles. This is to be expected given the scope of the subject.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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Joseph Foreman has written an important assessment of the theonomic question, giving us the proper set of eyes with which to view the question (viz., a historic vision over the long haul). The following thoughts are intended to supplement, or provide alternative insights, into the question that he has explored so tellingly in his article, which appears in this issue of Faith for All of Life. The reader should note that the two approaches (Foreman’s and my own) are not mutually exclusive, but simply cast light on the question from different angles. This is to be expected given the scope of the subject.

For our purposes, we will focus on three particular facets of the problem as we approach the question, “Why hasn’t theonomy worked?” These are by no means exhaustive, but they are surely instructive.

​ The First Failure in Applying Theonomy

Theonomy hasn’t “worked” because it is an all-or-nothing proposition: all jots and tittles must be applied for the totality of its blessings to flow. You can’t move to a half-shekel civil tax if the poor tithe isn’t being honored across the board (the promise in Deut. 15:4 that “there shall be no more poor among you” is premised on keeping the previous chapter’s requirements). You can’t pull regulatory statutes off the books if you still have limited liability laws in place that incentivize irresponsible conduct. Theonomy is a package deal, and trying to apply it piecemeal (slicing sections out of the law to apply them ham-fistedly and out-of-context) is a roadmap to disaster.

The law is good if used lawfully (I Tim. 1:8). But lawful use of the law entails total use of the law in its comprehensive details. That, alone, delivers temporal justice (and even here, there are limitations due to our creaturely limitations). It also requires examining long-lost precedents put forward by Scripture (e.g., Solomon’s successful handling of a judicial case in 1 Kings 3:16–28 where there appeared to be insufficient witnesses to legitimately proceed—a principle that, as Rushdoony explains at length, was also applied by the wrongly-maligned Richard III of England with powerful results).

This is the key point brought forward by James in his epistle: the law is a unity, and to break one statute is to have broken the entire law (because it has, literally, been broken into pieces). Such a smorgasbord approach to God’s commandments refuses to accept the contemporary wisdom of Biblical ethics. Pick-and-choose theonomy is humanism under color of misplaced theological authority—misplaced in that we’re trusting modern-day scribes who loosen the least of His commandments (Matt. 5:19).

When we arraign all the supposed examples of “theonomy gone bad,” we see something very different: a mix of humanism and theonomy (with the former contaminating the latter) that has, indeed, gone bad. Whether it is procedural rules of evidence, refusal to follow His statutes concerning all matters that they speak to, or using refined theological categories to do violence to the law, the result is the same. Too many say, “We had to destroy the law to save the law.” And always, it is the wisdom of man that is called upon to expose God as an out-of-date ethical thinker. Like David Chilton said, it’s not that we’re missing the blueprints, it’s that nobody wants their city to be built according to them.

The Second Failure in Applying Theonomy

The second reason theonomy hasn’t “worked” is because the fundamental principle of it, as enunciated by the greatest commandment and the one like unto it, is love: love for God, love for neighbor. Since all the law and the prophets hang on these two, if these two are not in order, there’s nothing to hang the rest on.

We live in an age where men are lovers of self, whose god is their belly. The sons of Belial have no interest (other than lip service concerning it) for the law of God because they live in opposition to its foundation.

Modern man is consumed by hatred. Redeemed man, who in principle should be delivered from hatred, refuses to fully yield himself a living sacrifice. What “law-keeping” may be in evidence is contaminated at its root, because unless love of God and love of neighbor motivate man’s actions, his supposed “law-keeping” is empty. For example, 1 Cor. 13:3 makes clear that giving away everything to help the poor “profiteth nothing” to the unloving, even though provision is made for the poor in Scripture (albeit not to that rhetorical extreme).1

The same is true of every action we take, but particularly those that are ostentatious (as tithing of mint and rue was for the scribes and Pharisees). If we’re to prioritize the weightier matters of the law (judgment, mercy, faith), how much more the two greatest commandments of that same law?

In Isaiah 1:12, God asks, “Who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?” The emptiness of servile religious observance is roundly condemned in this demanding question. God has decidedly not required this, and certainly not in the spirit that His people were doing it in. When the heart is right, and truly repentant, it hungers for God’s justice and mercy. The law is not about external observance (the Tenth Commandment, as Joseph Foreman noted, puts an end to that false depiction). It speaks to the heart of the redeemed, where God writes it to “obtain spontaneous obedience” (Warfield). How could men whose conduct is framed by His law “grind the faces of the poor” (Isaiah 3:15)? That we do so is a failure at the core of our being: you simply can’t gather grapes from thorns (Matt. 7:16).

The Third Failure in Applying Theonomy

Theonomy “failed” among the Puritans for a reason. Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft III believes Terrill Elniff hit upon the correct explanation in the latter’s book, The Guise of Every Graceless Heart.

The Puritans reserved a small corner of human thought for autonomy to retain a beachhead. And that tiny chink in their intellectual armor was the Achilles’ heel of the Puritan experiment: theonomy was forced to coexist with its corrosive antithesis, autonomy, in the Puritan mind (which was fully unaware of the genuine antipathy between the two forces).2

The human intellect was granted a destructive freedom that contained the seeds of the collapse of the Puritan experiment. A little leaven of autonomy leavened the whole lump. Such a halfway house runs parallel to the “first failure” enumerated above: theonomy is a package deal, so the admixture of any autonomy whatsoever corrupts it (whether at the root or at the branch).

For all the Puritan talk of “not raising up any iron tool” (human alteration) on God’s stones (Deut. 27:5), they did exactly that.

In modern thinking, we are used to trying a taste test to see how a “model” works. “Let’s implement part of the agenda and see what happens. If a little is good, we’ll try to implement more bits and pieces of it.” This approach is not actually possible with Biblical law because it is a unity: every single statute dovetails with its companion ordinances in a seamless garment of justice.3

Whatever temporal benefits arise (and they do arise) when keeping part of the law, they are incomplete and impermanent. Slacking the law (Hab. 1:4) will never cause the nations to invite one another to go up and be taught out of it (Isa. 2:3). Theonomy is a total concern because God’s law-word concerns all He has made and all that He governs.

And now the cat is out of the bag: in the war between theonomy and autonomy, the fact remains that anything less than 100 percent theonomy is actually autonomy. And autonomy has covenantal consequences built into it that cannot be reversed merely by applying a theonomic veneer. To then label the resulting catastrophe “a failure of theonomy” is an attempt to whitewash autonomy (the actual failure point) and bring ever more consistent autonomy into play.

Despite attempts to scapegoat theonomy when these oil-and-water, iron-and-clay mixtures inevitably collapse in the cultures that tried them, theonomy has the perfect alibi whenever its syncretistic critics arraign it for its alleged crimes throughout history:

“I was nowhere near where that happened … though come to think of it, my ears were sure burning the entire time. I must be the victim of identity theft … again.”

Why is theonomy routinely blamed for the crimes of autonomy? Because autonomous man desperately seeks to excuse his rebellion, and to call good evil and evil good. In the meantime, “the isles shall wait for His Law” (Isa. 42:4) because they have yet to receive it in its purity. And when they finally do, then will the nations invite one another to be taught out of the law of God in its fullness (Isa. 2:3).

1. There is much confusion over our Lord’s instructions to the rich young ruler in Mark 10. See the section on The Poor Tithe and Eradication of Poverty in this Chalcedon Position Paper to get a fuller understanding of that passage:

2. This dangerous leaven passed into Scottish Rationalism, which influenced theologians like Benjamin B. Warfield and beyond, leavening the whole lump. The irony was that Warfield warned against holding warring ideas in one’s mind simultaneously, yet he was blind in some areas to his own concession to autonomy. Had Kuyper and Van Til not put the brakes on this trend, the influence of Warfield would have gone unchecked (on the principle that there is a certain kind of evil only a good man can do, because he is deemed a trustworthy guide). We need to return to John Owen’s view that secular philosophies are to be studied with the same mindset a chemist has when studying poisons: to find the antidote.

3. Christ’s condemnation of the “It is Corban!” tactic was triggered by violations of the law’s integrity (wholeness). We are prone to forget the fundamental meaning of the word integrity when we speak of moral integrity, but it parallels the meaning in other usages, such as the term “structural integrity.” It connotes wholeness: nothing is missing, and everything that should be there actually is there and is in proper order. In light of Psalm 119, it is not too great a stretch to extend Paul’s famous observation to also cover the law: all things in the law work together for good. But as Christ showed, we need to bring all things in the law to bear for its various parts to harmoniously work together for good.

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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