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The Current Trends in the Theonomy Debate

T. David Gordon in particular (and Klineans in general) has been one of the sharpest critics of theonomy in the past years. This evidences a recent trend in Reformed social theology: to what extent (if any) is Scripture to speak to social ills with normative commands?

  • Jacob Aitken,
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T. David Gordon in particular (and Klineans in general) has been one of the sharpest critics of theonomy in the past years. This evidences a recent trend in Reformed social theology: to what extent (if any) is Scripture to speak to social ills with normative commands?

Gordon highlights this view in several articles in major Reformed publications, including “The Insufficiency of Scripture,” Modern Reformation,1 and “Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy,” Westminster Theological Journal.2 In each section I will summarize Gordon’s argument and explain what’s at stake in the Reformed camp, while also presenting Kenneth Gentry’s responses from his book Covenantal Theonomy: A Response to T. David Gordon and Klinean Covenantalism.3 I will not go into much of the theonomic debate history. Gary North has provided that in a series of books, Theonomy: An Informed Response and Westminster’s Confession.

Gordon’s Underlying Presupposition

The underlying presupposition of Gordon’s thought is that the Bible is not sufficient for life outside the covenant community.4 He identifies theonomy as the “error de jure” of the attempt to apply God’s Word to society. In this respect he has clearly and helpfully defined the ultimate issues at stake.

Gordon tries to show that theonomy is wrong from at least three different perspectives: a taxonomic critique (showing the distinctives of theonomy and critiquing them), Klinean methodology, and a tri-dimensional critique opposing theonomy on the sufficiency of Scripture: the latter being defined along philosophical, exegetical, and theological lines. I will predominantly focus on the first perspective since I consider Greg Bahnsen’s approach to covenant theology to be in the mainstream of covenantal thought (e.g., emphasizing the continuity between the covenants).

The Argument from Necessity

Gordon argues that theonomists paint themselves into a corner in saying that the Bible is sufficient for all areas of life. If sufficient, then clear. If clear, it should tell us how. In short, the Bible, according to theonomists, should give exhaustive specificity for all things. This it clearly does not do. Therefore, theonomists are wrong. But theonomist Dr. Kenneth Gentry, for one, points out that theonomists do not make the claim that the Bible is exhaustively specific.5 At the very least, the Bible does give clear political guidance, and this should be a key focus in the debate.

This is a key weakness in Gordon’s articles. He says he critiqued theonomy’s main arguments from its main supporter, Greg Bahnsen.6 If so, as Gentry points out, “[W]hy is this argument for Theonomy absent from Bahnsen?”7 Also, “This is not a philosophical argument from Theonomy, contrary to Gordon, but a theological implication of the Christian worldview.”8 Worldviews involve civil jurisprudence and social matters. By what standard are laws to be judged?

Gordon’s next question is at the heart of the confusion: “Where does the Bible address ... science, medicine, statecraft ... engineers ... mathematicians?”9 The theonomist would counter that the Bible addresses statecraft in the first five books of the Old Testament and Romans 13. As to the other part of the reduction, it can easily be turned around. Why did modern science develop in Christian cultures? And, mathematics is impossible without Trinitarian Christianity: if there are no universal entities that relate to mankind in particular instances, math is an illusion (which would be consistent with many Eastern religions). Gentry points out that Gordon confuses scientific issues with moral ones, statecraft being moral.10

Gordon urges us to remember “the nature of the curse on the human race subsequent to the fall.” The theonomist gladly agrees. However, a key component of Gordon’s worldview is the preference of general revelation over special revelation with respect to socio-political morality. If that is the case, then we must logically expect a blurring of natural revelation, since we can’t interpret it clearly. But where is the clear teaching to be found? Romans 2 tells us that the work of the law is written on the heart of all, but Romans 3 builds upon this to say how much more blessed the Jews were for having the written revelation of God.

Theonomy as a comprehensive system is new. Theonomic presuppositions are not. They are, as Meredith Kline candidly admitted, quite confessional. Theonomy’s attraction is its commitment to the Bible as a source for wisdom and light. We are living in social decay and watching a civilization die. The world is desperately looking for an answer.

A New Angle on Matthew 5 in the Theonomy Debate

Matthew 5:17 (“I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil”) is a benchmark argument for theonomy and has been in the forefront of the theonomic debate. Most critics of theonomy in response to Matthew 5 simply attempt to rebut Bahnsen’s claim that “fulfil” means confirm “in exhaustive validity.” Gordon advances a different line of argumentation. Gordon tries to corner the theonomist into an exegetical trap: if the Old Testament is indeed binding unless God has rescinded it in certain places, then theonomists must also admit that if the Sinaitic administration remains, then the prophetic office announcing the coming of the Messiah must also remain.11 Gentry rebuts this by showing that Christ’s teachings are indeed ethical and not merely eschatological in character, a point agreed with by almost all evangelical commentators, including those who are not theonomic.12

The Argument from Covenant Theology

One way of discrediting theonomy is to show its alleged novelty. No one in the history of the church, it is argued, held to a theonomic view of the law and covenants; therefore, one ought to be highly suspicious of such a movement. True, theological novelties should be embraced only with the utmost reluctance. However, is theonomy really that novel a view? Gordon maintains that Bahnsen erred in seeing extreme continuity between the Mosaic covenant and today, downplaying the discontinuities and the problem of legalism. Along with that, theonomy is erroneous in that it abstracts the Mosaic covenant from its environment. If true, it would be hard to account for the fact that many respectable Reformed theologians (Murray, Dabney, the Westminster divines) viewed the law of God, particularly the Ten Commandments, as normative in the Christian life and a guide to Christian behavior.13

Gordon argues that the duties of the covenant are binding only on the parties of the covenant. If this is true, then it is devastating to theonomy. However, Gentry responds that while Israel was under a “public covenantal obligation to keep the divinely revealed law, the moral obligations within that covenant were not uniquely applicable to Israel alone.”14 Another way of replying is that the Ten Commandments represent the moral law re-published from nature revelation.

Concluding Observations

I would urge theonomists to develop more arguments for theonomy that do not overly depend on Matthew 5 (Bahnsen states frequently that theonomy doesn’t depend on Matthew 5). Also, I would note that the larger debate has now brought in arguments against theonomy from multiple angles: the two-kingdoms theory and natural law.

The two-kingdoms view holds that God rules the church through His right hand and the secular world through His left hand. The Christian, it is urged, is not to bring matters of religion into the public square. But as John Frame rightly notes, “The problem is that the two-kingdom doctrine claims a duality, not only between law and gospel as such, but also in God’s standards, his norms.”15 But an even bigger challenge to theonomy is the renewed interest in “natural law.” As a contemporary natural law theorist writes, “Though intellectual fashions change, an objective moral order, knowable by man and within the reach of mankind, can be reasonably seen as the most stable basis of personal, national, and international order and happiness.”16

Space prevents a thorough rebuttal. In short I would only mention that natural law depends on unexamined presuppositions that are untenable for Reformed Christianity. Besides being fallacious (naturalistic fallacy), natural law theorists operate from the basis that man’s reason has not been sufficiently affected by the Fall. But even more, natural law theory is unable to do more than endorse the “status quo.” True, natural law theory does posit itself as transcending the civil magistrate, but it offers no clear guidance to the magistrate, nor does it sufficiently limit his powers. Consider, then, this moving quote by Greg Bahnsen on the necessity for a distinctively Christian approach to politics:

The alternative to God’s law is not no law at all, but human law; governments which do not guard the majesty of God and His righteous law have no alternative and choice but to uphold the majesty of their own human authority ... If no higher law is adhered to, then the law of man is absolute; there is no logical barrier to stop such a state from becoming totalitarian. When the state’s will is substituted for God’s will, then the only real crimes become crimes against the state (as in Imperial Rome, present day Russia, and much of the United States), for example, treason, defection, and so forth ... There is no appeal beyond the state and its rulers when God’s law is put aside; man has no realm of justice to which he has recourse in opposing the will of the state ... For Christians the choice is between a law order based on God or the potentially tyrannical oppression of a law order resting in the arbitrary will and power of the secular state.17

1. T. David Gordon, “The Insufficiency of Scripture,” Modern Reformation, January/February 2002.

2. T. David Gordon, “Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy,” Westminster Theological Journal, 1994.

3. Kenneth Gentry, Covenantal Theonomy: A Response to T. David Gordon and Klinean Covenantalism (Nacogdoches, TX: CMF, 2005).

4. Gordon, “The Insufficiency of Scripture,” 18.

5. Gentry, 17.

6. Gordon, “Critique of Theonomy,” 24.

7. Gentry, 24.

8. Ibid., 26–27.

9. Gordon, “Critique of Theonomy,” 26.

10. Gentry, 29ff.

11. Gordon, “Critique of Theonomy,” 29.

12. Gentry, 56–57.

13. Ibid., 226.

14. Ibid., 146.

15. John Frame, “Law and Gospel”

16. Paul M. Weyrich, Future 21: Directions for America in the 21st Century, ed. Connaught Marshner (Devin-Adair Publishers, 1984), 129. I am aware that Thomas Aquinas advocated some form of civil resistance derived from his natural law ethic. However, I am not convinced that it follows without at least presupposing some form of Biblical revelation. Natural law just as easily endorses the status quo.

17. Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: CMF, 2002), 455.

  • Jacob Aitken

acob Aitken is an M.Div. candidate at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is a native of Monroe, LA.

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