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Theonomy, Theocracy, and Common Grace

Let us take the traditional Reformed view of the law as expressed in the Westminster Standards as uncontroversial, assuming the teachings of the Confession and the Larger Catechism as true and accepted and making it our starting point. Such a stipulation draws a boundary for inclusion in, and exclusion from, the discussion-group, restricting those who are the intended addressees of this essay to those who can begin with this assumption and thus meet for discussion on this common ground. The benefit of this limitation is simply the brevity of argument it affords by eliminating otherwise necessary steps in the argument.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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Let us take the traditional Reformed view of the law as expressed in the Westminster Standards as uncontroversial, assuming the teachings of the Confession and the Larger Catechism as true and accepted and making it our starting point. Such a stipulation draws a boundary for inclusion in, and exclusion from, the discussion-group, restricting those who are the intended addressees of this essay to those who can begin with this assumption and thus meet for discussion on this common ground. The benefit of this limitation is simply the brevity of argument it affords by eliminating otherwise necessary steps in the argument. By speaking here only to Reformed brethren in this confessional tradition, we therefore need not concern ourselves with justifying by evidence and argument that which these standards assert. (Obviously, were we to expand the boundaries to be more inclusive, we would have to argue for the teachings of the Westminster Standards.) Accordingly, we shall here simply assume that the Westminster Confession’s position on the law (chap. 19) is a given, that the traditional three offices of the law (and our especial concern here with the first and third uses of the law) is granted, and therefore that the moral law is accepted as an eternally and immutably binding standard of righteousness for all men—the justified and the unjustified alike (WCF 19:5).

If we may call this consensus—this common ground of agreement—an affirmation of general theonomy, we can begin from this stance as a starting point from which we can examine that which is usually regarded as the theonomic controversy. The controversy in question—a controversy over a thesis concerning the role of the state within the whole scheme of implementing theonomic ethics in the totality of life—is defined in such a way that a small (but hardly insignificant) part of theonomic ethics is treated as the whole, and "theonomy" is thus defined by one particular thesis that is not truly central (although certainly considered by some general theonomists—Rushdoony, Bahnsen, North, et al.—to be but the consistent outworkings and applications of the logical implications of the theonomic principle). In this essay we shall instead approach the particular controversial thesis about the theonomic obligation of the civil magistrate as simply a narrow area of disagreement among those whom we can dub general theonomists (and thus as those participating in an intramural debate).

As but one aspect of a much broader concern with theonomic ethics and their application to all of life, theonomists in the Rushdoony/Bahnsen tradition insist that the state, consonant with the "first office" of the law (civic righteousness, the restraint of public manifestations of social evil), ought to enforce portions of the law of God suitable to application as civil law. This narrow thesis of what we might call specific theonomy (the distinctive form of theonomy promoted by Rushdoony/Bahnsen) is considered controversial by many of those who, confessing the faith of historic Presbyterianism, may be considered generally theonomic. Perhaps the most theologically significant objection from the general-theonomist camp involves the status of the state as a common-grace institution and the importance of distinguishing between the holy and the common, which prohibits us from trying to establish a theocratic state.


Before we examine more closely what common grace means and involves relative to this issue, let us clarify what is meant by the idea of a theocracy. A theocracy, as divine government, must be distinguished from human government. This distinction does not concern the de facto situation that human governments are generally idolatrous, Babel-like expressions of the City of Man (self-deified, absolutist, messianic) that are informed by a humanistic religion statist salvation. The issue here in contrasting divine government to human government is not theonomy versus autonomy; it involves a contrast of God’s government with even the de jure human government that realizes the ideal of the civil magistrate as a God-ordained minister who acts under God in the responsible administration of true justice. It thus specifies something distinct from the general sense that all authority is from God and is delegated by God to the magistrate. Thus, what is intended by denying that the state is not supposed to be theocratic is not a denial of the Biblical teaching that all civil governments (whether they recognize and acknowledge the fact or no) are instituted by God as his ordained ministers of the sword of justice, that the legitimacy of their office as agents of justice derives from God and his delegation of this authority, that the state is under God (not absolute, not autonomous) and the civil magistrate is responsible to God as a steward who must judge justly (Rom. 13:1-7), and that all true justice is to be informed by, and measured in terms of, the standard of the moral law.

In a theocracy God himself formally establishes a covenantal order, instituted by a specific act of special revelation, in which his Kingship is formally asserted by him and acknowledged by the community that is specifically, directly, immediately addressed as the covenant party (the vassal party-recipient of the Suzerainty treaty) as the legitimate and official authority-structure. God manifests his special immanence-presence, a form of covenantal immanence that is to be distinguished from the immanence of general providence. He dwells in a holiness-constituting glory-presence in the midst of his people as their God (a special covenantal relation).

The institution of a theocracy is by God’s initiative; it is unilaterally imposed from above (top-down). A community cannot merely decide by human consent to be theocratic (grassroots or bottom-up theocracy); God creates the community of his special rule and constitutes them a theocratic people by specially covenanting with them. Theocracy involves more than a mere realization in a society of the general duty of all men to obey the law of God; it restores that right relation of man to God and thus reestablishes the covenantal Kingdom of God—a Kingdom not of this world—by special grace.

Common Grace

1. Nonautonomous Nature

One aspect of any genuine conception of theonomy that is surely germaine to our discussion is the recognition of the antithesis between theonomy and autonomy, a diametrical opposition between two mutually exclusive views of ultimate authority. Because there is no alternative to theonomy except autonomy, genuine theonomy entails the Van Tilian rejection of a Nature/Grace dichotomy. That is, in discussing the common-grace institution of the state, we must, as theonomists, reject at the outset as utterly unbiblical the notion that there exists an area of ethical neutrality—a secular arena—to which the law of God does not apply. We cannot limit the jurisdiction of God’s authority (it is totalitarian, pan-comprehensive) or think that autonomy is anything but antitheistic—is sinful rebellion—wherever it rears its head. Those who hold to an autonomous sphere of human existence that is exempt from ordering by God’s Law, that is not subject to a theonomic ethic, are simply not consistent theonomists. What we have said thus far precludes them from the camp within which our present (intramural) discussion of the implications of theonomy takes place; we would have to argue with them for the complete lordship of Christ over the totality of life, making them aware of what theonomous life—life under the comprehensive lordship of Christ—involves, but that is not the present issue we are debating with our fellow-theonomists (i.e., those dwelling with us in the camp of general theonomists).

2. No Revelational Dualism 

Nevertheless, some in the camp of general-theonomists would appeal to natural law as the ordering-principle for common-grace institutions, and we must be sure that this is not Nature/Grace sneaking in the back way. We shall assume that, consonant with the dictates of the theonomic principle, those who speak of natural law in this manner actually intend to refer by this infelicitous terminology simply to general (or natural) revelation. God indeed reveals himself and his will through creation, and we must even speak of this natural revelation as being necessary, authoritative, perspicuous, and sufficient. This general revelation is pervasive and ubiquitous; every created fact is revelational, including the very being and consciousness of man himself. This clear and unavoidable witness to God and his will renders man responsible, for it gives him to understand what God demands and commands him to order his affairs accordingly. Man by general revelation indeed knows the moral law even without the Scriptures (Rom. 1:32), for it is imprinted upon the very fabric of his being; it is written in his heart (Rom. 2:14). This "law of nature" is the same moral law that was restated to Israel at Sinai in the Mosaic Covenant; it was the law of the original, Adamic Covenant of Creation (the so-called Covenant of Works—WCF 19:1-2) and, as such, was indelibly impressed upon Adamic humanity and all the facts of the Adamic cosmos as part of the very nature—the very make-up—of created things.

Obviously, in the period of the Old Covenant, the heathen nations for the most part had only general revelation by which to order themselves, and this situation was sufficient to render them responsible for their lawless conduct. They too ought to have been societies ordered by the law of God; the civil magistrates of the Gentile nation-states ought to have legislated, enforced, and otherwise dispensed justice according to the law of God revealed to them by general revelation. The special revelation of the "oracles of God" were, for the most part, the exclusive property of Israel in the Old Testament period; the nations did not have the grace of having the law of God restated to them in that inscripturated form that was given by God to Israel, and it is therefore true that Israel had greater light, but the moral law possessed by both Israel and the Gentile nations through God’s revelation (either general or special) had the identical content. All men and all nations were held to this single standard; all were expected to obey the moral law, even if they did not have the Scriptures and even if, as a matter of fact, the darkness of their sinful hearts invariably distorted their perception and interpretation of God’s revelation.

If, however, man is obligated to the law of God for the ordering of his affairs and the law given in natural revelation is the same as its statement in the Scriptures, there is no reason why a civil magistrate in our time must restrict himself to general revelation in the fulfillment of his obligation to justice. There is no reason why he cannot take advantage of the availability of the widely disseminated Scriptures in informing his official decisions and actions. The fact that the Scriptures are now widely available and that there is greater access to this form of the revealed law of God is but greater common grace to our historical situation, and it is simply silly for us to contend that he must restrict his knowledge of the law to what he can discern from general revelation. Since he is responsible to the moral law in ruling wisely and justly, he is surely responsible to make the most of his opportunity, to use what common grace in our contemporary situation has provided to him in the form of inscripturated revelation of the law and so be better informed for a competent discharge of his ministry of justice. The only argument against the magistrate’s use of the Scriptures would have to be predicated on the assumption that general revelation and special revelation have a different content, reveal a different law, or else that the magistrate is not to execute justice in terms of the standard of righteousness that God has revealed but is to act autonomously. However, since such views are clearly unbiblical (and untheonomic), we can dismiss them. There is no justification for the notion that common-grace ethics are supposed to be different than the ethics that have been revealed to order the redeemed people of God. Granting that the ordinary state (in distinction from a theocratic kingdom) is a common-grace institution, common grace does not itself provide any normative principles, nor does it necessitate exclusive recourse to general revelation. If common grace restrains the manifestation of sinfulness, it does so by restraining lawlessness, by imposing some measure of conformity to the law of God, ordering the City of Man so that it manifests a civic righteousness that is defined by the justice and general equity of the law of God in its first office. Disseminated moral instruction in the content of the inscripturated body of special revelation can aid the cultural and societal impact of the moral law in this common-grace function of informing the idea of justice that orders a given community and guides its leaders in the faithful execution of their office.

3. Holy Versus Common

The real issue in the distinction between the holy and the common that would make the State as a common-grace institution nontheocratic in nature is that Israel was a historical expression of the City of God (though we should speak of its form as typological of the City of God). To the extent that its polity was determined by its redemptive-historical significance as a revelation of the City in type, it is fulfilled in the New-Covenant community. That is, the cultic factors that condition its peculiar theocratic form of polity find their antitypical point of reference and application in the institutional expression of the City of God in this age and do not correspond to the City of Man (or to any common order that comprehends both cities), for those theocratic structures typify the order of special grace and the Covenant of Redemption, rather than the provisional common-grace order. Israel is fulfilled in the church, not the world. Since the state is not a theocratic institution, it cannot arrogate to itself the authority vested in the church to punish these transgressions of the covenant; the state is incompetent to deal with matters of cultic holiness, for, as a common-grace institution, it has no jurisdiction over the community of special grace and its covenantal ordering, nor can it treat the citizens of the City of Man who fall within its geo-political jurisdiction in terms of a special holiness that does not apply to those outside the bounds of the Covenant of Redemption. Israel, in its peculiar theocratic ordering, was both church and state, and was as such authorized to do things that a common-grace state cannot legitimately do.

The divine purpose for the state is to serve two important and closely related functions. First, it is intended to protect the City of God from the City of Man so that Christians might have the peace and freedom with which they may go about their work of blessing and discipling the nations and exercising godly dominion unhindered (cf. 1 Tim. 2:2-4). Second, it is intended to serve in the common-grace restraint upon those self-destructive impulses within the City of Man (cf. 1 Tim. 1:9-10) that would, if left unchecked, prematurely end history as the time of opportunity for repentance (2 Pet. 2:9), the time of the gospel’s dissemination as the means by which God’s righteousness-activity is revealed as the power of salvation which secures the obedience of faith among the nations (Rom. 1:16-17; cf. 1:5; 16:26). Its ministry of law is not intended to establish a right relation with God, but to enforce formally righteous relations among men, regulating how its citizens treat each other and conduct their social relations. Because its citizenry is a mixed company, it is not to discriminate between the two cities in its affordance of protections. It should promote a civil religion of Christianity, officially declaring that it recognizes its stewardship under God (the divine right and responsibility it has) and that its principal basis of constitutional law is the law of God, but, beyond that, its civil religion is formal and ceremonial and does not extend to the regulation of belief and worship among the citizenry except insofar as certain practices may be socially harmful within the general providential order of consequence.

Theonomy, in its stress on the theonomic responsibilities of the state, must not confuse its task of seeking to make the state theonomous with the task of making it theocratic. Theonomy merely recognizes that all men ought to render obedience to God and be governed by his law and that the state is not exempt from the law’s jurisdiction. Given the discontinuity noted in the previous paragraphs, what does the specific theonomist propose? Preeminently, since all men ought to acknowledge the true God as part of their moral duty, there is no reason why a given society, through the organ of the state and its formal legislation, cannot officially recognize this—or even formally recognize the Christian religion as revealed truth. The de facto barriers to this in America, due to contemporary constitutional interpretation about an alleged "wall of separation," are simply irrelevant to the question of whether we ought (or at least are permitted) to promote true religion through this official recognition and stand confessionally as a nation under God via proclamation.

Divine permission for such an official proclamation and confession, in the absence of any explicit Biblical prohibition, could only be principally opposed by insisting that confessional pluralism is the de jure situation for the common-grace society, that the state ought to be neutral and tolerant and provide a context for pluralism to flourish. The idea is that permission is precluded by the ideal of a confessionally pluralistic society; it is difficult to imagine how one can possibly make a Biblical case for such a position and so defend it as a theonomist. Nevertheless, we shall leave side the idea of permission altogether and examine the possibility that it is a duty.

We must insist that the magistrate ought to recognize that he is a minister of God whose authority derives from God. The magistrate ought to act self-consciously under God as one responsible before God, and he ought to administer justice, which can only be defined by the standard of God’s law. The magistrate as a person is surely subject to the law of God and ought to discharge his duties faithfully and wisely according to theonomic ethics (and Christians must diligently seek to put godly men in office). However, a nation ought also to recognize that the very office of civil magistrate is an office of divine ministry (the ministry of true justice) and thus formally acknowledge that human government is subject to God. It is not simply the person holding the office who is duty-bound to obey the law of God; it is also the office itself that is under God and that therefore ought to be explicitly defined in terms of the function of discharging a God-delegated ministry of enforcing God’s justice. The de jure human government is a rule of law, and it is the general equity—the righteousness—of God’s Law that is to be reflected in this ideal constitutional republic. The Constitution ought to state that government does not ultimately derive from the consent of the governed ("We the people"), but from the one true God. The consent of the governed functions as a quod nos reception of the rule of law (analogous to the church’s role in formally recognizing the canon of Scripture), not the in se establishment of it (as though power derives absolutely from the vox populii by social contract). Thus, the Constitution ought to affirm that this popular consent is but the recognition and acknowledgment by the governed that the rule of law that they are affirming is and ought to be the rule of God’s law (the law by which men are to be governed) and that the constitutional officers—as ministers of God—have only those express powers delegated to them by God and are duty-bound to exercise their powers and execute their offices as faithful stewards under God in the dispensing of that true justice that is relative to God. The Constitution ought to be self-consciously theonomic and it ought to make clear that the value-system underlying all constitutional laws will be derived from and expressive of the general equity of God’s law. The attempt to be neutral at this point (promoting the idea of a secular order founded on natural-rational common ground) is simply the attempt to be autonomous and establish the religion of secular humanism.

A formal recognition that the Triune God revealed in the Bible is the one true God, that the Lord Jesus Christ is ruler of the kings of the earth (King of kings, Lord of lords), and that God’s law is the only legitimate basis of all human legislation (applications of his law) does not entail a loss of freedom of religion and does not require the citizens individually to own Jesus as their personal Lord. It merely acknowledges that the only common ground created by common grace is the metaphysical common ground of God’s Law-order, that the two cities can only meet and cooperate in terms of their mutual submission to God’s law. Accordingly, pluralism would no longer be privileged and officially sanctioned as though it were an ideal and ultimately desirable situation. The laws of the land would not be formulated to respect a pluralistic consensus or compromise, some supposed common denominator of a plurality of value-systems (polytheism), or an alleged value-free neutrality that treats the plurality of traditions as having equal standing.

Theonomy insists that the proper function of the state is to promote the common good or general welfare and secure domestic tranquility and the common defense. Theonomy insists as well that it is righteousness that exalts a nation and that bears the fruit of peace, and any truly just order must be founded upon and regulated by the law of God, punishing those evildoers—transgressors of the moral law—who, if not restrained or prevented, would rend the social fabric and disrupt the peace and order of society. Unless those who appeal to common grace to oppose specific theonomy can demonstrate that common grace intends to promote, foster, and sanction confessional pluralism as a de jure state of affairs (which is to say that it stands principally opposed to a recognition of the truth - the fact that Christ is ruler of the kings of the earth), they have no argument against this particular "controversial" thesis of specific theonomy.

1. Of course, some may argue that general revelation provides only the two great commandments (love of God and neighbor) or the Ten Commandments, not the detailed legislation of the Mosaic Law. This may be true but it is beside the point. The form of the law of God in the Mosaic Law is a special-revelation restatement of the moral law that is graciously accommodated to the infirmity of main; it specifies in detail the meaning of the moral law, illustrating that meaning through case-law applications. In principle, insofar as the particular laws set forth in the Mosaic Code have general equity as concrete statements of what righteous conduct involves, the particular moral legislation could be worked out from the general principles of the two great commandments or the Decalogue as these are correctly situated in the same set of circumstances which the Mosaic Law addressed. The particulars are the explicated implications of the general. Accordingly, in principle, the concrete situating of the general principles relative to our set of circumstances for the development of specific applications should yield the same result as the "dynamic-equivalence" translation (recontextualization/reapplication) of the Mosaic judicials into forms relevant and applicable to our situation. The content of the case laws (relative to their particular situation, as conditioned in their form of statement by their specific range of applicability as laws adapted to Israel's situation) is implicitly contained in the meaning of the general principles (the summary-form of the moral law), and the former are but concrete extensions of the latter - pedagogically instructive illustrations of applied ethics that teach us (and can teach the magistrate as well) by example how one should engage in casuistry.

2. If common grace is to foster cooperation between the City of Man (unregenerate humanity) and the City of God (redeemed humanity) in the public sphere for peace and order, it can only do so by bringing the City of Man into a measure of conformity to the law of God for civic righteousness. Obviously anomie leads to anarchy and social disintegration (as Augustine insisted, community exists only as a community of justice), but since Christians are duty-bound to keep the law of God, only that law could serve as common ground for cooperation. Christians could not cooperate in any endeavor that is contrary to the law; they cannot compromise their principles and divide their loyalty (a double-minded halting between two positions in intellectual and ethical schizophrenia) in the pursuit of common good. Since there is no ethically neutral territory that can serve as common ground between the citizens of the two cities, they must meet on this ground and work together lawfully or they cannot cooperate at all, for all other ground is sinking sand. Participation together in common cultural tasks for the common good in history, which common grace makes possible, must occur in the context of the law, and any theory of common grace that fails to recognize this fact either lapses into Nature/Grace ideas of common ground (a sphere of autonomy and neutrality) or else violates the Christian duty to the law as rule of life.

3. The question that must be squarely faced at this point is whether the rule of law is to be according to laws that are merely human opinions about what is good and right (autonomy) or whether we should be ruled by God's perfect law (theonomy).

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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