Theonomy Is a Many-Splendored Thing

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I may say this without fear of contradiction because a poet, one of our own, has taught us that love is a many-splendored thing, and no less than the apostle Paul himself has taught us that love is the fulfillment of the law.

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10, ESV).

I mean, get a load of that. He mentions a number of the commandments by name, and then says, “and any other commandment,” and then tells us that this is what love looks like. At the risk of overdoing the alliteration, love looks like Leviticus.

But love, being many splendored, is also complicated, and so it is not surprising that the law of God has been the occasion for many debates among the theologians. So what I would like to do is provide a quick run-down or summary of the different ways we might understand theonomy, which means nothing more or less than “God’s law,” which is to say, His love.

These initial observations can certainly harmonize with one another, all but the last two, which I think should be rejected on account of their confusion. But the rest, even though I call them by different theonomic names, nevertheless can be combined within one integrated worldview.

There is, first, what might be called inescapable theonomy. Back in the eighties, when Christian reconstruction was a thing, people used to ask me if I was a theonomist. “Oh, no,” I would say. “I hate God’s law.” Suppose someone were then to say, “You know what I mean,” I could reply that my ironic answer revealed that all Christians were theonomic in principle. What divided them was the exegesis and application of particular passages. But God’s people all agree that we should do whatever God requires us to do. The debate is over what He has in fact required of us. So in a certain sense, theonomy is inescapable in the same way that all societies are theocratic.

Then there is what might be called general equity theonomy. This is the view that divides the Old Testament law into three categories.

“Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a Church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament” (WCF 19.3).

“To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (WCF 19.4).

The three categories are moral law, ceremonial law, and judicial law. According to Westminster, moral law continues in our era with full authority (WCF 19.2). The ceremonial law was abrogated under the New Testament as having been fulfilled in Christ’s person and work—even though the ceremonies put forward “instructions of moral duties.” This shows that the theologians of Westminster knew that their three categories were not watertight. It would not be possible to print a color-coded version of the law, using only three primary colors, and with crisp lines separating a “ceremonial” passage from a “moral.” Some passages would have to be mixed colors, like paint on a palette.

An additional complication comes from the fact that the judicial law was given to a particular nation, Israel, and was peculiar to their condition and circumstance. The principles undergirding these laws remain in force (general equity), while the standards themselves might not. An illustration of this can be found in the law that required Israelites to build a parapet around their roofs.

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it” (Deut. 22:8, ESV).

We are not morally required to build a parapet around our roof line because we don’t go up there. But general equity would require a rail around your second story deck.

Then there is case law theonomy. This is the recognition that our obligations follow the legal system, not necessarily the specific content of the laws. And the legal system of ancient Israel was a case law system, not an anticipate-every-eventuality-regulatory-system. This was actually the origin of our common law system—this is where it came from. When King Alfred established biblical law in England, this was the genesis of our common law system, which is foundational in 49 of our 50 states. The one exception is Louisiana, which was settled by the French. But all the states that harken back to the English common law system are theonomic in their foundation.

We may not feel like we need another “structuring device,” but I have found it helpful to distinguish different kinds of laws, using what might be called creation/redemption theonomy. There are two kinds of laws found in the Bible. One kind of law—creation law—is the kind of law that looks the same in every era, every dispensation. When God tells us not to steal our neighbor’s mule, obedience looks the same in 500 BC as in 500 AD. Not committing adultery means the same thing now as it used to. Then there is redemption law, where obedience looks different. We always must honor and keep the law, but obedience in the new covenant looks different. For example, in the Old Testament, it was necessary for an observant Israelite to purge all the leaven from his house for the Passover (Ex. 12:15). In the new covenant, we render obedience to this by getting rid of the leaven of malice and wickedness (1 Cor. 5:7-8). We still obey, but the obedience does not appear the same way.

Among the confused options, I would include what I call Jubilee theonomy. This is the view that takes Old Testament passages as fully authoritative whenever they might help push our societal narrative to the Left. Thus N.T. Wright is a Jubilee theonomist when it comes to Third World debt, Russell Moore is a racial-reconciliation theonomist when it comes to justice rolling down like a stream, and Ron Sider is a commie theonomist when it comes to the one gathering not having too much. We might also call this cherry-picking theonomy.

In a misunderstanding of the uses of the law, the Escondido school wants to utilize what might be called the law/gospel hermeneutic theonomy. Now of course there is a distinction between law and gospel, but the classic Reformed view places this distinction in the application of the law, and not in the exegesis of the law. To speak of a law/gospel hermeneutic means that you are placing the law/gospel division in the text. But the historic Reformed approach placed it in the application of the texts, which means that one text could serve two different functions. This is because the basic division is not between law texts and gospel texts, but rather between law hearts and gospel hearts. The division is between the regenerate and unregenerate.

What is more “law-like” than the Ten Commandments. Again, if we illustrated this problem with a color-coding task, with law in blue and gospel in red, what color would the Ten Commandments have to be? Blue, right? But what color would the preamble to the Ten Commandments be?

“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:1–2).

Sounds like good news to me.

To place the basic division in the human heart (because we are talking about different uses based on the differences between people) solves an interesting problem. For example, take a look at these two passages:

“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7).

“to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16, ESV).

The first passage talks about the law as though it were the gospel. The second talks about the gospel as though it were the condemnation of the law.

To the regenerate heart, everything God says is sweet, everything is good news, everything is gospel. To the unregenerate heart, everything God says is obnoxious and savors of condemnation.