FrontLine • May/June 2007
Theonomy (“God’s Law”) is a title given to a movement that teaches the earthwide rule of God through the reinstitution of the Law of Moses for every nation. It is also called “Christian Reconstruction” because it wants the church to dismantle the present world culture and reconstruct it as a Mosaic society; “Dominion Theology” because it sees the church of God as having eventual dominion over the world; and “Kingdom Now” theology because it holds that Christ set up His Messianic reign in the first century, which will eventually Christianize the whole earth, after which He will return and consummate all things in resurrection and judgment.
The movement had its beginning in the 1960s through the efforts of Rousas J. Rushdoony, who founded the Chalcedon Foundation to promote the ideas above. Other names associated with the movement are Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, David Chilton, and Gary DeMar. Theonomy had its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, but some of its ideas still appeal to those who envision and politically work toward a “Christian America.” Such would include Jerry Falwell (Moral Majority), Jay Grimstead (Coalition for Revival), D. James Kennedy, the late Francis Schaeffer, Franky Schaeffer, Pat Robertson (along with Joseph Kikasola and Herb Titus of CBN University), Josh McDowell, as well as remnants of the old “health and wealth gospel/positive confession” notions of Kenneth Hagin, Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, and Oral Roberts. Some of Theonomy’s proposals are also appreciated by many conservative people who are rightfully alarmed at the rapid secularization, degeneration, and deepening licentiousness of our Western, allegedly Judeo-Christian, culture. It can also be argued that Islam’s general hatred of the USA is fed more by our worsening moral depravity than simply a jealousy over our political freedoms.
Major Principles of Theonomy
The Immutability of God and His Laws and Commands
Theonomists rightfully hold to the changelessness of God in His attributes and character (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17). From this it is inferred that all His laws and commands are also immutable, absolute, and perpetually binding on everyone. This gives continuing validity to the OT Mosaic system in its minute details, except where the NT indicates fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
There are several problems here. One, it ignores the plain fact that the Law was given only to Israel. Gentiles, including the Church of Jesus Christ, were never given the Law (Rom. 2:14; Deut. 4:8; Ps. 147:19, 20).
Two, the whole Law was an indivisible unity with its inseparable penalties; one cannot choose which parts to keep and which to disregard. To keep one part makes one liable for the whole code (James 2:10; Gal. 3:10; 5:3).
Three, when the righteousness of the Law was totally fulfilled by Christ, giving believers eternal liberation (Rom. 8:1–4), the Law was nailed to the cross, abolished, and taken out of the way (Rom. 10:4; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:13–15; 2 Cor. 3:3, 11, 13). As a law system it is not, and will never be, operative for any nation.
Four, the patent truth of the NT is that the believer is not under the Law for any purpose — salvation, justification, sanctification, or a rule of life (Rom. 3:20; 6:14; Col. 2:14).
Five, God’s immutability does not mean immobility. In His immutable sovereignty God can change His requirements and dealings with His universe without any change in Himself. For example, the minute OT laws and commands pertaining to food, farming, clothing, holy days, and the form of Israel’s government have been rescinded (Col. 2:16; Mark 7:19; Heb. 9:10) and a whole new standard pertains (1 Cor. 10:31–33; Col. 2:20–23). The platform of Christ’s kingdom demonstrates this point (Matt. 5:21–28 — “it has been said … but I say to you”). As well, God’s whole dispensational program is based on epochs of new revelation of Himself and His will that result in new stewardships with new requirements and responsibilities that displace previous commands and laws.
Sixth, the Law of Moses was designed specifically to serve a temporary purpose. It served as a “schoolmaster” — a tutorial custodian of Israel — until Christ came “in the fulness of time” (Gal. 3:22–4:7). Since then, the code of Moses will not serve as a tutor for anyone, individual or nation (Gal. 3:19, 25).
The Continuity of Israel and the Church
Theonomists hold that the nation Israel was “the church in the OT” and the church is “the new Israel” in the NT. However, the Bible is quite clear that there is a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church in origin, purpose, and destiny. Israel originated in the fifteenth century bc as a political organization at Sinai with an ethnic favoritism (the Hebrews) and a fundamentally earthly agenda governed by its constitution and legal instrument, the Law of Moses (Exod. 19–23). This institution lasted for about 1500 years until dissolved by the Roman legions in the first century ad. There is no nation of Israel in the Biblical sense. The church was born on the Day of Pentecost in the first century ad as an essentially spiritual organism with no ethnic or social favoritism (Gal. 3:26–28) and with no political or social agenda. Its mandate is a heavenly commission to evangelize the lost, baptize the believers, and mature them in the Christian experience within the context of a local New Testament church (Matt. 28:18–20; 1 Tim. 3:15).
A Postmillennial Second Coming of Christ
Theonomy has an optimism for this present age in that given enough time (some say 40,000 years and more), the church will incrementally Christianize or “millennialize” the world’s social order so that Christ will return to His righteous world and consummate all things.
The Scriptures teach, to the contrary, that this age will deteriorate and apostatize (2 Thess. 3:1–3a; 1 Tim. 4:1–3; 2 Tim. 3:13), culminating in the departure of those “in Christ” to Heaven (1 Thess. 4:13–17), followed by the universal acceptance of the Man of Sin (2 Thess. 2:3b–10). This person, with his followers, will be destroyed by the Lord Jesus Christ when He returns in cataclysmic glory and power to suddenly, not incrementally, set up His Messianic Kingdom for a universal reign of peace and prosperity (Dan. 2:34, 35; 2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 19:11–21). Christ’s coming is not after (post) the “millennium” of undetermined length, but before (pre) the millennium of one thousand years (Rev. 19:4–6).
A Fundamental Baptist Response to Theonomy
First, it must be remembered that the Church of Jesus Christ is not mandated to Christianize the existing world order along political and social lines. Aside from assisting its own needy people (Rom. 12:13; James 2:15, 16; 1 John 3:17), the institutional church has no sociopolitical agenda for the world community at large, either as fulfilling the Great Commission or as a means of opportunity to fulfill it. Further, since the Messianic Reign with its political, economic, social, and physical dimension is still future, there can be no such “kingdom now” proposals for the church to fulfill.
Second, the church’s mission is evangelistic/ local church planting (Matt. 28:18–20) and has gospel proclamation, not social work, as its motif (1 Cor. 2:1–5).
Third, the vision of Theonomy for a religious state or government in this present age violates the Biblical and historic Baptist principle of the separation of church and state — a free church in a free state (Matt. 22:21).
Fourth, an individual Christian as a member of the civil state is not disenfranchised but may participate fully in the political and social process as personal resources, interest, abilities, and the will of God permit. But this is a wisdom issue (Eph. 5:10 — “what is acceptable [pleasing] unto the Lord”) and not necessarily based on a specific Biblical command or warrant.
Fifth, individual Christians and the institutional church on earth should manifest a non-antagonistic and non-belligerent attitude toward the civil powers for the Lord’s sake (Rom. 13:11–7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13, 14), except when the state attempts to force one to sin (Dan. 3:18; Acts 4:19).
Sixth, in matters of Biblical interpretation, Bible-believing Baptists should practice the literal method, understanding the words of Scripture in their normal sense — i.e., the meaning the Biblical authors intended in their original context. Theonomists want to interpret the Law of Moses quite literally for today but, inconsistently, they do not do so with the prophetic literature of the Bible with its distinction between the church and Israel and its testimony to the coming Kingdom of God, where Christ will literally reign over the earth from David’s throne (Luke 1:32, 33). In the same vein, theonomists adopt a method of prophetic interpretation (preterism) that says that the majority of Bible prophecy has been fulfilled already in the first century, especially with the destruction of Jerusalem and the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state in ad 70. This widely discredited method, among other things, destroys the unconditional promises of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 13:14–17; 15:12–21; 17:7, 8; Micah 7:18–20) and Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:8–16; 23:1–5; 2 Chron. 13:5; Ps. 89:20–37), which guarantee a distinct place of favor nationally for restored Israel in the future Kingdom of the Messiah.
Dr. Rolland McCune is retired from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
- This is not to say that the OT Law and its commandments are not relevant today, with dispensational changes considered, of course, since we are “not under the law but under grace.” According Colossians 2 the Law has been abolished. As given in the OT and for purposes that related to Israel, it is no longer in force; it has been nailed to the cross. Galatians 3, in my view, does not teach nor warrant using the Law of Moses evangelistically today except as it depicts/demonstrates/illustrates that “all have sinned.” [↩]