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Theonomy: Three Questions Answered

Jacob asked the following:

Theonomy is concerned with three irreducible questions, which anti-theonomists cannot answer in an epistemologically satisfactory manner:

1) Which sins should civil magistrates punish?
2) What should those punishments be?
3) How does one justify the answers to the first two questions?

If we are left to govern ourselves by general revelation, then civil laws must be ultimately a matter of opinion, yet laws by their very nature are to reflect what ought to be. Moreover, apart from Scripture inductive inference cannot be justified. Therefore, apart from Scripture it would be baseless to infer that all persons are endowed by nature with the same moral code. Accordingly, it would be tyrannical to impose unjustifiable codes of conduct, let alone sanctions for violations of those codes, upon others who do not claim to share those same codes.

My answer:

1) Which sins should civil magistrates punish?
The sins that God gives them the authority to punish.

2) What should those punishments be?
Generally based on the rule of restitution. The Law gives case law to indicate that you replace that which you take in the offense.

3) How does one justify the answers to the first two questions?
The Bible.

OK, I answered the questions so here’s my “beef”.

I don’t have a problem discussing the general principle that the laws of the magistrate ought to reflect God’s Law. I think, theoretically, if a country wants to punish blasphemy with the death penalty that it is not unjust for them to do so. To be unjust, intrinsically, would point to some sort of justice that is extra-Scriptural and the idea is not extra-Scriptural that blasphemy could be punished by death. Even leaving aside the issue of whether the magistrate should do so, it seems to me at least, to be pointless to argue whether the Magistrate would be making an unjust law if it decided to enforce that idea.

Now, here is where I start to get off the bus because, while I agree with that basic principle, I don’t see the Church’s chief aim as being activism to ensure that the Magistrate is introducing those laws.

The problem I have with those of a theonomic bent (though I don’t have a huge problem with them) is that they seem to devote more time worrying about transforming the Magistrate than the Apostles did. It is an argument from silence and I’m unlikely to win any debates to persuade a theonomist from his path but the general trend of NT doctrine is clear enough to me to believe that it is NOT the Church’s principle focus.

In other words, if all a theonomist wants me to agree to is the idea that a Magistrate would not be unjust for creating a law that punishes blasphemy by stoning a man to death then I am not going to spend a long time arguing that God is offended at the idea that a Magistrate would punish someone for blaspheming Him. It’s all very theoretical to me of course. BUT, if the same man wants me to join him in a crusade to tell the Pastor that he’s not preaching cultural transformation enough and that the Church needs to spend more time leading the charge to storm the State Legislature and lobby for the creation of those laws then I would tell him to pound sand.

The Church’s mission is the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and Church Discipline. Ironically, the most rebellious people I’ve met in the latter category are theonomists who would not submit to Church Discipline even as they wanted pagans to submit to God’s Law.

I believe, however, that as a citizen I have the right to exercise my time and talents to reform Civic institutions. I also believe that Magistrates will be judged for creating and enforcing laws in disobedience to the Law of God written on their consciences and will also be judged for failing to write laws that God has ordained. But that is their responsibility to create and enforce the proper laws and it is not the Church’s job to spend all it’s time, moving away from it’s primary mission, to pick up the slack where the Magistrate is failing. I believe they have a prophetic role to the State and that the State is further condemned for not listening but that does not make it the Church’s mission to do the State’s job.

  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous01-10-2007

    Nice article.

    I share much of your view. I am a bit more extreme in that I see it as a Christians duty to obey the powers that be, not to take it on our own shoulders to dictate to God what those powers should be.

    I think that Theonomy is nearly always in error, and is usually a result of some form of extreme postmillenialism. As you say the Apostles always seem to be quite happy to accept the laws as they were.

    We worship the false god of democracy these days, we are not even allowed to question the merits of a system that panders to the mob mentality of sinful man.

    Mike

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous05-19-2007

    Firstly, I want to state that this is a good blog. I also want to state that the ‘true’ theonomist isn’t solely concerned with the civil magistrate. It is concerned both with the personal and the general principle in Christian duty (personal=church discipline, and general=the civil magistrate). One ought to remember, as was the tradition of the Reformed heritage, that all life is devoted to the worship and sovereignty of God. That means that every area of life–e.g., preaching the gospel and transforming civic penal codes, law, etc.–Christ ought to be preeminence. Secondly, my basic reasoning for theonomy has also been a reflection of God’s moral character. After all, what truly is theonomy but that? In truth, all Christians at some point think theonomically: “I shouldn’t lie because it is wrong.” Even the person who uses common grace as a general rule for ethics–albeit fallaciously–he still acts like a theonomist. I know this probably was not the vein of thought you were going with, but I felt it necessary to state this.

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