OK, call me a glutton for punishment. Not only is this a really quite large topic, but when all the relevant auxiliary concerns are addressed, we are talking about a book-length discussion. And I want to pull it off in a few short articles? So call me crazy already.
But I have had a number of people asking me to do something on this, so I now rather reluctantly agree. Not because I am unfamiliar with the issues, or think these are not very important themes, but because it really involves so much discussion and careful consideration. My great fear is that I can easily do it all a great injustice in such abbreviated writings.
But let me nonetheless take an initial stab at it all. This piece will basically introduce what theonomy is all about, while subsequent pieces will look at some of the pros and cons of the movement. Here then is a bit of description and background to theonomy.
The movement has various names: Theonomy, Christian Reconstructionism, Dominion Theology, and so on. All the names refer to a group of Protestants who in the past half century or so argued that the civil law given to Israel in the Old Testament is still applicable to all nations today.
The word ‘theonomy’ simply means God’s law, and these folk claim that just as Israel was to submit fully to God’s law in the past, so too should even secular nations today. (Even here, distinctions, clarifications, and critiques can be offered on this, but these will have to wait until further articles.)
The leading figures in this movement include the following men:
Greg Bahnsen (1948-1995)
David Chilton (1951–1997)
Gary DeMar ()
Gary North (1942-)
Rousas J. Rushdoony (1916-2001)
Some of their more important works include:
Bahnsen, Greg, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today. Institute for Christian Economics, 1985.
Bahnsen, Greg, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
Bahnsen, Greg, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd ed. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977, 1984, 2002.
Chilton, David, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion. Dominion Press, 1985.
DeMar, Gary, ed., The Debate over Christian Reconstruction. Dominion Press, 1988.
DeMar, Gary, God and Government. 3 vols. American Vision, 1982-1986.
DeMar, Gary and Gary North, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
DeMar, Gary and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity. Dominion Press, 1988.
Gentry, Kenneth, God’s Law in the Modern World. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993.
Jordan, James, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23. Institute for Christian Economics, 1984.
North, Gary, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus. Institute for Christian Economics, 1990.
North, Gary, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response. Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., God’s Plan for Victory. Thoburn Press, 1977.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., The Institutes of Biblical Law. The Craig Press, 1973.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., Law and Liberty. Ross House Books, 1984.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., Law and Society (Vol 2 of The Institutes of Biblical Law). Ross House Books, 1982.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., The Nature of the American System. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., The Politics of Guilt and Pity. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Rushdoony, Rousas J., This Independent Republic: Studies in the Nature and Meaning of American History. Thoburn Press, 1978.
Thoburn, Robert L., The Christian and Politics. Thoburn Press, 1984.
Various authors, Biblical Blueprints Series, 10 vols. Dominion Press, 1986-1988.
While the movement primarily emerged from Presbyterian circles, its influence has extended much wider, with even some charismatic groups eager to embrace theonomy. As can be seen from the brief bibliography above, the heyday of this movement was in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of its guiding lights have now passed on.
But it still lives on as a quite influential as well as divisive movement. It raises plenty of questions: theological, exegetical, historical, political, social and legal. Indeed, for all ink spilled by its main defenders, the system may still raise as many questions as it answers.
For example: What continues between the Testaments and what discontinues? How much Old Testament law carries over to today? Is the church the same as ancient Israel? What is the relationship between law and grace? Are Gentiles under the law? How does democracy fit into a Christian theocracy? Who decides how these ancient laws apply to very modern and differing circumstances? What about eschatology and the millennium? These are just some of the many crucial questions that must be addressed.
And one must bear in mind that there is a fair amount of differences of opinion within the movement itself. There is not one monolithic voice which speaks for theonomy, but a range of diverse and sometimes conflicting voices. Thus one must be careful as one seeks to explain and delineate just what the theonomists are saying.
Not only has there been division within the movement itself, but it has occasioned much controversy and excited response. Some have called it a Christian heresy, while others, somewhat more sympathetic, see both strengths and weakness in it. For what it is worth, I probably belong to this latter camp.
Some of the works assessing and critiquing the movement include the following:
Barker, William and Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Zondervan, 1990.
Barron, Bruce, Heaven on Earth? The Social and Political Agenda of Dominion Theology. Zondervan, 1992.
House, H.Wayne and Thomas Ice., Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? An Analysis of Christian Reconstructionism. Multnomah, 1988.
Clapp, Rodney, “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today, 31:3, February 20 1987, pp. 17-23.
Kline, Meredith, “Comments on an Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal, 41:1, Fall 1978, pp. 172-189.
Feinberg, John, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. Crossway Books, 1988.
Kaiser, Walter, et. al., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views. Zondervan, 1993.
Smith, Gary Scott, ed., God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1989.
Strickland, Wayne, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel. Zondervan, 1994.
The concerned reader is advised to read further from all these sources. Obviously reading proponents such as Rushdoony, North and Bahnsen is vital, but so too is looking at some of the other critiques. The movement remains a hotly debated subset on modern American Protestant Christianity, and its influence will not soon disappear.
This article has been very easy indeed to write. What will be much more difficult will be future articles in which I seek to more carefully and comprehensively explain the various theonomist viewpoints, and then in even later articles, seek to weigh up some of the helpful bits and not so helpful bits of this significant movement. So stay tuned.