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Theonomy and Pauline Theology

  • Introduction
  • Paul's use of the Law
  • The Inherent Deficiency of Law
  • Bibliography
  • For Further Reading


  • Introduction back to top

    The term "theonomy," meaning "God's law," for the purposes of this article refers to a particular view of the normativity of God's law for today. Simply stated, theonomy holds to a principle that states that "unless Old Testament standards have been specifically altered by New Testament revelation, they abide without significant change" (Pratt 1990, 344). Therefore, theonomists believe that circumcision and the ceremonial law has been abrogated by the coming of Christ. However, the penal sanctions of the Mosaic law, according to theonomists, are still binding today. Other Reformed scholars generally believe that the New Testament provides the principles necessary to interpret the Old Testament law for today, even where there are no explicit statements. The penal sanctions of the Mosaic law, they say, must be applied within the church and adjusted for to account for situational changes which occurred at the coming of Christ.

    Since both these groups of scholars claim that the Scriptures, including the Pauline corpus, support their position, the purpose of this article is to examine Paul's understanding of the law in New Testament. This will be done by examining in what ways Paul considered the Old Testament law to have ended with Christ, to determine if they are consistent with the theononomic positions on the law how the law should be applied for today.


    Paul's Use of the Law back to top

    Greg Bahnsen, one of the most prominent theonomists, has claimed that Paul's negative pronouncements on the law are aimed at those who abuse the law by attempting "to utilize the works of the law as a basis for saving merit" (Bahnsen 1985, 183). Yet however true these statements are, there is another situational sense in which the law has ended which Bahnsen fails to account for. The law has also ended as a barrier between Jew and Gentile. In order to understand Paul's view of the law, it must be understood that: (1) Paul considered the law to be inherently deficient in that it could not impart life, and (2) the law was accommodated to the Old Testament Jew living in the land of Israel and must be adjusted in order to be properly applied to the church which consists of both Jews and Gentiles.


    The Inherent Deficiency of the Law back to top

    Galatians 3:23-25

    In these verses, the law is described as a paidagogos -- that is, a "disciplinarian." In New Testament times, a paidagogos was not a teacher, as in the modern pedagogue. His job was not to instruct the child or teach him, as a tutor or school master. Rather, he was a disciplinarian who would correct and discipline the child when he strayed from his duties. F.F. Bruce comments that "the paidagogos was the personal slave-attendant who accompanied the free-born boy wherever he went, from the time he left the nurses care. . . During the boy's minority the paidagogos imposed a necessary restraint on his liberty until, with his coming of age, he could be trusted to use his liberty responsibly" (Bruce 1982, 182).

    Thus, the law is pictured as that which held people in bondage, restricting their freedom, driving its subjects to yearn for Christ, who is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. The only way out of this prison that the law created was by faith in Christ.

    The law functioned in this way "until Christ". Verse 25 goes on to say that, now that faith has come, we are "no longer under a disciplinarian." Thus, the law has ceased to function as a paidagogos. Ridderbos states

    From the function which verse 23 and 24 assign to the law, it follows that after Christ's coming the law as tutor, that is as seen from the vantage point of the history of salvation, has lost its significance. In that sense it can be said elsewhere that Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). (Ridderbos 1953, 146)

    With the coming of Christ, we are no longer immature children, no different from slaves. We have become mature sons. And as sons, "God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts" (4:6). Therefore, this negative function of the law in the Old Testament has become obsolete, for we have the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Christ.


    2 Corinthians 3:1-11

    In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul states that God has "made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." The "letter" in these verses are identified with the specific demands of the law which required obedience. Gordon Fee states that the letter, thus defined, kills because

    (1) even though [the Law is] "Spiritual," it was not accompanied by the Spirit in the lives of those who received it, and (2) this good thing therefore led to death due to sin resident in human "flesh." In this sense, "the letter kills," because it can arouse sin but is powerless to overcome it (Fee 1994, 306).

    Thus, the law, even with all its glory, was deficient in that it lacked the Spirit. So much so that in verse 11, as opposed to the Spirit and the new covenant which remain in glory, the law fades away (katargeo). No longer is the law written on "tablets of stone." Rather, we now have the letter written "on tablets of human hearts" by "the Spirit of the living God" (v. 3).

    It appears that Paul saw the fulfillment of the prophesies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in this passage. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God states, Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. In Jeremiah 31:33, God also states, "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the Lord, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. In these two passages, it is prophesied that in the Messianic age, God would put His Spirit within His people and write His law on their hearts. God's Spirit would then empower and motivate the keeping of the law. This is the language Paul uses in 2 Corinthians. 3:3 (quoted above).

    Paul is considered the coming of Christ to be the fulfillment of these Messianic prophecies (Ridderbos 1975, 336; see also Bruce 1977, 199-200). Since the law has been written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the law can be "fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit " (Rom. 8:4). We have been set free from the law of sin and death by the law of the Spirit who indwells us and gives us life. The law could not impart life, but the Spirit does impart life. As Christians walk according to the Spirit, the law is fulfilled in them (Ridderbos 1975, 280; Murray 1960, 283-284). The Situational Aspect of the Law (Ephesians 2:14-16) In Ephesians 2:15, Paul claims that Christ has unified Jew and Gentile by "abolishing [katargeo] in His flesh the enmity, which is the law of commandments contained in ordinances." Yet in Romans 3:31, Paul says, "Do we then abolish [katargeo] the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the law." Thus, in order to prevent Paul from contradicting himself, it must be maintained that in some sense the law has ended with the coming of Christ, and in another sense has been established by Christ. The purpose of abolishing the law as stated in Ephesians 2: 14-16 was to unify Jew and Gentile into one people of God (vv. 15b-16). Therefore, in this passage, the sense in which the law has been abrogated appears to be as a result of the situational changes marked by the coming of Christ. There was cultural baggage in the law that had to be abolished if Jew and Gentile were to be reconciled into one body through the cross (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23; Gal. 2:14; 6:12; Col. 2:16; 3:11).

    Herman Ridderbos comments, "The law of Moses in its particularistic significance as making a division between Jews and Gentiles is no longer in force. . . Herein is the important viewpoint that with Christ's advent the law, also as far as its content is concerned, has been brought under a new norm of judgment and that failure to appreciate this situation is a denial of Christ" (Ridderbos 1975, 284). John Murray also says, "he abolished the Mosaic law by fulfilling all its types and shadows. He was the end of the law. . . therefore, it ceased to bind the people of God" (Hodge 1980, 130). It has been popular to divide the Mosaic law in to three divisions: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the judicial law (See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 19). These divisions are not delineated for us in Scripture, and thus they are somewhat artificial. However, these divisions are useful in understanding the law.

    Both theonomists and other reformed scholars believe that the moral law continues into the present age and the ceremonial law has been abrogated by the coming of Christ, since He has fulfilled those aspects of the law in His priestly ministry. The point of discussion is over how the judicial law should be applied to the present age. It is important to realize that the Mosaic law "was accommodated to the people of God in their particular redemptive-historical setting" (Pratt 1990, 345). The Jews lived in the land of Israel and many of the penal sanctions (as well as the moral and ceremonial laws) were contextualized to that situation. For instance, "Prohibitions against stealing in the Old Testament included respect for a fellow Israelite's permanent land inheritance (1 Kings 21:1-19)" (Pratt 1990, 345). However, the Christian has no inheritance in the land of Israel. Our inheritance is the New Heavens and New Earth (Hebrews 4:8-11). The coming of Christ and the consequent disenfranchisement of the Kingdom of God so affected history that the proper application of the Mosaic law within the church must account for these situational changes.

    John Frame has noted that the New Testament church "fulfills the Old Testament theocracy" (Barker 1990, 95). In applying the Old Testament laws to the church, Paul did not apply them exactly as they were applied in the Old Testament. For instance, In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul addresses a situation where a man is living with his father's wife. According to Old Testament law, the man and the woman should receive capital punishment (Leviticus 20:10). However, this was not recommended by Paul. Rather, the proper punishment of this crime for Paul is excommunication (vv. 2, 13). Furthermore, Paul's statement in verse 13 is a quotation of a formula found in Mosaic penal sanctions (Deut. 17:7, 12; 12:19; 19:21, 21:21; 22:21, 24: 24:7).

    Dennis Johnson has noted that "in the Deuteronomy contexts this formula, whenever it appears, refers to the execution of those deeds 'worthy of death': idolatry, contempt for judges, false witness, persistent rebellion towards parents, adultery, and kidnapping" (Barker 1990, 181). These crimes were to be punished by purging the offender from the covenant community through his execution. Johnson continues, "Paul applies the same terminology to the new covenant community's judging/purging act of excommunication-- a judgment that is both more severe (since it is 'handing this man over to Satan,' an anticipation of the final judgment), and more gracious (since it envisions a saving outcome to the temporal exercise of church discipline, which may bring about repentance that will lead to rescue from eternal judgment)" (Barker 1990, 181-182). Therefore, it may be safely said that the proper application of those capital offenses of the Mosaic law are properly applied in the church today as excommunication. 3. Conclusion In 1 Timothy 1:8 Paul claims that "we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully." Theonomists take this to mean that the law should be applied largely as it was in the Old Testament, without using it as a means of salvation and taking into account the explicit statements in the New Testament where certain laws have been abrogated. However, it appears that Paul's statements concerning the end of the law are somewhat more inclusive than this. The law, in its ministry of condemnation (2 Cor. 3:9), has been abolished and has replaced with the "ministry of righteousness" by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:9-11). The law has been written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As we walk in the Spirit, we fulfill the law. This does not mean that the Mosaic law no longer applies to the Christian as a rule of life. Rather, it means that the law can no longer condemn us (Rom. 8:1) because Christ has satisfied the demands of the law in His life and paid for our sins on the cross, and He has sent us the Holy Spirit, by whom we are empowered to fulfill the law (Rom 8:2-4).

    Furthermore, Theonomy fails to take into account the situational changes brought about by the coming of Christ in the application of the Mosaic law to the church. The Mosaic law was accommodated to the Israelites living in the theocracy of Israel. The church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament theocracy. Yet as a result of the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God has been disenfranchised to include both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14-16). This situational change in the Kingdom of God necessitates a change in the way the law is applied to lives of believers.


    Bibliography back to top

    • Bahnsen, Greg, L. 1985. By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics.
    • Barker, William S. and W. Robert Godfrey. 1990. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
    • Bruce, F. F. 1977. Paul: An Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
    • ________. 1982. Commentary on Galatians. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
    • Fee, Gordon D. 1994. God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
    • Hodge, Charles. 1980. Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
    • Murray, John. 1960. The Epistle to the Romans. Part 1, The First Eight Chapters. London: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
    • Pratt, Richard. 1990. He Gave Us Stories: The Bible Student's Guide to Interpreting Old Testament Narratives. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt.
    • Ridderbos, Herman. 1953. St. Paul's Epistle to the Churches in Galatia. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Translated by Henry Zilstra. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
    • ________. 1975. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.
    • The Westminster Confession of Faith, a.d. 1647. 1991. Norcross, GA: Great Commission Publications.


    For Further Reading back to top

    Reformed Critiques of Theonomy

    • Barker, William S. and W. Robert Godfrey. Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.
    • Gordon, T. David. "Critique of Theonomy: A Taxonomy." Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994): 23-43.
    • Kline, Meredith G. "Comments on an Old-New Error: A Review of Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics." Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1978-79): 172-89.
    • Oss, Douglas A. "The Influence of Hermeneutical Frameworks in the Theonomy Debate." Westminster Theological Journal 51 (1989): 227-58.
    • Poythress, Vern. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Nashville, NT: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991. See especially the Appendices, "Evaluating Theonomy" (pp. 311-61) and "Does the Greek Word Pleroo Sometimes mean 'Confirm'?" (pp. 363-77).

    Reformed Works on the Law and Pauline Theology

    • Fee, Gordon D. God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
    • Kline, Meredith. The Structure of Biblical Authority. Grand Rapds: Eerdmans, 1972.
    • ________. "Gospel Until the Law: Romans 5:13-14 and the Old Covenant." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34 (1991): 433-446.
    • Ridderbos, Herman. Paul: An Outline of His Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.

    Works by Theonomists

    • Bahnsen, Greg, L. By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics 1985.
    • ________. Theonomy in Christian Ethics: Expanded Edition with Replies to Critics. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Rerformed, 1984.
    • North, Gary. Westminster's Confession. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991.
    • Rushdoony, R. J. The Institutes of Biblical Law. Nutley, NJ: Craig, 1973.