Q&A: Are All Reformed Christians Theonomists?

Are All Reformed Christians Theonomists?

Question

Aren't all Reformed Christians theonomists to one extent or another? To what extent are the moral and civil aspects of the Mosaic law still applicable today? Is it legitimate to claim, as modern advocates of theonomy do, that many of the divines at the Westminster Assembly were in fact theonomists?

Answer

No, not all Reformed Christians are theonomists, not even to a small extent. Some are, but some definitely are not. Of course, one difficulty in answering this question is that no single definition or understanding of theonomy exists. Rather, theonomy is variously defined by various people. Some theonomists contend that there are only two options: theonomy and autonomy -- either one accepts God's law, or one rejects it and establishes himself in God's place. It is this argument that most often leads people to say that all Reformed Christians are theonomists to some degree because all Reformed Christians respect the authority of God's law. By this move, theonomists often try to win the argument simply by a linguistic ploy: they define themselves as the only alternative to a rejection of God's authority. In reality, however, theonomy is not the only option.

Theonomy is not just the acceptance of the authority of God's law. If that were the definition of "theonomy," then no one ever would have coined the term, and there would be no disagreement over the issue. But in fact, theonomy represents a distinct perspective within the Reformed community that is different from the majority view. If this were not the case, we would not see the battles waged over it that we see today. Personally, I do not think that all the charges against theonomists are legitimate, just as I do not think that the theonomists' charges against others are legitimate.

It has been typical in the Reformed tradition to speak of some portions of the law as being now abrogated, such as the "ceremonial law" and the "civil law" (WCF 19.3-4). The idea has been that certain aspects of those laws pertained to Israel's unique theocracy and more primitive religious state, while other aspects (the "moral" aspects) reflected God's eternal character. The civil and ceremonial aspects are thought to have been abrogated since they did not reflect God's eternal character. It is also thought that God no longer enforces those apsects. Often this portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith is used by Reformed opponents of theonomy to reject theonomy out of hand, as if it obviously denied this portion of the Confession. But theonomists by and large affirm this portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith, just as non-theonomists do.

The theonomists are not completely unified in their own understanding of theonomy, but in my observation there is a unifying theme in most of their thinking. It seems to me that theonomy is an emphasis or tendency to apply the Law in ways that are more similar to the original applications of the Law than the applications made by non-theonomists. That is, theonomy regularly expresses the tendency to apply the Law in ways that are more rigidly defined by the actual examples and statements in Scripture. At first, this might seem like a positive definition of theonomy, as if they were truer to Scripture than the non-theonomists are. I would suggest, however, that the opposite is true.

Consider, for example, that there are at least three basic ways to approach the law: facile imitation; rejection; and modified application. In the case of facile immitation, one does whatever the commandment says. If it says to build a fence on your roof, you build a fence on your roof without asking questions. Theonomists are often accused of holding such a caricatured view of the Law, but they don't really hold such an extreme view.

In the case of rejection, one denies the authority or applicability of the Law. For example, Dispensationalists commonly deny the applicability and authority of any Old Testament command that is not reiterated in the New Testament. Theonomists sometimes accuse non-theonomic Reformed theologians of rejecting the ceremonial and civil law, though as I have already stated this is a false characterization. Non-theonomists affirm the continuing binding authority of the moral aspects of all Old Testament laws.

In the case of modified application, one considers such things as: the original intent of the various laws; the aspects of God's character which they reflect; the changes that have taken place since the giving of the law that might affect its application (e.g. redemptive-historical changes, cultural changes, personal differences between modern Christians and ancient Israelites, political changes, etc.); Old Testament and New Testament commentary and insight into the stipulations; etc. After considering all such factors, one applies the lasting aspects of the law (i.e. those which reflect God's character) in a way that seems appropriate in light of all the changes that have taken place since the giving of the Law. For example, one applies the law regarding theft somewhat differently since it is no longer considered theft to buy a piece of real estate and not return it during the year of jubilee. Similarly, one does not offer animal sacrifices prefiguring Christ's atonement because now Christ has come.

The traditional Reformed perspective on the Law has been modified application, and both theonomists and non-theonomists think they fall into this camp. The difference between them, in my opinion, is that the theonomists tend to make fewer modifications, they tend toward facile immitation even though they do not hold that position in total. If we can imagine a continuum of views ranging from modifying everything (which almost looks like rejection) to modifying nothing (which looks pretty much like facile immitation), theonomists are closer to the end of the spectrum that modifies nothing than are non-theonomists. Probably, theonomists will respond that they are right in the middle and that non-theonomists are too close to rejection. In my opinion, it is the non-theonomists who are in the middle.

Regardless of who is in the middle, though, it is clear that there is a distinction between the two groups (they fight with one another enough to prove that). In this view, clearly not all Reformed Christians are theonomists. One does not earn the label "theonomist" simply by believing that the law is still applicable in some ways. Rather, one earns that title by distinguishing oneself from the greater mass of Reformed Christiany in some way.

As to the question of whether or not some of the Westminster Divines were theonomists, it really is an anachronistic discussion. Theonomy is a new movement that was not an issue then. Strictly speaking, none of them were "theonomists." Allowing the anachronistic use of the term for the sake of discussion, it is hard to say how the Divines would have lined up had someone presented the case to them. Still, it seems to me that the Divines spoke rather strongly about the abrogation of certain portions of the law (i.e. about modified application) and rather weakly about the continuing validity of the moral aspects of the ceremonial and civil law (i.e. they spoke vaguely and without emphasis about "general equity"). In my mind, this suggests that they placed heavier emphasis on modification than on imitation. Probably they even tended toward rejection by insisting on the abrogation of the non-moral aspects of the Law (as if the non-moral aspects of the Law could not have reflected God's character). Moreover, some of the actual applications of the law listed especially in the Larger Catechism are quite extensive, exceeding the expectations of many as to what the various laws actually prescribed and proscribed. This indicates, perhaps, a great willingness to modify the observance of the Law to apply it to a great many circumstances that might not originally have been stated explicitly or exemplified in the caselaw. Again, this would seem to me to be evidence that the Divines were not theonomists -- they tended toward broader application than facile imitation would suggest.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.