A Masterpiece of Theology, Philosophy, and Biblical Scholarship
First let me say this: This book reads like a thesis (and as it started out as a thesis for a Master of Theology degree, that makes sense).
But what a Biblically substantiated, exegetically sound, and theologically insightful thesis it is - by a truly gifted theologian, teacher, and communicator!
It is so very rare that one comes across a book in which after finishing it he can say, "This book has truly altered the course of my life." If there is any one book - obviously apart from the Bible itself - of which this can be said by me, it is Greg Bahnsen's Theonomy in Christian Ethics.
The theonomic principle as stated by Bahnsen is simply this:
By "theonomy" I will mean that verbalized law of God which is imposed from outside man and revealed authoritatively in the words of Scripture" (p. 35).
Theonomy is God's Law - over against man's self-law - applied in all areas of life, both in the church and in society.
While throughout the history of the church it was taken on assumption that the Old Testament had abiding validity unless something in the New Testament was revealed to have cancelled or changed it in some way, in today's evangelical world just the opposite view seems to be the one most widely held: that unless a commandment is repeated in the New Testament, we should assume it no longer has abiding validity (a view with many more problems than one might think).
And so Bahnsen lays out cogently, articulately, and (most importantly) Biblically in 563 pages his thesis that the Old Testament Law is just as much applicable today as it was in the days before Christ, even in the area of the civil magistrate.
Bahnsen's main passage of exegesis is with Matthew 5:17-20 where he demonstrates very impressive historical research and exegetical skill in showing that in a more accurate translation of the text into English, Jesus said: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to establish [or confirm] them" (v17) - rather than the traditional translation of "fulfill them."
We're talking 50 pages of exegesis on one passage of Scripture. So if any criticism can be made about this part of the work it's not that Bahnsen wasn't thorough in his research and analysis. As a matter of fact, it is this particular exegesis that Bahsnen sees as his main theological contribution to the topic of theonomy; for he is certainly not the first to hold a theonomic position. Even so, his argument is probably one of the most articulate and compelling.
Even apart from this translation though he shows that the entire law according to Jesus has abiding validity. Not just the moral law; not just the judicial law; but the entire law! And what a work of theological scholarship in demonstrating this!
Throughout the book there are an abundant amount of examples Bahnsen gives - too many to cite in a review. But suffice it to say that the people of the New Testament clearly understood that there was an abiding validity of the Old Testament - even if some forms of it had been changed or further clarified.
As the book progresses, after Bahnsen firmly establishes Christ's own view of the law and its abiding validity, he then turns his attention to one of the most widely held misconceptions of theonomy:
(1) Misconception One: Theonomy is a form of legalism.
Of course as soon as Bahnsen says that the New Testament speaks of the Law of God as having abiding validity even in the New Testement era, it will surely call for a resounding rebuttal of "we are not under law but under grace."
And it is very true that we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). That is surely the case as it pertains to our justification, position in Christ and our ability to keep the law.
But as one continues reading this very passage he finds that it is just because Christ offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, died as our substitution, and rose again for our justification that we are no longer enslaved to our own sinful nature but are free and empowered to keep the law of God. "For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification" (Rom. 6:19).
Just as Paul says "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (Rom. 3:28) in seemingly the very same breath he says "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31).
As Bahnsen demonstrates, the law is not sin, and the opposite of the law is not grace. Where law and grace are contrasted is in our ability to keep the law. The law can tell us what God's moral requirements are - but it cannot in the slightest help us meet those requirements. But grace - grace in Christ meeting those requirements once for all on our behalf, and grace in the Spirit by transforming us and meeting those requirements in us in our daily sanctification - grace gives us the power, the ability to keep the law (though because of our remaining sinful nature we will not keep it perfectly this side of glory).
So as a power for enabling believers to keep God's moral standards, grace can be, and should be, pitted against law (Rom. 7:1-8:39). But regarding moral standards themselves, regarding "law" - law's opposite is not grace, but sin, i.e. "lawlessness" (1 Jn. 3:4).
Theonomy understands this distinction and all the more to a better understanding of the gospel and conversely the gospel's distortion in true legalism. In fact it's precisely because theonomic doctrine holds such a high view of God's law that it is all the more drastically against Pharisaical legalism. If one ever endeavors to keep God's law (not one's own law, but God's true law) on his own terms, in his own strength, he will ultimately come to terms as Paul did, that he cannot do it (Rom. 7:18-19) - that he has to be delivered by Christ and enabled by Him to live a life that is pleasing to Him (Rom. 7:22-8:11).
So it turns out that theonomy is anything but legalistic. The higher regard a system of doctrine has for God's law, the quicker and more severely it will drive the sinner to repentance and to the grace of Christ for salvation and sanctification. So as theonomy by its mere nature holds such a high view of God's law, it theologically leads always to the freeing, wonderful gospel - over against self-made legalism.
And so answering that misconception, Bahnsen then takes the next two sections of his book to show the internal integrity of God's law as well as Christ's obedience to the Law - that very particular qualification which secures the believers' atonement. He demonstrates the fact that the Spirit now directs the believer's life by turning his heart to follow God's law. And finally, he shows at what point the New Testament does change a certain aspect of the Old Testament law - and that aspect only - which culminates in his chapter showing that God's law in itself is never opposed to or pitted against but always held in conjunction with grace, faith, and love.
And so what has changed from Old Testament to New Testament in regards to the Law? Bahnsen shows that in every instance it is clear that the one aspect of the law that has a new form is the ceremonial, or restorative law of God. In a sense even the restorative validity is still abiding. God still demands sanctification from the world and penal substitutional sacrifice for sins. But the New Testament is so absolutely clear that there has been a significant change in its form. In Galatians and Colossians the ceremonial (or restorative) laws are referred to as elementary principles: "You observe days and months and seasons and years!" (Gal. 4:10); "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath " (Col. 2:16). Paul says "these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col. 2:17).
Similarly the author of Hebrews speaking specifically of the ceremonial/restorative worship rites in the temple said: "They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. ... But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises" (Heb. 8:5, 6).
And what is this better covenant? It's the perpetual forgiveness of sins because of the finality of Christ's sacrifice; and the ability for believers now - in the power of the Spirit - to be able to keep God's law. "For this is the covenant that I will make...I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts....and I will remember their sins no more" (Heb. 8:10, 12).
Certainly a review cannot summarize all that was said in this 563 page work. But the premise is that it is the ceremonial (or restorative) law only that has changed in its form - as it was promised even before the Babylonian captivity (Jer. 31). And that the covenant community of the New Testament clearly saw the rest of the law as having the same form with abiding validity (Eph. 6:1-3; Mk. 7:10-11, 10:19; 1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 3:8-12).
And so now for the most controversial part of theonomy, Bahnsen then turns his attention to how God's law applies to the state.
He shows that God has charged the civil magistrate with upholding His justice (this can be seen even in the New Testament - Rom. 13:1-7). But how does the civil magistrate know the socio-political demands of God's justice? Well they've been clearly revealed in the Scriptures - in the abiding validity of the Older Testament cannon.
Therefore, it is the duty of the magistrate to rule according to Christ's will (Ps. 2:1-12). Does that mean there are certain crimes today that according to our society need not be punished at all, but according to God's own Word are so heinous that they're deserving of capital punishment (because not only are they sins against God - a matter for the church to deal with; but they are also crimes against the justice and righteousness of a nation - a matter for the state to deal with)? It surely does. And so it is here that the other most widely held misconception of theonomy arises:
(2) Misconception Two: Theonomy fails to see a distinction between (or separation of) church and state.
Nevermind the fact that Bahnsen has an entire chapter in his section, "Application of [Theonomy] to the State" arguing for the Biblical standard for the title of the chapter: "Separation of Church and State." For some reason it is still thought by many that theonomy fails to see a distinction between the two (see. Wayne Grudem, "Politics According to the Bible," 66). But this is completely false.
As one reads throughout Bahnsen's work and especially in his chapter on the separation of church and state, it becomes clear that it's precisely because the theonomic principle is rooted in Scripture as the only infallible Word on anything about which it speaks that one can legitimately defend a Biblical reason for the separation of church and state.
What one finds in Bahnsen's work is that theonomic doctrine has a very positive (and Biblically defensible) position guarding both a clear distinction in character as well as a clear separation of power between church and state - more so than any other pluralistic system of politics can ever hope to defend. But what differentiates theonomic doctrine is that rather than coming to the text first with a preconceived notion that "separation of church and state is supreme" and therefore supersedes what we might find in Scripture, theonomy as a system holds a very strong conviction of the separation of church and state because of the fact that it derives this viewpoint from Scripture itself. And that is why the theonomic conviction of separation of church and state is so strong.
Yet, as Bahnsen lays the theonomic doctrine out, this does not mean that the church is bound to Christ and the state is bound to some other authority (or even no authority at all). They each have their own boundaries and duties, but they both are accountable to Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Ps 2:1-12). As Paul says in Romans "Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, `Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,'" he then goes right along to say how God does carry out that vengeance and wrath. And it's through the civil magistrate: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God...For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer." (Rom. 12:19, 13:1, 4).
So in theonomic doctrine the church does not have the right to wield the sword, but the state does - and that right has been given to it by God. Similarly the state does not have the authority to administer the sacraments, but the church does. But both church and state, while acting in different roles and having separate responsibilities - both are held accountable to the same authority - Christ who has said with finality: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Mt. 28:18, cf. Ps. 2:1-12). He is not just Head of the Church, but King of kings and Lord of lords. And while He rules in the lives of believers by means of writing His laws in their hearts, He still rules the nations by means of giving the magistrate the sword as the avenging agent in carrying out His wrath against the societal wrongdoer.
So if the civil magistrate - even in the New Testament - is charged with being God's agent for civil order, carrying out God's wrath against the wrongdoer and promoting righteousness in the society; if this is the case, how is the civil magistrate to know what measure of the sword to use in avenging the wrongdoer? What standard is the magistrate to use in determining what is a just retribution in judging and what is a righteous law in governing a society? Well, the answer is that God has already clearly revealed his righteous laws and just retributions - they're in the Old Testament cannon:
"And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?" (Deut. 4:8). This very law in which, "Every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution" (Heb. 2:2)
There is so much more to this thesis in showing Biblically how this works out and answering all the anticipated objections that such a superficial review cannot do it justice. But let me simply be clear that Bahnsen, from Scripture, does answer those objections. A review is just not the place to do it.
And allow me to be completely honest. It is not easy to reach this conclusion on an emotional or psychological level. Our culture has simply gotten the best of us when it comes to this arena. But in reading this work, in studying the Scriptures to see if these things are so, it is very, very difficult to argue with such compelling arguments that Bahnsen presents in this work.
But now allow me to be even clearer so as not to give more misrepresentation to the theonomic outlook. Theonomic doctrine is not concerned with getting Christians into the civil magistrate and then by way of misguided tyranny forcing "Christian Law" on all of society. That is not the way. Just as in the Old Testament a very strong case can be made for separation of church and state - so also can a democratic form of government (remember David was not only appointed by God to be king, but he was also given consent from the governed to be their King - 2 Sam. 2:7, 5:1-3).
In reality, Theonomy is nothing more than a clear mission of the church to obey the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that [Christ] has commanded [us]" (Matt. 28:19-20). The "all" is inclusive of the entirety of the Old Testament, which Christ taught his disciples to observe - including the societal laws and penal sanctions as far as we can. Those are the disciples that we as the church are commanded to make: disciples who will observe all of God's commandments - not through their own power, but the through the justifying and sanctifying power of Christ and the Holy Spirit - but all of God's commandments nonetheless. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (Jn. 14:15). This very statement is a very powerful promise of what Christ in a believer can do as well as a mark of a true disciple, which He Himself has regenerated unto life.
Theonomy is not a militant doctrine. At the end of the day it is revival that is at the heart of theonomy. Just as Jesus promised to be with His church until the very end (Mt. 28:20), and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Mt. 16:18) - so the mission is to make disciples (not by way of sword but by way of evangelism) of all nations who will love Christ and observe all that He commands. It is in God working in us to accomplish this mission that we will have just societies who will willingly place in their leadership just leaders who will rule according to God's just laws.
If the thesis is correct, if continuity should be assumed and if making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded is the mission of the church, then how can massive revival in the nations with the aim of Biblical Law for the society not be the conclusion?
I wish every Christian pastor and educated layman would put forth the time into reading this work (as tough as it might be) and applying its principles to his life. For what more is theonomic doctrine than theology applied - to all areas of life? As for my assessment, I submit it is just that!