Theology Thursday: What is Theonomy?

What is theonomy? Why does it keep coming up in Reformed debates?

The strictest definition of theonomy is “the application of God’s Law.” As Christians, we should all love God’s law and seek its application in our own lives and in our societies. To some degree, all Christians are and/or should be “theonomists.”

There are disagreements among a lot of very smart Christian people about how the laws of God should be applied in the 21st century, which laws are applicable, etc. There are extremes on both sides of these issues. “Theonomists” have been accused of everything from wanting to bring back stoning as punishment for adultery to excommunicating disobedient children. Those who teach that the Scripture forbids any use of music in worship other than acapella psalmnody may be an example of a type of theonomy that is considered “extreme.” That is the reason for much of the recurring debate among Reformed folk, both Baptist and Presbyterian. Both of these Reformed groups – the confessional ones at least – subscribe to what is commonly called “the Regulative Principle of Worship (hereafter RPW).” The Regulative Principle basically holds that God is the One who gets to decide how He is to be worshiped, not us. He has told us what is pleasing to Him, and anything beyond what He has commanded in His word is not to be used in corporate gatherings of Christians every Lord’s Day. In Reformed shorthand, “Whatever is not commanded is forbidden” describes the RPW. Yet even in churches which supposedly subscribe to the RPW, one can find elaborate expressions of extrabiblical worship, from liturgical dance and vocal “worship teams” that lead rock-and-roll worship, to elaborate Anglican/Eastern-Orthodox style liturgy, closely tied to the “church calendar” and featuring “high church” worship forms, images, candles, golden candlesticks, pomp and circumstance in advance of a lofty homily delivered by a robed orator in fancy vestments. More on that debate in a later edition of Theology Thursday. For this week, I just want to define the Law of God in terms of how it is generally defined and categorized among the Reformed:

Most folks in the Reformed community separate the Law into three categories:

The Moral Law of God is the Ten Commandments (summed up in the two greatest commandments; love the LORD supremely and your neighbor as yourself). The moral law is an elucidation of the demands of love. It is binding upon all men in all places and in all times.

The Ceremonial Law, which prefigured Christ in the Old Testament, is the “shadow” depicting the substance, which is Christ and His work. Christ did not abolish the ceremonial law! Rather He fulfilled the ceremonial law. His fulfillment is the reason that we don’t sacrifice bulls and goats and doves and lambs anymore. This law is not “obsolete,” but is still applicable in that it pictures for us what the work of Christ fully means to us. While the covenant people no longer circumcise their male children, observe the Passover and bring animal sacrifices to an earthly temple, we do, under the new covenant baptize believers, eat and drink at the Lord’s Table in remembrance of Christ, and offer sacrifices of praise wherever two or more are gathered in His name, and our bodies as living sacrifices for His service.

The Civil Judicial Laws of ancient Israel are also part of the Bible. God has preserved them as part of His eternal word which shall never perish though heaven and earth pass away. The old national kingdom of Israel no longer exists, however. So does that mean the civil laws of ancient Israel should not apply? No! Though not enforced by the civil magistrate in most countries, the civil laws of ancient Israel were dictated by God Himself and therefore indicate His will. We still apply these laws in terms of “general equity.” Here’s an example: Deuteronomy 22:8 is part of the building code of ancient Israel which requires a parapet around the rooftops of houses. What does that have to do with us? When this law was first given, rooftops were where people entertained. Their rooftops were the “living rooms” of the time (most had canopies on top). The law required a safety wall to prevent people from falling off the roof! Do we apply this part of the law today? Absolutely. Put a trigger lock on your firearms and lock them up when not in use. Fence in your swimming pool. Put up a side rail along stairways, etc. That is “general equity.”

By no means are we to dismiss any part of God’s word as “irrelevant,” “obsolete,” or “abrogated.” The law is fulfilled in Christ, but not abolished! It is valuable, applicable, and every bit as relevant for our time as it was to the people in the time and place it was first given. Because I believe that all of God’s law applies in some way to us today, I am a theonomist. But I do not believe in bringing back stoning. I don’t advocate exclusive acapella psalmnody (although I find its beauty and simplicity extremely refreshing and compelling).

Theonomy is a dirty word to some folks, because of the unfortunate examples and rigid, unkind writings of some of those on the extremes. But in fact, to at least some degree, anyone who delights in the law of God can be said to be a theonomist.