We are not theonomists
According to Greg Bahnsen, “Christians who advocate what has come to be called the ‘theonomic’ (or reconstructionist) viewpoint 1 reject the social forces of secularism that too often shape our culture’s conception of a good society. The Christian’s political standards and agenda must not be set by unregenerate pundits who wish to quarantine religious values (and thus the influence of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Scripture) from the decision-making process of those who set public policy. Theonomists equally repudiate the sacred/secular dichotomy of life that is the effect of certain extra-scriptural, systematic conceptions of biblical authority that have recently infected the Reformed community — conceptions implying that present-day moral standards for our political order may not be taken from what the written word of God says directly about society and civil government.”2 He goes on to explain that “theonomists are committed to the transformation or reconstruction of every area of life, including the institutions and affairs of the socio-political realm, in accordance with the holy principles of God’s revealed Word (theonomy). It is toward this end that the human community must strive if it hopes to enjoy true justice and peace.”3
Bahnsen clarifies that although he himself holds to historic postmillennialism, that “there are premillennialists and amillennialists who are just as theonomic as some postmillennialists; likewise, there are some postmillennialists who are not theonomic.”4 Bahnsen affirms that “Christians should use the lawful means that are available in any particular society to work toward reconstruction of the legal, judicial, and political framework of that society. Christian legislators, judges, magistrates, and aides ought to work for progressive amendment of the statutes and legal proceedings of the state, bringing them more and more into harmony with the principles of God’s law for political authorities. Complementary and necessary to such reform is every believer’s moral obligation to make use of his political voice and vote to support those candidates and measures that best conform to the rule of God’s law. In all of this, it should be manifest that peaceful means for political change should be utilized by those committed to the law of God and its modern application — not anything like ‘holy war,’ revolutionary violence, or ‘the abolition of democracy’.”5 He does add that “this restriction to peaceful means of (positive) political transformation or reform does not, as such, address the issue of (negative) self-defense against the illegal assaults of state officials (for example, in a Christian school) or against a murderous political regime which is beyond judicial correction (for example, in Hitler’s Germany or Idi Amin’s Uganda).”6
Bahnsen argues that “Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God’s transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes”… and that “civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as servants of God, as agents of divine wrath against criminals, and as those who must give account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and Judge.”7
There are, of course, many other variations of theonomy. Some are very revolutionary, and there are many different definitions of “God’s law.” The main common ingredient, however, is an emphasis on the necessity of bringing political institutions under the authority of God’s law. Another term that is often employed for this type of thinking is “dominion theology.”
The ideology of the Pilgrims/New England Puritans was essentially this: to establish a utopian society, governed by the principles of the Word of God. Their ideas were unmistakably theonomic. [There is a slight problem with this idealism… it is called the total depravity of man. History attests to their inability to accomplish this unrealistic goal. Unregenerate society cannot possibly live by the Biblical standards of the regenerate Body of Christ, the Church (1 Cor. 2:14).] Many of these historic Americans also saw the United States as a specially chosen nation, a kind of American Israel, destined to become the political and spiritual model for the entire world.
These people also saw the United States as the geographic center of the earth. These views could be described as a kind of “American Zionism”. There is a strong movement in American evangelical Christianity that desires to “restore” the United States to such a spotlight. [There is a BIG difference between attempting to establish an “American Christian Republic” and being salt and light in the world. The former idea is theonomic, while the latter is Biblical.] All American Christians desire revival for the United States… but each must pay close attention to the ultimate goal of the revival that they are supporting, or they may be unknowingly swept away into a theonomic frenzie. It is imperative to continually ask the following question: “Is what I am involved in Biblical?” The early Americans also saw it as God-ordained to take up arms in rebellion against their government, in order to protect their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Paul does not teach that we have a natural right to civil liberty (Eph. 6:5-9; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10; Col. 3:22). Peter affirms this as well (1 Peter 2:18). Whenever there is a group that emphasizes a return to the ideals of the Colonial Period of America, there is very likely a theonomic agenda blended in with it.
It is the opinion of this author that Jesus never attempted to bring the political institution of His day under the authority of God’s law. He never once became entangled in any kind of political activism. He was not willing to take sides with the ultra-nationalistic desires of the Pharisees to remove themselves from the yoke of Roman rule… nor did He rally behind the “status quo” political agenda of the Herodians. He simply said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matthew 22:15-22). The Apostle Paul followed in the footsteps of his Lord. His goal was the salvation of each individual, their firm establishment in the Word of God, and their careful training to be able to carry out their particular calling as team members in the Body of Christ. Even the pagan Roman state was seen by Paul as “established by God” (Romans 13). Jesus Himself submitted to this pagan government. He paid taxes without complaining… and it was definitely “taxation without representation” (Matthew 17:24-27). Paul understood this clearly (Rom. 13:7). As a matter of fact, Peter also made it clear that our responsibility is to submit ourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men… whether a king, a governor, or whoever (1 Peter 2:13-14).8 When Peter wrote these words, the ruthless and godless Nero was in power! The Apostles did not have to concern themselves with trying to gradually transform the political institutions of the world through peaceful or revolutionary means. They knew from the Scriptures that God Himself would establish His Kingdom and rule over all nations at some point in the future (Daniel 2:34-35 & 44-45).
However, since Amillennialists (and some Premillennialists) see Israel and the church as one and the same (because of their Covenant/Reform view of the Scriptures), it is easy for some to mistakenly try to apply the historical political situation of the nation of Israel to the modern-day church. This could be perceived as a mandate from God for the church to set up a kind of theocracy in every nation of the world. The goal of winning souls would be a stepping stone to accomplish the ultimate goal of bringing all governments under the rule of Christ. The Postmillennialist fits even better into the theonomic picture, since his ultimate goal is for the church to actually cause the establishment of the millennial kingdom on earth. This is to be accomplished by reconstructing every aspect of society and bringing all governments under the rule of Christ. A related term to describe this is “Christian Reconstructionism”.
Theonomy is a kind of Christian idealism. It is a great idea, but it is not a Biblical mandate from God to be carried out by His people. Neither is there a Biblical mandate for any group of Christians to create a nationalistic movement. If we as American Christians were to hear believers of another nation hold up their country as the beacon for the world, we would be disgusted. God has not said that the United States of America is more special than any other country in the world. That kind of thinking is simply egotistic and sinful. As Christians, our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).
It is good to act as informed citizens in all governmental elections, BUT… if the main focus is that of reforming government, then the believer (and the church) will be detoured from the goal of reaching the lost for Christ. Jesus did not encourage an attitude of fighting for personal rights. In Luke 6:29-30, He said “whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.”
The committed Christian should not despise pagans and rise up in political protest against their godless ways. Such an attitude will only alienate the lost and harden their response to the Gospel. All Christians need to love unbelievers, and desire their salvation… not hate them and desire their destruction. Every believer in Christ used to be just like them! (Titus 3:1-8)
There are, however, many specific instructions that God has given to His church. Why not stick to those, instead of pushing for something that is impossible for man to accomplish anyway? Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead because only He could bring about the redemption of sinners. In the same way, only Jesus can bring about His rule over all nations at His second coming (Zech. 14 & Rev. 19-20). Come soon, Lord Jesus!
1Bahnsen notes that “from the theonomist’s standpoint there is really no need for a new or distinctive label, since the position is deemed essentially that of Calvin (cf. his sermons on Deuteronomy), the Reformed confessions (e.g., the Westminster Confession, chaps 19; 20; 23, and the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments), and the New England Puritans.”
2The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, p.117.
3Ibid, p. 118.
4Ibid, p. 121 (footnote)
5Ibid. p. 141.
6Ibid, p. 140-141.
7Ibid, p. 143.
8Except in a case where the government commands us to do something that the Bible prohibits, or prohibits us from doing what the Bible commands. We must then obey our Lord and submit to death, if necessary. (Acts 5:28-29) We are not to foment a “Christian Revolution.”