The term "Theonomy" has been used to describe various views which see the God revealed in the Bible as the sole source of human ethics. Using the word in this sense, Cornelius Van Til argued that there "is no alternative but that of theonomy or autonomy" (Christian Theistic Ethics p. 134). Among Reformed Christians, John Calvin, the Continental Reformers, the Westminster Divines and other Puritans, and Christian Reconstructionists, have developed similar ethical perspectives, but the term is not limited to the Reformed. The non-Reformed theologian Paul Tillich used the term "theonomy" to describe his ethical perspectives, albeit in a radically different way from its use by Reformed writers in the Christian Reconstructionist movement. Between the Reformed on the one hand and Tillich on the other are found various Evangelical, Dispensationalist (usually not mentioned outside systematic theology texts) and Roman Catholic theonomies.
Since the mid-1970's theonomy has been most often used in Protestant circles to specifically label the ethical perspective of Christian Reconstructionism, a perspective that claims to be a faithful revival of the historic Protestant view of the Old Testament law as espoused by many European Reformers and Puritans, see also Biblical law in Christianity. Some in the modern Reformed churches are critical of this understanding, while other Calvinists affirm Theonomy.
The remainder of this article describes the Christian Reconstructionist view of theonomy.
Greg Bahnsen explains that when he wrote outlining the ethical perspective of Christian reconstruction and called his book Theonomy in Christian Ethics he had:
"...no thought of generating a label for a distinctive school of thought or "movement." (Indeed, it was the opponents of the viewpoint presented in the book who first took it upon themselves to refer to others as "theonomists.") Quite simply, the title was chosen to describe the subject matter taken up in the book: namely, the place or function of God's law in the moral philosophy of the Christian...today" [giving] "special attention was given to the difficult question (on which I had written my masters thesis in theology [in 1973]) of whether "secular" civil magistrates stood under obligation to the relevant portions of the Old Testament law, for instance, the stipulations as to what punishment crimes deserve.
"The term "theonomy" was attractive because it nicely contrasted with certain opposing lines of thought which also contained the word nomos in their designations: positions like "autonomy," "cosmonomic" philosophy, and "antinomianism." Moreover, far from being an esoteric term, it had been commonly used in moral theology for an approach to ethics which submits to divine revelation. The Calvinistic ethicist, Willem Geesink, wrote in his book, Reformed Ethics:
"Theonomy is the legislation inspired by God, grounded in His sovereign law of creation.... The peculiarity of Calvinism is the idea that God is Lord and the Lawgiver of all men. This one already finds with Calvin, in his sketch of the Christian life, when he says: "We are God's property, and not our own," and "Let His will then have the paramount sway over all our deeds".... The principle of Theonomy was therefore more purely preserved in the Old-Protestant Theology than it was with Rome, where it received a heteronomous flavor from the Church."
In the terminology of Christian Reconstructionism, theonomy is the idea that, in the Bible, God provides the basis of both personal and social ethics. In that context, the term is always used in antithesis to autonomy, which is the idea that Self provides the basis of ethics. Theonomic ethics asserts that the Bible has been given as the abiding standard for all human government — individual, family, church, and civil; and that Biblical Law must be incorporated into a Christian theory of Biblical ethics.
"Theonomic ethics, to put it simply, represents a commitment to the necessity, sufficiency, and unity of Scripture. For an adequate and genuinely Christian ethic, we must have God's word, only God's word, and all of God's word. Nearly every critic of theonomic ethics will be found denying, in some way, one or more of these premises." ---from The Theonomic Antithesis to Other Law-Attitudes
Critics see theonomy as a significant form of Dominion theology, which they define as a type of theocracy. Theonomy posits that the Biblical Law is applicable to civil law, and theonomists propose Biblical law as the standard by which the laws of nations may be measured, and to which they ought to be conformed.
The type of theonomic ethics depends on the Covenant theology in which it is embedded. The Reformed wing of the Reformation showed a strong interest in Biblical law, and this was especially so in Britain where there was a tradition of Biblical law going back into the Middle Ages. The development of a clear bi-covenantal system of theology provided a framework to support theonomy. Covenant theology holds that there are two fundamental covenants between God and man. The first is the Covenant of Works, made with Adam, the covenant representative of all humanity and thus binding on all of humanity. The other covenant is the Covenant of Grace, made with Christ and his church. By 1787, when John Brown's Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion was published, Biblical law was a major division of systematic theology. Brown gives it fifty pages. One type of theonomy, as taught by Greg Bahnsen is a development of this bi-covenantal type of theology.
An additional contribution by the Reformation, especially in its Scottish, Presbyterian expression, to Bahnsonian theonomy is the Regulative Principle of Worship. This holds that we may only worship God in the manner that God has commanded. These commands are to be found in the Bible and those in the Old Testament are still binding, except where they have been modified by direct commandment, example, or the logical implication of these in the New Testament. This same interpretive principle was applied by Greg Bahnsen to ethics was well as to worship. There is, therefore, standing law from the Old Testament, found in its greatest detail in the law of Moses, that still binds today, except where it has been overturned by the commands of the New Testament, apostolic example in the New Testament, and what these logically imply.
R.J. Rushdoony, however, rejected the bi-covenantal system of Covenant theology, denying that there had been a Covenant of Works. Therefore Rushdoony's theonomy is tied to a different theological system that he developed, and took on idiosyncrasies not found in Puritan and Presbyterian forms of theonomy.
A third type of Reconstructionist theonomy was followed by some writers associated with the Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas (which also published some of Bahnsen's works). These writers, especially James B. Jordan, followed the mono-covenantalism of Rushdoony, but put an emphasis on the idea that, as there was only one covenant, and that covenant was given to the Church, and law was given within that covenant, law was given to the Church, and not to the world. The implication of this was soon understood to be that the writings of Moses were not a law code as such, and that theonomy was not a legitimate idea, nor was Christian Reconstruction which took theonomy as its moral foundation. Biblical law was still seen as important, but secondary to ecclesiastical concerns.
There are types of theonomy separate from Christian Reconstruction. John Robbins, an acerbic critic of Christian Reconstruction, launched his Trinity Review with an article "The Christian and the Law" by Gordon Clark in which Clark argues that "good and evil are defined only by the law of God." Carl F. H. Henry, who was strongly influenced by Clark, also published a defense of divine command ethics. Evangelical theologian Walter Kaiser, Jr. wrote extensively on theonomic ethics, placing it within his own Promise theology, but interacting with the ideas of Bahnsen and Jordan, whose work he found especially helpful.
The presuppositions and the outline of theonomy's proposals appeared in the 1600s in the New England colonies. In the 1970s, in the works of Rousas John Rushdoony (1973, The Institutes of Biblical Law), and Greg Bahnsen (1977, Theonomy in Christian Ethics) revived these sentiments. These two works, together with other writings, influenced a number of Christian political activists and prolific writers, who proposed their own elaborations of the idea, developing specific answers to contemporary social, political and economic issues, on the basis of their understandings of Biblical Law.
Rousas John Rushdoony writes that the god of a culture can be located by fixing its source of law. If the source of law is the ontological Trinity of Christian revelation, then that Trinity is the God of that culture. If the source of law rests in the people, then the voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox dei), and that voice finds expression and incarnation either in a leader, a legislative body, or a supreme court, depending on which gains the ascendency. The highest point in the processes of law is the god of that system. (1978, The Politics of Guilt and Pity)
Theonomists support the applicability of Biblical principles to four spheres of government - self-government or self control, family government, church government, and state or civil government. Jay Rogers in Theofaq states that Theonomists believe that civil government is only one sphere of government. In fact, it is not even the most important one. We advocate regeneration first and only then reconstruction. We do not advocate revolution.
Theonomists support public policy changes in accord with Biblical principles, but see those changes as coming about as a result of, and not the cause of, conversions to Christianity. Many seek a future earthly "Kingdom of God" in which much of the world is converted to Christianity. They cite the numerous scripture passages referring to God's collective judgment upon unrighteous nations and God's blessing upon those rulers and societies heeding His Word as evidence that the presence or absence of Christian values may profoundly influence the rise and fall of nations.
Although theonomic writers may not always agree on specific policy matters, goals often cited include:
Various theonomic authors have stated such goals as "the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics", exclusion of non-Christians from voting and citizenship, and the application of Biblical law by the state. Under such a system of Biblical law, homosexual acts, adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy would be punishable by death. Propagation of idolatry or "false religions" would be illegal and could also be punished by the death penalty.
A history of the idea of "God's Law" (Theonomy); its origins, development and place in political and legal thought.(Brief Article)(Book Review)
Feb 01, 2007; 9780773455986 A history of the idea of "God's Law" (theonomy); its origins, development and place in political and legal...
Religion, literature, and the climate of fear: intimations of a polynomous culture.(globalization)(Critical essay)
Mar 01, 2008; The current anxieties over global terrorism coincide with a remarkable period in the world's literary history, when works of...