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The Theonomic Antithesis to Other Law-Attitudes
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen

 

Why "Theonomy"?

The title of my book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, was strange to many ears because of the first word in it. "Theonomy" is a composite English transliteration of two Greek words, theos (for "God") and nomos (for "law"), meaning "God's law." There was 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. The book explored the validity of God's law for the believer today. Special attention was given to the difficult question (on which I had written my masters thesis in theology) 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.[1]

The term "theonomy" has thus been utilized by serious Reformed scholars like Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til, as well as a Biblical theologian like Herman Ridderbos:

One may not only speak of the theocentric character of Jesus' commandments (in contrast to all humanistic ideals of the kingdom of God), but also of the theonomy of the righteousness preached by him. The will of God finds expression in the revelation of the law. This is why the preaching of the kingdom is also that of the law.... The theonomy of the gospel is subjection to the law, and any attempt to eliminate the category of law from the gospel is frustrated by the continuous and undeniable maintenance of the law by and in the gospel.[2]

Even when we move away from circles of Reformed scholarship to those of popularizing discussions for laymen, the term "theonomy" is advocated as a useful description.[3] In fact, because all genuinely Reformed scholars will in some sense have a favorable attitude toward the law of God, it can be said that they all have some "theonomic" view.

Unfortunately, not all Reformed writers who may choose to use the term have been clear and consistent in their ethical reasoning about God's law. Nor have they all agreed with each other on every premise they have maintained or every judgment they have reached in moral theology. Furthermore, to complicate the picture beyond this, there have been religious writers like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich who -- although nowhere close to men like Bavinck or Van Til in theological alignment -- have latched onto the term "theonomy" to designate their own thinking.[4] Consequently, it would be futile to treat the word "theonomy" as though it denoted by itself a well-defined and commonly recognized moral perspective or system. It has been used in a wide variety of ways (from conservative to liberal), and no single school of thought has a monopoly on the term. A book addressing the place of God's law in Christian ethics and employing the word "theonomy" could turn out to take any number of (conflicting) positions on the subject.[5]

It has come about, nevertheless, that the specific position advocated in my book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, is commonly referred to as "theonomic ethics." That distinctive outlook, says Taylor, "has become recognized by the title Theonomy"; a presbytery report observes that "in its narrower sense...'Theonomy' is a definite school of thought...advocated by the writings of Rousas J. Rushdoony, Gary North and Greg L. Bahnsen."[6] This could be illustrated in numerous cases from recent religious periodicals, books, and tapes.[7] More than anybody else, critics of the position taken in the book have established this linguistic custom by (understandably enough) searching for a convenient handle to speak about the position -- and in a few cases wanting a label to use disparagingly for those who affirm what the book teaches. For the sake of convenience and common usage, I too will utilize the word "theonomy" (or "theonomic," "theonomist," etc.) throughout this discussion for the distinctive viewpoint advanced in my book, fully recognizing that the word itself does not inherently name that specific stance. (It would seem, nonetheless, that relative to the other opinions claiming the title, the concept underlying the word -- an ethic founded on God's law -- is most fully and consistently expounded in the particular "theonomic" doctrine set forth by the book in question.)

What, then, is theonomic ethics? What ethical position was taken in the book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics? In this essay I propose to answer that question by way of antithesis: the controlling principles and direction of theonomic thought will be set over against contrasting positions on law ("nomos" notions) which have influenced the modern theological mindset. This method of summarizing the position will highlight theonomy's commitment to the necessity, sufficiency, and unity of Scripture in Christian ethics.

Consider three other "nomic" or law-oriented attitudes which have been factors in recent theological thinking and which are opposed by theonomy. These general views of law formed something of the background against which the position taken in Theonomy in Christian Ethics was thought through and constructed.[8] They are "autonomy," the philosophy of the "cosmonomic" idea, and "antinomianism." Each has a distinctive view of law which bears directly and adversely on the character of Christian ethics. By examining them we learn something indirectly about the theonomic conception of ethics since its line of thought stands over against them.


Autonomy

"Orthodox Christianity...cannot come to the aid of modern man...because its morality is expressed in dogmatic and authoritarian moral codes." This opinion of Reinhold Niebuhr[9] fairly well expresses the spirit of our times. The notion of unchanging moral absolutes revealed by God is intellectually and personally repugnant to those who shape the sentiments of contemporary culture.

The secular rejection of the Bible's "inflexible" and authoritarian moral code is not at all surprising, of course. Rebellion is rooted in the heart of man, who would be a law unto himself, rather than submit to the dictates of his Creator found in an old-fashioned and discredited book. The spirit of "autonomy" -- of self-sufficient independence from God (especially in establishing standards of good and evil) -- animates all men after the Fall, but is especially glamorized in our day of free-thinking and loose living. No, the opinion quoted above is no surprise in this age. The surprise comes in realizing that the statement was made by a professional theologian, not a secular philosopher!

Niebuhr does not stand alone. Graeme de Graaff states: "There is no room in morality for commands, whether they are the father's, the schoolmaster's or the priest's. There is still no room for them when they are God's commands."[10] The modern mind finds it unacceptable to receive with reverence a dictate from the mouth of God. In the words of the popular German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg: "The proclamation of imperatives backed by divine authority is not very persuasive today."[11]

For Pannenberg this approach to ethics was inappropriate even during the Old Testament era. He says that the postexilic Jews who tried to build a social order "on the basis of the divine law that had been handed down" were working with artificial and outdated "theocratic demands." They should have questioned "whether any particular legal community could claim that it was the final realization of divine law." In the place of this absolutistic and looking-backward thinking, Pannenberg would substitute a future-orientation which recognizes the essential "openness" of human nature (with no fixed essence) as it seeks "an unknown reality" which language gives the name "God." God is "reality as a whole" and is essentially unknowable except from the very end of history. By seeking this final unity of reality in the future, man simultaneously seeks the unity of humans in community, the perfect society. With such an existentialist-idealist understanding of human history Pannenberg asserts that "a concrete formulation of law becomes possible, a formulation which constantly revises existing law in the light of the eschatological destiny of mankind."[12]

In short, man's agnostic self-understanding in the light of an evolving and as-yet-unknowable reality requires that concrete laws remain open to constant revision. The practical bottom line: nobody can know for sure that anything is morally absolute. Pannenberg concedes: "There simply is no definitive measure to tell us what is just for all times and in all situations."[13] When the perception of "justice" changes from age to age, or from society to society, and the law is accordingly revised (as Pannenberg would dictate), we would end up with cultural relativism; when the perception of "justice" changes from person to person within a particular age and society, we would be left with social anarchy. Under such circumstances there would be no definitive and authoritative standard by which to condemn the injustices of any culture or individual.

Far from rescuing modern culture, such moral relativism is one of the key culprits in its demise. The spirit of autonomy ("self-law") will always and inevitably work out to this relativistic dead-end for ethics. Pannenberg quite explicitly challenges the church to encourage people to be "mature and autonomous" individuals who have the courage to take action based upon their own thinking and judgments.[14] Along with many others, he states the very opposite of the truth when he opines that "the view of Scripture as divine word that must be obeyed" is one of many authoritarian elements which "prevent the Church from performing adequately in a secular society."[15]

By contrast, from a "theonomic" perspective, the church's only hope for an effective witness in secular society is to call men away from sinful self-reliance and worldly wisdom, directing them to submit to the authoritative word of God revealed in the Scriptures. Here alone will we find an adequate foundation for modern ethics which overcomes the sifting sands of relativism and the upheavals of anarchy. With Paul, we would "cast down reasonings and every high thing which is exalted against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Those who are of God and who love Christ will hear God's word and keep it (John 8:47; 14:23-24). Those who are ashamed of Christ's word and reject it will be judged by that very word on the Final Day (Mark 8:38; John 12:47-48). If we do not build our lives on Christ's words, we are fools who deprive ourselves of knowledge (Matt. 7:24-27; I Tim. 6:3-5). Because autonomy rejects the necessity and authority of God's word, it cannot have a place in an adequate and truly Christian ethic.


The Cosmonomic Idea

A vigorous opponent of autonomy in its many manifestations (especially philosophical) was the Dutch Calvinist scholar, Herman Dooyeweerd, who properly recognized that human reasoning could not be independent of religious presuppositions. Thus his book, In the Twilight of Western Thought, was subtitled: "Studies in the Pretended Autonomy of Philosophical Thought."[16] Dooyeweerd, like Kuyper before him, was concerned to develop a Christian world-and-life-view oriented to the philosophical questions raised by the special sciences and the pressing issues of modern culture. He did this through a long line of publications while he simultaneously taught on the law faculty for the Free University of Amsterdam. His concern for law and social justice, coupled with his antipathy to all pretended autonomy, made him a hopeful candidate for addressing a forceful challenge from a Christian viewpoint to the relativistic and secularizing decline of modern culture. The promise held out by Dooyeweerd and his followers (e.g., the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto) was to make Christianity relevant to the whole of life by applying God's word to every aspect of human endeavor.

The concept of law was as important as any in the thinking of Dooyeweerd, for by means of law God controls everything and provides norms for personal behavior. The heart of Dooyeweerd's system was set out in his massive study, De wijsbegeerte der wetsidee (1935-1936).[17] Dooyeweerd himself explained that the best English expression corresponding to what he meant by the Dutch term "wetsidee" was "cosmonomic idea."[18] He maintained that every system of thought was based on some sort of law-idea, reflecting a view of the structure of the cosmos and its coherence -- in short, "the order of reality" or (translating the Greek components of "cosmo-nomic") world-law. Dooyeweerd's own conception of the world-law or order held that each thing (whether numbers, rocks, plants, galaxies, humans, societal relationships or what have you) has its own individuality structure exhibiting a number of "modal aspects," from the arithmetic mode up to the faith mode (pistic). In turn, each of these aspects of reality (e.g., the geometrical, the biological, the psychological, the juridical) comprises its own sphere of laws peculiar to it; thus each is a "law-sphere," having its own specific laws from the Creator which are mutually irreducible to the laws of the other spheres (following Kuyper's notion of "sphere sovereignty").

Each sphere in the interrelated complex of human experience accordingly had its own "inner structure" and its own peculiar regularities or laws for Dooyeweerd. Somewhat like the "natural laws" of Thomas Aquinas,[19] these regularities of the world were discoverable even by fallen reason and provided standards of common grace ("conserving grace" in Dooyeweerd's terminology) which cannot be transgressed with impunity. There are laws of arithmetic, laws of physics, laws of language, laws of ethics, etc., all of which are (somehow) but temporal expressions of the supratemporal, central divine commandment to love God and neighbor.[20] Moreover, Dooyeweerd condemned taking the laws of one law-sphere and using them to control thinking about the other law-spheres (e.g., as in historicism), deeming this a reductionism which absolutizes (thus idolizes) one temporal aspect of the created order at the expense of the others. "Sphere sovereignty" was to be respected.

Not only were the (1) distinctions between the law-spheres important for Dooyeweerd, so were two other kinds of distinctions. (2) Dooyeweerd and his disciples have emphasized a sharp difference between naive and theoretical thought, holding that there is no overlap between the two. Naive thought was taken as everyday, common sense, untechnical experience of things in their wholeness, while theoretical thought was the thinking of scientific scholarship which differentiates the abstract aspects of things, considers them at a distance in light of logical antithesis, and aims to be systematic in its conclusions.[21] Finally, (3) Dooyeweerd's philosophy makes critical use of a distinction between God's word as a power which "grips" our hearts and as a Scriptural text which imparts rational information to our thinking.[22]

The use to which these three kinds of distinctions are put by Dooyeweerd and his disciples turns out to be completely destructive of the idea of applying Scripture to every area of life -- destructive of a Biblical world-and-life-view which can forcefully challenge the modern mind in the authoritative name of God. For instance, it is maintained that the Bible does not give us theoretical knowledge about God.[23] According to Arnold De Graaff and Calvin Seerveld, it distorts the very nature and purpose of Scripture to treat it as informing us in propositional form of God's being and attributes.[24] Dooyeweerd declared that "theoretical thought is bound to the temporal horizon of human experience,"[25]; even the conceptual contents of our ideas about God "do not transcend the modal dimension of our temporal horizon of experience."[26] So, as a supratemporal person, God would not be accessible to theoretical thought because it is tied to temporal experience.[27] Consequently, rational information about God and His will is effectively excluded from any theoretical reasoning about the various areas of temporal life. Since Scripture does not impart conceptual knowledge about God, Scripture's textual contents cannot directly inform or guide the various special sciences (e.g., history, psychology, biology), even the science of ethics.

Despite initial impressions given by the Dooyeweerdian philosophy, the word of God in the text of Scripture is not made relevant to all aspects of human experience. It is the word as power which transforms an endeavor into a "distinctively Christian" endeavor. When Dooyeweerdians speak of using God's word in all areas of life, they refer to theoretical work in sociology (for instance) which is carried on by people whose hearts have been gripped by the word-as-power, not the application of Biblical knowledge to the field of sociology. Thus it is shameful, but to be expected, that Dooyeweerd objected to Van Til's insistence that Christian philosophers submit to the "thought content" of Scripture.[28] Those who have naively experienced the gripping power of God's word and have had the direction of their hearts changed would be sent by Dooyeweerd into their theoretical endeavors in physics, history, or ethics (and the other various law-spheres), but there they would be prevented from applying the textual content of the Scriptures to their disciplines!

Therefore, Scripture on this view does not set forth norms for all aspects of life. Instead, Scripture speaks directly only to the law-sphere of faith (the pistic modality); it provides for us only "faith-norms," then. The faith-aspect of life deals primarily with "attending church, engaging in prayer, or partaking of the sacraments."[29] For Dooyeweerdian philosophy, then, the power of God's word may address all areas of life, but the specific words of Scripture inform us only about one aspect of human existence: religious worship and piety. Frame's insight here is exactly right:

Here is one of the surprising paradoxes of the Amsterdam philosophy. Many of us were first attracted to the movement by its promise to "open" the Scriptures, to show their relevance, not only to our Sunday "church" activities, but to all areas of our daily life. The more one studies the movement, however, the more one discovers the extent to which this philosophy "closes" the Scriptures, and the extent to which it really makes them a "Sunday" thing.[30]

Where, then, does the Christian scholar find the norms which are relevant to the other aspects of life outside the faith-sphere? For instance, if one is doing work in history, how can the "Christian historian" know what the norms are which govern the historical process, according to Dooyeweerd? It is just here that Dooyeweerd's ironic likeness to Thomistic natural law theory is so striking. He answers, "These norms or criteria of evaluation must be detected in the entire coherence of the divine world order."[31] That is, such laws must be discovered by a study of the world itself (hence the "cosmo-nomic" philosophy), rather than learned from Scripture. Each "law-sphere" has its own sovereign domain, and the laws of that sphere are revealed by the cosmos, not the written word.

This is just as true in the realm of ethics. De Graaff and Seerveld maintain that the word of God (as power) does not bring with it moral rules. Furthermore, the Bible is not a collection of objective statements about God or a set of moral lessons; indeed, we cannot even deduce from the Bible's statements some moral applications. "The Bible does not teach us how to be good and how to avoid being bad."[32] Meyenfeldt holds that it is a "radical misconception" to handle even the Ten Commandments "as though they were a number of moral orders.... From all this we may draw the conclusion that this Law of the Lord is not an ethical code."[33] Where does the ethicist find his norms, then? He must consult the law-structured situation within creation, finding the word of God in the "cosmos" or the natural order.[34]

The significance of this is quite apparent in the Dooyeweerdian approach to political morality. Dooyeweerdians can sound so inviting and so convincing when they talk in general terms about the need for Christian transformation of the political order. They speak of "scriptural religion and political task," promote "a christian political option,"[35] and say that "a state may be called a christian state when...it seeks to do the will of Christ, to whom all power and authority has been given."[36] Upon further investigation, however, one learns that this does not at all mean that the Biblical teachings of Christ are to be applied to concrete political problems in this day. The faith-sphere would derive its norms in this direct fashion from Scripture, but not the social, economic or juridical spheres! It is as "the Root of common grace" that Christ was called by Dooyeweerd "the King whose kingship embraces the whole of temporal life." Because He is "the king of common grace," said Dooyeweerd, "we must undertake the struggle for the Christian state."[37] Christ speaks in Scripture to the faith-sphere as the King of redeeming (special) grace, but He is the ruler of political life as King of common grace. Our attention is turned away from the written law in Scripture, then, to the structures of the cosmic law-order which continue to restrain sin after man's Fall.

This makes the problem of a Christian state "primarily a structural problem"[38] -- primarily a matter of discerning the internal character and place of the state in the "cosmonomic" order, then abiding by the laws of its proper sphere. As H. Evan Runner puts it:

the principle of sphere-sovereignty is bound up with the creation-ordinance of God. Sphere-sovereignty...is a given of the Word of God, revelation about the structure of the world and of our life in it. Thus it is revelation about the Lord's will, to which we have to subject ourselves. For the political aspect of our task this means that we have to discover what, in the light of the reality of sphere-sovereignty, God intends the State to be.... There must thus come basic reflection about the typical structure of the State, its peculiar nature and specific task.[39]

We see here the misleading nature of Runner's title about Scriptural religion and political task! What he would apply to political task is not Scripture, but the law of the cosmic order -- revelation about "the structure of the world and of our life in it."

Since this is a matter of common grace, humanists could actually gain as good, if not better, insight into the proper norms for the state than Christian believers who have the guidance of Scripture. Indeed, the seventeenth-century Reformed effort to apply Biblical law to political matters is seriously disapprobated by Dooyeweerd. He chides: "Viewed strictly historically, humanism has done far more pioneering work for the recognition of public liberty of religious conviction than seventeenth century Calvinism.... In this respect it indeed had a cultural calling of its own to fulfill."[40] We must turn away from Scriptural exegesis and application, learning our political task (along with the humanists) from the law-order of the world. Goudzwaard is quite explicit: "Those who believe that truly scriptural principles for the state can be obtained solely from explicit Bible texts, base their beliefs on a completely wrong view of scripture."[41] Notice that Scripture is not at all to be a source of political norms; to use it as such is to have a "completely wrong" view of it!

So then, while we may be happy with the cosmonomic emphasis on Christianity as an all-embracing world-and-life-view, looking for the relevance of God's "word" for all areas of life, we find ourselves in the end disturbed that the specific (textual) teachings of Scripture are actually locked out of social, economic, juridical, and political theorizing. We find here principled resistance to going to the text of the Bible for particular political positions. Dooyeweerd himself wrote: "Those who think they can derive truly scriptural principles for political policy strictly from explicit Bible texts have a very mistaken notion of scripture." The derogatory label which he imposed on such an effort was "biblicism"[42] -- which must mean (given the pattern of Dooyeweerd's critique of other ism's, like historicism)[43] the violation of sphere-sovereignty by absolutizing the laws appropriate to one sphere and letting them control our thinking about the other spheres of life. For the philosophy of the "cosmonomic idea," the Bible must be kept in its (alleged) place: the realm of religious worship and piety. The norms for ethics and politics would be found by turning instead to the cosmos and its own law-order.

By contrast, "theonomic" ethics recognizes that the authority of God's written word cannot be restricted to some narrow domain, for it is so profitable for instruction in righteousness that it equips the man of God "for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If there is any such thing as the morally good or right thing to do in the political domain, inspired Scripture provides the norms for it. The possession of the oracles of God in Scripture puts one at a distinct advantage over those who know only God's revelation through the created order (Romans 3:1-2). Consequently, theonomic ethics seeks a distinctively Biblical approach to the holiness which God demands in "all manner of living" (I Peter 1:15; cf. vv. 22-25). "Every thought" is to be brought captive "to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5), whether it is thought about worship, psychology, physics, or politics, for "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are deposited" in Him (Col. 2:3). And it is through the Scriptures that Christ reveals His will to us and makes an absolute demand on our lives as Lord. Therefore, a genuinely Christian ethic, whether personal or social, must be guided by the specific texts of God's written word. Because it rejects the sufficiency and authority of Scripture for the full range of moral decision-making, the philosophy of the "cosmonomic idea" cannot provide an adequate and genuinely Christian position in ethics.


Antinomianism

Two of the three attitudes toward law ("nomos") which served as contrasts over against which the theonomic position was developed have been considered: autonomy (self-law) and the cosmonomic philosophy (law of the world-order). The third such attitude which served as a foil for the development of theonomic ethics was evangelical "antinomianism" -- meaning views which are "against the law" or more broadly "against law." Antinomians may accept the necessity and sufficiency of God's inscripturated word (as most evangelicals do) and still take a stand against obligation to the Old Testament law or any rule-governed understanding of New Testament living.

In an effort to gain historical accuracy and terminological precision, it is actually advisable to distinguish various brands of "antinomianism" -- different ways in which people are said to be "against the law." All who properly fall under this loose label would not by any means agree with each other in their theological, hermeneutical, or ethical opinions, and most decidedly their practical lifestyles have not been all the same. Distinctions must thus be drawn.

If we begin our consideration by looking at the early Christian church, we see that there was a generally positive or favorable attitude toward the Old Testament law in the period between the New Testament and Augustine. In his study, History of Christian Ethics, George Wolfgang Forell undertakes to describe the basic beliefs which undergirded the concrete standards advanced in New Testament ethics, and among them he identifies the following:

The Old Testament is authoritative. It is very obvious in the Gospels that the Mosaic law in its ethical intention continues to be authoritative for the people of the New Testament. To the man who asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he answers, "You know the commandments: 'Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother'" (Mark 10:17ff.; cf. Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30)....

Even Paul the apostle to the Gentiles insists, "The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom. 7:12). While the law in all its forms does not save man, it is a help for the guidance of the Christian. In his exhortations to a responsible Christian life Paul frequently refers to the Old Testament, e.g., "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord'" (Rom. 12:19; cf. Lev. 19:18; Deut. 32:35. See also I Cor. 9:9; 10:1; 14:34; also 2 Cor. 8:15; 9:9; etc.)

But in his Gentile environment Paul does make a distinction between the ceremonial law and the moral law of the Old Testament. Ritual concerns about "clean" and "unclean" are irrelevant for the Christian: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself..." (Rom. 14:14). Circumcision is a physiological operation of no consequence (cf. Rom. 2:25ff.). In response to the Galatian desire to be under the law of circumcision Paul writes, "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).

The New Testament use of the Mosaic law is positive and constructive. "Freedom from the law as the road to salvation is simultaneously freedom for the law as a commandment with a specific content." While by no means the only source of New Testament ethics, it is an important and respected source.[44]

Yet even during the time when the New Testament was being written, the Apostles found it necessary to correct influences which were "against the law " -- tendencies to deny all law, to replace the law with the Spirit, or to oppose the law as revealed in the Old Testament. Some misleadingly suggested, out of a desire to magnify and emphasize the grace of God, that believers could continue in sin (e.g., Rom. 6:1-2). Others erroneously taught that the indwelling Holy Spirit (by whose ministry believers are begotten of God and have Christ abide in them) could be the compass of their behavior apart from God's commandments (e.g., 1 John 3:24; cf. vv. 4, 9). Still others thought of the Mosaic law as contrary to the promises God made to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ (e.g., Gal. 3:21).

The post-apostolic age could be characterized with virtually the same words. Generally speaking, the church fathers looked upon the Old Testament and its law with respect and support, defending the continuity between Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, the same undercurrents of opposition to the law which the Apostles confronted came to expression in the Patristic age.

Tertullian argued that no human laws were as good as the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, citing and defending case-laws outside of the Decalogue; he observed that the ethical precepts of the New Testament in case after case had the same import as those of the Old.[45] His evaluation of the Mosaic law was this: "It was not in severity that its Author promulgated this law, but in the interest of the highest benevolence.... No one ought to find fault with it, except him who does not choose to serve God."[46] In his lengthy treatise to Autolycus, Theophilus of Antioch emphasized that from the Mosaic commandments (citing examples outside the Decalogue) "we have learned a holy law," one which was not restricted to the Jews in its validity: "Of this divine law, then, Moses, who also was God's servant, was made the minister both to all the world, and chiefly to the Hebrews." Nor was this law restricted in its validity to the Old Testament: "concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God."[47]

One of the clearest and most emphatic, Patristic endorsements of the Mosaic law comes from the Stromata written by Clement of Alexandria. Clement goes on page after page pointing to the virtue and benefit of the detailed case-laws revealed by Moses (e.g., he mentions the prohibition on men wearing women's clothing, the newlywed's exemption from military service, the provision of gleaning, the forbidding of usury, the demand for daily pay to the poor, the requirement of resting the land every seventh year, the prescribed treatment of slaves, the sin of slaying the offspring and dam together, the rules for husbandmen, and many more). According to him, this Mosaic law was the fountain of all sound ethics and, specifically, the source from which the Greeks derived whatever correct views of virtue they possessed.[48] Clement spoke of "the harmony of the law and the gospel," maintaining that "the law is ancient grace given through Moses by the Word."[49] He insisted that Moses was far superior to the best legislators of Greece, and that even Plato imitated Moses in framing laws.[50] Clement specifically endorsed the validity of the Mosaic judicial or civil code, indicting the ignorance of those who found its penal sanctions repugnant:

Now Moses...furnished a good polity, which is the right discipline of men is social life. He also handled the administration of justice.... Co-ordinate with it is the faculty of dealing with punishments.... In a word, the whole system of Moses is suited for the training of such as are capable of becoming good and noble men, for hunting out men like them....

But those who disbelieve, and have shown a repugnance to engage in the works of the law, whoever else may, certainly confess their ignorance of the truth....

Let no one, then, run down law, as if, on account of the penalty, it were not beautiful and good....For the law, in its solicitude for those who obey, trains up to piety, and prescribes what is to be done, and restrains each one from sins, imposing penalties even on lesser crimes. But when it sees any one in such a condition as to appear incurable, posting to the last stage of wickedness, then in its solicitude for the rest, that they may not be destroyed by it (just as if amputating a part from the whole body), it condemns such an one to death, as the course most conducive to health.[51]

Likewise, Origen, in taking up the case against the moral relativism of Celsus, defended the validity of the Mosaic law. He argued that there was no discrepancy between the gospel and the law, either on a spiritual or literal level. For Origen Christians had a clear advantage over pagan thinkers, for Christians possessed the laws of Moses which are superior to all other moral codes. In the Mosaic law everything disadvantageous to man is withheld, and only useful things are bestowed.[52] Forell comments: "It had been Origen's conviction that Christianity would eventually triumph and that the church would teach Greeks and barbarians obedience to the law and thus inaugurate an age of peace."[53]

The Mesopotamian bishop, Archelaus, disputed with the heretic, Manes, and as part of his interaction argued firmly against the claim that "the law of Moses is not consonant with the law of Christ"; for Archelaus, the Old and New Testaments were so perfectly harmonious "that they form really one texture."[54] Under the Emperor Constantine (to whom Lactantius had access as tutor to the emperor's son), the Roman law was reformed and at many places made to conform to the stipulations of the Mosaic law. In the latter half of the fourth century the "Apostolic Constitutions" taught that Christ "nowhere dissolved the law," but rather "confirmed" it, taking away only the "additional precepts" which dealt with burnt offering, purifications, distinctions between clean and unclean, and sabbath festivals (Book 6, section 4, parts 19, 20, 22, 23).

In the interest of a fuller explanation of his refutation of the Pelagian, Celestius, the great church father Augustine wrote On the Spirit and the Letter in the year 412. He there expounded with clarity the doctrine of grace. According to Augustine, the commandments of God can be fulfilled only as God Himself gives us what He commands, for we are incapable of doing the good. The gospel grants new ability through the ministry of Christ and the Spirit. We must begin by realizing that nobody can gain salvation by obedience to the moral law. That law should properly expose the sin for which only Christ's redemptive work is the remedy. "By Christ's work the sinner receives the gift of God's righteousness through the faith in Christ which is the faith of filial love. The divine gift means the imparting of inward love by which alone true fulfillment of the commands is possible."[55] Salvation does not mean flight from the law, then, but new obedience rooted in the saving and enabling grace of God.

The list of illustrations could be expanded, but enough has been said to indicate the general attitude of support and favor which the post-apostolic age showed for the validity of the Old Testament law. Still, various forms of "antinomianism" were manifest in the early days of the church as well. Certain gnostic sects provide a dramatic illustration. The opinion of some was that the Mosaic law was given by Jehovah (the demiurge who made the physical world) rather than by the true and highest God who, as such, remains completely aloof from matter.[56] Christian and non-Christian forms of gnosticism agreed in their disdain for the physical realm, in particular the human body; their goal was to see the soul emancipated from this prison. Because of such a disparaging view of the flesh, some gnostics reasoned that what is done in the body is morally indifferent. That being the case, the desires of the body could be freely indulged without any truly harmful, spiritual consequences following. This brand of antinomianism rejected norms and invited unrestrained sin (cf. Rom. 6:1-2).

In addition to gnosticism, the early church was challenged by the Montanist movement, a prototype of religious "enthusiasm" throughout the history of the church. The followers of Montanus were denominated "men of the Spirit" because of their claim (1) that the dispensation of Son had given way now to the age of the Holy Spirit, and (2) that the Spirit was revealing God's will through their prophets, who allegedly enjoyed the benefit of inspiration. Montanus advanced a stern morality for the church on the basis of instructions he claimed to be given him by the Holy Spirit, but not revealed to the apostles. This kind of antinomianism substituted inner religious promptings for the inscripturated will of God, claiming to gain a more spiritual and more perfect form of discipline for the Christian life (cf. I John 3:24).

Finally, opposition to the law was given its clearest expression by Marcion and his followers. "Marcion's central thesis was that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law."[57] The Marcionites pitted an Old Testament God of harsh law against a forgiving New Testament God of love. The Old Testament with its severity was said to have absolutely no authority over the Christian; it was, they claimed, abolished by Jesus. This did not mean that the Marcionites believed in loose living, for in fact they endorsed an asceticism which was motivated by beliefs very similar to those of the gnostics (e.g., the material realm is evil). This kind of "antinomianism" thus held to strict standards of morality, indeed standards which were revealed in writing. Its opposition to law was seen in that it released believers from the Old Testament (particularly due to its legal feature) and committed them to following Paul exclusively (along with a modified version of Luke's gospel). New Testament living in the gospel was pitted against the Old Testament law (cf. Gal. 3:21).

If we move ahead to the Reformation and Puritan eras, we will again find a situation parallel to those of the New Testament age and the post-apostolic period. The predominant attitude was one favoring the validity of the Mosaic law after the coming of Christ and in the life of the Christian. Nevertheless, ideological parallels to the errors of gnosticism, montanism, and marcionism made their appearance. These undercurrents of various kinds of opposition to God's law (specifically, the Mosaic law) now became clearly identified as "antinomianism" and called for pointed rebuttal.

The two great Reformers, Luther and Calvin, had their distinctive approaches and emphases in theology. Still, on the subject of the law of God, they were agreed on the fundamentals. "Both Reformers took up the question time and again, from different points of view and in different contexts. They faced, on the one hand, the legalism of Rome and, on the other, the antinomianism of the sects. The result is a consistent, well-developed doctrine enshrined in their well-known emphasis on the three-fold use of the law."[58] Both Reformers maintained that the law of God should be used as an instrument of the civil government to preserve order in society ("the political use" of the law). Luther wrote: "The first use of the law then is, to bridle the wicked.... This civil restraint is very necessary, and appointed of God, as well for public peace as for the preservation of all things."[59] Calvin agreed, though calling this the "second use" of the law: "The second function of the law is this: at least by fear of punishment to restrain certain men who are untouched by any care for what is just and right unless compelled by hearing the dire threats in the law."[60]

The "pedagogic use" of the law for Luther and Calvin was to serve as an inducement to repentance by showing men their sins and need of the Savior. "The right use and end therefore of the law is, to accuse and condemn as guilty such as live in security, that they may see themselves to be in danger of sin, wrath, and death eternal," said Luther.[61] Calvin's teaching agreed: "while it shows God's righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns, every man of his own unrighteousness," thereby prodding men "to ask the help of grace"[62]

Finally, the two Reformers affirmed a third or "didactic use" of the law of God, functioning as a rule of life for the converted believer. Calvin's sentiments are unambiguous: "The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.... Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord's will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it."[63] Likewise, Luther does not dismiss the law of God in the life of those who have been brought to repentance. His famous Table Talk (286) declared that "to take away the law altogether...is a thing impossible and against God." In his Galatians commentary he promoted the use of God's commandments in sanctification: "When we are out of the matter of justification, we cannot sufficiently praise and magnify those works which are commanded of God."[64] The Lutheran Formula of Concord later stated, with respect to the "Third Use of the Law," that God's law is "a certain rule and norm for achieving a godly life and behavior in accord with God's eternal immutable will."[65]

In a spirit very similar to that of Clement of Alexanderia (which we saw above), Calvin so respected the Mosaic law that he found therein the absolute standards of socio-political justice, as well as norms of personal piety. His marvelous sermons on Deuteronomy (preached 1555-1556) are eloquent testimony to that fact. About the continuing validity of God's law, Calvin proclaimed: "the law of God always remains in force, that law which He has given us to live by, and which will not bend at our pleasure." About the socio-political order which is to prevail, Calvin taught that it "is that civil government be so maintained that God's Law always has the principal sway, and that all men meanwhile have regard for what is lawful for them." He preached that rulers must guide the state according to the law of God. Expounding the Mosaic command that kings not depart from the law to the right or to the left (Deuteronomy 17:16-20), Calvin made it clear that this applied to the magistrates of his own day: "Now although this is spoken expressly concerning the kings of Israel..., yet it is a very sound teaching for those who are magistrates in these days.... Unless they have the fear of God it is impossible for them to glorify him, and all things will after a while decline into chaos." And just like Clement before him, Calvin was taken with the utter foolishness and arrogance of anyone who would oppose the penal sanctions of the Mosaic law. Speaking about the death penalty for blasphemy, he proclaimed:

By this He would have us understand that we must not judge after our own imagination, whether that deed be worthy of death or not. For this is a matter that beguiles many men, and makes them strive against God and blaspheme His law; that they want to give sentences by themselves according to their own opinions. But contrawise, our Lord brings us back here to His will....

From this let us therefore take warning that we not judge recklessly and with devilish boldness as these gallants do nowadays, who would not have religion to come into the question of judgments.... And what leads them to this except hellish pride, that whenever they personally dislike something they think God should yield to their preferences? But therein appears their presumptuousness matched with the ungodliness of making no account of God, forasmuch as they can find in their hearts that His majesty should be so lightly esteemed in their eyes.[66]

Calvin thus gave to the Reformation movement an attitude toward the Mosaic law which was decidedly supportive of its continuing validity today, both in personal and social applications.

Therefore, taking Luther and Calvin as our benchmarks of Reformation thinking, we find that the same positive attitude toward the law of God which prevailed in the apostolic and post-apostolic ages characterized the Reformation as well. Nevertheless, Luther found it necessary more than once to rebut the "antinomianism" of John Agricola, who insisted that the law should not be preached or applied to Christian believers. The first formal use of the title "antinomian" appears to have been associated with Agricola, who is often deemed the founder of the ideological movement.[67] Agricola "taught that Christians are entirely free from the law, i.e., the moral law as laid down by Moses. He argued that they are not required to keep the Ten Commandments. He took this ground for fear of works-righteousness."[68] Departing radically from Luther, he maintained that the law was in no way necessary under the gospel. Repentance was not to be preached from the law, but only from the gospel. Further, and accordingly, Agricola went on to "deny that any part of the Old Testament was intended as a rule of faith or practice to the disciples of Christ."[69]

Calvin had similar theological foes with whom to deal. He not only had frequent encounters over moral issues and church discipline with the party of Libertines in Geneva (e.g., the wife of Pierre Ameux who proposed free love; Gruet who disputed the distinction between good and evil), he was quite concerned to refute the opinions of the "spiritual libertines" (e.g., Quintin Thieffry, Antoine Pocquet, Coppin) who promoted a mystical outlook which argued, because God is the immediate author of human thoughts and actions, men cannot sin. The distinction between good and evil was groundless, according to them, and men may indulge their passions without restraint. In his tract, Against the Fanatic and Frantic Sect of the Libertines (1545), Calvin said that they "under the mask of spirituality want to make people equal to brutal beasts."[70] On another front Calvin opposed the misleading theology of the Anabaptists, whom he accused of rejecting the Old Testament and spurning the law. The Anabaptists set forth a strict dichotomy between the Old and New Covenants, arguing that the Old was categorically inferior to the New and brought with it a new lifestyle. For them, in the words of Balke, "the Old Testament was given to the Jews alone and had no authority for Christians."[71] Anabaptists made the gospel a new principle by which Christians would live instead of the violent and harsh laws of Moses. Against them Calvin wrote at length in defense of the unity of Scripture, arguing that there was one covenant in substance which differed only "in mode of dispensation" (or administration) throughout the Old and New Testaments.[72] Thus believers under the gospel were tied to the same moral standards of the law as the saints of the Old Testament.

The English and new England Puritans were committed to the moral validity of the Old Testament law in the same way as was Calvin, their theological mentor. The finest detailed exposition of this subject is found in The Grace of Law: A Study of Puritan Theology by Ernest Kevan, who says: "The continuance of the believer's moral obligation to fulfil the Law is thus one of the most established of the Puritan convictions, and to omit this from any appraisal of Puritan theology is to fail to do justice to the principles upon which the Puritans worked."[73] During the Puritan era, however, just as in the apostolic, post-apostolic, and Reformation periods, there were "antinomian" influences to counteract. Henry Burton described the antinomian party as shutting out the law to the believer because it is "out of date...and of no use at all, not so much as to be a rule of life" (Law and Gospel Reconciled, 1631). In his book, Free-Grace (1645), John Saltmarsh, one of the leaders of the antinomians, indicated their attitude by saying: "The Gospel is...a perfect law of life and righteousness...and therefore I wonder at any that should contend for the ministry of the Law or ten Commandments under Moses." For Saltmarsh, there was "no Moses now." Francis Roberts identified the "Antinomian error" as "endeavoring totally to abolish the Law given by Moses on Mount Sinai, as of no use at all, for Matter or Form, to Christians now under the New Testament" (Of God's Covenants, 1657). Likewise, Thomas Gataker explained that men with such opinions were called "Antinomians or Antinomists" because of "their opposition to the mandatory and obligatory power of the Law moral" (God's Eye on His Israel, 1645).[74]

Perhaps the best known antinomian preacher was Tobias Crisp, whose work Christ Alone Exalted was published the same year that the Westminster Assembly was first convened (1643). Crisp and others maintained that the wicked actions of the elect are not really sinful instances of violating the Divine law. For them these were not occasions for seeking renewed forgiveness, for the only righteousness which mattered was that imputed to the elect from Christ. The elect can do nothing displeasing to God, who sees them only in Christ, and it would be mistaken (they imagined) that committing sin can affect one's eternal state. Thus sanctification was not taken as a necessary evidence of justification.[75] Berkhof described such antinomianism in these words:

The antinomians really leave no room for a subjective application of the redemption wrought by Christ. They...speak as if Christ did all there is to be done, as if He took upon Himself not only our guilt but also our pollution, so that we are...perfect in Him. In view of the fact that man is subjectively righteous and holy in Christ, the only thing required of him is to believe.... He may rest assured that God can see no sin in him as a believer. His so-called sins are not really sins, but merely works of the old man, which are not reckoned to the believer, since he is free from the law, is perfect in Christ, and glories in the grace of God.[76]

It is noteworthy that, while such opinions could easily lead one into an unrestrained lifestyle similar to that endorsed by the ancient gnostics or sixteenth-century libertines, most of the theologians of the Puritan era who preached these doctrines were not outwardly immoral people, but those who displayed pious behavior.

From the short survey which we have taken here, it is now possible to identify at least three distinct strands of theological or ethical thinking which can be properly called "antinomianism." Each has its own peculiar identity and thrust. Common to all would be an underlying conviction "which so radically opposes law and gospel as to maintain that the Christian, justified by faith, has no obligation toward the moral law."[77]

Branching out from this trunk, the first distinct brand of antinomianism can be designated "licentious antinomianism," holding that "Christians are by grace set free from the need of observing any moral law."[78] Here there are no standards demanding conformity (e.g., the gnostics, the libertines, the view that no behavior in the Christian is seen as sinful).

The second distinct brand of antinomianism would say that there is a moral standard to be attained by the Christian, but that this standard is not an outward code of rules. This can be designated "spiritual antinomianism" and is held by those "who refuse to recognize any law but their own subjective ideas which they usually claim are from the Holy Spirit."[79] Here the Christian's moral guidance is not found in an immature, written code but in the internal promptings and convictions wrought (it is believed) by the Spirit of God (e.g., the montanists, the anabaptists, the view that the New Covenant brings a new and superior ethic which is internal).

The third distinct brand of antinomianism differs from the first two in that it would affirm that there are standards of morality for those saved by grace, and these standards come to written expression in the Scriptures (which should be obeyed as an objective rule of behavior). However, on this view "the law is not a rule of life to believers under the gospel"[80]-- that is, "the law is of no use or obligation under the Gospel dispensation."[81] This can be designated "dispensational antinomianism" since it repudiates any obligation to obey the law of the Old Testament dispensation, binding the Christian simply to the New Testament's revealed standards (e.g., marcionites, anabaptists, the view that the Mosaic law is out-dated for New Covenant believers).

Actually, to give our subject a systematic or complete treatment, we should mention another brand of "antinomianism" which often shows itself in our day. It might be called "latent antinomianism," for it has at work within it the seeds of attitudes or ways of reasoning which, if not checked, would logically eventuate in a full-blown rejection of God's law (either its authority, sufficiency, or unity) -- despite the fact that its adherents would not personally profess an antagonism to the Old Testament law.[82] Latent antinomians would say that they endorse the authority of the Old Testament law, but then they proceed selectively to discard certain of God's commands without being able to give a cogent Biblical rationale for doing so in those particular cases. Even worse, they often offer lines of thought which are quite obviously extrabiblical in character to warrant this reduction of our obligation to God's law (e.g., offensiveness of such laws in our culture, the imagined adverse consequences of obeying them, category-schemes which do not arise from Biblical exegesis, etc.). Not everyone who concludes that some Old Testament command is inoperative today is a "latent antinomian," but only those who draw such conclusions without being able to point to some cogent reason for doing so from Scripture. At work in such situations is a latent force which is -- in philosophical principle and methodology -- unwittingly autonomous.

In the development of the "theonomic" perspective, these various forms of antinomianism (licentious, spiritual, dispensational, latent) helped define the course to take by marking out the pitfalls along the way. Although licentious antinomianism is fairly rare these days in evangelical circles (although tolerance of it is sometimes implied in teaching or practice, such as with the notion of the "carnal Christian"), opposition to the Mosaic law which is spiritualistic or dispensational or latently autonomous in character has numerous spokesmen and manifestations today. A few illustrations will suffice.

F. F. Bruce is one among many who have written to the effect that external rules do not characterize the Christian ethic: "Not by external conformity to a written code, but by the impulsion of an inward power, God's people would do his will from the heart.... The Spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus, then, liberates believers from...the law which stimulates sin and therefore leads to death.... The man in Christ lives a life of love not by outward dictation but because love is the spontaneous expression of the Christ-nature produced within him by the Spirit.... Paul refused to impose the Mosaic law on his converts.... The precepts of the new life are not imposed by an external code; they are the outworking of what is already implanted within."[83] The Christian life is not lived by the Mosaic law, but by the Spirit, according to this (false) antithesis advanced by Bruce.

Lewis Smedes, with equal conceptual confusion, sets the proclaiming of God's will over against elaborating rules. He states: "In Moses' time, however, life was directed by rules.... In Christian time life is not directed by rules.... My point has to do with the ethics of Jesus.... Within the grace of God, we are as bound to his will as ever. But within grace, the days of rulebooks have passed. Jesus' way is to proclaim the will and intent of God and to forgive those who fail."[84] (It is not very clear how "failing" to keep "God's will" is categorically different from "breaking" God's "rules"!) What is obvious enough is that Bruce and Smedes, along with many others, seek an internal or spiritual direction for the Christian life and find an external code of behavior (rules, laws) somehow unacceptable. By contrast, the "theonomist" believes that no one who admits to ethical norms (even if they are existential or consequential in content) escapes having rules; it is self-delusion to think otherwise. The issue is whether these laws will be internally generated or controlled by external, objective revelation.

Coming at the issue of God's law from the dispensational vantage point, Charles Ryrie has written an article entitled "The End of the Law," and in it he says that believers are indeed tied to law -- the law of Christ. With respect to the Old Testament commands, however, the only portions which are binding today are those which happen to be repeated in New Testament injunctions or moral duties for the Christian. In short, the Mosaic law is no longer binding, and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments is clearly our operating assumption. In practice, Christians are bound simply to the rules of the New Testament ethic.[85]

Likewise, Walter Martin opposes the Reformation endorsement of the Mosaic law so that he -- according to his own reasoning -- can advance instead the New Testament law of love (despite the fact that Jesus quoted it from the Old Testament!). "The great imperative of love," says Martin, suspends the whole law; those who walk by the Spirit fulfill the righteousness of the law, but (somehow) "not the law itself." Martin is quick to observe that Christians keep a law, but he says we must "be careful to ask, Which law?" Those who, like the Reformers, suggest the Mosaic law along with the rest of the Bible are accused of promoting "an unChristian and unbiblical concept" which "we repudiate with abject horror." According to Martin this kind of thinking is guilty of "forcing the Christian away from the perfect law of liberty and the imperative of love and casting him in the legalistic framework of the Old Covenant." The only portions of the Old Testament law which we keep, he indicates, are those which "are re-emphasized in the New Testament."[86] The same kind of opposition to the law of the previous dispensation ("dispensational antinomianism") is taught by some recent predestinarian Baptists, such as Jon Zens: "I am seeking to point out that 'law' in these 'last days' is solely in the hands of Christ, not Moses.... With the institution of a new covenant also comes a new canon, a new 'law' for the body of Christ.... We must allow these documents [the New Covenant documents] to define 'law' in the new age."[87]

Latent antinomianism is a widespread condition these days and is well illustrated by the approach to ethics publicly promoted by Aiken Taylor. Taylor is not explicitly opposed to the law of God, but says in fact that every thoughtful Christian should exclaim "O how love I thy law!" Nevertheless, in the very same place, he can reel off a list of examples of specific Old Testament laws with the suggestion that the mere mention of such things shows that they cannot apply today -- as if they were utterly and obviously ridiculous standards for our modern culture.[88] Taylor offers no exegesis or theological reasoning to warrant his dismissal of these specific Old Testament laws, but in the spirit of secular humanism he simply despises what they say without argument. Thus it is not surprising that, notwithstanding his recommendation that believers love the law, Taylor subsequently states that "under grace" a "list of specifics" from God's law is not important, but rather the "spiritually defined generality" of love; motivation, not details of behavior, is what counts.[89] Taylor may not call himself antinomian, but he teaches antinomian fare when he says that under the New Testament, bondage to the law "has been replaced" by bondage to Christ.[90] It is this conceptual antithesis between following the law and following Christ (or between the law's details and love) which is at the heart of dispensational and spiritual antinomianism.

Each of these evangelical expressions in its own way -- tolerating "carnal" living, promoting rule-less Spiritual guidance, or rejecting Old Covenant laws -- opposes the idea that New Testament believers should be held accountable for obedience to the Mosaic law. Each is "antinomian," even if not of a licentious sort. Kevan has correctly seen what is at base in evangelical opposition to obeying the Mosaic law: "The issue raised by the Antinomians had its origin in the wide separation which they made between the Old and New Testaments."[91] "Theonomic" ethics, by contrast, sees a danger in suggesting that what God once proclaimed as holy and good is now sub-spiritual or outdated, being replaced by a new conception of morality or righteousness. Harrison parallels this concern when he states: "Antinomianism has been rejected by the church at large during its history, and with good reason. The view is damaging to the unity of Scripture which demands that one part of the divine revelation must not be opposed to another."[92] Because it undermines the unity of Scripture and God's revealed will, "antinomianism" cannot generate an adequate or genuinely Christian ethic. In contrast to this, theonomic ethics propounds the consistency of moral standards between the Old and New Covenants. By its commitment to the unity of Scripture, however, theonomic ethics does not deny or suppress the progress of redemptive history (as though that entailed an evolutionary conception of ethics) and in truth holds firmly to changes in the administration of the covenant of grace between Old and New Covenants. Nevertheless, underlying those changes are the unchanging purpose and holy standards of God. "The Puritans were more impressed with the unity of the Bible than with the difference between Law and Gospel."[93] For them, even the changes which came with the New Covenant were but the realization of what was anticipated in the Old, thus testifying to Scripture's basic unity and continuity. This conviction of the Puritans lives on in the theonomic perspective.

With John Murray, theonomists would warn against dialectical and dispensational theologies which deviate from the Scriptural complementation between the Old and New Testaments or between faith and obedience to law.[94] Murray said:

It is symptomatic of a pattern of thought current in many evangelical circles that the idea of keeping the commandments of God is not consonant with the liberty and spontaneity of the Christian man, that keeping the law has its affinities with legalism and with the principle of works rather than with the principle of grace. It is strange indeed that this kind of antipathy to the notion of keeping commandments should be entertained by any believer who is a serious student of the New Testament.[95]

Murray's understanding of the authority of the Old Testament law in the New Covenant (based upon Matthew 5:17-20) reflected his commitment to the unity of Scripture: "Jesus is saying that he came not to abrogate any part of the Mosaic law."[96] This conviction, so opposite of antinomianism, is at the heart of the outlook labeled "theonomy." The theonomic position aims to adhere to the full authority of God's written word, finding "every scripture" -- even those in the Old Testament -- to be "profitable for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Theonomists maintain that we are obligated to live according to every command (James 2:10), every word (Matt. 4:4), every letter and stroke (Matt. 5:18) of the Old Testament, as well as the New.


A Concluding Simple Statement of the Position

Certain clearly discernible attitudes toward law (positions labeled with the Greek word "nomos") have informed and shaped the ethical and theological mindset of our day, especially in Christian and specifically evangelical or Reformed circles. Important contributions have been made by "autonomy" (self-law), the "cosmonomic" (world-law) philosophy, and "antinomianism" (against-law). It was within an intellectual and moral context where these perspectives were active influences and contending options that the viewpoint of my book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, was shaped and developed. Indeed, the essential line of thought in the book can be readily defined by antithetical contrast to these differing ideologies concerning God's law.

"Autonomy" repudiates the necessity of God's word in ethics, where "theonomy" affirms and begins with it.

"Cosmonomic" thinking discards the sufficiency of Scripture for ethics, where "theonomy" promotes and proceeds in terms of it.

"Antinomianism" undermines the unity of Scripture in ethics, where "theonomy" upholds it as a guiding principle of interpretation.

In short, the other present-day attitudes toward law (autonomy, cosmonomic philosophy, and antinomianism) each in their own way challenge the full authority of the Bible as the foundation of Christian ethics. Autonomy follows human authority instead. Cosmonomic thinking severely limits Scriptural authority. And evangelical antinomianism, while granting the authority of the Bible, refuses to submit to the full range of its teaching (in particular, the Mosaic law). By contrast, Theonomy in Christian Ethics was a self-conscious and honest endeavor to expound an ethical perspective which honors the full authority of God's written word in the Bible, ever-mindful of these other errors.

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.



[1] Willem Geesink, Reformed Ethics, vol. 2 (Netherlands: Kok, 1931), pp. 88, 125-126, 457-458; citation and translation by F. Nigel Lee. "Heteronomy" is the law of other human beings, such as parents, peers, teachers, etc.

[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans. H. de Jongste, ed. Raymond O. Zorn (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1969), pp. 291, 307.

[3] For instance, R. C. Sproul uses the word in The Symbol (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), p. 143.

[4] I address this confusing situation in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, pp. 32-33.

[5] Some opponents of my book, for instance, have longed to associate the term with their own views instead: e.g., Meredith G. Kline, "Comments on an Old-New Error," Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 41, no. 1 (Fall, 1978), p. 188; Paul Fowler, "God's Law Free From Legalism" (Jackson, MS: privately distributed, 1980), p. 1; Donald Dunkereley, "What is Theonomy?" (McIlwain Memorial Presbyterian Church, Pensacola, FL: privately distributed, 1978), p. 1.

[6] G. Aiken Taylor, "Theonomy and Christian Behavior," The Presbyterian Journal, vol. 37, no. 20 (Sept. 13, 1978), p. 9; "Report of the Committee to Study 'Theonomy'" (presented to Evangel Presbytery, P.C.A., on June 12, 1979), p. 3.

[7] Notice, e.g., just these titles: Vern S. Poythress, Tape: "A Critique of Theonomy," (Philadelphia: Westminster Media, 1979); Aiken Taylor, "Theonomy and Christian Behavior,"; D. A. Rausch and D. E. Chismar, "The New Puritans and Their Theonomic Paradise," The Christian Century, vol. 100, no. 23 (Aug. 3-10, 1983).

[8] In what follows these general attitudes can be conveniently illustrated by instances which appeared both before and after the publication of my book.

[9] R. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1935), p. 14.

[10] "God and Morality," Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. Ian T. Ramsey (London: SCM Press, 1966), p. 34.

[11] "The Kingdom of God and the Foundation of Ethics," Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), pp. 103-104.

[12] "On the Theology of Law," Ethics, trans. Keith Crim (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981 [from the German Ethik und Ekklesiologie, 1977], pp. 23-56.

[13] "The Kingdom of God and the Foundation of Ethics," op. cit., p. 124.

[14] "The Kingdom of God and the Church," Theology and the Kingdom of God, pp. 96-98.

[15] "The Kingdom of God and the Church," p. 93.

[16] University Series: Philosophical Studies, ed. Gordon H. Clark (Nutley, New Jersey: The Craig Press, 1968 [1960]), esp. chapters 1-2.

[17] Issued in English as A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 4 vols., trans. David H. Freeman and William S. Young (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953-1958).

[18] New Critique, vol. 1, p. 93.

[19] The Roman Catholic scholar, Michael Marlet, has drawn attention to the fact that Dooyeweerd's philosophy readily fits into the Thomistic tradition at crucial points: Grundlinien der Kalvinistischen Philosophie der Gesetzesidee (Munich, 1954).

[20] In the Twilight of Western Thought, p. 8.

[21] See, e.g., Dooyeweerd, ibid., pp. 6, 8, 11-17, 84, 120, 126, 135; J. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1954), pp. 2, 11-14, 39, 132, 135; especially L. Kalsbeek, Countours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd's Thought, ed. Bernard and Josina Zylstra (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975 [from the Dutch De wijsbegeerte der wetsidee: Proeve van een christelijke filosofie, 1970]), chapters 21, 23. John Frame has effectively shown the artificiality of this as a sharp and categorical distinction: The Amsterdam Philosophy: A Preliminary Critique (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Harmony Press, n.d.), pp. 6-14.

[22] See, e.g., Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought, pp. 41-42, 125; "Cornelius Van Til and the Transcendental Critique of Theoretical Thought," Jerusalem and Athens, ed. E. R. Geehan (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), p. 82. This distinction is expounded and criticized by: Norman Shepherd, "The Doctrine of Scripture in the Dooyeweerdian Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea," Christian Reformed Outlook, vol. 21, no. 2 (Feb.-March, 1971); Robert A. Morey, The Dooyeweerdian Concept of the Word of God (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974); Harry L. Downs, The Distinction Between "Power-Word" and "Text-Word" in Recent Reformed Thought (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974). The similarities between this and neo-orthodoxy are observed by Frame, pp. 33, 37.

[23] Paul Schrotenboer, "The Bible as the Word of God," Study Paper at Trinity College Conference (Palos Heights, Illinois, Jan. 22, 1972), p. 18.

[24] Understanding the Scriptures (Hamilton, Ontario: Guardian Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 9-10.

[25] In the Twilight of Western Thought, pp. 6, 125-126.

[26] "Cornelius Van Til and the Transcendental Critique of Theoretical Thought," p. 87.

[27] Frame has pointed to the dangerous Kantian character of such unguarded thinking, pp. 15-19, 25-27.

[28] "Cornelius Van Til and the Transcendental Critique of Theoretical Thought," pp. 83ff.

[29] Spier, p. 93.

[30] Frame, p. 36.

[31] Vernieuwing en bezinning (Zutphen, 1963), p. 101; cited by Kalsbeek, p. 148.

[32] De Graaff and Seerveld, pp. 2, 21, 29

[33] F. H. von Meyenfeldt, The Meaning of Ethos (Hamilton, Ontario: Guardian Publishing Co., 1964), pp. 16, 17.

[34] De Graaff and Seerveld, p. 37; Meyenfeldt, p. 17.

[35] H. Evan Runner, Scriptural Religion and Political Task (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation., 1974); Bob Goudzwaard, A Christian Political Option, trans. Herman Praamsma (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation., 1972).

[36] Kalsbeek, p. 237.

[37] A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, vol. 3, pp. 506-507.

[38] Kalsbeek, p. 232.

[39] Scriptural Religion and Political Task, p. 36.

[40] Vernieuwing en bezinning, p. 80; cited by Kalsbeek, p. 143.

[41] A Christian Political Option, p. 27.

[42] Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1979), pp. 58-59.

[43] See Kalsbeek, chapter 13.

[44] George Wolfgang Forell, History of Christian Ethics, vol. 1: From the New Testament to Augustine (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), pp. 24-25.

[45] Against Marcion, book 2, chapters 17-18; book 5, chapter 14.

[46] Against Marcion, book 2, chap. 18; quoted from The Five Books of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus Against Marcion, trans. Peter Holmes, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 7, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1868), p. 96.

[47] The Three Books of Theophilus of Antioch to Autolycus, book 3, chapters 9, 12; quoted from The Writings of Tatian and Theophilus, trans. B. P. Pratten, Marcus Dods, and Thomas Smith, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1867), pp. 115, 117.

[48] Stromata, book 2, chapter 18.

[49] Stromata, book 3, chapter 12; Paedagogus, book 1, chapter 7.

[50] Stromata, book 1, chapters 25, 26.

[51] Stromata, book 1, chapters 26, 27; quoted from The Writings of Clement of Alexandria, trans. William Wilson, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 4, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1867), pp. 461, 464.

[52] Against Celsus, book 5, chapters 42, 43; book 7, chapter 25.

[53] History of Christian Ethics, p. 93.

[54] "The Acts of the Disputation of Archelaus with the Heresiarch Manes," section 41: The Works of Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Archelaus, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. 20, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871), p. 368.

[55] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), p. 122.

[56] Everett F. Harrison, "Antinomianism," Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), pp. 27-28.

[57] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 870.

[58] Donald MacLeod, "The Place of the Law," Sword and Trowel, vol. 10, no. 3 (March, 1978), p. 1.

[59] Martin Luther, A Commentary on Saint Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, the 1575 English translation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 [reprint of 1891 Highland edition]), (at Gal. 3:19) pp. 301, 302.

[60] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, for The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, ed. John Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 [from the 1559 Latin version]), book 2, chapter 7, section 10, p. 358.

[61] Commentary on Galatians (at 2:17), pp. 151-152.

[62] Institutes, book 2, chapter 7, sections 6 and 9, pp. 354, 357.

[63] Institutes, book 2, chapter 7, section 12, p. 360.

[64] Commentary on Galatians (at 3:22), p. 328.

[65] As cited by Robert D. Preus, "Law and Gospel," Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 381.

[66] These quotations are taken from sermon numbers 129, 104, 106, and then 103, in Golding's 1583 English translation, modernized by James B. Jordan for publication in the periodical, Calvin Speaks (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School); see issues for vol. 2, no. 5, p. 3; vol. 1, no. 6, p. 2; vol. 2, no. 3, p. 2; vol. 1, no. 3, p. 4.

[67] Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), p. 23; "Antinomians," in Walter F. Hook's A Church Dictionary, 12th ed. (London: John Murray, 1877), p. 33.

[68] Alexander M. Renwick, "Antinomianism," Baker's Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 49.

[69] Hook, p. 33.

[70] Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, trans. William Heynen (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 [Dutch original, 1973]), pp. 10, 21-22, 330; "Libertines" in Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary, rev., ed. George Bush (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), p. 235; cf. Hook, pp. 444-445.

[71] Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, pp. 100, 309-313.

[72] For instance, Institutes, book 2, chapter 10, section 2.

[73] Kevan, p. 193.

[74] The previous Puritan citations are taken from Kevan, pp. 22, 146, 169.

[75] Hook, pp. 33-34; Buck, pp. 20-21; Kevan, passim.

[76] L. Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House (1975 [1937]), pp. 222-223.

[77] Harrison, Baker's Dictionary of Christian Ethics p. 27.

[78] Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 65.

[79] Renwick, Baker's Dictionary of Theology, p. 48.

[80] Hook's Church Dictionary, p. 33.

[81] Buck's Theological Dictionary, p. 20.

[82] See Theonomy in Christian Ethics, chapter 15: e.g., "The latent antinomian agrees that a Christian must follow God's law, but he looks to himself to choose how much of God's law he will consider as binding.... Without clear scriptural justification he will presume to nullify portions of that law" (pp. 308, 309).

[83] F. F. Bruce, "The Grace of God and the Law of Christ: A Study in Pauline Ethics," God and the Good, ed. Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis Smedes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 26, 27, 29, 30.

[84] "Lewis B. Smedes, "God's Grace and Hard Hearts," The Reformed Journal, vol. 25, no. 1 (Jan., 1975), p. 5.

[85] Charles Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 124 (1967), pp. 239-242.

[86] Walter R. Martin, "The Christian and the Law," Eternity, vol. 18 (June, 1958), pp. 19, 36.

[87] Jon Zens, "Crucial Thoughts Concerning 'Law' in the New Covenant," Baptist Reformation Review, vol. 7, no. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 10, 12, 13.

[88] G. Aiken Taylor, "Theonomy and Christian Behavior," pp. 18-19. It is worth adding here that some of the things which Taylor sets forth to criticize the law are not taught anywhere in the Old Testament in the first place!

[89] "Not Under Law but Under Grace," The Presbyterian Journal, vol. 37, no. 21 (Sept. 20, 1978), pp. 10-11. It is not at all clear how such thinking squares with the teaching of Jesus, that inner motivation is tested by outer fruits (Matt. 7:16-20) and that the standard is every one of the specific -- even least -- commandments (Matt. 5:19).

[90] "Of Hair-Splitting and Nit-Picking," The Presbyterian Journal, vol. 41 (April 13, 1983), p. 23.

[91] Kevan, p. 24.

[92] Harrison, p. 28.

[93] H. G. Wood, "Puritanism," Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 10, ed. J. Hastings (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908-1926), p. 512.

[94] John Murray, "Antinomianism" (appendix E) in Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), pp. 263-265.

[95] Principles of Conduct, p. 182.

[96] Principles of Conduct, p. 150.