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The word theonomy derives from the Greek words “theos” God, and “nomos” law.



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.[1] 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,[2] while other Calvinists affirm Theonomy.[3]

The remainder of this article describes the Christian Reconstructionist view of theonomy.

Origin of modern 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:

" 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" [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.[4]

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.
The Theonomic Antithesis to Other Law-Attitudes [5]

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.

Theological background

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 Bahnsenian 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 first by Rushdoony and then 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.

A more moderate and traditional 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, argued that the Mosaic revelation is Torah, meaning Teaching/Instruction and did not contain a law code as such. Biblical Instruction was still seen as important for all of life, but understood as Teaching rather than as timeless Law.

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:[6]

  • Elevation of the importance of Biblical case law in the judicial system.
  • Importance of civic rule by believers.
  • Recovery of a more public and formalized acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God over human government, as they argue was predominant in the American Founding Era.

Various theonomic authors have stated such goals as "the universal development of Biblical theocratic republics",[7] exclusion of non-Christians from voting and citizenship,[8] and the application of Biblical law by the state.[9] Under such a system of Biblical law, homosexual acts,[10] adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy[11] would be punishable by death. Propagation of idolatry or "false religions" would be illegal[12] and could also be punished by the death penalty.[13][14]

In Bahnsen's view he clarifies that the laws of God are not to be imposed by force upon society. Rather, they are the standard which Christian voters and officials ought to pursue. Nor are civil officials constrained to literally enforce every Biblical law, such as one-time localized imperatives, certain administrative details, typological foreshadows, or those against envy and unbelief. "Rulers should enforce only those laws for which God revealed social sanctions to be imposed"[15]

See also


  1. ^ Theology Today, "The Thought of Paul Tillich""
  2. ^ See, for instance, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique published by the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary and Westminster Seminary California. Also "The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Theonomic Document?" by Ligon Duncan.
  3. ^ See Theonomic Ethics and the Westminster Confession by Kenneth Gentry, The New Puritanism: A Preliminary Assessment of Christian Reconstruction by Robert Bowman, Jr., Theonomy and the Westminster Confession by Martin Foulner, The Theonomic Precedent in the Theology of John Calvin by Christopher Strevel, and Calvinism and the Judicial Law of Mosesby James Jordan, and The Theonomic Thesis in Confessional and Historical Perspective by Greg Bahnsen.
  4. ^ Geesink, William (1931) (in Dutch). Gereformeerde ethiek. Kampen. p. (pages unknown). OCLC 10534930.  
  5. ^ Bahnsen, Greg. "The Theonomic Antithesis to Other Law-Attitudes". Covenant Media Foundation. Retrieved 2008-11-27.  
  6. ^ Jay Rogers. "What is Theonomy?". Retrieved 2008-02-29.  
  7. ^ Chilton, David, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion, Appendix A
  8. ^ North, Gary, Political Polytheism, p. 87
  9. ^ Bahnsen, Greg, By This Standard: The Authority Of God's Law Today, pp. 346-347
  10. ^ DeMar, Gary, Ruler of the Nations, p. 212
  11. ^ North, Gary, Unconditional Surrender: God's Program for Victory, p. 118
  12. ^ An Interview with Greg L. Bahnsen
  13. ^ Rushdoony, R.J., The Institutes of Biblical Law, (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), pp. 38-39.
  14. ^ Schwertley, Brian M., "Political Polytheism"
  15. ^ Bahnsen, Greg L. By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today, p. 10. Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985


  • Bahnsen, Greg. 1977 [2002] Theonomy in Christian Ethics. [3rd Edition] Nacogdoches, Tx: Covenant Media Press. ISBN 978-0875521114
  • Bahnsen, Greg. 1985 By This Standard : The Authority of God's Law Today Tyler, Tx.: Institute for Christian Economics. ISBN 978-0930464066
  • Bahnsen, Greg. 1991 No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics. Tyler, Tx.: Institute for Christian Economics.
  • Bahnsen, Greg (with Kenneth Gentry). 1989 House Divided: The Breakup of Dispensational Theology. Tyler, Tx.: Institute for Christian Economics.
  • Barker, William. Godfrey, W. Robert (Eds). 1990 Theonomy: A Reformed Critique. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-52171-8.
  • Barron, Bruce. 1992 Heaven on Earth? The Social & Political Agenda of Dominion Theology. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan.
  • Clauson, Marc A. 2006 A History of the Idea of “God’s Law” (Theonomy): Its Origins, Development and Place in Political and Legal Thought Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.
  • Einwechter, William. 1995 Ethics and God's Law: An Introduction to Theonomy. Mill Hall, PA.: Preston/Speed Publications.
  • Foulner, Martin. 1997 Theonomy and the Westminster Confession. Edinburgh, UK: Marpet Press.
  • Gentry, Kenneth. 1993 God's Law in the Modern World. Phillipsburg, NJ.: Presbyterian & Reformed.
  • Gentry, Kenneth. 2006 Covenantal Theonomy: A Response to T. David Gordon and Klinean Covenantalism. Nacogdoches, Tx.: Covenant Media Foundation.
  • Jordan, James B. 1984 The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics.
  • North, Gary. 1990 Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodux 21-23 Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics
  • North, Gary (ed). 1991 Theonomy: An Informed Response. Tyler, TX.: Institute for Christian Economics.
  • Poythress, Vern S. 1991 The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Brentwood TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers Inc.
  • Rushdoony, R.J. 1973 Institutes of Biblical Law., Nutley, NJ.: Craig Press.
  • Rushdoony, R.J. 1978 The Politics of Guilt and Pity. Fairfax, VA.: Thoburn Press.
  • Strickland, Wayne (Ed). 1994 Five Views on Law and Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-21271-5
  • Smith, Gary Scott (Ed). 1989 God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government. Phillipsburg, NJ.: Presbyterian & Reformed. ISBN 0-87552-448-6
  • Welch, John W. 2002 "Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform", Brigham Young University Law Review, 2002, pp. 611-642.

External links

Historical Background





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