Quill and writing

Theonomy in Christian Ethics

Attention! – a straightforward & simple plea for Theonomy
I have just finished reading ‘Theonomy in Christian Ethics’ by Greg Bahnsen (see here) having been generally persuaded, several years ago now, of the correctness of the ‘reconstructionist’ agenda.
What strikes me now, most recently, is the elegant simplicity of the paradigm & consequently the terrible guilt & folly of the contemporary ‘Christian Church’ for rejecting it. What I hope to provide here is a simple, broad brush-stroke outline of the key principles & ideas in the hope that fellow Christians with genuinely tender hearts in a spirit of meekness might at least get the big picture before actually piecing it all together. The utter consistency & beautiful harmony that marks ‘true Biblical scholarship’ and which characterises the theonomic perspective is just part of its vindication. As Van Til would urge against his thesis of presuppositional apologetics, ‘the proof is to be realised in the impossibility of the contrary’!

There are several simple steps/stages in the argument:

1. God is the Creator – and hence, the Biblical view of man is that he is a creature.
2. As God’s creature, man is under covenantal obligation to obey His Creator & to honour Him in all things.
3. God has revealed in nature & in Scripture the particulars of man’s ethical obligation towards his Maker. In nature, this Law is indelibly inscribed upon his heart – i.e. conscience. In Scripture its most clear summary finds expression in the Decalogue (ten commandments), uniquely that part of Holy Scripture written by the finger of God on stone tablets – signifying its eternal relevance.
4. The Law of God applies universally across time & space. What was ethically right & wrong for man both individually (personal sphere) & socially (political sphere) 3000 years ago is likewise right and wrong today. Of course the cultural expression of that ‘equity’ changes as culture progresses technologically but ‘criminality’ & ‘social justice’ are timeless. A crime is what God says is a crime; justice & penal sanctions (appropriate punishment of crime) are to be determined by God. He alone may determine fairness, goodness, truth, righteousness & peace, etc.
5. The Bible, as the Word of God, is to constrain all of our thinking in every area of life. Man is not to live by bread alone, but by every word God has spoken; again, ALL scripture is given by inspiration of God and is to be used to determine whether any action is good (pleasing to God) or bad (displeasing to God). Nothing (i.e. education, history, art, science, international relations, economics, entertainment, etc, etc) is to be evaluated univocally, i.e. without reference to what God has said. To do so is to sanction ‘human autonomy’ – the very essence of human sinfulness and Edenic rebellion.
6. The self-conscious Christian (covenant keeper) will seek to comprehend what is his duty to God in every circumstance he finds himself. Moreover, he will seek to evaluate every human activity by that same absolute divine standard. He will, as God’s ambassador, publish God’s Law & make known far and wide the obligation mankind is under to honour & obey his Creator. This must involve declaring and explaining man’s ethical obligation to his Maker in each and every human sphere – individual, family, church, school and state. Determining just what that obligation looks like may at times be difficult but the basic idea is straightforward enough. [Paul’s justification for his appeal to the churches to remunerate their Minister was drawn from God’s specific instruction to farmers concerning responsible husbandry of animals!]
7. God has promised and will continue to bless both individuals & societies which enter into covenant (agreement) with Him to honour Him by honouring His Laws & precepts. We as a nation don’t and haven’t done so for some time!
8. God has brought in the past and will continue to bring judgement & trouble on both individuals & societies that persist in violating the witness of creation – that they are creatures obligated to honour their Creator – by suppressing their knowledge of God by living as though morality is simply a matter of personal taste/preference. [This explains most of what we read in our newspapers every day!]
9. Sin is ‘the transgression of God’s law’ (1Jn 3:4).  God has provided atonement for sin & calls all men everywhere to repent. True repentance involves pursuing God’s Law in all its exquisite detail & pressing for its application across all of life in every civilisation and sphere under the Sun! The true gospel then identifies Jesus as both Saviour (personal) as well as King of kings & Lord of lords (social). When at last, Christ’s Kingship is visibly recognised & honoured throughout the world, righteousness will prevail everywhere as the waters cover the sea & God’s promise to Abraham (all nations of the world are to be blessed) will be realised.
10. Triumphantly, Christ will then hand over the kingdom to the Father and destroy the ‘last enemy’ – death itself. Resurrection & general judgement will then precede the final eternal state. The righteous will inhabit a renewed Earth conjoined with heaven; the wicked will be eternally shut out & cast into eternal fire & destruction ‘away from the presence of the Lord’.

Notice then, critics of Theonomy end up denying some or all of the above points. Commonly, the God of the OT is explicitly (less commonly) or implicitly (more commonly) indicted as a sort of moral monster in contrast with the (imagined!) ‘more gentle and peaceable’ person of Christ. Anti-theonomists are characteristically ‘pietistic’ which is to say that their principal concern in religion is existentially personal (private) and soteriological. The contemporary evangelical Church has unwittingly bought into postmodernism, insisting that Biblical ethics is constrained by time & culture. It has thus become politically & sociologically irrelevant. Like salt that has lost its saltiness; like a candle so securely buried beneath a barrel, it is so lukewarm & useless that it is ripe to be ‘spewed out of His mouth’. Most Christians are ‘nice’ people, socially ‘very warm’ – able to demonstrate ‘community’ but woefully ignorant of how Scripture ought to constrain every facet of life. Faithful Christians must ‘antithetically’ speak out against the ‘false weights & measures’ of the wicked that are typically un-noticed & taken for granted all around them. In so doing sin and righteousness will, once again, be recognised for what they are.

How are we to recover public awareness of the Christian worldview? How are we to regain a position of cultural power & influence? How are we to safeguard a right approach to ethics (morality), epistemology (academia & knowledge) & metaphysics (the science & the nature of reality)? By demonstrating both the impossibility of all contrary positions (not as many as we imagine!) while showing forth the evident superiority & perfection of the biblical alternative! [Prov 26:5&6]  See this book.

In short, faithful Christians are such as recognise the abiding validity of God’s Law – realising that heaven & earth will pass away before one jot or tittle of God’s Law becomes obsolete. Moreover, they are such as would teach & recommend the Law of God both to fellow believers AND to the unbelieving hostile pagan culture in which they live. They must not shrink back from agreeing with what God says is right and wrong. In doing so they will avoid the terrible guilt of being ‘ashamed of Christ & His words’ as delivered through Moses on Mt Sinai.

Again, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt 5:17-19)

Two excellent messages by Dr Greg Bahnsen can be freely listened to through the vimeo platform.  They are provocatively entitled (i) Theonomic Approach to Ethics – Part 1 ‘Who’s in Charge Here?’ (Luke 6:44) – click here; and (ii) Theonomic Approach to Ethics – Part 2 ‘Has God Changed His Mind?’ (Matthew 5:16-20) – click here.

Steve Layfield – January 2015