Historic Protestant Political Theology: Theonomy and Theological Tinkering

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering the nature and validity of theonomy. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

In recent years Protestant intellectual resourcement has led to a reclamation of historic Protestant political theology. Clergy, historians, and educated laypeople interested in Protestant political theology inevitably encounter theonomy, a heterodox Calvinist polemic which purports to put God’s law back in its preeminent and rightful place in the civil, political, and religious order. Most major conservative Protestant communions proscribe the teaching of theonomy because of its departure from historic Protestantism, but it remains a legacy to be reckoned with. Its partisans are enthusiastic, earnest, and wrong. Understanding theonomy is essential. Protestants exploring political theology may certainly learn the understandable motivations that prompted theonomy’s development, but they must also not repeat the theonomists’ mistakes.

There are various extant definitions of theonomy but Colorado Christian University professor of theology Ian Clary’s paraphrase of theonomist-adjacent theologian James B. Jordan’s is a helpful initial definition. For Jordan, theonomy was a movement “concerned with advocating the sovereignty of God under three headings: postmillennial eschatology, the presuppositional apologetics developed by Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), and the abiding character of Old Testament Law.” Theonomy, Clary notes, “is sometimes described as ‘Dominion Theology,’ that relates to their victorious view of postmillennialism, where they argue that society will be Christianized at the return of Christ.” Theonomists’ presuppositionalism leads them to “claim that all knowledge must explicitly accept the lordship of Jesus Christ for it to be true knowledge.” They argue that when Christ returns, “society will be governed by the Mosaic law. Hence, these three distinctives are the Theonomists’ way of advocating for the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.”[1] Greg Bahnsen argued that “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 all of the critics of theonomy, he argued, “will be found denying, in some way, one or more of these premises.”[2]

Bahnsen’s assertion, however pious-sounding, flew in the face of Protestant theological commitments from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century. No major Protestant theologian believed that Old Testament law wholesale remained in force after the coming of Christ. Even Protestants who argued that the state could maintain the first table of the Decalogue drew a firm line between the Decalogue and the rest of the mosaic law. Despite what modern Reformed and Evangelical thinkers might argue, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Continental Reformed and Lutheran state churches of the Modern Era were not meaningfully theonomic. Theonomy remains an Americanist creation of the Twentieth Century and a response to American social liberalization and is not a meaningful historic theological category. RJ Rushdooney, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, and their fellow travelers might have returned to historic Protestant conceptions of the law’s place to deal with what they believed was the antinomian disposition of temporary society, but instead, they turned to a radical Americanist and even modernist departure from the Calvinist tradition.

Protestant, and particularly Reformed, intellectuals never affirmed the proposition that the Mosaic law remained in force after Christ’s life, death, and resurrection actuated the new covenant. The Mosaic laws had been specifically for the Jewish theocracy of the Old Testament. Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford argued that the Mosaic law was “not so obligatory to us.” This did not mean that Rutherford and Presbyterians of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth rejected religious foundations for lawmaking. “Some punishment by the sword” remained in force “because the magistrate bears the sword to take vengeance on ill doers, and so on these that are partakers of his ill deeds, who brings another gospel.” Christian magistrates could wield the law against evildoers but, as Rutherford pointed out, specific prescriptions—such as God’s instructions to Israel to eradicate Canaanite societies and the legal framework governing the Hebrew theocracy—did not have any force. “The slaying of man, woman, infant, and suckling, ox and sheep,” Rutherford noted, “was temporary, and cannot have a perpetually obligatory ground in the law of nature or natural justice obliging us.” [3]

Early modern establishmentarians—which included most major Protestant groups—did not reject the idea that God’s law should guide politics. James Ussher, the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland argued that the Law still played a role in ordering society. The Law, said Ussher, was “that wherein God appointed a Form of Politick and Civil Government of the Common-wealth of the Jews.” The necessary upkeep of that Law, he argued, “ceased with the Dissolution” of the Jewish theocracy but parts of the Law pertaining to “the common Equity” remained in force. However, Christian magistrates were not charged to keep the whole of Mosaic or Old Testament law, only those parts that pertained to the general equity. The only Old Testament judicial laws that Early Modern Protestants believed they were bound to enforce were those that had “reasons annexed unto them, and especially those wherein God hath appointed Death for the Punishment of hainous Offences” and even those were limited to laws narrowly dealing with the general equity. [4]

Ussher’s stipulations must be understood as being downstream from the Calvinist natural law tradition. Twentieth Century theonomists read political and natural theology in a more sectarian fashion than historic Calvinists did. Almost all held their credentials in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small denomination deeply committed to the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. A major corollary of Van Tillian thought was a rejection or at least intense suspicion of the Christian natural law tradition. Noted theonomist Gary North rejected flatly the notion that there was any such thing as a Christian natural law tradition. In his preface to Bahnsen’s No other Standard, North compared the natural law to “some secular theory of civil law,” and that natural law theory was “hypothetically neutral.” [5]

Theonomist rejection of natural law broke with the Continental Reformers and with Lutherans writing in the Reformation era, all of whom affirmed natural law as having an important role in understanding natural and political theology. Stephen J. Grabill notes in his Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics that all the major Reformers affirmed natural law, particularly Peter Martyr Vermigli and Girolamo Zanchi. John Calvin championed natural law and explicitly rejected the idea that modern commonwealths needed to replicate the Mosaic Hebrew theocracy legally and politically. An exasperated Calvin wrote in The Institutes of the Christian Religion that he “would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray.” There were in Geneva and in other Reformed cities “some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations.” Calvin called this proto-theonomy “perilous and seditious.” It was “enough”, he declared, “for me to have proved it false and foolish.” Luther stated the point succinctly. Lutherans were perfectly happy to regard Moses as a teacher, “but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law. Therefore, it is clear enough that Moses is the lawgiver of the Jews and not of the Gentiles.”[6]

If the Protestant tradition affirmed natural law, why did theonomists break so radically? The answers lie not in theological inquiry or scholarly developments but largely in the socio-cultural anxieties of conservative North American Calvinists during the middle of the Twentieth Century. Theonomy was, more than anything else, a response to contemporary social change in the post-war United States, and therein lies its major historical weakness. In 1991 Greg Bahnsen published By This Standard, a semi-popular work meant to offer arguments for theonomy to a lay audience. The book runs to nearly 420 pages. Bahnsen had written over a dozen books already, most of them dealing with theonomy, but he felt the need to get his point across to a broader audience. And that need, he believed was urgent; American culture and society had been rapidly decaying, and Bahnsen and his fellow theonomists knew why. Americans, including conservative American Christians, had ceased to pay any heed to God’s law. In his forward to By This Standard, Gary North argued that Christians feared following God’s law because they were too afraid to rule. Christians, lamented North, “have been afraid to exercise dominion. They have been bullied into submission by professional humanist guilt-manipulators.” Those nefarious manipulators “persuaded Christians that Christianity, when applied to politics, has led to tyranny and war.” Christianity’s enemies, warned North, cited “the 800-year-old story of the medieval crusades, where a few thousand professional soldiers went off to fight the Muslims. And who is complaining loudly today about the evil Crusades?” North termed these anti-Christians “defenders of humanism whose various representatives have launched twentieth century wars and revolutions in which as many as 150 million people died from 1901 until 1970.” What North failed to consider are the ways in which American Christians, intellectually led by the Calvinist faith he purported to, had exercised dominion with varying levels of social benefit during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.[7]

The problem with North’s thesis is that it wasn’t true. Protestant Christians had been ruling what became the United States for nearly two centuries and doing so rather effectively. American society in 1960 was prosperous and relatively stable compared to Western societies. Protestant Christianity’s influence had been nearly unopposed until the middle of the Twentieth Century. During the Nineteenth Century, as Timon Cline noted, “where Protestantism wasn’t explicitly assumed, Christianity…was wholeheartedly privileged. At the time, “general” Christianity meant, we might say, non-denominational Protestantism.” Religious tests for office were not prohibited until 1961. The United States in the middle of the Twentieth Century still had a positive view of public Christianity. Aaron Renn recently argued at First Things that before the 1990s American “society at large” retained a “mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man” remained a mark “of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian enhanced a politician or civil servant’s public standing. Christian moral norms were still “the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.” Christian morals still informed Hollywood. A popular film about Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall, a conservative Presbyterian minister, earned an Oscar nomination in 1955. Censor boards remained active and diligent. [8]

Family and marriage also remained wedded to a relatively Christian and conservative social milieu at the midcentury. The changes to American families and marriages occurred quickly. As Mary Ann Glendon notes: Within less than two decades all but three [of the Western democracies] abandoned strict abortion laws—introduced for the most part in the nineteenth century—in favor of a more permissive stance.” Divorce law changed in the same era. The Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, signed the United States’ first no-fault divorce law in 1967.[9]

Theonomists experienced signs of social change and rightly saw their potentially destabilizing effects, but the fear-driven rush to innovate theologically to work out social policy meant that theonomists did not take the time to fully understand their own time, Protestantism’s historic legacies, or the social traditions they were trying to defend. Far from being a harbinger of irreligious license, social changes in the second half of the Twentieth Century represented the rise of a new post-Protestant liberal religion. Theonomists were right in their assumption that Americans did not want to obey God’s law, but that stemmed less from their unwillingness to submit to laws and more from their rejection of Christianity. Americans have always been law-abiding Puritans and Revivalists; they just ceased to be Christians. James F. Keating noted that this new religion was based entirely on a Neonomian milieu that did not offer forgiveness. Keating wrote in 2021, “We are now undergoing a fourth awakening.” The previous Americans awakenings “took place under the firm hand of American Protestantism.” But at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century Americans experienced a new American Awakening, without the Christian God and “without forgiveness.” During the century that separated Twenty-First Century Americans from “the social gospel,” society in the United States “lost its hope in the Cross but not its sense of guilt. The panic over righting wrongs remains, but gone is the promise of redemption.” Without Christianity, warned Keating, “the transactions of the invisible realm must be set to balance wholly within the power dynamics of the visible world.”

Whatever prescience theonomists might have had about society, their misreading of their historical moment and their presumptuous attempt to improve historic Protestant intellectualism translated into an ahistoric, unsustainable, and heterodox transmutation of Calvinism. Ian Clary notes that theonomist readings of history tend to be anachronistic. While its progenitors wove seemingly intricate theological justifications for their beliefs, theonomy at its root is based in sociological fears of post-war suburban Christianity. It should not surprise us that many of theonomy’s most enthusiastic apostles lived in California in the 1960s. In his biography of theonomist R.J. Rushdoony, Michael J. McVicar noted that the former’s radicalization occurred in an era of “seismic shifts in American demographics [which] saw the majority of the American population shift from rural to urban and suburban environments.” Homogenization and routinization served “the post-World War II Cold War state,” and that same homogenization dominated educational policy. The United States “needed engineers and scientists, not classically educated Christians who focused on biblical study or freethinking enemies of the military-industrial complex.” Parents, McVicar noted, “from across the political and religious spectrum began pushing back against uniform educational policies emanating from state and federal bureaucracies.” It should be noted that despite prayer being removed from public schools in 1962, very few educational policies were prescriptively progressive in any meaningful sense before 1990.[10]

Social change in our own time has prompted theological tinkering analogous to that done by theonomists in the middle and latter parts of the Twentieth Century. Discourses on gender and sexuality prompted prominent Evangelicals to propose that the Second Person of the trinity has been eternally subordinate to God the Father, a troublesome proposition that counters historic creeds and classical trinitarian theology. More ludicrous claims, such as the idea that Thomas Aquinas’ thought played no role in Protestant thought, have also been bandied about. Luke Stamps, professor of theology at Anderson University in South Carolina, proposed that new social changes and new theories had been realities for Christians since the church’s formation in the First Century AD. “Christians down through the centuries” have encountered social, religious, and intellectual changes “and wrestled with their implications for God’s triune life.” The best course of action, one not taken by Theonomists and not taken by so many Evangelical Protestants in our own time, was to listen to historic theological voices “carefully and deferentially before we stake out on our own in search of new interpretations and doctrinal innovations.”[11]

[1] Ian Clary, “Puritans and Theonomy, Reconsidered,” Mere Orthodoxy (Jan 2022)

[2] Greg Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Antithesis to Other Law-Attitudes,” Covenant Media Foundation. Retrieved 2008-11-27.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (London: R.I. for Andrew Crook, 1649), 298-99.

[4] James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Or, The Sum and Substance of Christian Religion (London; 1702), 182.

[5] Gary North, “Publisher’s Preface” in Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economis, 1991), xi.

[6] Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 137-138; Stephen J. Grabill, “Natural law and the Protestant moral tradition,” The Acton Institute (Nov 2006); Matthew J. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 238; Martin Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” in E. Theodore Bachmann, Luther’s Works, 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 161-174, 168.

[7] Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: The Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), xxii.

[8] Timon Cline, “Our Distinctly Protestant States,” The American Reformer (April 2022); Aaron Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” First Things (Feb 2022); James Monaco, The Movie Guide (New York: Perigree Books, 1992), 517.

[9] Mary Ann Glendon, Abortion and Divorce Law in Western Law (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), 11.

[10] Clary, “Puritans and Theonomy, Reconsidered”; Michael J. McVicar, Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 3-4.

[11] Luke Stamps, “The Trinity Debate and the History of Interpretation,” Biblical Reasoning 13 June 2016. https://secundumscripturas.com/2016/06/13/the-trinity-debate-and-the-history-of-interpretation/


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